(April 8, 2010)

Stand By Them: The Life of a Broadway Fill-In

When the curtain opens tonight at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, it will reveal Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia, alongside Pugsley, Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandma and Lurch.

"The Addams Family: A New Musical" opens on Broadway.

What it will not reveal is an entirely different performance, six flights up in the same building. There, in a small room, Merwin Foard will stand and watch a video monitor and mirror Nathan Lane, line for line, move for move, gesture for gesture.

When Lane, the era's Broadway comic master, moves left on the screen, Foard will move right.

When the rousing opening number calls for the family Addams to dance (and bunny-hop and twist) on their ancestors' graves, Foard will be doing all of those, all alone, six flights up.

The North Carolina native who calls Carmel home is the standby for Lane (and for veteran Broadway actor Terrence Mann as Mal Beineke).

On Broadway, a standby does not perform unless the person for whom they're standing by cannot perform. An understudy is a member of the ensemble who can play the role for the missing star, but who otherwise has a role to play at each performance.

Foard has been in the standby-understudy business in 14 Broadway shows over 27 years.

"Nathan and Terry are the 24th and 25th guys I've covered for on Broadway," he says.

Going on for a star whose name is listed above the title is tricky business.

Foard played Gomez during the show's Chicago tryout when — with 1 1/2 days' notice, that Lane was coming down with bronchitis — the actor got a crash course in all things Addams.

"We went into a rehearsal room at the Oriental Theater and started at the top and just ran the show," he says.

He had been watching Lane work for weeks; the rehearsal was to plug Foard's body into the show.

As a show makes its approach to Broadway, the focus is on the stars and how they're finding the character. After all, Foard says, it's their role to play and the standby isn't part of that equation.

When creative consultant Jerry Zaks gives notes to Lane during rehearsal in the theater, Foard tries to glean information from the director, from his movements or gestures, without insinuating himself into the process.

"I'm kind of a fly on the wall, reading lips or deducing from what happens later, how a line gets changed," he says.

When he was preparing to go on in Chicago, the crash course ended what had been Foard's rather monastic approach.

"I had memorized the show on my own and had never run lines with anybody, so running lines was great, to hear someone talking back to me," he says.

"Bebe was wonderful to make herself available to work anything I wanted to, tango as much as you want, sword fight as much as you want, run as many lines, sing as many duets as you want," he says.

In 24 hours, he was on, and went on for three performances.

People come to the theater expecting to see Nathan Lane and, since his name is above the title, if he cannot perform, theatergoers are entitled to a raincheck, no questions asked.

When Lane's unable to perform, producers must inform the audience, with a slip of paper in the Playbill, a board posted in the lobby, and an announcement before the show, one that is typically met with disapproval.

Foard was pleased that the Oriental didn't require an announcement.

"The show opens with a tableau with the family behind the gates," he says. "I said I really don't want to be standing there, hear the announcement and then that crowd response and then have to be the first person who talks to the audience."

In Chicago, the audience showed Midwestern hospitality, Foard says, "kind of a 'we're for ya, we hope this goes well."

"It'll happen again here, and we'll just deal with it," he says.

He's also covering for Mann, who has already put in for time off in July and August, so there's that role to master, too.

"The Addams Family" in Chicago is not "The Addams Family" on Broadway, Foard says.

"Maybe half of the songs from Chicago still exist," he says. "So it's a matter of erasing your brain and retraining it. They encourage you to play the comedy, and Nathan's a huge part of that, but they really want me to find my inner Gomez."

Foard's 6-foot-5 outer Gomez is nearly a foot taller than Lane's. And it does not have Lane's expressive eyebrows.

"He and Bebe are great, because they're almost eye to eye when they tango," Foard says.

Gomez still has a swordfight, a tango, a vaudeville number and a sweet ballad, sung to his daughter, Wednesday, that brought Foard, and co-star Krysta Rodriguez to tears when they played it in Chicago.

"I love the part because it has such a wide spectrum of stuff to play," he says. "You're not just the clown. There's some heartfelt, sincere stuff."

One might think that stars — some of whom have star-like egos — wouldn't want to help out the person who is preparing to perform in their place, but Foard says that hasn't been his experience on Broadway.

"All the guys I've stood by or understudied have been very collaborative. Nathan has been very collaborative. We've gone to lunch to talk about stuff and that has been so helpful," he says. "Other guys will answer any questions you have. None of them have been like 'you're not taking my part.' That was more the case early on, in regional theater."

Standing by means being ready to go on at a moment's notice, and sometimes never going on. As a standby, Foard is paid his usual salary and, if he goes on, he gets a per-performance fee for being the producers' insurance policy.

In the 2004 revival of "Assassins," Foard was a standby for Marc Kudisch as the Proprietor, Mario Cantone as the Santa-clad Samuel Byck and James Barbour as Leon Czolgosz, three entirely different roles. He never went on for Kudisch or Cantone.

"I only went on for Jim four times in the year we ran," he says.

He never made it to the stage in the revival of "Sweeney Todd," where he was a standby for Michael Cerveris.

For 2 1/2 years, Foard was a standby for Brian Stokes Mitchell, and his successor Burke Moses, as Petruchio/Fred Graham in the 1999 revival of "Kiss Me, Kate."

He went on several times in "Kiss Me, Kate," sometimes with little notice, but when the call does come, it requires an actor to demonstrate control over the role, and his energy.

"That rush of adrenaline is huge, even when it's a planned thing, when you know you're going on," Foard says. "You really have to force yourself to calm down, because you can get ahead of the show, ahead of the tempo, ahead of the punch lines. You really have to breathe into it and not force it."

Foard says his eight-show-a-week, sixth-floor, show within a show will likely go on till mid-June, when he'll have developed a comfort level that will allow him to not have to hang on every word, every move, every nuance.

"And if I'm lucky enough to have some performances as Gomez between now and then, I know that'll ease my mind," he says.

"Once they're into not tweaking lines and scenes, we can relax into it a little bit. But until that happens, I'm not going to be comfortable not paying attention."