At 55, Merwin Foard’s life has been changed by an adverb. Broadway’s busy standby now stands out.
The Charlotte native, who has covered roles for 30 actors over more than 30 years, now gets to create one in a new production: Max, the second male lead in the national tour of “The Sound of Music.” He’ll swing through his home town next week with the show, possibly en route to a Broadway opening in 2016.
Foard left his job in July as standby for Jafar and the Sultan in Disney’s red-hot “Aladdin,” which still plays to 98 percent capacity in New York. Foard, one of the main characters in the 2012 documentary “The Standbys,” said in that film he wanted to be offered a “big-boy” role someday that depended on him. With “Music,” he realized he had one.
“I was in a big fat hit,” he recalls. “If I’d wanted a good government job, as we call it in show business, and I’d wanted to sleep in my own bed, I wouldn’t have quit to go on the road. I did it partly because working with (director) Jack O’Brien was on my bucket list.
“So many friends said, ‘You’ve never had a note session after a rehearsal until you have one with Jack.’ He’s hilarious, razor-sharp and can fine-tune a moment you thought was as fine-tuned as it could ever be. He’ll nail you to the wall and leave you laughing, and you’ll be better afterward.”
Though many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have been re-thought over the years, “Music” had been preserved in amber. O’Brien changed that, Foard says, by wiping off five and a half decades of dust.
“People who’ve seen the show or the movie 325 times tell us or post on social media, ‘I feel I’m seeing a show I’ve never seen.’ And we changed nothing. All Jack did was ask us to look deeper into what’s on the page. It resonates with social issues we have today about oppression, fear of what’s around the corner, fear of invasion or takeover by a group that doesn’t believe what you do.
“Max is the fence-sitter, the climber of the social and political ladder: ‘You can kill other people, but please don’t kill me.’ My Max may be a little funnier than most. When he realizes he’s stood up for the wrong thing all along and facilitates the escape of the Von Trapps – that’s a great moment for me. But every actor playing these characters brings something personal to the portrayal.”
Foard was on Broadway within five years of graduating from Charlotte Christian School in 1978 and has never earned a living any way but acting. He has been so firmly established in New York backing up big names – Nathan Lane in “The Addams Family,” Michael Cerveris in “Sweeney Todd,” Brian Stokes Mitchell in “Kiss Me, Kate” – that he hasn’t been on the road since playing Javert on a Canadian/Hawaiian tour of “Les Miserables” in 1992.
“I’d been married to Rebecca two years then and had no kids, so it wasn’t as hard. Now my older daughter is out of college at 22 and working; my younger is 17. It would have been better to do it next year when she’s in college, but to get my own role in an iconic show....”
He’s had a few on smaller scales: Richard Henry Lee in a 1997 revival of “1776,” President Garfield in a 2004 “Assassins,” FDR in the recent “Annie.” He was asked to take over the leading role of Daddy Warbucks in 2013 – he’d understudied that part – but correctly figured the show would soon close.
“I had three possibilities. One was the 10th anniversary ‘Mamma Mia!,’ but I didn’t want to be the 19th guy to play Bill. Another was the neighbor in ‘The Bridges of Madison County,’ who has a beautiful 11 o’clock number (one sung late in the show). My agent said, ‘As wonderful as “Bridges” is, it’s not going to have the life expectancy of “Aladdin.” ’” So Foard spent two years following “Aladdin” from Toronto to Broadway.
He still sings in ensembles for Disney movie musicals, most recently in the “Frozen Fever” cartoon shown with Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella.” He does voice-over work. But at this point, “because I’m an actor of a certain age,” he dreams of more:
“I’m hoping ‘Sound of Music’ – if it goes to a Broadway house – puts me back there in a new light, and I can say yes to important stuff. I’ve had leads on Broadway but mostly covered roles, and I’d like to draw a line in the sand.”
He pauses. “My agent said, ‘Don’t draw it too deep. You never know when you’ll need to pay the bills.’ ”
‘The Sound of Music’
When: Nov. 24-29 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.