Charlotte native a go-to guy on Broadway

Behind every great man - on Broadway, anyway - there stands not a great woman, but a guy named Merwin Foard.

The 51-year-old Charlotte native has been the understudy or standby for the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell in "Kiss Me Kate," Michael Cerveris in "Sweeney Todd" and Shuler Hensley in "Oklahoma!"

What did each of them get? A Tony Award nomination.

What has Foard gotten? A comfortable living in which he hardly ever gets an onstage lead, plus the knowledge that he can only stand and wait - until the star falters an hour before the show.

"That happened during 'Kate,' " the broad-chested baritone recalls. "I had made a deal with the stage manager: I'd come in from my house in Westchester County every night on a train. I'd arrive at 7:35 and phone from Grand Central to make sure everything was OK. It always was, because Brian was so stalwart.

"On this day he'd realized he couldn't turn his neck without pain. I made my phone call and heard, 'You have 25 minutes to curtain! Get ready!' I bolted across town on foot, panting and sweating, and the dresser flew me into my costume."

Foard most recently stood by for two frequent Tony nominees, Nathan Lane and Terrence Mann, in "The Addams Family." It closed Dec. 31, so he had time to drive back to Charlotte with his wife and younger daughter to visit his parents.

He spent a February afternoon training middle schoolers at his alma mater, Charlotte Christian School, and telling tales of eight Disney movies that used him in vocal ensembles: "They'll put characters' pictures on the wall, and you'll study them to find a voice. One guy has no teeth. Another has a goofy, wrinkled face. That tells you how they might sound."

And he dropped by Ballantyne Village the next day to sip coffee and reminisce about 31 years in professional theater.

An abnormally happy life

"I've never had a normal job," he said. "I've never waited tables or done the things actors usually have to do. I left Manhattan School of Music to take a part in the 1983 'Showboat.' A month after it closed, I was working with Angela Lansbury in the revival of 'Mame.' "

There, he had two small roles and understudied Mame's nephew. Thus began a career as what he calls "the main second guy on Broadway:" He has sung in 14 productions and been understudy or standby for 25 actors.

Foard's credits often read like the one for "Beauty and the Beast" from 1994: "Performer - Townsperson, Enchanted Object. Understudy - Gaston."

He has started out as a leading man just once, in the 1997 revival of the Revolutionary War musical "1776." Even then, he played a role - ebullient Virginian Richard Henry Lee - that had won Ron Holgate a Tony three decades before.

By chance, Foard's next job was to stand in for Holgate and Mitchell in "Kiss Me, Kate." In some ways, Broadway is a small world, and that works to this veteran actor's advantage.

A crucial team member

"Understudies (or) standbys are usually experienced people who are well known by the director or other creative team members," says Tom Gabbard, a theatrical producer and president of Blumenthal Performing Arts since 2003.

"(Actors must) learn things quickly and stay balanced during a long run. Directors want someone with maturity, so they don't have to worry about them getting flaky ... or needing the adrenaline surge of being on stage night after night."

That describes Foard, who has been around theater all his life: "My earliest musical memory is seeing my dad, Merwin Sr., sing at a Charlotte Opera rehearsal in the '60s. His character fell to his death, and I was just inconsolable. They had to take me straight backstage to show me that it wasn't real."

Young Merwin sang with CPCC Summer Theatre, playing Danny Zuko in "Grease" in 1981, and studied with voice coach Fran Shafter, who urged him to move to New York. In 1988, Foard met his wife in an "Oklahoma!" done jointly by Minnesota Opera and Opera Omaha - they fell in love alongside their characters, Curly and Laurey - and kept augmenting Broadway gigs with road work.

How a standby operates

When Foard understudies a part, he also works in the ensemble. When he's a standby, he only goes on if a star cannot. "(These people are) selected with great care to assure that, when they do go on, they offer an equal artistic level to the name star," Gabbard says. "They have a limited amount of rehearsal time and have to soak in a lot by carefully watching the initial direction given to the actor they are covering ...

"Typically, there is an understudy run-through each Thursday afternoon. In some respects, they work even harder than the actor in the role, who in a long run can settle into a bit of a routine. The understudy doesn't have that luxury."

But a star can't leave the theater during a performance to see Billy Joel play Madison Square Garden, as Foard did during "Sweeney." Says he: "Michael never missed a show. And I promised the stage manager to keep my cellphone in my hand for any emergencies."

Does Foard still dream of being "discovered" by stepping in for an absent headliner, as Tony-winner Sutton Foster did in "Thoroughly Modern Millie?"

"You never know who'll be in the audience, so you always bring your A game," he says. "I'd like to do 'Sweeney' someday, or maybe mature into Don Quixote in 'Man of La Mancha.'

"But I think producers, like any headhunters putting people in jobs, check you off the list for what they know you can do. When you hire me, you know I'll never rest until I'm prepared. Broadway keeps calling me for that. As long as it does, I'm going to keep answering the phone."

Merwin Foard

Age: 51.

Education: Charlotte Christian School (Class of 1978), 18 months at Central Piedmont Community College, two years at Manhattan School of Music.

Family: Parents, Merwin Sr. and Betty; sister, Jeana (married to Rob Stewart); wife, Rebecca Baxter-Foard, an actress; daughters, Phoebe, 18, and Bailey, 13.

Where you have heard him without knowing it: Ensembles in eight Disney film musicals, from "Pocahontas" to "Tangled."

Treasured recording project: Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol: The Concert," with music by Bob Christianson and lyrics by Alisa Hauser, on Newport Classics.

See him on video in "1776:" bit.ly/zEiRgN.

Upcoming: His third workshop for the new musical "Big Fish," adapted from Tim Burton's film. It could reach Broadway by fall.