In 1999 I was hired to standby for Roger Daltry, who was to star in the lavish annual musical A Christmas Carol at The Theatre at Madison Square Garden
There is a distinction made on Broadway between understudies and standbys. Understudies general appear in the show in smaller roles, and are then promoted if the leading actor cannot perform. Standbys do just that: standby in case they are needed.
In managing a career, one must be cautious as to what or when you understudy or standby. Many exceptional actors have found themselves offered only understudy work in New York, once word gets around that they will accept it.
With this in mind, I was a bit dubious, but A Christmas Carol was an attractive show to standby for. Not only is one given a production contract, (the highest paying contract in Actor’s Equity), but the salary is inflated by the fact that there are sometimes fifteen performances a week! Money, however, was not the real reason I accepted the contract. I took it because I thought that, if given the chance to perform, I would do a good job and have a chance to really show what I could do.
Scrooge is a fabulous part, and, as so often in my career, I had something of a history with it. When I was nine years old I played Scrooge at Monmouth Elementary School. I then played him again at the Great American Melodrama in California when I was 24. Finally, I wrote an adaptation of the play when I was 26 and directed it at Western Oregon University, with my father playing the lead. Dad has since played the role many times, and that adaptation has since been done frequently, not just at WOU, but all around the Pacific Northwest.
So I decided to standby for Scrooge in New York, hoping that, at some point, I would have a chance to go on. Little did I suspect how often my services would be required.
In the second week of the run, Daltrey (who was a wonderful Scrooge) caught something which settled on his vocal cords and became infected. He was a real pro and tried to continue, but the infection kept pulling him down. The usual eight performance week is hard for a healthy performer. This was a fifteen performance week and Roger was really sick. I did 22 performances over the next four weeks.
This was a real challenge, as many in the audience had come specifically to see Roger Daltry. I vividly remember standing backstage as the stage manager made the required announcement to the audience:
“At this performance the role of Scrooge, usually played by Roger Daltry, will be played by Patrick Page.”
This inevitably produced a chorus of boos, which I could hear clearly from the other side of the curtain. Those boos fed me. They were exactly what I needed at the beginning of that particular show. The world hated me, and I hated them. Good. I knew that by the end of the show they would cheer me and shout bravo.
They always did. That’s the power of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.