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CMU grads relish backing up leading roles in 'Gypsy' and 'Nine'

Saturday, August 02, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

NEW YORK -- What's it like to be the one the audience doesn't want to see?

Maureen Moore, standby for Bernadette Peters in "Gypsy," has already gone on for the actress as Mama Rose.

Two Carnegie Mellon University grads are happy to be in just that position. Maureen Moore (class of 1972) and Paul Schoeffler (1985) have two of the highest-profile standby jobs on Broadway, backing up Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose in "Gypsy" and Antonio Banderas as Guido Contini in "Nine."

A standby differs from an understudy. The latter plays a smaller role in the show and is ready to step up, with someone else filling in for him or her. But for a star like Peters or Banderas, a more prominent performer with substantial lead experience is contracted to stand by. The stakes are higher: When it's announced that a name above the title won't appear, ticket holders can claim an instant refund. Most usually stay, but their disappointment is palpable.

Moore finds that a challenge. "This is the role of lifetime," she says, "and I know I can win them over." She's had plenty of experience, having gone on for an ill Peters several times during previews in April and then in May, soon after opening. That became a cause celebre in the tabloid press and may even have eaten into Peters' Tony Award support. Moore knows that die-hard fans are disappointed if Peters is sick, but she focuses on "the brave ones who stay -- those are the ones I do the show for."

In contrast, Schoeffler hasn't yet been called to appear for Banderas, even though "Nine" opened in April. "Antonio is a triathlete!" Schoeffler says with his huge, dimpled smile. "He goes on even when you can see he's sick." Schoeffler knows full well that if he is called upon, "a lot of ladies out there would be disappointed."

Moore has had this gig before. In 1985, she stood by for Peters in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance." The undercurrent of audience disappointment gave her an extra edge, she said. And although the stakes are higher on Broadway, she said, the emotional tension was no greater than she faced at CMU in a class that was whittled down from 50 freshmen to just seven grads.

Paul Schoeffler, the standby for Antonio Banderas in "Nine," hasn't had to play the role of Guido yet.

More recently, Moore was standby for the roles of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" and Fraulein Schneider in "Cabaret." This is because in the mid-'90s, despite having done more than a half-dozen Broadway shows, she says, "I realized I wasn't a big enough name to get the kind of roles I wanted to do." Since she wanted to play Norma Desmond, she auditioned for standby. It was the same with Fraulein Schneider. For that, co-director/choreographer and fellow CMU grad Rob Marshall helped. "I knew [director] Sam Mendes would say, 'Oh, she's much too young.' It was Robby who made it happen for me as standby."

When she determined to pursue the standby job for "Gypsy," she had to convince that same Mendes. "I went after this. Sam had never seen me do Fraulein Schneider, but I still had to prove I could do something other than her." She had book writer Arthur Laurents on her side, because he'd directed her in "Gypsy" 30 years ago. "I actually use a little bit of Arthur for my Rose," she says, laughing.

It is definitely her Rose. The first time she went on, back in previews, "I hadn't had a single rehearsal. I had none of my own wardrobe yet. Luckily I was able to fit into Bernadette's clothes -- and I did have my own shoes!" (as she hadn't 18 years ago for "Song and Dance").

Clearly Moore has some special standby gene: "I always love that first experience," she says. Even unrehearsed for "Gypsy," "I was ready, I knew I was ready."

When a standby appears, the other actors must adjust. Moore says, "probably any actor enjoys the excitement of someone else going on; they have to be on their toes. I'm very different from Bernadette. They don't make me do what she's doing -- I think I'm trusted to do my own show." To ensure that, she drops by the theater only a couple of times a week, checking in mainly by phone, because she's afraid that "subliminally I'll hear the show and pick up someone's rhythms -- that's detrimental, it's not my reality."

Both Peters and "Gypsy" are connected to Moore's career. In 1974, she made her Broadway debut as June in the Angela Lansbury revival. And in 1976, she appeared at the CLO in the same role in "George M!" that Peters originated in New York. So standing by in "Gypsy" seems especially fitting: "This is the mother lode, a dream come true, back in my first Broadway show."

Moore knows Schoeffler well, having done a play with him at the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. "Paul's the best Captain Hook ever," she says. That was opposite Cathy Rigby in a 1998 Broadway revival of "Peter Pan."

Schoeffler was named college actor of the year by the Post-Gazette in 1985, when he starred in "The Beggar's Opera" at CMU. In 1988 he was back at CMU for a professional summer production of "All in Love." Then he returned to Pittsburgh in January 1990 with the tour of "Les Miserables," having only just been promoted from understudy to the lead role of Inspector Javert.

A chief attraction to this job in "Nine" is his being able to live at home with his wife, Aixa Rosario, and their son, Aidan, 1 1/2. In fact, he met his wife the last time he was a standby -- for Michael Nouri in "Victor/Victoria."

Banderas is leaving "Nine" on Oct. 5, to film a sequel to "The Mask of Zorro." Mary Stuart Masterson leaves "Nine" about the same time; Laura Benanti is leaving at the end of August to do the New York premiere of Richard Greenberg's "The Violet Hour"; and Chita Rivera leaves in the fall for the new Kander and Ebb musical, "The Visit."

Clearly, many casting decisions are up in the air, and Schoeffler doesn't know how long he'll stay, himself. But for now, he's standing by. Last weekend, word came that Banderas' 83-year-old father in Spain had just had a heart attack. He seems to be stable, but Schoeffler is on what he calls "high alert -- I've shifted gears in my own head."

Contact Chris Rawson at 412-263-1666 .

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