Julie Benko in Standby, Me

Stage Performer Ready To Stand-in For A Principal Unable To Go On

By: - Apr 16, 2024

What a difference a comma can make, or a space.  One can be excused for instinctively evoking the great Ben E. King performed song “Stand By Me” or the Stephen King based boys coming-of-age film of the same name when seeing this title.

Rather, this paean to stage performers who sit in the wings waiting and hoping to go on, standbys among them, was a solo cabaret performance produced by Bay Area Cabaret at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room.  It starred winsome singer, raconteuse, and Broadway celebrity Julie Benko, who has extensive experience having been there.  She was in good voice and charmed with many vignettes from her stage experience.

Appropriately, Ms Benko opened the show with a nice rendition of the century-old “Second Hand Rose,” made famous by Fanny Brice.  Why appropriately?  Both because Benko played Fanny Brice, the lead role in the recent Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” over 180 times, and because she did it in three different capacities – as standby, interim replacement, and alternate.

Benko and her pianist/husband Jason Yeager participated in endless repartee about the definitions of these and other terms for stand-in performers, but we’ll get them resolved up front.  And while some are often used interchangeably, each has a specific application.

Starting with Benko's “Funny Girl” experience, a standby is responsible for a single track (the theater term for role).  An interim replacement has full time responsibility for the track in the interim between major stars performing it.  In this case, Benko played Fanny Brice for five weeks after Beanie Feldstein left the musical and until Lea Michele arrived.  An alternate has committed performances, and for this role, Benko replaced Michele every Thursday.  An understudy has their own track but is a stand-in for a bigger principal, while a swing performs ensemble and is prepared to sub in for multiple principals.

The main tenet of using stand-ins is that the show must go on, and the key for the stand-in is not to sparkle, but simply to fill the track professionally.  In conjunction with singing “Matchmaker” Benko told the amusing story of having been a swing in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” responsible for four ensemble roles and all four of Tevye’s daughters.  Stand-ins don’t rehearse with the main cast, and once when she subbed in as daughter Chava, she and Jessica Hecht as Tevya's wife Golde ran to one another to embrace.  They tilted their heads in the same direction, and the collision broke open a river of blood from Benko’s nose onto their costumes, but she still had to deliver her lines as if nothing happened!

Benko sang other songs from musicals she performed in, garnering enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Although she understudied the Cosette track in “Les Miserables,” she delivered Fantine’s anthem “I Dreamed a Dream,” full throttled to great appreciation.  She closed the set with “People” from “Funny Girl.”  It’s hard to imagine that song being sung without channeling Barbra Streisand at least a little, and while Benko did, she varied the phrasing and the edges of the melody line enough to make it her own.

Overall, Benko’s vocalization was traditional Broadway, somewhat nasal with a rolling tremolo and powering to a controlled wail when needed.  She showed some versatility by taking on a novelty song about the stresses of auditioning, which she did humorously and in a juvenile voice. 

To display other styles, she regaled with a non-theatrical experience she competed in, the annual American Traditions competition in Savannah, in which contestants who make it all the way to the finals must sing in nine different genres.  Benko’s numbers to sing blues (song unknown to me) and folk (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”) were nicely done, but very Broadway, lacking the distinctive character and sounds of the genres.  For jazz, however, she gave a scat singing rendition of “I Love Paris” that really popped.

There was also a moral to the story of the competition.  After the trials, Benko received a rejection, saying that she had not been accepted but was listed as an alternate that might be called if another contestant dropped out.  Of course, not only was she called, but despite failing the qualifying round, she ended up winning the competition.  Like being a wannabe in theater, the message is to continue to believe in yourself and keep striving.

After the well-deserved standing ovation for her set-closing song “People,” she delighted the audience with an encore.  Appropriately, what else could it be but a gruff and howling “Stand By Me”?

“Standby, Me,” a cabaret performance by Julie Benko, was produced by Bay Area Cabaret and was presented at the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA on April 14, 2024.