About the author:
Merwin Foard has been a busy Broadway actor for more than 30 years, since his spring 1982 debut in the ensemble of Show Boat. Blessed with a big voice and winning stage presence, Foard has managed to play historical figures in three musicals—1776, Assassins and now Annie, in a winning performance as FDR—while building his status as one of the most in-demand understudies of leading roles. Foard addressed both aspects of his career in a revealing essay for Broadway.com.
Annie marks my 15th Broadway contract spanning 30 years. Throughout my career, both regionally as well as here in New York, I have been blessed to play some great characters. Three of them—Richard Henry Lee in 1776, President James Garfield in Assassins and now Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Annie—were living men in our nation’s history. No pressure…
There is little more than what history tells us regarding Lee that an actor can draw from when building the character. Poor James Garfield is reduced to a short scene where he has but two lines, so not much can go wrong there. But FDR is one of our most celebrated presidents, and there are ample audio and video clips available to “go to school” on.
My wife, actress Rebecca Baxter, tells me that I prepare for auditions like no one she’s ever known. That may be true, but…you tell me. More times than not, when the audition is scheduled, I am provided with scenes, songs and a character description. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I’ll also receive the full script, which tells me what’s gone on before and how my character’s actions may influence what comes after. I know that sounds basic, but this is where it all starts. I also do research on all the members of the show's production team. I want to know as much as possible before walking into the room.
Ironically, for Annie, I never read any of the FDR scenes at my auditions. My concentration was on the Warbucks material, since they were looking at me to understudy or even possibly stand by for their star. It wasn’t until I got the official offer that they said, “James Lapine would like you to play FDR and cover Warbucks.” OK! Here’s where the work began.
I separated out the scenes in which FDR is a player as well as the two FDR telephone calls the audience hears Warbucks having. Reading Warbucks’ lines for his half of the phone call, I can not only determine what FDR might be saying if you heard his half, too, but also gather information about the dynamic between these two extremely powerful men, who happen to be at odds with each other politically. There’s frustration, anger and condescension, but ultimately acquiescence, assistance and triumph.
Then there’s that voice—that distinct sing song-y lilt that is uniquely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That New England sound that might indicate one was Ivy League educated. FDR graduated from Harvard and was later given an honorary doctorate in law from that school. So, more homework. Thank god for YouTube! All the fireside chats, speeches and even a phone call to listen to and study.
Next came the meeting with our director and dialect coach, Debra Hecht, on how much or how little to do of “the voice.” At first, it seemed logical to use a more standard sound for the dialogue scenes and an impersonated voice for the “speech-y” moments. Deb (with whom I also worked on The LIttle Mermaid) and I listened to many examples and then read my lines. Interestingly, there was a distinct pattern. Many would think he softened his “r’s” throughout his speech. We discovered that if the “r” was followed by a vowel, he would pronounce the “r”. But if the “r” was followed by a consonant or was at the end of a sentence, he’d soften it. So: “Fear itself.” Pronounced. “Who is this we have here?” Softened. Like HEE-yuh.
Anyway, I found it fascinating (clearly) and set out to apply it to the script. The authors came to see the show and didn’t necessarily like the back and forth between the two timbres. Normal/standard to tenor-y/speech-y, and asked me to give it the same gusto throughout, so that’s what I do today.
Then came Warbucks. Anthony Warlow is a gifted Australian actor and singer who literally morphs his face in front of my eyes when he drops his softened, genteel Aussie accent and adapts the gruff New Yawk-ese of Warbucks. It is truly a magic trick of some kind. One of our crew guys heard him recently for the first time speaking in his natural voice and flipped out! “That’s how you really talk?!” It was hysterical! So, in my own prep for Warbucks, I have big shoes to fill.
As with any role I’ve understudied or been the standby for, most of the work I do is in private. I really don’t rest well until all the material is at least memorized. Script, check. Score, check. I’ve learned the hard way that you will usually go on before you think you are truly prepared (Kiss Me, Kate for Brian Stokes Mitchell and The Addams Family for Nathan Lane, but those stories are too long to tell here). Being on stage for the first time, doubting whether you can do the role, is the stuff actors’ nightmares are made of. As of this writing, I have had four Warbucks rehearsals where I was taught the blocking and choreography. If I had to go on now, I could do it with confidence.
We’ll continue our weekly rehearsals until we are all polished understudies and can keep up our half of this agreement. Maybe I’ll go on. Or maybe, as in the case of Sweeney Todd, I won’t. In any case, I am thoroughly enjoying playing FDR in this wonderful revival.