Here’s to substitutes. It’s not easy stepping in when the regular guy’s not there, you know. And we’re not just talking about the Mr. Augenblicks of the world, who jumped from third-grade arithmetic one day to fourth-grade geography the next, oblivious to back-of-the-room cutups.
As any elementary school principal — or any maître d’hôtel or news director or theater owner — will tell you, many substitutes are called, but few choose substituting as a life’s work. Tom Santopietro, 56, has. He has made a near-career on Broadway, not as an understudy, but as a substitute for house managers and company managers.
“Even in the crazy world of the theater,” he said, “what I’m doing is unusual.”
He hit upon being a full-time substitute after a yearlong hiatus in 1999. He had been a company manager for shows like “Noises Off” and “The Iceman Cometh.” But he realized that he no longer wanted to be tied to any one production or theater.
So now, if he is filling in for a house manager, he is dealing with the public, and he has to master the payroll system for everyone from the ushers to the stagehands who work for the theater. If he is filling in for a company manager, he is dealing with the actors, and among many other tasks, he has to figure out a completely different payroll system.
“It is like running after a train that has already started, and you’re trying to jump onboard,” he said. “The first few days are always a little harrowing because you just inevitably don’t know everything on the show.”
“My job as a substitute,” he added, “is to slip in and allow the show to chug along the way it does eight times a week.”
As a company manager, he is usually on for at least a week, often to cover the full-time company manager’s vacation. As a house manager, he can be hired for a night here and a night there. He has had weeks in which he has worked at five different theaters.
That explains the night a couple of seasons back when he went to the stage door at the Imperial, where “Billy Elliot” was playing.
“The doorman said, ‘Nice to see you, but why are you here?’ ” Mr. Santopietro recalled. “I said, ‘I’m working here.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not, Joe is here.’ I realized I was supposed to be next door at ‘In the Heights.’ ”
At least he does not have to worry about forgetting the 11 o’clock number.
“I did have to break up a fistfight,” he said. “Brian Stokes Mitchell was onstage singing ‘The Impossible Dream.’ The thing that saved us was it was in the last two rows of the orchestra, so it was literally as far from the stage as it could get. After that show the stage manager said to me, ‘Was something going on out there?’ I said, ‘Oh, nothing much. The police came.’ ”
ANOTHER night, a woman asked about the elevator to the mezzanine. He explained there wasn’t one. “She poked me in the chest and said, ‘You carry me upstairs to my seat right now,’ ” he recalled. “She just didn’t feel like walking up the stairs.” He did not sweep her off her feet.
If that was a low, three weeks as company manager on “Blithe Spirit,” starring Angela Lansbury, was a high.
“When I was a little boy and my parents were introducing me to theater, the thing that really got me was they took me to see ‘Mame’ with Angela Lansbury,” he said. “And there I was, 40 years later, managing a show with Angela Lansbury. One night I had this great discussion with her about ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ She talked about the fact that they knew when they were making it that they were on to something special.”
Most of all, substituting freed him to be busy. He has written three books and is about to hand in a fourth. He also reviews other authors’ books for Barnes & Noble’s Web site and interviews celebrity authors. And he does a cabaret tribute act based on his book about Frank Sinatra with the pianist Tony DeSare, as well as a show about his Doris Day book with Billy Stritch, who sings the songs.
Maybe someday he will go out there and come back a star — it happened to Leonard Bernstein and Lang Lang, not to mention that girl in “42nd Street.” But most substitutes only get to welcome the regular guy back, step aside and go on — to another theater, another class, another newspaper article. When the regular guy comes back. Whenever that is.