Thursday, May 22, 2014

Broadway Memories of "1776:" Gary Beach Remembers

Gary and I during the "Spamalot" tour
I could fill an entire post gushing over Gary Beach.  This extraordinary actor has long been one of my idols; I love his work and am so inspired by his career and the many roles he has created and performed.  I was so lucky to get to do "Spamalot" with Gary during my time on the national tour. He is a superb actor and such a kind and generous man, and I am fortunate to be able to call him my friend.  Gary made his Broadway debut in the original production of "1776" so of course, as I am immersing myself in everything and anything having to do with the show, I wanted to chat with him about it and hear his stories and memories.  And how cool that Gary enthusiastically gave me permission to share them with you!

So tell me, how did you find yourself in "1776?"  You were in the first national tour, right?

I was in college at the time, at North Carolina School for the Arts.  I went to New York on Easter break to see shows.  "1776"  had just opened and it got great reviews; people didn’t expect that.  It was a musical based on history cast with actors no one had ever heard of.  Stuart Ostrow produced it and he produced things no one else would.  No one had expected it to be the success it was.  Anyway, I wandered into it.  Saw all these actors I didn’t even know.  There was so much that impressed me.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the actor playing Edward Rutledge in his ‘peacock’ costume.  In Act one the character probably had three lines, but then the second act rolled around and all of a sudden he became the whole show, with the song "Molasses To Rum."  I went back to school in North Carolina and my speech teacher saw that I was so caught up by this show.  The national tour was being cast, and she asked me who the casting director was.  I didn't know.  I went to the school library and I picked up Back Stage.  Michael Shurtleff was the casting director (Shurtleff wrote the definitive book on auditioning, "Audition").  My teacher called him, but she didn’t know anything about the show.  She was British and knew nothing about American history.  She suggested me for Thomas Jefferson, because he was the only name she knew from history!  I was not right for that part, obviously; they only ever saw actors over 6'3" for the role.  But I auditioned for the show; I drove to NY on three separate occasions.  The auditions were held on the 46th Street Theatre stage (now the Richard Rodgers).  I was offered the role of Josiah Bartlett in the tour, and understudied Rutledge.  I still had a year left in college and had to leave in order to take the job.  I went to all my teachers, and asked them to graduate me a year early.  No one in my family had ever graduated college and it was important for me to have my degree.  Since I had already earned liberal arts credits elsewhere before entering the theater program, and because this was such an important opportunity, the school agreed to graduate me early with my degree.

Two months into the tour, the man who was playing Rutledge had a breakdown on stage.  He was unable to continue in the role.  The company manager came to my dressing room after the show asking if I knew the part.  In those days there were no rules about rehearsing understudies… I knew the part but hadn’t been rehearsed.  I took over the role of Rutledge the next day.  Now, "Molasses To Rum" in those days had an electrifying effect on the audiences.  A song dealing with slavery was about as rare as hen’s teeth.  One night, during the applause at the end of the number,  a man came down the aisle and to the edge of the stage and was whistling and cheering.  Turned out it was Sherman Edwards, the writer of the show.  I was shaking like a leaf.  Reid Shelton, who was in the show with me, turned to me and said, 'Well, if you never do it again, you did it tonight.'  I was 24 years old. 

When the guys in the original cast went to make the movie in Hollywood I was put into it on Broadway, where I played Rutledge for about eight months.  it was such an ensemble, that everyone knew everyone else's role.  Guys went in and out of different parts all the time. 

Did you have any historians come and talk to you guys about the actual events in 1776?

We weren't visited by any scholars or dramaturges; it wasn't done back then.  I did research on my own and had conversations with the director about my character’s place in history.  There were actually two Rutledges, Edward and John.  While I was in the show, there was a Sotheby’s auction of Revolutionary War documents... letters of George Washington and various papers from the signers of the Declaration.  I went to the auction and bid on a document signed by Edward Rutledge and I bought it.  I still have it, framed so you can see both sides of the letter.  Boring document, but it was in Rutledge's hand.  Playing the role was thrilling.  Audiences responded so strongly to the show and in particular to "Molasses To Rum."  The song made your life better… it was a very rare song about a rarely explored subject.  The show has such a feeling of immediacy, the audience gets caught up in the drama. Even though we all know how it turns out, you start doubting whether or not the Declaration is going to happen.  The founding fathers had a kind of blind genius.  People like Adams knew where we were going but had no idea how or if we'd get there.

Since you love the show so much, would you like to do it again?  I think you'd be an amazing Ben Franklin!

I’d love to play Franklin.  I love the part of Adams but never wanted to play it.  Mainly because I knew I wasn't short enough!  But it works for the part for him to be a small man; he's a little bantam rooster.  Adams is the driving force; he’s the motor of the show.   I worked with William Daniels in the show years later.  He embraced the fact that Adams is 'obnoxious and disliked.'  It was important to the character and the story that he not care about that... and of course the audience finds him obnoxious and disliked but at the end find themselves in tears and loving the man.

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