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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"1776": Revival Remembrances

I am a total geek about things I love, and "1776" is one of those things.  Now that I will be doing the show I am eagerly immersing myself in every conceivable kind of research, both about John Adams and historical events and about the production history of the show itself. I am fortunate to be friends with David Lowenstein, an actor I have known for twenty years (he was in the first show I ever did in New York), who was in the Broadway revival of "1776" in 1997.  I asked him to share his memories about that amazing adventure, and here they are!  Thank you, David, for sharing your piece of Broadway history.

David Lowenstein
"It was the character actor’s dream job that season.  The great Paul Gemingani, with whom I did Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and A Christmas Carol, assured me I was on his list to be seen.  And yet I received no call for an audition.  I hadn’t worked with Scott Ellis or The Roundabout before.  Nor had I been cast by Jim Carnahan.  Finally Gemingani told me he schooled the Carnahan office, “If I put a name on a list you call them, period!”  And so I sang and was cast as Joseph Hewes from North Carolina. 

The cast included Tom Aldredge, Pat Hingle, Jerry Lanning, Brent Spiner, Macintyre Dixon, Michael McCormick, and the list goes on.  It was, imho, the greatest collection of character actors on Broadway, including some leading men like Gregg Edelman, Paul  Michael Valley, Michael Cumpsty, and Merwin Foard.  It was unlike any rehearsal period I had experienced to date.  We were instructed as to where our seat in Congress was and then given free rein to move about as we saw fit; filing papers, conferring with our fellow congressmen, getting on with the business of government, all the while trying to avoid the discussion of this ridiculous and radical notion of “independence.”  I learned a valuable lesson from Scott that I carry with me today: casting is 90% of a director’s job.

We spent days working with, and learning from, a revolutionary scholar... Her knowledge and insight were extremely valuable in understanding the reality of this mythic and iconic situation, putting a real face on these historical figures.  Having the best book ever written for a musical, we relished the details of the scene work.  It also has the longest book scene without a song in any musical.  The genius of the writing became evident as each audience sat on the edge of their seats in suspense, waiting for the outcome they all knew, from elementary school American History, was inevitable.

Broadway Revival Cast.  David is in the right of the frame in white wig.
One anecdote:  Joseph Hewes is written to constantly “yield” to South Carolina whenever a vote is taken.  It’s a running gag in the show.  I created a vivid back story based on research and played each “yield” with growing frustration.  When it came to the final vote for independence my subtext was “yeah” but I was bound by our agreement with SC and had to “yield.”  One night my subtext got the better of me and I popped up and voted “Yeah!”  The entire Congress sat up, necks snapping in my direction.  Changing the course of history, the show, and tipping the scales, making it unnecessary to continue the vote, I instantly realized my mistake.  I quickly followed with “Yields!  Mr. Secretary, I….uh…..I beg your pardon.  North Carolina respectfully yields to South Carolina.”  Sitting down in a flop sweat, the show went on.  There were countless hilarious moments with that group of actors,  forcing many of us to face upstage trying to control ourselves.  It was the most joyous 10 months-- proven by the fact that on both of our closing nights, first at The Roundabout, and then at The Gershwin, the entire company--every one of those seasoned character actors--bawled like babies on stage during the signing and through curtain calls."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

2014: The Bucket List Season

I think all actors have a wish list, a dream lineup of great parts in the repertoire that he or she hopes to  tackle at least once in a career.  I have been chasing a couple of them for the past several years, preparing and performing audition after audition, coming just so close... and never quite getting there.   So imagine my elation that I suddenly get to do two of those cherished parts in one season; in fact, back to back!


There are few roles I identify with as much as I do with John Adams.  I feel like I can get inside this guy's skin.  I relate strongly to his passion, his outspokenness, his commitment to what he believes is right.  We're both from Massachusetts, and both of shorter stature... how many heroic leading roles are there for shortish, middle aged guys?  Adams is for me one of the greatest in musical theatre, a real actor's role... akin, in my view, to roles like King Arthur in Camelot and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.  The show is a true ensemble piece with an incredible book, and Adams anchors the show.

I am thrilled and honored to be playing the part at Cape Playhouse, America's oldest summer theatre, on gorgeous Cape Cod,  and to have Tony nominee Christiane Noll as Abigail.  Add to this the fact that James Brennan, one of my favorite directors, is at the helm.  To share the experience of preparing this cherished part, I am doing a video blog series, "Becoming John Adams," which will be posted on my website and as a guest blog on  In it, I will capture the process of preparing for, rehearsing and performing John Adams, as well as some research trips to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Adams birthplace and farm in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Les Misérables

From the American Revolution to a French Revolution....

If there is one thing I love playing, it's a deliciously evil villain.  And there are some gems that I have been hankering after, with Thénardier right at the top of the list.  Les Misérables has been a part of my consciousness since I saw the show in Boston in the mid-80s.  I became obsessed with it even before that when I got the London cast album.  It had an electricity that I hadn't experienced before.  I did a scene, as Marius, for my senior showcase in college!  Now that I am at the right stage of my career to play that scheming immoral bottom feeder, Monsieur Thénardier, I have done numerous auditions for the role.  I am extremely thrilled that my first production of Les Misérables will be at a Shakespeare festival, the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, and it will be directed by my Buddy Holly Story director D.J. Salisbury.  More news on Les Misérables as casting is announced etc.  Stay tuned.

Whereas Adams's character is rooted in morality and a sense of his country's good, Thénardier is completely immoral, a nihilist who only looks out for number one.  Whereas Adams is a true hero, Thénardier, for all the comedy in the role, is a repulsive villain.  Playing these kinds of contrasting parts is what I got into acting for!  Two epic roles in two of the finest shows in the repertoire.  I am so excited and extremely grateful.  I am keenly aware that so many actors don't get the chance to play their dream roles,  and how fortunate I am to do two of them back to back!  Watch this space for posts about both productions, and be sure to subscribe on youtube to follow all the segments of "Becoming John Adams," launching in early June.