Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Is Anybody There?"

If you've been a follower of my blog, you know I love to gush over things and people that I admire.  I feel like genuine appreciation and enthusiasm make life richer and fuller and I never hold back when I am inspired to gush.  And few collaborators I have worked with in recent years deserve appreciation the way director James Brennan does.

I first worked with Jimmy last season in The Sound of Music at North Shore Music Theatre.  Max Detweiler was a role I had coveted for a while and I was so fortunate Jimmy cast me in his production, which was not only the best Sound of Music I have ever seen, but was peopled with extraordinary actors, led by Lisa O'Hare as Maria (Lisa is now playing the lead in the Tony winning blockbuster A Gentleman's Guide To Love and Murder).  Jimmy has a way of not only attracting the best talent to his projects, but a gift for assembling an extraordinary cast.  He has done just that with 1776.  It is a piece that requires truly unique and memorable performers, as each character has his or her special moment.  Our ensemble, from veteran Broadway actors like George Lee Andrews, to Tony nominee Christiane Noll... to actors like Ric Stoneback, who has a long history with this show... to gifted up and comers like the exquisite Stephanie Rothenberg... it's a treasure trove of talent.

James Brennan (R) as Adams in the Geva production
For me, this experience is enhanced by the fact that James Brennan has played John Adams four times in his career--twice at Sacramento Music Circus, at Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY, and at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.  This is the second time this season that I have been directed by a fine actor who has played the part I am undertaking.  And just as with Michael Kostroff in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, I have been blessed to have Jimmy's incredible insights without ever feeling that he is imposing his performance on me.  

Jimmy's acting career has been astonishing... his range mind-blowing.  To meet him, you'd never expect that this thoughtful, gentlemanly, understated man has done some of the most challenging song and dance parts in the repertoire, from Crazy For You to Me and My Girl; he has assayed some of the most hilarious comic leads from Pseudolus in Forum to Horace in Hello, Dolly!.  In short, he is the kind of actor I aspire to be.  And then add to this his enormous gifts as a director...??  Wow.

James Brennan directing
The climactic moment for John Adams in 1776 is his big solo toward the end of the show--his 'eleventh hour' number--"Is Anybody There?"  It is a big, soaring aria expressing Adams's determination to achieve American independence against impossible odds, and his vision of glory for generations of Americans to come. Jimmy has shared with me the images and choices he has used to bring this challenging piece to life--an act of generosity that has cracked open the song for me and taken me to another level.  Such specific directives in the hands of a less skillful director might have gotten in the way, but I can't express enough gratitude for the way Jimmy has shared his inner actor's mind in this huge role and helped me to find a deeper connection to it.

As of this writing, we are finishing our first week of rehearsals in New York, which means this precious four week adventure is one quarter over!  It's impossible to describe the mix of exhaustion, exhilaration and even sadness I feel as I go into my day off.  But I truly feel supported by this wonderful cast, and especially by my gentleman director, the great James Brennan.  

If you have missed any of my vlog, "Becoming John Adams," I have created a playlist on YouTube so you can binge watch to your hearts content.  To enjoy the video blog, click here.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Les Miz" Preview!

Next week, I begin rehearsal for 1776.  So much anticipation and buildup since my being cast back in March, and of course I have been busy doing my research and preparation and capturing it in my video blog, "Becoming John Adams."  If you haven't seen the vlog yet, I have created a playlist so you can view all the posts in order.  Click here to view and subscribe on YouTube!

Even as the adventure of 1776 gets underway in earnest, Orlando Shakespeare Theater is sending out excited news items on the casting of the central roles in this season's Les Misérables, in which I will be playing the comic villain Thénardier.  Florida audiences will be delighted that the two leading men of this production are Florida boys!

Michael Hunsaker
The lead role of Jean Valjean will be undertaken by Michael Hunsaker, whose career has taken him from Broadway to national tours (he was in the first national of Ragtime), to an extensive regional theatre career at most of our finest musical theatre companies.  He's a recording artist, a writer who was part of the famous BMI workshop, and is currently pursuing his master's degree in film production.  Quite an accomplished man!

The ruthless zealot Javert will be played by Davis Gaines, the Broadway powerhouse beloved for his portrayal of the Phantom of the Opera, a role which he performed over 2000 times.  His extraordinary career includes co-starring with such greats as Carol Channing, Richard Burton, and Patti Lupone, and performances with every symphony orchestra in the United States.  His accomplishments are many, and his voice is considered one of the greatest ever heard on Broadway.
Davis Gaines

With talents such as these leading the charge to the 'barricade' I have no doubt this, my first Les Misérables, will be something to remember.   I feel very blessed to have the chance to work alongside these distinguished artists!  For now, I begin my adventure as John Adams, leading a cast peopled by equally accomplished and extraordinary performers.  I think I am beginning to understand what people mean by 'living the dream!'

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

1776: More Broadway Memories!

Ric Stoneback has made something of a career out of playing Samuel Chase in 1776, and the Cape Playhouse production will be his sixth!  I am anticipating that I will learn a great deal from him about the show, and I look forward to working with him.  In this post, Ric shares his stories about his experiences in the 1997 Broadway revival.

I’ve always been a history dork. 1776 is the perfect meld for me of profession and avocation, which is good because I’m about to embark on my sixth production of the show! Each time I have played Samuel Chase, from Maryland. The first time, I was cast was in the 1990 production at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Gordon Hunt was the director, brother of Peter Hunt, the original 1776 Broadway and film director. Gordon had directed the first tour after the Broadway production. Onna White, the original choreographer, did the Long Beach production as well, and Peter Howard, the original musical director, stopped by from time to time too. It was nice to have some direct connections with the Broadway production. Dean Jones played Adams. 

Seven years later, I got a call from my friend Scott Ellis who was about to direct the Broadway revival. At the time I was living in LA.  Scott knew how much I loved the show, and asked if I’d be interested in doing the revival. Of course I was. But the problem remained that I no longer had my apartment in NYC, and the Roundabout Theatre paid much less than a standard Broadway contract in those days. I had no idea if I could afford to do it. I asked Scott if anyone had signed on yet to do the show. He told me only one person, Tom Aldredge, was signed to do Stephen Hopkins. I responded, “You got Tom Aldredge to play Stephen Hopkins?? I’ll do it. I don’t know how, but I’ll do it!”.   Tom Aldredge is one of the greats who ever walked a Broadway stage and I became his close friend until his passing a few years ago. I was also lucky to do another Broadway show with him a few years later.

So I moved back to New York. Our first day of rehearsal was extraordinary. Looking around at the talent that was assembled in that room was overwhelming. Everyone was grinning at each other, because we already could tell it was going to be a great show. And it was. We had a staff historian from Hunter College to answer any questions about the revolutionary period, and also to historically vet every prop and set piece in the show. Wedding rings on men? Never. Removing coats in the oppressive heat? No gentleman would do that in public. Why couldn’t they open the windows? British spies were everywhere in Philadelphia, attempting to eavesdrop on the Continental Congress. We had a library in one of the rehearsal studios of books written about the Declaration, the signers, and the period. We were encouraged to check them out and read them. We also received an enormous amount of historical reference material. Our first musical rehearsal began with the great Paul Gemignani telling us, “You all can sing or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t feel like you have to prove anything. Mark if you want to and save it for performance.” The pressure was off!

The rehearsal period was luxuriously long, being a Broadway production. Scott Ellis believed that the Continental Congress would have based their behavior on that of Parliament, their only role model. We watched video of Parliament, and were amazed at how much shouting down and cheering went on during sessions. We adapted that to 1776. We were encouraged to move around throughout the congressional scenes, and to be very vocal with our reactions to what was said by others. As we progressed, Scott fine tuned all the action so that the focus of the audience always remained in the right place. But the final result was the book scenes were always fluid, exciting, passionate, and never stagnant. Peter Stone was at rehearsal often. I got a chance to grill him a lot about the show. Even he was in awe of the power of 1776. He once told me, “Ric, of the 12 or so Broadway shows I’ve written, this is the only one that after I see it I ask ‘Who wrote that show?’"
Ric (second from right) on stage on closing night at the Roundabout

The 1776 revival opened in August of 1997 to stellar reviews. The audiences loved it too, and we quickly sold out our Roundabout run and its extensions. We were so blessed to have the best designers and support team in the business. William Ivy Long designed the costumes, Tony Walton the set, Brian Nason the lights, Brian Ronan the sound, and David Brian Brown the wigs. The cast bonded like no other cast I’ve been a part of. We loved each other, were there for each other, and competed with each other. Going into it, I thought a close to year run in a show would bore me to tears, but the energy was so fresh and slightly different for every performance, I couldn’t wait to get to work. Sharing a stage with terrific actors at the top of their game keeps you sharp. The way Brent Spiner, as Adams, drove that show always with his agenda present, and the way Pat Hingle, as Franklin, transfixed me with his piercing blue eyes filled with wisdom, kindness, and truth, will never leave me. 

Many politicians, celebrities, and countless students came to see us. Watching Bob Dole giving us a standing ovation with tears rolling down his cheeks was a sight. Probably our biggest fans were Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and their family. They came to see the show five times. When we closed at the Roundabout, the Newmans sent the cast a gift basket the size of Cleveland to thank us for helping to preserve history in such an exciting way. When Pat Hingle decided to leave the show, Paul Newman seriously considered taking over the role of Franklin. Wouldn’t THAT have been interesting?

Every production of 1776 I’ve done has been a unique and rewarding experience, which is the sole reason why I continue do the show. It’s a history/musical theatre dork’s dream!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Blog Post About Blogging!

To celebrate and share my adventure in my dream role of John Adams in 1776 this summer, I had the crazy idea of doing a video blog.  I recently did some work with a brilliant social media consultant, Tony Howell, whose company Creative Social Media teaches creative artists how to harness the power of such things as Facebook and Twitter to enhance their careers.  Tony advised me that people are more likely to look at what he calls 'rich content' than to read written blogs or other material (since you are reading this, you can consider yourself in an educated minority, ha ha!).  Rich content means photos and video.  So, this old dog decided to learn a few new tricks and I pitched the idea of "Becoming John Adams" to Cape Playhouse, where the idea was met with great enthusiasm.

I use the term 'becoming' with a double meaning:  the obvious one of transformation into the character of John Adams, but also the sense of wanting to honor him and provide a positive view.  The video blog will capture my process of researching the part, including field trips to Philadelphia, Boston, and Quincy, MA where the John Adams homes are preserved as a National Park.  I'll also share wig and costume fittings, voice lessons, some rehearsal and back stage footage, all leading up to our opening night on the Cape July 7.

The project has presented some considerable challenges.  First I had to find a good digital camera and tripod, and I was lucky to have a generous friend who loaned me her equipment.  Then I had to learn how to use it!  To edit and produce the video blog segments I had to teach myself iMovie, which was a painstaking but exhilarating process.  Then I had to enlist the help of kind folks who'd agree to operate the camera, including, while I was in Massachusetts, my Mom!  The biggest challenge--aside from keeping my verbosity to a minimum in order to bring the running time of each post in at a maximum of 3 minutes--was to find the right tone for the project.  John Adams is one of the great men of American history; the subject matter of 1776 is monumental.  But just as the musical brings a sense of whimsy and humanity to the subject, I wanted to avoid any sort of professorial (i.e., boring) stance and make the whole thing more lighthearted.  The key, of course, was to be myself and to infuse the blog with the enthusiasm I feel for the show, the role, and my obsession with research.  I think, so far, the results strike a good balance, although I won't deny it is difficult not to be critical of how I appear on video-- does anyone NOT find watching themselves on video excruciating?!

I am posting the blog to youtube and sharing it on my website; I have also been invited to be a guest blogger on, which I am thrilled about.  So, come along for the ride and many thanks for your support!  Here's the first post of "Becoming John Adams."  Enjoy!