Monday, December 23, 2019

A New Decade Approaches

Well, here we are, about to start a new decade.  One thing I know for sure--the older I get, the faster time seems to fly.  Having already posted a sort of recap of my various ventures and creative projects of the year, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the decade past and some home truths I have come to embrace.

I've been cobbling together ideas and notes for a memoir I am considering writing.  For inspiration, I recently read the wonderful and hilarious autobiography of Eric Idle, "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life." It reminded me that the decade that is coming to a close started for me with the finale of the First National Tour of Eric and John DuPrez's Tony-winning Best Musical Spamalot.

It was my most prestigious and most lucrative acting job to date. In October 2009, we gave our last show in Costa Mesa, CA.  By then I had been on the road for 22 months, played 62 city stops in North America, and turned in over 680 performances as Sir Robin.  I had starred opposite my idol Gary Beach, as well as greats Richard Chamberlain, Jonathan Hadary, and John O'Hurley.

I can't deny that I expected, as I returned to New York with a nice bank account, fancy LA head shots and a brand new agent, that my next step would be: BROADWAY.  From the age of 11, my dearest held aspiration, The Great White Way.  And having played a leading role in a hugely successful tour, I hoped and anticipated that doors in that hallowed echelon of the business would open for me.

Well, a decade has passed and Broadway remains elusive.  Virtually every other principal actor I worked with on the tour has done multiple Broadway shows and made big inroads into film and television in the past ten years.  While I often counsel my coaching clients and acting students not to compare their relative success and failure to that of others, it is sometimes impossible not to go down that rabbit hole of doubt and self-pity myself.  

As I've been putting together anecdotes about those halcyon days on the road, one story continues to creep up on me and rankles like no other.  Spamalot was directed by Mike Nichols and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.  This was certainly the show that put Casey on the map as a major force. The Book of Mormon and his many other successes were yet to come, and of course now he is, arguably, the most significant director on Broadway.

Casey came to see the tour in February of 2008 when we were playing Huntsville, AL.  It was the first time I had met him; I had already been in the show for well over a year.  At our note session, Casey was over the moon about my performance and gave me nothing but positive feedback.  I was elated.

A month later, we were in Wilmington, DE rehearsing John O'Hurley into our company in anticipation of our West Coast tour, which would take us to San Francisco for two months and then to LA and the Ahmanson Theatre for nine weeks. Casey came to see the show and, knowing he was in the house, I was probably pushing a bit in my performance; the overall mandate for Spamalot was a very low key, almost deadpan performance style.  Anyway, the next day we had a work session with Casey.

Everyone gathered on stage and Casey arrived to begin rehearsal.  To my surprise, he singled me out and began to dress me down, demanding to know what had happened to me and how my work could have become so awful--and that I had ruined the previous night's performance.  To this day, I find it hard to believe that in just a few short weeks I could have gone from brilliant in his estimation to ruining the show.  But in the moment, I was stunned.  And the worst thing you can do to a person who was ridiculed, bullied and brutalized for the first 10 years of his life in public school is to ridicule and bully him in front of his peers.  Casey could have taken me privately aside and told me I had been pushing and I needed to pull my performance back.  But he didn't. And so, feeling attacked, I stood up for myself.  

What transpired was a heated five minute squabble between me and Casey, witnessed by all, which left me shaking and furious.  But I took his notes, gave a better performance that night, and was told by his assistant that Casey left Wilmington happy with my work.  But the bad taste remained with me.  One of the dysfunctions of show business is that things happen, or don't happen, in one's career and one never knows why (or why not).  I have always wondered if that five minutes in which I quarreled with Casey hurt my chances of making inroads into Broadway.

But, of course, this way madness lies.  I will say that a year later, I got into an elevator at 42nd Street Studios in New York and stood right next to Casey.  I said hi, and he acted like he didn't know me.  My mind reeled.  As I said: madness.

Which brings me back to Eric.  Because these stories we hold on to--particularly the negative ones, the moments we actors think ruined forever our dreams of success and fame--can overshadow the really affirming, amazing moments we've experienced.  So, in the aftermath of this negative moment with Casey, we made our way out west.

One night, at the Ahmanson in LA, I was doing my big number, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," and I looked out and there was Eric Idle sitting in the third row along with his gorgeous wife Tania, and next to them, Billy Crystal and his wife Janice.  Throughout my song, Billy was howling with laughter and having the time of his life.  It was surreal.

After the show,  I'm leaving my dressing room and heading home.  I open the door, and who is standing outside my room waiting for me to come out but Eric, Tania, Janice, and Billy--who points at me and shouts: "YOU!!  YOU ARE HILARIOUS!"  He then leaps forward and takes me into a huge embrace, lifting me off the floor. Eric steps forward and pats me on the back and says to Billy, "Didn't I tell you he was great?"  I'm thinking--what is happening here?  Whose life is this?  I spent the next ten minutes with these two comedy legends as they and their wives gushed over me.  I only wish in 2009 we'd had phones equipped with cameras and video. 

Anyway, you see where I'm going with this?  The most important director-to-be on Broadway gave me a negative set of notes in front of my fellow actors and I thought my career irreparably damaged... and a few weeks later, the show's writer, one of the Pythons, the entire reason for Spamalot existing, the ORIGINAL Sir Robin-- and his buddy, one of the greatest and most successful actor/comedians of all time-- told me I was brilliant.  What better vote of confidence could I have?

And yeah... Broadway hasn't happened.  Yet.  But I've learned that holding on so strongly and desperately to a desired goal can make one unappreciative--almost unaware-- of the great things one is already achieving and has achieved.  So, no, the decade past didn't bring my Broadway debut.  What did it bring?  Relatively consistent employment as an actor at some of our finest theaters, and more and more great parts.  I've gotten to play a handful of my all time dream roles: Thénardier, John Adams, Nathan Detroit, Captain Hook. I've developed new musicals and worked with more legends: Jerry Lewis, Marvin Hamlisch, Sally Struthers, Valerie Harper. I've developed great relationships with directors and theaters  who've invited me back numerous times.  I've broken through with small bits on great TV shows: Law & Order: SVU  and Succession.  

So, have I achieved my ultimate dream? Not yet.  But I have probably achieved the ultimate dreams of many in my profession who continue to strive toward opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have had.  As 2020 approaches, I have concluded that no matter what the future brings, we must embrace the good in our lives, give ourselves credit for our hard work, and just keep moving forward with as much optimism as possible.

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