Since 1984, a Los Angeles organization named S.T.A.G.E. has raised millions of dollars for a variety of AIDS related charities. One of the driving forces behind this hard-working group is director David Galligan, well known in LA as a director of theatrical productions, cabaret shows and revues. I chatted with David as he was in the midst of rehearsing this year's S.T.A.G.E. benefit.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, David. The first obvious question is what does S.T.A.G.E. stand for?
David: Southland Theater Artists Goodwill Events.
JF: And what exactly does the organization do?
DG: S.T.A.G.E. is a nonprofit group that puts on the world's longest running AIDS benefit; we are in our 18th year having started in 1984. We just branched out this past year and did a benefit for the Actor's Fund, which, as you probably know, helps out actors who are dealing with a variety of problems including AIDS and the September 11th tragedy.
JF: I must say that I was surprised to find out that the oldest AIDS benefit started in the Los Angeles area. I would have thought New York or San Francisco. What are the origins of S.T.A.G.E.?
JF: Has the theme always been the songs of American Composers?
DG: Yes. This year we're focusing on the lyrics and music of Johnny Mercer.
JF: Are you only doing songs that he wrote both the music and lyrics for?
DG: No. While he certainly wrote the music and lyrics for a lot of great songs, like "Dream" for instance, we're showcasing a mix of everything.
JF: Oh good. What are the dates for the shows?
DG: March 8, 9 and 10th. You can get tickets at S.T.A.G.E.'s website: www.stagela.com/home.php. The ticket prices range from $200 down to $30. We've always made a point of having lower priced tickets available for these events, since not everybody can afford to help out at the higher level. We started out with $10 tickets and it has risen to $30 over the years.
JF: Where is it being held?
DG: It's at the Luckman Theater at the Cal State LA Campus. Most of these colleges have fairly new state-of-the-art theaters, and this is one of them. It's about three minutes past the music center on the freeway.
JF: How many performers are involved in it this year?
DG: I would say probably 35 and include Petula Clark, Margaret Whiting, Sally Struthers, Davis Gaines, Tyne Daly, Lea Salonga, Loretta Devine, Rod McKuen, the wonderful Anne Runolfsson ... do you know her?
JF: Yes! I love her. I have her solo CD and saw her do Victor/Victoria here in Seattle.
DG: She was in a show I created called Blame It On The Movies.
JF: What performers have been in the most S.T.A.G.E. shows?
DG: There are two who have been in it since the beginning: Dale Kristien and Linda Michel. They have done the show for the full 18 years. There used to be a third, Bill Hutton, but he wasn't able to join us last year. He'll be here this year, though.
JF: One thing I found interesting about your shows is that you only use people who have had some sort of stage experience.
DG: Exactly. Even if it was only a production of Barefoot in the Park with Jane Russell!
JF: That amazes me, since you are in the heart of movie and TV land ...
DG: You'd be surprised at how many actors in LA have theater backgrounds that they keep quiet about. A lot of people in television sing, especially in soap operas. But they keep quiet about it because it limits them; for some reason the TV and movie industry don't feel that it requires any acting ability to sing. To which I always ask, "Did that performer make you cry when they sang that song?" And they will reply, "Oh yes! I had tears rolling down my face." "Well, then they are acting!"
JF: I've always felt that doing a one-person cabaret show is one of the hardest acting jobs imaginable because you have to run the whole gamut of emotions with nobody else to help you. But few people get that ... they think you just get up and sing.
DG: I have directed a great deal of cabaret shows and I remember talking to one performer who said, "You don't understand, David; when you're in a musical and they don't like you, you can say, 'Well they didn't like the book or the costumes or the music or the lyrics or the lights or the sound' ... however in cabaret, if they don't like you, it's YOU that they don't like!"
JF: Right. You have nothing that you can hide behind ...
DG: No. It's the most personal of the art forms.
JF: Do you perform at all?
DG: Not any more. I did in my youth ... which makes me sound like an old fart! I started out as a stage actor in San Francisco. I was in the West Coast premier of the opera Street Scene, in which I played The Kid. I stayed with that theatre company and did a lot of musicals. I wasn't much of a singer or dancer, but it was like a home to me.
When I moved to Los Angeles I did alright as an actor, nothing great. I was in a touring production of The Impossible Years with George Gobel. Kevin Kelly, the critic for the Boston Globe, said in a review that it was possibly the worst show he had ever seen. He later apologized to us because George Hamilton and Jimmy Boyd had opened Star Spangled Girl shortly thereafter, which he felt was even worse than our show! The play was about which of four boys had impregnated this teenage girl. And the critic in Chicago wrote that he would be more worried about seeing one of the boys with his son than with his daughter. I came back to LA and did two lines in a two-hour TV movie for Medical Center. My lines were with Edward G. Robinson, which I felt would be a great way to say goodbye to acting, so I quit.
Then I became a journalist for Dramalogue and was their lead writer for many years. I also worked as a publicist at the same time, because, as you know, journalism does not pay. Some of the clients in the company were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Tony Randall ...
JF: Is that how you developed the contacts upon which to draw for the S.T.A.G.E. shows?
DG: Somewhat. The first event I ever directed was a Drama Critics Circle awards show. Before I did it, the event had always been held at a nasty little bar in Glendale ... why, I don't know. You would have Donna McKechnie and Michael Bennett coming to this seedy dump to accept their awards for A Chorus Line. At the time, the head of the Drama Critics was Jack Viertel, who is now really big in theater in New York with the Jujamcyn Theaters and also runs the Encore! series. He wanted me to direct the awards show that year to which I replied, "Get out of here!" I had never even seriously thought about directing before! But he kept after me and I finally said that I would do it, but I had all these demands. I wanted it to be in a real theater and I wanted the evening to honor Robert Preston, who was one of my clients. And he said, "Fine." Then I added that I wanted to do a mini-Sondheim revue, to which he said, "Fine." So it was very easy! I called up Julie Andrews' people and they said, "Oh, she'd love to give Robert Preston his award." And I called Jean Simmons, who I knew from interviewing her for Dramalogue, and she said she would be thrilled to participate. Then I called up Donna McKechnie and Pam Meyers and they said they would be in the revue.
It was a very imaginative evening; I even had Charles Pearce giving the costume award. It was only ninety-five minutes long, which is very short for an awards show, and went off without a hitch. And I thought, "Oh, this is a piece of cake!" After that, I did a show on Tennessee Williams called Confessions of a Nightingale with my housemate, Ray Stricklyn, which also went perfectly as well. It ended up running for a year before touring the world. Then I did Trouble In Tahiti which, although it got great reviews, was a total nightmare. I had two leads that I didn't get along with; I guess they realized that I was green and they just walked all over me. It ended up being a huge success but afterwards I didn't want to direct any more. But I had already committed myself to directing Linda Purl's nightclub debut, so I decided to do it and get it out of the way. It ended up being such a wonderful relationship that we are still working together. So that was that.
JF: Is directing what you primarily do?
DG: Yes. I actually make my living in theater. I'll direct things like the opening of Ford's Field in Detroit, which is this huge football stadium that Ford built in downtown Detroit that opens in September. I'm also working on a nightclub act for Jodi Stevens. And in April I'll do a show for the Park and Recreation Convention. It's been a wonderful change of careers for me.
JF: How long does it take you to put together one of the S.T.A.G.E. events?
DG: We've been in rehearsal since the second week in December; it's a heavily rehearsed event, since people love to rehearse, and so do I ... that's the difference between the theater and television. At this point we're rehearsing every day, but in the beginning of December we had a few meetings with the performers to talk about music, go through songs and figure out what they would perform.
JF: Do you assign songs or do people come in with specific suggestions about what they want to sing?
DG: On very rare occasions do we say, "This is the song we've chosen for you." For instance, when Sally Kellerman performed in our Kurt Weill evening, I gave her "Speak Low" because it seemed like such a perfect match. But usually they come in and we go through a number of songs to find the perfect fit.
JF: I assume this one is going to be recorded?
DG: Yes. The Jerome Kern one from last year is just about ready to be released, and should be by the time this interview goes up [it is, and is availabel at LMLMusic.com]
JF: You have a Jerry Herman recording coming out soon, don't you?
DG: I do, but it's not mixed yet. It was a S.T.A.G.E. production benefiting the Actor's Fund back in November and it was quite the evening.
JF: I heard about that one! Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury duking it out over their title numbers ...
DG: That sequence was my idea, and I'm very proud of it! I had a double staircase on the set, so I could have the two stars enter as equals. Angela came out stage right to this huge ovation and said, "I've always wanted to do this" and started singing, "Hello, Harry ... " She got through the entire song, and from off-stage left you heard a voice yell, "Somebody is singing my song!" And out pops Carol Channing, who descended her staircase singing "You coaxed the blues right out of the horn ... " Then the Dolly waiters came out stage left for Carol and the Mame hunting boys came out stage right for Angela and mass hysteria ensued with them doing both dances. It ended with shouts of "Dolly! Mame! Dolly! Mame! Jerry!" at which point I brought Jerry Herman up on the hydraulic lift at the piano.
JF: It seems that these shows have great visual moments. Have you ever thought about releasing videos?
DG: We have archival videos, but nothing that's available for sale.
JF: When will the Jerry Herman CD be released?
DG: Hopefully it will be released in the summer. I've done some preliminary work on it and have a couple lyric glitches that I need to fix, because I don't want to send it out uncorrected ... they are only one-word errors, so ...
JF: ... you'll be able to just punch it in/punch it out.
DG: I would think so.
JF: Do you know what composer is going to be featured next year?
DG: Frank Loesser. And we'll be doing an Actor's Fund benefit featuring the songs of Richard Rodgers.
JF: That sounds like a great line up of shows.
Are you working on any shows other than the S.T.A.G.E. benefit?
DG: In the summer I'll be directing Showboat; I haven't decided what version yet. Dale Kristien and Hugh Panaro and Valarie Pettiford will be in it. The show will be at the Carpenter Center at Long Beach.
JF: Well, best of fates with all your endeavors, and I can't wait for the CD of this show to come out so I can hear it!
DG: Thank you!