Regional Reviews: Seattle
Rex Smith has certainly had a colorful career. How many performers do you know who have been a teen idol recording artist (for the pop classic hit "You Take My Breath Away"), a Gilbert and Sullivan leading man (the Joe Papp re-worked Pirates Of Penzance), a TV superhero (Daredevil), a soap star (As The World Turns), not to mention a host of Solid Gold? Include starring roles on Broadway (in the original production of Grease, Grand Hotel and The Scarlet Pimpernel) and a plethora of national tours, and you have quite the enviable career. I caught up with Rex while his latest touring role, Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, stopped at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
Rex: What is happening is that I'm in an age range where I'm transitioning from the ingénue or youthful parts, which were written for tenors, into the more 'nail-your-feet-into-the-floor-and-sing' baritone roles. I am not a baritone ... I'm a lyric baritone ... so it is challenging.
There are a few spots in Kiss Me, Kate where the range is beneath what I can do and I've taken some shots critically for that, but it's not something that I can do anything about. You are born with a certain vocal range, and I have really developed as much of a baritone as I can doing these shows. Touring with Annie Get Your Gun was great training ground for this show as it taught me how to open up and expand the sound in the baritone register.
JF: Is this the first time you've performed in Seattle?
RS: I played here when I was doing rock and roll. When I first started out, I was in a band called REX. I primarily opened for Ted Nugent, but I also toured with Foreigner, Boston, AC/DC and Tom Petty ... this was 1977-1978. I was staying at the Edgewater Hotel then. I remember that you would check in and they would give you fishing poles. [For those of you not familiar with Seattle and its quaint customs, as the name implies, the Edgewater Hotel is located right on the edge of Puget Sound. The hotel used to hand out fishing poles so you could fish from your room. There's a classic picture of the Beatles doing so.] And there are all these stories of bands staying there and throwing TV sets into the water ... I had lunch at the Edgewater with my wife and son yesterday and it was quite wonderful to go there twenty-four years later when I'm in town doing a legit show, in which I'm performing one of the best roles for a man in a musical. Usually you're Frank Butler waiting for Annie to get her gun or Joe Gillis waiting for Norma Desmond to come down that staircase.
JF: And Kiss Me, Kate provides a much more 50/50 split in stage time and business.
RS: Yes! It's a much more level playing ground for both stars in the show. It is also such an invigorating and demanding show to do. I'm in a bit of a quandary now as I'm wondering how anything is going to compare to it! While I've never met an 'easy' musical, Annie Get Your Gun was definitely a putting green compared to this show!
JF: How long is your contract for the tour?
RS: I'm doing it for 53 weeks and I've got twenty-one more weeks after this. I love touring. It's great seeing how the downtown corridors of the cities vary and even change year to year. Seattle is in such great shape! So many downtown areas are great from 9am until 5pm and then they quickly deteriorate ...
JF: It's a pretty new occurrence ... not that long ago you would only come downtown to see a show or to shop. And it helps that you are in such a beautiful space as the 5th Avenue Theatre.
RS: It is! It was built as a vaudeville house, so it's a tight squeeze backstage for us; we look like refugees from Das Boot back there! We have so many big costumes and set pieces coming through. The antics backstage are crazed, but what does it matter, as long as it looks smooth onstage? That's one of the challenges in bringing a show on the road.
It's great being back at sea level, though. We were in Denver last week and people were getting dehydrated like crazy. There were times when I was the only principal in the show! It's a very harsh environment and just sucks the moisture right out of you; our hands were cracking open. The neat thing, though, is that you develop more red blood cells while you're up there. When I came back to sea level after doing the show there for a couple of weeks, I felt like I could bite the air! It's just full of oxygen, so all of a sudden "Where Is The Life That Late I Led" is much easier to sing.
JF: Did you do The Scarlet Pimpernel tour at all?
RS: No. I just played it on Broadway. I did Pimpernel with Rachel York, which was great since now we have a history upon which to draw for the characters in Kiss Me, Kate.
JF: It surprises me that you didn't tour with that production, since that is a part you sort of originated on Broadway [Terrence Mann was actually the first Chauvelin] ...
RS: I re-originated it ...
JF: ... in version 2.0.
RS: Right. I wanted to give my son, Gatsby, six months of undivided attention ... which has turned into two and a half years!
JF: You met your wife when you were doing Sunset Boulevard?
RS: In Toronto ... yes.
JF: Is she Canadian then?
JF: And the two of them are touring with you.
RS: Yes, and I also have a twenty-one year old son and two daughters from a previous marriage. The girls are with their mother in Fiji. The great thing about the digital world is that I just got a picture today via e-mail of one of them holding a flashlight as a turtle is laying eggs. So the Smith family is all over the world right now having adventures!
JF: You are also traveling with your Jack Russell terrier named Jane Russell?
RS: I always have taken my various dogs with me when I tour. It's not ego so much as routine and a comfort and a charm. After the show I walk the dog and it keeps me grounded. One of the healthiest ways to bring yourself and your head down after a show is to have to walk the dog!
JF: Do you have plans for when your contract with Kiss Me, Kate ends?
RS: They say you can never go home again, but I would love to revisit Pirates of Penzance and play the Pirate King. Even though there is a movie of our version, I like to think there is a new generation waiting to be introduced to what a wonderful show Pirates really is.
Before the attack I was working on getting a production of On The Twentieth Century up and going: it's such a great complementary show to Kiss Me, Kate and would be great to do with Rachel. But it's such a big show, and the environment right now is definitely in flux in terms of trying to gather investors and backers; everybody is waiting for the other shoe to drop. There are other smaller shows I want to do as well, like maybe Romance, Romance.
I'm a road guy, though. Maybe it's because of my rock-and-roll background, but I like to move around; I'm just used to it and it's part of my nature. I would be quite happy to continue touring shows and taking them out. I have just as much fun taking a show out on the road as I do performing it on Broadway. I do enjoy a Broadway opening night ...
JF: ... but on the road you get twenty or so of them.
RS: Yeah! It keeps it interesting and fresh constantly performing in a new space. And every town is different. For instance, certain jokes aren't going to go over that well in the Bible Belt, while in more liberal areas they work, that kind of thing. I feel like a touring tennis player - instead of playing on the same court all the time I get to play on grass and clay and sometimes asphalt.
JF: When did the tour begin?
RS: We started in July.
JF: Have you noticed a change in how audiences have reacted to the show since September 11th?
RS: Very much so. We were in Los Angeles when it happened and started performing again a few days after the attack, and the audiences were really in a state of shock and diminished. You could see gaps in the audience where groups of people decided not to attend. This may sound a bit like Men Are From Mars, but I found that the women were the first to begin laughing again, and the men would follow them. Women are probably just a bit more pliant than men, emotionally. The audience's reactions have just been getting stronger and stronger as the run has progressed, and now we're at a point where people are really enjoying it and fully laughing. Maybe there's a bit of a responsibility on our part for bringing a piece of New York City to the rest of the country. And maybe people are treating seeing a show as a sort of mini vacation. It's great to hear the laughter.
A great aspect of Kiss Me, Kate is that it came out in 1948, so it was written right on the heels of World War II. When the original production opened on Broadway, there probably wasn't a single person in the cast or in the audience who did not have a friend or relative lost during World War II. And yet within a few years after that they are laughing to lines like "You're dating Adolph Hitler? A match made in heaven!" So this has been a very powerful musical to hold up to audiences as a historical reminder of how tenacious the generations before us were and how quick we are to heal today. We don't like to stay in one emotion. We want to see a home run ball sail over the fence. We love our leisure time and our laughter.
JF: Kiss Me, Kate is your second big Cole Porter show, since you did Anything Goes at Lincoln Center and on tour ... and you were in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Who's the next major classic composer you feel like tackling?
RS: Well, I'm sorry I wasn't able to toss my hat into the ring for Oklahoma! I think Curly is a hugely overlooked part in terms of the comedy aspects of the role. It has been approached much like Gilbert and Sullivan in terms of the classic D'oyle Carte method of enshrining performances. Pirates really taught me the importance of breaking the preconceptions and conventions of those roles. You need to treat a show like it's hot off the press instead of being a 100 year old classic. The magical thing about a show is that it is just a hundred or so pages on paper until you get actors and a director into a room and breathe life into it. And it's how those seeds are sown that makes all the difference.
JF: Is The Human Comedy the only truly original part that you originated? Meaning that you weren't recreating a part in a revival as you did in Pirates.
RS: Pretty much. I was in the original production of Brownstone as well. There were shows I was unable to do for whatever reason, like Chess ... and then I turned down Romance, Romance because I had just turned down Chess and it turned out that Romance, Romance had a long run and Chess folded almost instantly! I turned down Passion as well. I was living in California and trying to keep a marriage together that I knew couldn't survive the separation of a Broadway run. By the way, The Human Comedy was the first musical produced by Roger Berlin, who produced Kiss Me, Kate as well.
JF: I don't have the cast album of The Human Comedy.
RS: It was an interesting recording process ... the microphones were built into this facsimile of a human head and placed where the ears would be. The Human Comedy was an interesting show to do. It was going to be Galt MacDermot's bookend to Hair, as it was another anti-war show. It came out at a bad time, though. It wasn't a flashy piece and it was proof that critics can close a show but can't keep one open. The Times wrote a whole "Save this show!" piece, but we couldn't find an audience. It was presented in a style that people might be more open to nowadays as it was very minimal: no sets, just lighting changes.
JF: I'm trying to figure out the whole timeline of your career. You did the whole rock and roll thing, then did Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway, then came Frederic in Pirates of Penzance, but when did "You Take My Breath Away" make you a teen idol?
RS: That popped out when I was doing Grease. They called me up to say I was selling 300,000 copies of the song a week. I went out around the world because of that, and then did Pirates on stage and on film.. Then I did Solid Gold ... which was a huge mistake career-wise. I was young and having fun, so [I thought] what the heck? I got my pilot's license that year and had an open cockpit biplane that I was flying and having a blast. But it came at the expense of really losing momentum in terms of achieving some great roles.
After that I did The Human Comedy, then I did Street Hawk on ABC, then Anything Goes at Lincoln Center and on tour ... and then it starts to blur! Let's see ... there was Brownstone and then Daredevil on TV after that. Then I took over the part of the Baron in Grand Hotel on Broadway, was in As The World Turns. Then we get to Sunset Boulevard with Faye Dunaway, which got the plug pulled three days before we opened, then Grease again, then Sunset in Canada, then Pimpernel, Annie Get Your Gun and now Kiss Me, Kate. So I've really been lucky. I've had a huge amount of time on stage performing in musicals. It would be very hard for a person starting out today to get the same experience.
JF: You also just released a new CD, which according to your website is entitled Simply Rex.
RS: It's actually called You Take My Breath Away here in the States.
JF: Was it recorded to be released elsewhere originally?
RS: Yes ... in the Philippines. I discovered last year that I have a huge following in parts of Asia, something I wasn't aware of. Last year I played in Manila and I sold out two nights in a 16,000-seat hall. So I recorded this CD in Manila. It's a compilation of songs I have done and some new songs that I wrote; it's all new recordings.
JF: Is it primarily a pop album then?
RS: Yeah. It's a romantic pop CD.
JF: Do you do a lot of solo work here in the US?
RS: Not really. Corporate more than anything; entertaining for functions mostly.
JF: No cabaret-type shows then?
RS: I haven't done that in a long time. I performed at the Russian Tea Room a couple of times when I was living in New York. But for the past five years or so I have been constantly working on stage.
JF: Sounds like an enviable career to me.
JF: Have a wonderful time while you're in Seattle.
RS: Thanks, I will.
For more information about Rex Smith and information on purchasing his CD, visit RexSmith.com.- Jonathan Frank