Hooked on Musical Theatre
From his Broadway debut as the drug addict choirmaster John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood through his current role as the swashbuckling yet always fashion-conscious Captain Hook in Cathy Rigby's farewell tour of Peter Pan, veteran Broadway star Howard McGillin has tackled a colorful array of characters and sung songs written by many of the great musical theatre composer/lyricists. In the midst of a hellish five-show weekend of Peter Pan performances, I had the great pleasure of chatting with this consummate performer.
DEH: Thanks for breaking away to talk to us during your busy weekend.
HM: My pleasure. It's that five-show weekend tunnel, not to mention packing for the next leg of it. It's always a joy!
DEH: You're off to Tucson, and then Seattle. At least you have two weeks here, eh?
HM: Yes. That's great! My brother lives there, so it's gonna be good to spend some time with him.
DEH: You've been on the road with Peter Pan since September?
HM: That's right. We began at La Mirada, outside of L.A., and started the touring part of it in San Diego, Las Vegas, then San Jose for two weeks. We've been in L.A. now for two weeks, and it's been great. Great to see old friends, but exhausting too. Tough to fit everybody in.
DEH: And you have no conserve a lot of energy for a role like Captain Hook.
HM: I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up. You know, from the sound of it, Peter Pan, sounds like a nice job. Maybe not easy but certainly not taxing. Well, Glenn Casale the director has reimagined Captain Hook as sort of a swashbuckling pirate. There's a lot of swordplay, and jumping off the ship at the end. I definitely get a workout. But it is a lot of fun.
DEH: One doesn't think of Howard McGillin and prior Captain Hook performers, Cyril Ritchard, George Rose, Adolph Green in his cabaret appearances, quite in the same way, at least vocally.
HM: The fact is Captain Hook is a very operatic kind of character. He's so much larger than life. I walk onstage and the audience boos me before I've spoken a word. There's all ready this kind of built-in size factor. I think it help's that I'm 6' 2", and wearing high boots, and come out there in this bejeweled red and gold coat, and the wig and the hat ... it's quite a visual!
DEH: It's truly one of those shows where the male lead gets to wear all the great costumes!
HM: Exactly. And the Linda Darnell curls! It's very fun but in terms of approaching the character, he has this size already; I'm encouraged to go for broke and chew all the scenery in sight. It's truly one of those great, delicious roles where you get to kind of sink your teeth in. And you love the fact that they already know the score the minute you walk out there, and they're ready to take the journey with you. It's a very comfortable way to start the show.
DEH: And you're not trying to be Cyril Ritchard's Hook, and Cathy Rigby isn't Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan's Peter Pan. It's your own version.
HM: One of the joys about this is I'm not like Cyril Ritchard or George Rose, two GREAT actors, and wonderful comedians. I bring a whole different personality to it, so there is no danger of anything being imitated. And I have to say that Glenn was very encouraging during rehearsals that I not try to repeat anything that had been done before.
DEH: And Cathy as Peter Pan?
HM: She's so charming, and of course her athleticism in this role is really a great asset. The flying is amazing, and just in terms of her stamina. People don't realize what stamina it takes to put a musical across the footlight's, and all the more in the little Peter Pan. It's a pretty awesome achievement.
DEH: Can't wait to see you both do it. Looking back on your past roles, I have to say that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of my favorite musicals, and I love your interpretation of John Jasper on the cast album.
HM: It holds a very special place in my heart, as my first original role on Broadway. And again, it was a role in which the audience loved to hate him. There was booing and hissing from the get-go, with a story that was much less familiar to the audience. The setup of the show was so perfect that the audience knew when and how to respond. In my early days in the business, on TV I had been typed as the young leading man kind of thing ...
DEH: Kind of "young and restless"?
HM: Yes, I was on The Young and The Restless (as Greg Foster), whose older brother Snapper was Mr. David Hasselhoff himself! Oh yeah, I have a whole history of television that I don't really want to talk about, but it was certainly great training, and a blast doing it.
DEH: Getting back to Drood, I think the version usually done now suffers, without Jasper's big first solo "A Man Could Go Quite Mad." The whole setup of who Jasper is isn't there without that number.
HM: Exactly. In a beautiful kind of way it establishes him as the tormented, mad, opium-addicted guy, lusting after this fair young flower.
DEH: I've seen the old MTV version of "Don't Quit While You're Ahead" that was filmed during the Broadway run, where the actors all become their characters and then someone offs Rupert Holmes. What a hoot!
HM: Isn't it? That was at the dawn of music video for middle of the road stuff. I think they were hoping that some of Rupert's music would cross over into the pop charts, but no such luck. But Drood is indeed a pretty great show.
DEH: How do you see taking over a role as you did as Molina in Kiss of The Spider Woman, or Uncle Archie in The Secret Garden versus originating a role in a new musical?
HM: Well it's a whole different thing; It's tough from the standpoint that you're not in the room with the creative team from the beginning as they tailor parts to the talent. You're fitting into a track that's pretty well worn in the stage. But at the same time, you are given a lot of encouragement - most of the time - to find your own way, while respecting that you can't reinvent the wheel, in fairness to the other actors on the stage with you. But you have to bring your own toys to the playground or you're not going to have a very authentic performance. I do enjoy it; I look at replacing a character the same way as starting a character, in that you have to do your homework, to flesh out the character.
In Spider Woman all three of us - Brian Stokes Mitchell, Vanessa Williams and I - were all new. I went on the last three weeks Chita Rivera was on, and Brian had been in about six weeks when I came in, and then Vanessa came in when Chita left, so we were kind of a fresh new cast. And they didn't think the show was going to run beyond the summer, June or July. I had signed contracts to go out on the road with Chita in the fall and tour it. Then Vanessa came in, the critics came back to re-review the show, and it was this whole knew hit again.
DEH: And a new Broadway cast recording to boot.
HM: That was thanks to Vanessa's determination. She was going to get a cast album as she had a recording deal. That's fairly unprecedented, and that's my great regret with going into a show - you don't get a cast album. You don't get something that keeps your performance going in perpetuity.
DEH: In London, in 1995 you got to play Mack in the London premiere of Mack & Mabel. Another score so may people love.
HM: I certainly do. I just know from the experience I had in London. The book was never really quite ... complete, and I don't know how to fix that. I'm not a writer. The score is one of Jerry Herman's best, it's just a great, great score, but it's hard for the audience to find the center of it. Who do you root for? They are kind of unpleasant characters. But life is amazing. I've had so many gifts sort of fall from the sky in my career, and that was certainly one of them. Again with Captain Hook, the same thing with The Secret Garden, I picked up the phone and I had a job. They were very unlikely characters for me to play but certainly ones I relished the chance to sink my teeth into, let alone to sing. I mean, "I Won't Send Roses," does it get any better than that? A gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous song.
DEH: Speaking of gorgeous, your recent solo CD "Where Time Stands Still" is just that.
HM: Thank you. It was a labor of love. I'm an incurable romantic, and I was grateful to finally get to record some of my favorite songs in the popular Broadway canon, and The Phantom of the Opera gave me that opportunity.
DEH: Curious to see the movie version?
HM: Of course I'm curious. I hear it follows the score to the show very closely.
DEH: How many performances did you actually do as The Phantom on Broadway?
HM: The stage manager did a tally. It was somewhere around 1,180 performances in three and a half years, consecutively.
DEH: And you live in New York, so you didn't have to go out on the road.
HM: This is actually the first time in my career I have done a national tour. I've been lucky enough to have a life in one city. Most actors don't get that opportunity, and they have to be the proverbial gypsy. I've really been enjoying this little jaunt. But I have to say I like my own bed, my own pillow. You miss those things. But no complaints.
DEH: Let's talk about some of the leading ladies you've worked with. Linda Ronstadt (in La Boheme).
HM: Stunningly shy. It's shocking that she is kind of notoriously shy. She was so generous, giving, and so unaffected. It was a joy to work at her. Wilford Leach the director, god rest his soul, used to say "Look at Linda. She' s always trying to find a place on the stage where she is seen by the least amount of people in the audience." We had a great time working together.
DEH: Patti Cohenour (in Drood).
HM: One of the fiercest sopranos I've ever met! That voice is truly amazing. Just an amazing talent, and we actually met doing La Boheme as she alternated with Linda. It was so tough on Linda's voice that Patti actually ended up doing the lion's share of the performances, and so beautifully.
DEH: Patti LuPone (in Anything Goes).
HM: A force of nature. One of the funniest people I have ever met, truly, truly hilarious. We had 18 months doing that show together, and we laughed every day of those 18 months. I love her to death. We had a great time on and off stage.
DEH: Vanessa Williams (in Kiss of the Spider Woman).
HM: Vanessa amazed me. I was amazed by her dedication to the whole art of the theatre. She started out in theatre school in Syracuse, and she never forgot her roots. She always wanted to be back onstage. When she was doing Kiss it was totally her focus; she wasn't some pop star doing a vanity turn to get quick praise, in and out. She loves theatre and is a radiant performer. We had a great time.
DEH: How do you feel, with the losses of Adolph Green, Fred Ebb, and just yesterday Cy Coleman, that the great, remaining theatre writers are all passing away, and their breed, including those we still have with us like Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, will not be heard from again.
HM: It's very sad. I was at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts dedication of the Kander and Ebb collection. I was asked to sing, and because it was a library I sang "A Quiet Thing." After I had sung, I listened to the press conference with Fred and John - and also Bock and Harnick were giving their papers to the library, and Hal Prince was moderating. I was sitting there thinking that I had worked with all of them, and it made me, personally, very grateful for my career. But more importantly, these guys are truly the greats of our theatre, and unfortunately the whole business has changed so much, you can't replace these guys.
Last summer I was lucky enough to be a part of Bounce, and unfortunately it didn't succeed, but one day in rehearsal, Richard Kind said to me, "Do you realize who we are in the room with?" Sondheim and John Weidman talking to Hal Prince about a scene. Or we're on a break and Hal is saying "I remember when Oscar Hammerstein once said to me ... " They're truly icons. That's it.
DEH: So, will you get a break after Peter Pan closes here in Seattle, to enjoy the holidays at home?
HM: We get one week. I'll be home to see my doggie and my partner. Though it's been great because he's been out to visit every month while we've been out with the show.
DEH: How long have you and he been together now?
HM: Almost ten years.
DEH: That's wonderful. Thank you Howard. We look forward to seeing you here very soon.
HM: Thanks, David
Peter Pan runs December 1-19, 2004, at the 5th Avenue Theatre at 1308 5th Avenue, downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.