Spotlight On
Douglas Sills

by Nancy Rosati


NR: I'd like to go through the first year. Real quick, just tell me what these felt like to you. The first opening.

DS: It was very exciting. I was ready for it. I had been preparing for it all my life. No one was asking me to do anything I couldn't do. Certainly there were things I wished had been different but nothing that would keep me from doing my job. I was no longer in that place that I think a lot of actors get into, which I certainly was, where I would play victim like "If he could do this, why isn't he doing ...?" "If she was ...?" "Why aren't there ...?" "How come they're not ...?" "If you could see that there's ..." You know there's all that business that had nothing to do with you. And I wasn't really beleaguered by that. I had great help. It was great! There was a LOT of pressure - both self-imposed and super-imposed. It wasn't spoken but there was a lot of pressure. There was a lot of money on the show.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

NR: The Tony Awards

DS: Frustrating. There's SO much activity going on before the Tony Awards. SO much is demanded of you in terms of publicity and appearances that the idea that you're trying to concurrently play the lead in a play which is more strenuous than any single person should undergo in and of itself, and on top of that you should look great and appear at these things and be charming and interesting and available - it's very hard. So, it was not particularly enjoyable. It was chaos.

NR: Really? How about the performance? You had a lot riding on that performance.

DS: The Tony performance?

NR: Yes.

DS: No, we had nothing to lose. We had nothing to lose. We were a complete underdog. No one expected us to get anywhere. Everyone hated the show. The big shows were Lion King and Ragtime. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Now, the likelihood of gaining was extremely low. I pushed. I threw my weight around a little bit for that event. I usually stayed out of everybody's way but I saw something happening in the presentation and I said "You know, I think this way." And they stopped and said OK. And I was happy that that worked out the way it did. We were hungry, which was good. We were hungry. We needed it and I think that's what made us show so well.

It was very disappointing to be honest with you. I don't know why but I had allowed myself, despite all predictions, to think what if, what if. I don't see how you can't if you're human. So that was disappointing 'cause I thought "You know, I have a shot at this. I saw the other performances. I'm up there." But it was really a pleasure to share the stage with other really strong shows in a really strong season, when audiences felt so strongly about the other performances and the other shows. It was exciting. It was the chance of a lifetime. The big thrill I think for me was having my parents be alive to be able to be there. That was a tremendous thrill for me - a TREMENDOUS thrill.

NR: Then you were on the verge of closing and Cablevision came to the rescue. What was that like?

DS: It wasn't really Cablevision if you want to know the truth. I mean they did in eventuality, but they weren't the instigators. Cablevision was involved in the beginning of the show. And they declined once they were brought the marketing campaign. They said "I don't think this is the way to go. We're going to let you guys go ahead without us." I think what was going on, and this is second hand, but Nan, who is the big engine of proactivity for our show - Nan Knighton - went to Ted Forstmann when closing was imminent. Bill Haber was heard to have said during the Tony rehearsals that a closing notice was going up that week. (Nan said) "If we could just film a commercial, if we could just film a commercial." Well a commercial's between a quarter of a million and a half million dollars for air time and to film it. So, she went to Ted Forstmann who was already a lesser investor in the show and said, "Teddy, could you loan us a million dollars?" She wrote what was supposedly a very articulate letter. Teddy thought about it - "Should I let it close? What should I do? I like the show." So he went to (Dave) Checketts and said, "Checketts, I think you should do this." And Checketts said, "Teddy, I think WE should do this." So, that's how that happened. But that wasn't your question. What was your question?

NR: Well, I wondered how YOU felt.

DS: I was tired. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home. Because of this incredible opportunity I had been given, I felt it necessary to do everything I could for the piece and for those who were devoted to the piece. And I did. I literally spent my entire life. I forsaked my existence for the show - including my health. And, that was voluntary. And I'm not sorry I did it. But, it definitely aged me - no question about it. So, I was ready to go and when Teddy came to me and said he was interested in having me stay, I said, "Teddy, I've got to be honest with you, I'm not. I've done it now - for my art and for my career. There's nothing left for me here. So, I'm flattered. I really am flattered that you, of all people, would see something that you think is worth putting money into now, at this point, in this sort of unprecedented kind of rescue. But, you're going to have to come up with a reason for me to stay 'cause I can't." So, we came up with a reason for me to stay.

NR: OK, we'll get back to that. Tell me about October 1st (the last performance of the old show). What did that feel like?

DS: Oh ... like a rushed wake. You know, you need a mourning time and we didn't have it. Exciting, scary, overdue. You know, it was an engine that had great hopes for it but it didn't turn out to be able to pull the kind of weight that it was being asked to pull, so it was working overtime and smoking and certain pieces were really worn down, and other pieces weren't connected properly. It needed to have that come to an end. I'm sure glad we had a closing night event. It was sad. I miss things from that show, very much. Regardless of what anyone says, the empirical truth is that the success that we enjoy today is inexorably linked to that show. And I mean EVERYTHING. Even the things that are no longer in the show, that have better things in their place, have arrived with those better things BECAUSE of what was there before. Because somebody could watch that and say, "Oh, well, we could do this instead - now that we've seen this." Well, SURE, hindsight is 20/20. So, I've heard people say, "Oh, there was no other show. This is the beginning." That is not my feeling about it.

NR: Well, I was there for the old show, and there WAS an other show.

DS: Right.

NR: And I don't think you'd have the core following for this one if you didn't have that one.

DS: Right. That was a major point for me. Because I knew if we were going to have any success, it was going to be partially due to word-of-mouth. Because this was clearly not Electra or The Heiress. So, it was important to me and I was very willing to spend whatever energy it took to make the audiences feel respected, regarded, accommodated, enjoyed, cared after, and that means spending an hour, an hour and a half outside the stage door every night on top of my job, that meant doing every interview that someone asked me to do, answering every piece of mail that comes to my desk - and that's what it means. And I worked very hard for that. And I think it was a wise investment.

NR: Let's talk about the new opening and the new reviews. All of a sudden you're reading, and it's outside now ...

DS: Who is this Douglas Sills? Where is it outside?

NR: It's outside, under your picture.

DS: Oh.

NR: "Douglas Sills delivers one of the truly memorable musical theater performances of the DECADE." How the heck does that feel?

DS: Great! I'm glad somebody thought that. I mean I could say ... here's the standard response ... here's what I would say if I was advising my client if I was a publicist. I would say, "Oh, my God. That makes me really uncomfortable. What a wonderful thing, but obviously I can't concern myself with that." How'd that read?

It feels great. It's what every kid dreams of. It's the Heisman trophy. It's the Cy Young award. It's Wimbledon. It's everything. It means the world. Because this is the place where it happens. There's no tougher ground. I'm Ground Zero for the most competitive arena in my field. So that's a tremendous accolade that I don't take lightly. And, to be honest, somewhere deep inside, some beat up little kid thought that was in him. I'm not shocked. If I didn't think it was in me on some level, I couldn't be here today. I'm grateful. I know that there's a thousand other ways it could have gone. And I've had a lot of bad fortune in my life. And I don't think it's because of anything I did. I really am committed to the idea that it's the confluence of events. I'm lucky that things just melded the way they did. That that reviewer came, and had the fight with his wife, or her husband, the NEXT night and not before our show. I'm dead serious. I KNOW that's what it is. It's a string of good luck coupled with some cajones and some talent, but much more an incredible string of pearls of good luck.