Interview with Gary Beach
by Zachary Van Brunt
Tony Award winner Gary Beach is currently Heiling Himself and wowing audiences at the St. James Theatre in the role of Roger deBris, cross-dressing director, in the smash hit musical The Producers. A previous Tony nominee for the original role of Lumiere in Beauty & the Beast (in another outlandish costume), Beach has also appeared in Something's Afoot, Doonesbury, Annie, The Moony Shapiro Songbook and 1776 on Broadway as well as L.A. appearances, several tours and Of Thee I Sing in Washington D.C. (Helen Hayes Award nominee).
In part one of Zachary's interview, Beach discusses his pre-Producers stage career:
ZVB: I have a little confession to make: I'm insanely jealous of you. You did James Kirkwood's Legends not only with Carol Channing, but with Mary Martin, too. God, what was that like?
GB: I used to call it - and I guess I can still call it - my favorite year. It came at exactly a perfect time in my life because I had been doing musicals and all of the sudden this show came along that was a comedy and a fun role. I would be basically the only guy in the show, except for a male stripper who didn't have many lines. He didn't need them. We were to go out on the road, go to Los Angeles, rehearse, go to Dallas, preview it, then go back to Los Angeles, and then come roaring into New York with this huge, successful comedy starring these great, great ladies. Of course, if you read the book about the show you know that that's not how it happened. We ended up being on the road for a year, going from every place from Cleveland to Palm Beach to San Francisco everywhere. We ended up being, financially, the most successful play in the United States that year. It's just that the only people who seemed to like us were the audiences. "The Diary of a Mad Playwright," which I think is being re-released was written by Jimmy Kirkwood about Legends. It's a frightening expose about life out of town with a brand new play with two huge stars. And inexperienced producers.
ZVB: It certainly sounds interesting.
GB: It was. The book was very interesting. It was funny and frightening. People in the business, when they read it, don't find it nearly as funny as people who aren't in the business. You sort of project yourself in the situation and think, 'Oh, my God.' I remember one of the worst reviews we got was from a Seattle newspaper. There was this little picture of Mary Martin up in the corner of the paper. It said: "Should be horse-whipped." [laughs] It's just a play! But the audiences would pour in and just laugh their heads off.
ZVB: Any good stories about working with the legends?
GB: Yeah. I remember, from my own personal point of view, the first day we were in rehearsal. I had never met them. So I show up in Los Angeles, and I'm staying with my friend Reid Shelton, who had been the original Daddy Warbucks. He had moved to Los Angeles. "Come out and stay here while you're in rehearsal," he said. That's cool. OK. So I went out and show up at the first day of rehearsal at the rehearsal hall at the Ahmanson Theatre. And there they are, looking just like Mary Martin and Carol Channing. I've never seen so much press in my life. It was, like, a sea of flash bulbs and there I sit with these two incredible, famous people. And for some reason, no one had anything to say to me. They're just barraging these ladies with questions. "Hey, Mary. Lift up your skirt." So I did. [laughter] It was just thrilling.
Well, OK. Then that part of the day was over, and then we had to sit down and read the play. Well, that's when the trouble started. I would open the play alone on stage, in a make-shift off-Broadway producer's office. This hot-shot who has this idea of putting two over-the-hill movie stars together in an off-Broadway show. So the opening scene is me sitting there doing multiple phone calls and making sound effects and lying to Paul Newman, Mary Martin and Carol Channing. It ended in uproarious laughter and they moved into the body of the play. Well, I sat there with Mary on my left and Carol on my right. I did this whole scene by myself which I didn't think would ever end. And when I was through, they were laughing and applauding. I just threw the script down on the floor, and I said, "I am so glad that's over. I mean, here I sit between Peter Pan and Dolly Levi, and I feel like I'm three years old and have absolutely no business being here."
And from that moment on, I was their favorite person. They actually treated me like gold. I was, like, on the road with my two favorite aunts. Carol especially made sure that anyone who came backstage I got to meet. I have in my dressing room now this great black-and-white photo taken backstage in Los Angeles of me with Mary Martin, Carol Channing and Helen Hayes. I mean, this photo, people look at it and say, "How did you have that done? It must be superimposition." I got to meet everyone I had ever heard of. General Maxwell Taylor to George Burns to Bob Hope. Everyone came to this show.
ZVB: See, now I'm that much more jealous of you now. I didn't realize all that was going on. Well, let's knock you down a little bit. How about some of the "flops" you've been in? I don't know all that much about it, but what was Doonesbury all about?
GB: The script and lyrics were written by Gary Trudeau. Music by Elizabeth Swados. I don't know where she is now. She's a very talented woman who had a big hit with a show a season or two prior to Doonesbury called Runaways. She was quite a force in Broadway theatre there for a while. It was a different sort of music; not your standard show tune music.
I got involved in the workshop. There are still workshops happening in New York, but back then, it seems that everything had to workshop first. Which meant that you got together for very little money and worked day after day after day to actually build a show. We went in with basically a skeletal script that Gary had written, and you find out through working on it that we need this, we need that, these jokes need to be punched up, we need a song here. A Chorus Line came out of that process. Unfortunately, Doonesbury didn't have the same fate as A Chorus Line. I really enjoyed it. The cast was sensational: Mark Linn-Baker, Kate Burton, Keith Szarabajka, wonderful people.
But it lacked a real comic punch. The unfortunate thing was - even now - "Doonesbury" the comic strip does not appear in The New York Times: it appears in The Daily News, which is not the newspaper of choice of, say, the Manhattan theatre crowd. So consequently, during the week, early in the run when Manhattan usually would show up at a show, we had very small audiences. On the weekend, when Long Island and New Jersey would come in, the theatre was packed with screaming, laughing people because they knew these characters. I think there was a feeling, and maybe rightfully, that you had to sort of know the strip in order to enjoy the show. I can't say that that would be wrong.
I was lucky. I got to play a wonderful character: Uncle Duke. Uncle Duke, at the time, owned the Redskins and was very deeply into narcotics and alcohol. He had his little Asian assistant Honey following him around everywhere. I got to bulldoze through an entire set and push the set towards the audience with a bulldozer the size of the stage, practically. It was really sort of a wonderful effect. Of course, it didn't make it run more than 100 performances. And I think the weakness was that it lacked a real point of view and a political punch. I think we sort of went towards trying to be a funny musical rather than biting, and I think people wanted it to be more biting. It should have been.
ZVB: What about The Moony Shapiro Songbook?
GB: I think it was the year before Cats opened in London, The Moony Shapiro Songbook won the Olivier award for best musical. It came here with some sort of a pedigree. I had never heard of it. There were five people in it: Jeff Goldblum, Judy Kaye, Timothy Jerome, Annie McGreevy and myself. And we played about 137 characters. It was so much fun. It was a great weight-loss program because you just ran your legs off backstage. It was a story of this composer, Moony Shapiro, and how he affected not only the history of music, but the history of the world. From the time he started writing in, say, 1915 in downtown-lower-East-side Manhattan up through his Broadway career, his movie musical career. You know what it reminded me of? Remember the Woody Allen movie "Zelig"? It's a movie where this man seems to be everywhere through history, but he really didn't exist. A totally made-up person. That's what Moony Shapiro sort of was. A made-up person that we sort of appliquéd him onto different points in history. I remember Ruth Gordon came backstage and said, "This is the first time I've ever seen a musical for adults." I knew what she meant. You had to come in with a certain amount of information to be able to enjoy this show.
Opening night we had this wonderful party downtown at Luchow's, a great old restaurant. It was packed with people, mostly British. Every British star in America came to the party that night because it's a British show. And one by one, every top newspaper annihilated the show. Here's a funny thing: I went into the restroom just before the newspapers started coming in and they had a little television in there. There was a TV review on, and the guy says, "Move over 42nd Street. There's a new big hit in town," and just went on raving over The Moony Shapiro Songbook. I went out and I went to the other cast members and I went, "Oh, my God. We just got the greatest rave on television." And we were all, like, spinning we were so happy. And then the newspapers started coming in. One was worse than the next. So we didn't even have a second night performance. We closed opening night. I don't know that it could have been a popular success, but I think it could have definitely have a following.
ZVB: Doesn't it kill your spirits when that happens?
GB: You know what? I had been doing Annie for about three years before that. I went from Annie right into rehearsals for The Moony Shapiro Songbook. I thought to myself, 'If this runs, that'll be great.' But if it didn't, I had another plan. I had rented a house out in East Hampton for the summer, so I just took the summer off. Because, what are you going to do? I mean, let's face it. I left a show, Annie, that was still running very strongly at the time when I left it to do this show that ran one night. You just sort of go out there and lick your wounds. At least you can do it in the sun and the sand.
ZVB: At least you had fun with it, though. I've got a few questions about Beauty and the Beast. I'm sure you get this one all the time, but what was the Lumiere costume like to work in?
GB: I was lucky. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and Disney was nice enough to fly me back to New York a few times for fittings. They were in virgin territory: no one had ever built a costume that had butane cans that were actually going to light up. Ann Hould-Ward, who designed them and won a Tony for it, wanted to know, "How's this?" and "How's that?" "Can you do this?" And so I had a little input. Not in the design, but at least in the construction. And the hams, I called them - the candles on the end of my hands - were very heavy. When we were out of town in Houston I told someone, "It's like carrying two Hormel hams to the grocery store over your head for two hours every night." They were very, very heavy.
But little by little we began to realize that we didn't need those gyroscopes in each one. And now, although I haven't done it for years, I'm told they're even lighter. But then, they were just heavy. The key to the show, if you remember, is that unlike the cartoon, these people are little by little turning into these things. And so I had two different costumes: one for the first act and one for the second act. The second act's was even more ornate. The shoes were larger, the collar was larger and the hair on top of my head by that time had turned into a candlestick. I began to realize that that's part of this gig during fittings. That discomfiture you're supposed to feel as the actor is really for the character: to become more constricted. I let that work for me, I think. I really enjoyed working on that show. Looking back on it, I think a lot of people, first of all, didn't like the idea of Disney coming in to Broadway. There was very little support from our own friends in the acting community. A lot of them acted as if we were killing puppies in the lobby rather than doing a show. The fact is, I think if you go back and look at the original cast and think about what happened on the stage there in the Palace, it really was a wonderful show. And still is, I guess. I haven't seen it in years.
ZVB: How long did you stay with the show?
GB: Forever. We opened on Broadway April 19, 1994. I stayed with the New York company for about ten months and then left to do the Los Angeles company, which is where I was living at the time. So I went out there and it ran a year and a half. I took six months and traveled a bit and did some television work and plays in L.A. And then the opportunity came up for me to return to the New York company, so I did for what I thought would be six months, and I stayed a year and a half.
ZVB: In the middle of a lengthy run, how do you keep your role fresh?
GB: I love long runs. I'm in the middle of another one right now, and I absolutely love them. It's no secret that the way to keep your performance fresh is to keep fresh yourself. To take vacations and to take time off. Repetition can kill a performance. Especially now in The Producers. Such a high-energy comedy takes every ounce of concentration and energy you can muster. Eight times a week. To shortchange the idea of letting your body relax is ridiculous. You've got to relax. You've got to let your body just break down.
Also, sort of in another vein, is to stay active in other parts of your life. By "resting," I don't mean lying in a bed. I mean, like, getting out and doing things: going to an amusement park, going shopping, meeting friends, going out to dinner. I think the more active you are in life, the easier it is to go in and do this show eight times a week.
Gary Beach discusses The Producers
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