Interview with Gary Beach
by Zachary Van Brunt
Also see Part One
ZVB: To ask a clichéd question, what is it like to be in the hottest ticket on Broadway?
GB: It's a dream come true. You don't even dare to dream anything like this. Our producers said this just before we opened in New York: "We're in territory no one else has ever been in." This is not just a hit show. Beauty and the Beast was a hit. Broadway shows don't capture the imagination of the nation, and this somehow has. It's not just publicity, because lots of things get big publicity. This was different. Around our opening, there was an atmosphere more of a huge movie opening than a Broadway show. It's the cover of The New Yorker magazine ... jokes on "The Tonight Show" about getting tickets. It's amazing.
Then, here we are: September 11. We didn't perform that night, of course, nor did we perform the next day. Thursday, we figured it was time to go back. And, of course, going back to do a zany, wild comedy about putting on a musical about the worst tyrant of the last century and making fun of a man who killed millions (and that's the part I play) ... so you do approach it with a little bit of trepidation, like, 'Is this right? Should we be doing this?' I got to the theatre and there were maybe 150 people in the cancellation line and then a line of ticket holders going in the other direction down the block. People just wanted to see the show and figured that people may not be able to make it into town we they'll get a cancelled ticket. We played to a full audience that night and the laughs were bigger and, in a way, more ferocious than ever. There was a sense of, Goddamn it, I can laugh.
I don't want to get serious about this, but it is serious. A couple of days later, someone told me a story that has stayed with me. During World War II, London was under the blitz night after night: bombing, bombing, bombing. They'd try to go on with their lives. They continued with plays and musicals. In the middle of a show the air raid signals would go off and they'd leave the theatre, go down into the basement, wait, and then go on with the rest of the play. At one point, the civil defense minister said to Winston Churchill, "We have to stop this. We can't have hundreds and hundreds of people sitting in the theatres. We can't have any more theatre." And Churchill supposedly said, "What? Stop theatre? Then what the hell are we fighting for?"
That stayed with me. That this is our culture - an important part. And I think New York responded to that. Two weeks later it became frighteningly apparent that some shows were closing and Broadway looked to be shutting down. Shows that depended on tourists and had been running quite awhile were closing and Broadway was going to be something you read about in a book. New York, Long Island and New Jersey poured out and the theatres started filling up again. And now it's tough to get tickets to practically anything. Which says a lot about us. I think it's a good thing, and people should know that.
ZVB: Did you have any idea at the beginning of this whole process what a huge success this show was going to be?
GB: None at all. And if anyone says they did, they're crazy. Everyone wanted it to be big. Let's put it this way: I sold my condo. I sold a car. I moved all of my furniture lock, stock and barrel. I came here thinking to myself, 'Oh, jeez. I hope it runs six months.' And I knew it was funny. But I also knew, frankly, that Mel Brooks had not had a hit in 25 years. People think "The Producers" the movie was a hit movie. It wasn't. It initially found a little audience, but it did not make money. It became a cult film. And over the years, it sort of gained this reputation of being this wildly, zany, funny comedy, but when it first came out no one went to see it. I did when I was in college and I just loved it. I thought it was hysterically funny, but I was in college. Back then we had "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and "Silent Movie" and that run of great, great movies. And then all of the sudden, no one was laughing at Mel anymore. So then, you approach this saying, "Is he going to be funny in 2001?"
The first time we started realizing what we were sitting on was at a press preview. We put together a few numbers in rehearsal clothes and rehearsal props in the rehearsal hall here in New York and members of the press were invited to come and watch. At the end of that little press preview - here are the people who are paid to not like something - they stood and cheered. We just did three numbers: the opening number "The King of Broadway," "I Want to Be a Producer," and the end of act one, "Along Came Bialy." And they just stood and cheered. And I thought, 'Oh, gee. That just doesn't happen.'
And then when we got to Chicago, we did a dress rehearsal for an invited audience. I have no idea who it was because none of us knew anybody in Chicago, but I have a feeling they were, like, really big fans of the movie. Well, it was like the roof blew off the theatre. And then we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed for weeks, and then we invited the press, which would be the Chicago papers, Variety, and practically any newspaper who could get a ticket came to see it. And the reviews across the board were astounding. Then you really get scared because you think, 'The New York Times is going to come in and say, "You think that's funny? We'll tell you what's funny." ' And then Ben Brantley came and wrote probably the most positive review he's ever written. One right after the other, just total raves. And the Tony nominations? A historic 15 and we won 12. Just one thing after another. It's been incredible. And all I wanted was six months.
ZVB: About Tony nominations: I was wondering, with you and co-stars Roger Bart and Brad Oscar being nominated in the same category, was there any tension about that either onstage or backstage?
GB: Not at all. Roger and I, because of working together so closely, have become very, very close friends. Honestly, we never talked about it. And Brad? We never talked about it. We, of course, wanted to win, especially when it became obvious halfway through the evening that there was such a sweep going on, you didn't want to be in the one category that didn't win. But then, I'm so lucky in terms of role because this role - many people say this is the role of a lifetime. It goes in so many directions. So because of that, I think I would be the logical person to win that category because the role is so incredible. And let's face it, that has a lot to do with it. The guy playing Hamlet is going to have a better chance then the guy playing Rosencrantz. The role had a lot to do with it and I'm happy and proud to have been a part of it. I love being known as "Gary Beach: Tony winner." It sounds better than "Two-time Tony nominee."
ZVB: Well, I'd like to know your take on how you play Hitler.
GB: Well, you know, I don't play Hitler. I play Roger De Bris ...
ZVB: ... who in turn plays Hitler ...
GB: ... right. He puts on this costume and goes out on stage. But it's Roger doing what he's always wanted to do: star in a Broadway musical. So he puts on this costume, but he could just as easily be dressed as Winston Churchill or Diamond Lil. It wouldn't make a bit of difference. He's going out there as Roger, and it's the flaming queen performance of all time. He just goes out and does what he wants to do. And I even get to sit on the edge of the stage like Judy Garland, sit there and sort of talk to the audience and sing a song. And tap dance. It's just wild. In a way, it makes even more of a buffoon of Hitler doing it this way than if I went out on stage and said, "Now, I'm Hitler."
ZVB: Well, even your character of Roger sounds outlandish.
GB: I make my entrance in a $20,000 evening gown. Beaded. I look just like the Chrysler Building. He says he's going to a costume party (laughs). It is an outrageous character and it's incredibly drawn by Mel. It's so Mel Brooks. The relationship between Roger De Bris and his common-law assistant, Carmen Ghia, is I think one of the fun things in this play. It's, of course, expanded a great deal from the film. But in the film, I think someone was saying they got the feeling that homosexuality was some sort of a cult. Whereas this has opened up quite a bit. We're obviously two incredibly gay men living somewhere on the Upper East Side with an entire design team living with us. And the Village People. So it's lots of fun.
ZVB: Is the real Mel Brooks anything like the zany characters we see him play on film?
ZVB: Is that difficult at all to work with or keep focused around?
GB: No. In our case, it was wonderful. He was there all the time. With a new show, especially a new musical comedy that is so heavily comedy, you have to have the writers there. He and Tom Meehan, who assisted Mel in writing and forming the script, were there all the time because things would come up. [For instance,] it was originally written that at the end of the "Keep It Gay" scene, Max holds out the contract for Roger De Bris to sign. As I sign it, it was written that I say, "Roger De Bris. Keep it gay!" And we did that for a couple of weeks and then all of the sudden one day I said, "Roger De Bris!" And Mel stood up and said, "Roger Elizabeth De Bris!" And we looked at each other and said, "Of course! It's Roger Elizabeth De Bris." Because in an earlier scene we find out that Adolf's full name is Adolf Elizabeth Hitler, as he comes from a long line of English queens. Audiences love things like that where out of nowhere a gag that you heard 20 minutes ago shows up again. And it's a wonderful moment that just came out at rehearsal - out of Mel one day during a rehearsal.
ZVB: Any idea how long you'll be staying with the show?
GB: No idea. You don't know what's going to happen. I do know this: the entertainment industry is not in the healthiest of states right now, and to be involved in something like The Producers is like being touched by God. I feel very, very lucky.
ZVB: So I take it you're not antsy to get out of the role any time soon?
GB: No. But I am antsy to take a vacation, which I'll be doing in January.
ZVB: You've done so much stuff in your career, from stage to film to TV ... even "Saved By the Bell," which I must admit is one of my personal favorites.
GB: Oh, stop it! You know what, I have to say this. I was talking to a drama school in Hartford, Connecticut, The Hartman School. This whole auditorium full of drama students asking me questions. I said, "Sometimes you just do things just to put bread on the table. Not out of love or whatever. You just do it." "Like what?" I said, "Well, you've never seen it, but I did 'Saved by the Bell.'" Well, the place went up like crazy. Everybody's yelling, "Yay!" And I thought, of course, they're that generation that loved "Saved by the Bell." It was so strange to hear those kids just scream, "Yay!"
ZVB: Well, after all that, is it fair to ask which medium you get the most satisfaction from?
GB: I think it's obvious: I love the theatre. I love the whole idea of it. I love going to work there. You asked earlier how I keep a performance fresh. That's how: by going there every night. It's different. You hear that but it's true. One night a line will get a big laugh. The next night it will get applause. And the next night it's not so great. What causes that? Or how a laugh seems to leave the theatre. All of a sudden you've been saying this line night after night after night and then it's not funny anymore. And then weeks go by and it's not funny. And all of the sudden it comes back. It's just an intangible, unexplainable thing. That's what makes you go there eight times a week to do it: to create these lives and create hopefully a little magic.
And for us right now at The Producers, to make people laugh. It feels like a really important place to be. I think the audience has come there these days with the idea that, well, at least they'll be able to laugh at this. And that's our job. And I think that we're holding up our part of the bargain.
Gary continues to hold up his part of the bargain eight shows a week in The Producers at the St. James Theater.
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