Naked Boys Singing
by Jonathan Frank
In celebration of the Off-Broadway hit entering its fourth year, Jonathan interviewed original cast members of Naked Boys Singing, Jonathan Brody, Tom Gualtieri and Patrick Herwood, as well as producer Carl White.
Tom Gualtieri, Jonathan Brody, Patrick Herwood & Carl White
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, fellas. I'll make the obligatory 'I was so hoping you would be doing the interview in costume' comment, before getting to the heart of the interview.
Boys: (very polite chuckles)
JF: The three of you [Tom, Jonathan and Patrick] have been in the show since it opened Off-Broadway in 1999, correct.
Jonathan Brody: We all started with the show and have come and gone since it opened. I did the show for eight months, left for two years, and came back in February. Then had surgery and was out for a month ...
Patrick Herwood: I was an understudy originally for eight or nine months; I covered three of the tracks. While I wasn't on stage opening night, I did get to perform a lot while I was understudying. For the most part, though, I have been here since the beginning, but I did take a summer off.
Tom Gualtieri: I've been in and out of the show a couple of times as well. Once I left to direct something, and just completed a tour with the Kinsey Sicks in a show called Dragapella. I left another time ... do you remember why, Carl?
Carl White: Yes; you did a Shakespeare show at the Public Theater.
TG: That's right. I think we should form a repertory company where we do King Lear one night and Naked Boys Singing the next night. That's my dream.
JF: Although that would mean seeing the actor playing Lear naked singing "Perky Little Porn Star" ...
TG: We might give him a night off, then.
JF: Are all of you singing the same songs that you performed from the start?
JB & TG: Yes.
PH: Since I was an understudy, I have done a little bit of everything. For the past two years, however, I've been doing the same track of songs.
TG: Patrick's our dance captain, though, so he probably could do the whole show.
JB: And has!
JF: That's a long time doing the same song. How do you do it without getting bored?
TG: You say your lines and don't bump into the furniture.
JB: Thank you, Spencer Tracy!
TG: You breathe and say your lines and that's it; you just go and make sure you are having fun every night. I think it's a challenge for anybody to do a show for a long time, but it might be compounded in this show by the fact that we all have a specialty number. Carl figured out the other day how many times I have sung my song, "Robert Mitchum." It was something like 1,300 times, including rehearsals.
JB: It hasn't been so difficult for me, since I did it for eight months and then left. Even eight months doing a show can be taxing, but that's our job as professional actors; to keep the show fresh and reinvestigate the material without altering the original intentions. Coming back to the part after being away for two years means that I have some new insights into the material, which has been helpful.
JF: When the show opened in July of 1999, did you have any idea that it would still be running three years later, much less that you would still be involved in it?
JB: No. I don't think anybody expected it to run as long as it has. It's terrific; it's rare that one gets to perform in a show for a long period of time and we have been incredibly lucky that the audiences have kept coming.
JF: Have any of you been involved in productions outside of this one?
JB, TG, & PH: Only the New York production.
JF: Carl, did you produce the original Los Angeles show?
CW: No. My partners and I saw it out there when it was in its second year, loved it, and got the rights. Now we control the worldwide rights to the show.
JF: How many companies are currently on the boards?
CW: Currently we have a show in Chicago, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this summer. The Houston revival just opened; they opened a few years ago, ran for a couple months and closed down, and just reopened again. Washington DC will be having a production this summer. We can't go back to Provincetown, unfortunately, as they don't allow nudity. Sao Paulo is coming up in the fall and a production is coming up in Toronto and Mexico City. We also are looking into going back to Los Angeles. The Oslo production just finished a couple of months ago and we're still negotiating for shows in Paris, Berlin and the Benelux territories.
JB: Do the international companies hire translators?
CW: They hire their own translators ...
JB: And you just trust them! (laughs)
CW: Stephen Bates and Robert Schrock, the original musical director and director, respectively, as well as being contributors to the show, oversee all the productions and have to approve any translations or lyric changes. And things get changed depending on the locale, as certain jokes that work in New York, don't work elsewhere. The phrase "I beat my meat," for example, had to be changed depending on the language. In Oslo it became "I knead my dough," and in Rome it was "I saw my wood."
JF: Do you oversee the overseas productions personally?
CW: The only time I have direct contact with production after the initial licensing negotiations have been completed is if I am designing the production. I designed Oslo's production, for example, so I had a lot more communication setting things up with them. But I didn't make it over there to see the show; I'm too busy here.
JF: There is that much work to be done after a show has opened and is in the midst of a healthy run?
CW: Definitely. People are under the mistaken impression that once a show has opened, the producer's job is finished. But in order to keep the show running, we have to work very hard: I have to plan ad campaigns up to six months in advance and keep finding new ways to get bodies into the seats.
JF: The audition process for Naked Boys Singing ... how was it? As a performer, I have to say that I cannot imagine doing what you do every night, much less auditioning for it!
JB: We were all prepared for it. We simply sang at our initial auditions. We were informed that we would be expected to dance nude at the callback and there was a union representative to explain the rules and regulations concerning nudity at auditions. We learned the combination, did it clothed, and then did it nude.
TG: And they were kind enough to have turned the heat up in the room.
JB: Speaking for myself, I was very comfortable with the idea of being naked: there are some who come into the show and it takes them a while to get used to the idea.
PH: It was a little frightening: it was unlike anything I had ever done before, and wasn't anything that I had ever thought about doing. I figured I would do it because if I could, I would be able to handle anything else that came up at future auditions: what else would I have to be afraid of? It was very freeing, actually. And I tell that to the guys that I now teach the dance combination to; that afterwards they will realize how much fun and liberating it was.
TG: I think once you do this, auditioning for anything else is a breeze: "Can you do that standing on your head?" "No problem! What's more, I can do it naked!" Nothing is an issue now.
JF: Because you are in this show, do you find that after a performance or on your days off, you don't look at french fries or Ben and Jerry's ice cream the same anymore?
TG: A little bit ...
JB: Well, I have to admit I have a chocolate éclair waiting for me backstage! (all laugh). I work out a lot and have been blessed with a fast metabolism ...
JF: Which leads to the question: how much do you work out in preparation for the show? (dead silence) Come on, boys ... be honest!
TG: Not as much as when I first started the show, but I work out five times a week.
JB: I work out four times a week, sometimes for two or three hours at a stretch.
PH:Ummm ... it's funny: I find that I have no other time in my life for anything but Naked Boys Singing during the weeks that I am rehearsing new cast members and I have been in rehearsal a lot. I do find myself thinking on my days off, "If you eat that french fry now they will see it on your butt tomorrow."
JF: I have been a fan of the skits your show does for the various Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefits. Are any of you responsible for them?
CW: That would be Tom.
TG: I'm very proud of them. Both Jonathan and I came up with a skit for the Gypsy Of The Year benefit in 1999. Jonathan's skit was equally excellent, by the way, but when the cast voted on what skit to use, mine got chosen for some reason ...
JF: That was the parody of "It's Hot Up Here" from Sunday In The Park With George, rethought as "We're Nude Up Here," correct?
TG: Yes. Jonathan then left the show and I continued writing the skits, which has been wonderful as it got me back to writing and finishing projects. The fact that I have received some notoriety amongst the theater community for my efforts has been a nice cherry on the cake
JF: Have you written any full-length shows?
TG: I finished a play called The Garden of the Earth, which is the antithesis of Naked Boys Singing or any of the sketches I have written as it is about the Donner party. I'm very attracted to dark material; I also have a one-man adaptation of Macbeth called That Play ... and I can't believe I just said the 'M word' in the theater! (all laugh!) I also have a whole series of sketches I am seeing about getting produced, and have two comedies that I have finished as well.
JF: In the BC/EFA sketches, you joke about your agents, friends and parents bemoaning the fact that you have killed your career by doing this show. Was this ever a concern, especially since you started doing this show before The Full Monty made it respectable to have nudity on Broadway again ...
TG: Keep in mind that I did a joke about The Full Monty in one of the sketches in which I mentioned that "nobody sees dick in that show," which is pretty much true! When those guys came to see our show, they were like, "Oh my God! You guys are really naked!!!"
JB: It's also like a joke Tom made in another sketch, in which a friend tells me how embarrassed we must be to be seen naked by our friends, and I remind him that he is on Broadway playing a fork! To me it's more embarrassing to be playing a piece of silverware in a chorus of thirty other people than to be one of eight people in a show, all of whom have a solo and get to show off what he really can do.
There will always be a stigma attached to the show, especially among people who haven't seen it and have it in their heads that it's something that it isn't. But so many people in the biz have seen it and realize that it is theater, and that it contains a talented cast hired not for their looks but for their talent. I think few people hold it against any of us ...
TG: There definitely was a change in attitude once we opened and got good reviews. But there is still a little stigma attached. I had an agent tell me to let him know when I was in something. I reminded him that I have been in something for three years, and he replied, "Not that!" Some people aren't interested in having their opinions changed: they still think about our show as being 'naked' and 'gay' and make all these unfounded associations. The funny thing is that we have all these bachelorette parties that come to see the show; we get husbands and wives ...
JF: It's such a fun, lighthearted show. I saw it in LA when it opened and am looking forward to seeing it again.
TG: It's really different from the LA version.
JF: Has the material changed since the LA production?
CW: We took a few things out from the Los Angeles production and put in a new song called "The Entertainer." Traditionally, that number will get extracted and the authors will write a local number to take its place. In Texas, for example, they wrote a song called "Everything's Bigger In Texas." For Chicago, Stephen Bates wrote a song about a pizza boy. Most of the changes in the transfer from LA to New York have been in terms of production values: it's more polished and has grown up here. We have a physical production here, versus the simple black box of LA's production ...
JF: I remember the Celebration Theater in LA as being a 3/4 thrust space versus the proscenium stage used here ...
CW: Right. Talk about 'in your face ... '
JF: You do have special priority seating here, though ...
CW: We do: $65 tickets for the first two rows. And they sell first!
JF: And then they bring their binoculars to boot ...
TG: They do! There was a woman sitting in about the forth row the other day with a pair of opera glasses!
CW: And what did George [Livengood] say to her? "You're going to have to turn those around sweetheart!" (all laugh)
JF: I imagine you have had all sorts of strange audience occurrences ...
TG: Yes! One time somebody tried to videotape the show and I walked off stage into the audience to confront them.
JB: It's the only time anybody naked ever went into the house!
TG: Yes; we're not allowed to interact and mix with the audience.
CW: It's a union rule for the actors' protection. Even if it weren't, we wouldn't allow it as it opens the show to a lot of problems.
JF: Out of curiosity; I notice you have all these signs up about not being able to buy or consume alcohol on the premises ...
CW: That's a New York State law; you can't mix alcohol and nudity. Which I also think is a very good rule.
JB: Even in your own home (all laugh).
JF: What other strange audience stories do you have?
PH: Well, we still talk about the time the entire audience was naked as well. A male naturalist group bought out the theater and watched the show naked. It was very strange for us; all the jokes landed differently. Our whole hook is that we're naked, the audience isn't, so we have the power. And we kept thinking the audience was going "You're naked, well so what! So are we!" They were a great audience, but it was so strange to look out and see them. People always tell you to imagine the audience is naked, but when it's really happening ... It wasn't an unpleasant experience; just different.
We also had a bachelorette party that had a bit too much to drink and got sick during the show; of course we blamed it on the poor guy who was singing! (all laugh)
JB: One of my favorite performances occurred early in the run, when our audiences were still comprised mostly of gay men. A group of female exotic dancers from Long Island bought out the first two rows and they were having a great time!
JF: And that opened the floodgates to making the audiences more mixed, correct?
CW: It did. After this specific group came unsolicited, we thought there was a demographic we could try and reach, and we advertised accordingly.
JF: Have all of your mothers come to see the show?
JB: My whole family, except for my mother, has seen the show.
CW: My mother saw it; she didn't like it.
JB: Well, she didn't have to see you naked! My mother would probably love the show if I weren't in it!
TG: My mother came. She just had her Playbill shielding her eyes from anything below the belt.
JF: How long do you plan on staying in the show?
TG: I just gave my notice, actually. I'm going to Washington DC to do a show called Privates On Parade ... which has nothing to do with my genitals, despite it's title. The show will be at The Studio Theater. When I get back, I have a couple of projects I'm trying to work on. I'm not coming back to the show, because I've been here a long time and I have some other projects I would like to see happen.
JB: Who knows? I have no plans to leave.
PH: I'm here for the duration. Since I'm the dance captain, there is always the challenge of working new guys into the show, which is great.
JF: Carl: do you have any other shows that you are producing?
CW: Mike Daisy's show, 21 Dog Years, which is at the Cherry Lane Theater.
JF: Another Seattle boy ... the show about the goings on at Amazon.com.
CW: Correct. We have a wonderful new play coming up in the fall by Deborah Brevoort called The Women of Lockerbie, which won the Kennedy Center Award for Best New Play and the Onassis Playwriting Competition. The New Group will be presenting it in the fall for a limited engagement and then hopefully it will be moving to a Broadway theater in the fall.
JF: Well, thank you all, and I'm looking forward to seeing the show.
Naked Boys Singing is presented at Actor's Playhouse, 110 7th Avenue South. Tickets and information at Telecharge.com.
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