It was "the little musical that could," says producer Joey Parnes, when talking about the success of Broadway's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. The musical comedy, which closes its two-and-a-half year run Jan. 17, doesn't necessarily sound like box-office gold. It's based off the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which subsequently was turned into the Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets. The score consists of Edwardian music-hall style tunes (composed and written by Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman) and most scenes take place in mini "music box" sets within the frame of the main stage. On top of it all, the show's plot follows a young English gentleman (Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham) attempting to secure an earldom by murdering eight of his relatives. Yet, the show took gleaming notices and a successful box office run all the way to the 2014 Tony Awards, where it won Best Musical. So how did it happen that a show — "based on something that most people south of 50 have never heard of," adds Parnes — made it in a climate when so many original "small" musicals don't?
Jefferson Mays, nominated for a Tony for his performance as the eight members of the D'Ysquith family, saw something special in the piece when he first read it as part of a 2009 workshop. "I just wanted to do it, in a way that so very rarely happens, and I was familiar with Kind Hearts and Coronets. I think that's one of the movies that made me want to be an actor," says Mays. "I was so entranced by the idea of this one actor portraying this entire family, never dreaming, of course, that I would one day be afforded that opportunity. I leapt at it in a way I haven't leapt at anything before, and I had a vision of how it should be done."
To GGLAM director Darko Tresnjak, Broadway was always the goal. "I knew what we had, and I was pretty certain we'd make it [to New York]." But according to both Tresnjak and Parnes, the hope of a box office smash wasn't necessarily on the radar, more so the hope of a devoted following of fans. "I just thought there would be an audience for it," says Tresnjak. "We were getting great responses at Hartford Stage and San Diego, and I thought it would work. Anything else like awards and accolades just was frosting." After seeing the show in Hartford, Parnes felt similarly and officially joined the creative team after its run at the Old Globe in San Diego. "This show was smart, clever, different and yet familiar, and I thought it was worth pursuing. And...I just liked it," he adds with a chuckle. "A lot of people didn't want us to open when we did because they worried we would get buried by all of the blockbuster shows opening that year. But I kept saying, 'The show is ready to go now.'" If there's a lesson to be taken from Gentleman's Guide, Parnes learned, "You have to really like what you're doing, and the rest will take care of itself."
That love for the project transcended the creative team as audiences flocked to the theatre. "From a theatre perspective, I think people appreciate that our show has a pure, musical theatre sound," says Tresnjak. "Those crystalline soprano voices, the way that our leading ladies have to sing — it's the way that Julie Andrews produced sound, so I think a lot of people appreciate that." Even if the voices are bright, the comedy is dark. Tresnjak says, "I think everyone has a little bit of Monty Navarro inside of them. I think the show appeals to that side of human nature. And every time Jefferson dies in the show, the audience gets excited because that means he'll come out as another character," he adds. "When I was a kid, I loved Advent calendars, and each murder in the show is like opening up an Advent calendar. But creepy," he laughs.
The small nature of the show in no way ensured an easy go for its actors. "It's been the most all-consuming thing I've ever done," says Mays, who previously won a Tony for portraying more than forty characters in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. "Musicals are a different beast. These people are Olympic athletes! In a play, you can show up at 40 percent and pull it off. You can't do that in a musical. This demands being at the peak of your game physically and mentally. I think this is the closest I've ever come to being an athlete, and I have a newfound respect for it." He jokes, "After this show closes I'll probably gain 200 pounds and become a corpulent character actor."
When the show settled into the Walter Kerr Theater in October 2013, the show did moderate business in previews before receiving raves after its opening night on Nov. 17th, one from the Times among them. Then tickets began to sell fast. But the winter season is a dangerous time for productions to maintain their sales, and Gentleman's Guide did notice a drop in gross during the colder months. "We managed to get through the winter, but we did think that we might not survive after that," says Parnes. "I honestly had projected to myself, 'We'll probably make it to mid-January [of 2014] before the doldrums set in and we close,'" agrees Mays.
The cast and creative team both credit the 2014 Tonys for ensuring a longer life for the show, even prior to picking up any hardware. Gentleman's Guide received ten nominations, the largest number of any musical that year, which "penetrated the zeitgeist" in a way the great critical reviews hadn't, according to Parnes. "Tony nominations alone don't normally create a bump in sales. But this show broke that rule. We led the coverage for the Tonys that year because we had the most nominations. Our destiny was altered. We wouldn't have lasted nearly as long without that visibility."
The Awards telecast brought more visibility to the show. "Even if we hadn't won Best Musical that night, our show's official number [the trio "I've Decided to Marry You," a door-slamming delight that traps Monty between his two leading ladies] was so tailor-made to be broadcast on a television," Parnes said." It created a big sensation online and we were the highest rated musical number of the evening." That performance still draws audience members to the show, says Mays, who introduced the number as three of his characters through a series of visible quick changes. "We still have people at the stage door tell us that they wanted to come see the show after they saw that performance."
The telecast was an emotional one for Tresnjak, who took home the statuette for Best Director. "Most of my stories around Gentleman's Guide are tied to great fun and jokes. But when I won, my mother's health was failing, and I felt like if I won and could address her from the stage — which I did, in Serbo-Croatian — she would really want to stick around for a little longer and tell all her friends about it." Tresnjak's mother, Maria, passed away June 26 of this year.
Gentleman's Guide seemingly changed the game not only that night, but in Broadway marketing, as their online presence has become justifiably popular. The Facebook page for the musical used JibJab-esque illustrations, created by New York-based advertising firm SpotCo, celebrating Broadway openings and pop culture events in funny and macabre ways. (This year's Christmas post featured Monty atop a decorated tree, ready to drop an anvil on an unassuming D'Ysquith dressed as Santa Claus.) "They realize that they weren't necessarily bound by limitations that other shows are, so they could go way, way off story as long as they use our characters," says Parnes of SpotCo's designs. "The fans went wild because it was always something new." Mays is a personal fan of the memes, "I wish they could go on doing that forever, even after the show closes!"
More than a robust social media presence, several stage-door events marked various GGLAM-themed occasions, including a horse-drawn hearse to celebrate Mays' 6,000th death on Broadway. The show also produced a series of YouTube clips in which Mays, dressed as various D'Ysquiths, sang snippets of Grammy-nominated songs. "We were singularly blessed with these geniuses who were able to truly evoke the spirit of the show — that madcap, anarchic feel," says Mays. "The degree to which I credit them with the perpetuation of our success knows no bounds."
When it comes to the end of the show's run, Mays says he's ready for new challenges. "I think every role you take on is a rehearsal for the next one — a life in theater is a life of constantly rehearsing." That doesn't mean he won't miss the D'Ysquith clan he's embodied on and off for seven years, nor that the closing won't be bittersweet. "There's no comedown after a show like this. You do your last performance and it's over. The axe falls. It's such an appalling feeling: to be in the throes of a performance and see sets and costumes being already packed up. It's like attending your own embalming."
Despite the closing, Gentleman's Guide's life will continue beyond Broadway; the national tour launched in September. "The Walter Kerr is a smaller theater, so there's always a concern that it might not play to those bigger houses you see on tour," admits Parnes.
"But," Tresnjak adds, "we've been playing [those] that seat up to 2,000 people, and they're selling out the place!"
Alysa Auriemma is a Connecticut-based writer, actor, and teacher. She received her BFA in Dramatic Arts and MA in English from the University of Connecticut. Her work has been recognized by the New York Times and the Hartford Courant. Follow her @allyauriemma.