For all intents and purposes, Boyd Gaines added musicals to his repertoire in 1993. Until then, he was known primarily as a straight actor, with impressive credits in both theatre (including a Tony Award-winning role in The Heidi Chronicles) and television (two and a half seasons on “One Day at a Time”). That reputation changed with the Roundabout revival of She Loves Me, which transferred to a commercial run and earned Gaines his second Tony. It was followed by musical roles in two other Roundabout revivals, Company and Cabaret (he replaced John Benjamin Hickey as Clifford).
Still, although all three of those shows featured choreography by Rob Marshall, Gaines had really never been asked to dance on stage. That changed last winter when Contact opened Off-Broadway. Susan Stroman cast the lanky, charming Gaines against type as Michael Wiley, a miserable television director who is lured away from despondency and suicide by the prospect of dancing with the now-famous Girl in the Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates).
Eyebrows were raised throughout the theatre world at the casting of Gaines, 46, in an all-dance musical. The first two eyebrows belonged to Gaines himself. "All through rehearsal, Stro [the common nickname for Stroman] would give me sequences," he says. "I saw a lot of this and thought, `I will never be able to do that.' And sometimes I was right, but after a few days, they didn’t seem so hard. Stro had a firm sense of what I could ultimately manage. It was like someone going shopping for you who knows you really well."
Perhaps in part because of his lack of experience as a dancer, Stroman devised much of Gaines' choreography during rehearsals. "The great thing about Stro is that her eyes are always open," he says. "Much of the show came from watching me and Deborah or me and Jason [Antoon, who plays the bartender] come up with an idea during rehearsal. Then a few days later, she would say, `Do that thing you did with your arm yesterday,' and at first I would have no idea what she was talking about. Eventually, though, a lot of that made it into the show."
After a sold-out run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Contact opens March 30 at the larger Vivian Beaumont. Gaines says he used the month-long hiatus to spend time with his family -- he has a two-year-old daughter -- and to rest up. "My piece is only an hour," he says, "but it’s physically the most demanding hour I’ve ever had on stage." Gaines has officially joined the ranks of dancers, having racked up his share of bruised shins and sore joints. This wear and tear has given him new respect for his fellow dancers: "Dancers never complain. Actors complain all the time. Dancers never complain." To an outside observer, dancing a series of sultry pas de deux with Yates is ample compensation for a few bumps and bruises. Gaines has nothing but praise for his dance partner, who comes from an almost exclusively dance background. "Deborah’s dancing talent is self-evident, but she’s also a great acting partner. We were both a little out of our element, although she's a far better actor than I am a dancer. She should get hazard pay." He says his only regret is not getting to dance with Contact’s other leading lady, Karen Ziemba. (The show is made up of three separate pieces; Ziemba stars in the second piece, Gaines and Yates in the third.) Aside from a quick grab during the curtain call, Gaines and Ziemba have no contact at all.
The Contact score, which ranges from Robert Palmer to Puccini to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, is entirely prerecorded, a trend that is becoming increasingly common in the dance world but is still extremely rare in musical theatre. As a result, the tempos and number of beats never change. This resulted in an interesting discovery on Gaines’ part. On every musical he’s worked on, he says, the actors invariably come off stage grumbling about how the orchestra is taking the various tempos either too fast or too slow. "But I say the same thing here, and it’s all taped! What you perceive as the speed of the music hinges entirely on how tired you are." He also loves the fact that he doesn’t have to sing a note.
The 1995 Company revival, by contrast, earned its share of unpleasant headlines, several of them connected with Gaines' voice. He suffered through mysterious vocal problems through much of the run, missing many performances. This uncertainty was a major contributor to debates over whether the show would transfer, and potential replacement actors were approached.
Doctors ultimately diagnosed Gaines’ illness as a sliding hiatal hernia, a stomach ailment that could successfully be avoided through a strict diet. By that point, however, it was decided that Company would not transfer for various reasons.
"I don’t want to say that was the nadir of my professional life because my professional life is ongoing, but it was tough," Gaines says of the experience. "The worst part was feeling like I had disappointed an incredibly talented group of people. The creative team couldn’t have been more supportive, but it was very difficult." He says the hernia hasn’t flared up on stage since.
Despite having transformed himself into a relatively accomplished dancer, Gaines has no intention to pursue dancing roles in the future: "I’m a one-trick pony. I can do this choreography, and that’s it." Does he find it difficult to go into reverse -- to change back into an awkward non-dancer at the beginning of each performance? "Oh, that isn’t the hard part. Believe me: When you’re surrounded with dancers like these, it’s pretty easy to make yourself look bumbling."