Entitled “Happiness Indeed: An Actor’s Life,” the 232-page book focuses on Quilley’s love of the stage, although one chapter deals with his screen work.
Quilley’s versatile career spanned the West End, Broadway, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He was equally at home in American musicals such as Sweeney Todd (which he premiered in London) and La Cage aux Folles (in which he starred with George Hearn), as in Shakespeare or new plays like Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy.
Anecdotes are frequent. One tells of his National Theatre boss and friend Laurence Olivier working long office hours for the new company, then playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s exhausting Long Day’s Journey Into Night every evening. Only once, says Quilley, did his memory give out, when Olivier improvised the line, “I’m sorry lad, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m not feeling too well” and darted off stage for a surreptitious script-check. Still, so exhausted was he that Quilley would often notice him asleep in the wings between scenes.
There’s another story about the opening night of Sweeney Todd at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. “An important element in the enormous and somewhat-over-elaborate stage-setting [by Hal Prince] was a massive steel gantry which rose and fell,” writes Quilley. “For the first scene it was lowered to become a bridge over the Thames. Lowered, as it happened, on this occasion a few feet too far. I rowed my boat across the stage, singing lustily how good it was to be home again, and as I reached the climactic line: ‘Oh, there’s no place like London!’ I rose energetically to my feet, spreading my arms wide to encompass the view, and smashed my head onto twenty tons of solid steel. I dropped like a stone into my seat, and my companion in the little boat held me up straight while the vast Drury Lane auditorium went round in circles and my brain was muttering: ‘Christ, what a way to play a press night — knock yourself out in scene one!’”
Other stories incorporate colleagues like Diana Rigg, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Blakemore, Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins. Quilley’s last bow was in Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, a show still-running at Drury Lane, and which he describes as “absolutely sizzling.” On Feb. 27, 2004, Theatreland luminaries gathered at a Covent Garden church to honor his memory at a funeral service. Attendees included Peter Hall, Maureen Lipman, Julia McKenzie and Simon Russell Beale. After his death, the book’s last chapter was completed by his wife Stella from Quilley’s draft and original notes. For more information visit www.oberonbooks.com.