PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Douglas Sills

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Douglas Sills
 
Douglas Sills was a virtual unknown to the New York theatre community when he was cast in the title role of Frank Wildhorn's The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Douglas Sills
Douglas Sills

His performance in the 1996 musical changed all that: Sills garnered raves for his powerfully sung and acted Percy Blakeney, garnering a Theatre World Award as well as Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Actor in a Musical. Sills also starred in the Kennedy Center's mounting of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, the Los Angeles premiere of Chess and the first national tours of The Secret Garden and Into the Woods. The actor with the powerful tenor returns to Broadway this month playing sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello — as well as a host of other minor roles — in the Broadway bow of the long-running Off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. At a recent press preview of the Alan Menken Howard Ashman musical, Sills chatted with Playbill On-Line about his return to Broadway and his various other projects.

Playbill On-Line: How does it feel coming back to Broadway?
Douglas Sills: Oh, great. I've been here a lot but not in a stage show. I mean, I've been doing workshops. It's good, it's great.

PBOL: How did this role come about?
DS: The normal way. Audition. Somebody said, "Do you want to go in on this?" And I said, "Yeah," and that was pretty much it.

PBOL: How does Jerry Zaks work as a director?
DS: Mostly with whips and chains. He beats you into submission until you see it his way [Laughs]. No, how does he work? I think he works differently with each actor, depending on how that actor works, since we don't all come from the same school of thought, necessarily, or what our backgrounds are. He perceives that, and he talks to you in a way that he thinks is concordant with how you work after watching you do it. He's extremely collaborative, and he says, "Keep trying things, that's great, that's great, I like that and I like that, now keep going, keep working." Obviously my stuff is a little different from their stuff because I have multiple characters to play, so I can bring a lot of different stuff, and I feel like we're doing it together. We sit down. It feels like he and I sit down with crayons and a coloring book every day, and we just don't pay attention to the lines, and we color. And he's very funny — haimesha, as Jews say, he's like an old soul.

PBOL: How do you feel about playing a villain?
DS: Villain! Is he a villain? I think I'm always more comfortable playing someone that other people think is a bit off center. Those are very comfortable spots for me. The guys who are less comfortable are the ones that people at least perceive to be more traditionally heroic or good-natured. So this settles much more to the center of my personality, as did the idea of playing Booth in Assassins when that looked like that was going to happen. Those are things that feel incredibly comfortable to me, so I'm really looking forward to it, throwing people around and being the bad guy. PBOL: Anything happening with Assassins?
DS: Oh God, I think there's always incredible hope for it. It's a piece, I guess, according to the creators and Mr. Haimes — Todd Haimes from the Roundabout — that has to be right for the theatre, financially, and for the atmosphere, politically, for obvious reasons. So, we all look forward to that happening and hope that it happens and hope that it happens soon. But I don't know. I know he's been talking about maybe doing it this season, but I don't know. He's definitely committed to it, as is the director and the creative staff, they really want to do it. It's just sometimes the time is ripe for that and sometimes not.

PBOL: Do you have any other projects lined up?
DS: I'm looking for an egg donor to have my child. I'm kidding [Laughs]! There's a composer and lyricist and book writer who've written a show for me that I hope will see the light of day this summer, based on a classical piece, Cyrano. A new musicalization of Cyrano by some very reputable people, Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse did book and lyrics, and music is Mr. [Frank] Wildhorn. And, I've been in discussions with Ken Ludwig about a couple of new plays of his, and we're looking for time. I thought I was going to do one for him at the Arena Stage now, Shakespeare in Hollywood, but it didn't work out. [Little Shop] was a conflict, so we're looking for another chance to work together. . . . I've been doing some preliminary stuff. I did a reading of The Little Princess for Susan Schulman and Andrew Lippa. And I did a reading of this udpated version of The Gondoliers for Gabe Barre and Todd Haimes and Joe Church, and I have been working also a little bit on — Ann Reinking has a piece written by Jack Murphy of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald that we're doing a reading of. That's a musical. What else? A little bit of TV before that. There's been some family stuff in the recent past, so I sorta pulled out for about six to eight months and just sort of making my re-emergence. And this is a pleasure, a joy. I'm just so happy to watch and support.

PBOL: Did you see Little Shop originally?
DS: I never saw it, and I'm very grateful that I didn't because I'm sure it was fantastic, and I'm a sponge, so if I saw it, I would just be doing that. So I'm very happy I didn't see it. To be working as an actor and yet to be working as an actor in this setting with Jerry Zaks. C'mon, it's gravy, it's icing, and you can never forget that, and it's really been painless. It's like bring your toys to work every day, and let's pick some and play with them. It's been great, and they're the sweetest, all nice, the sweetest. It's really interesting, the dynamic of theatre, watching the voice and the plant work together. You realize what you have to do as an actor when you see it broken down and see them trying to do it together. In the same way watching Big River, when they've broken it up into actor and singer or actor and vocal, and it's very instructive about how you have to unite those forces in yourself. They all have their own jobs to do and functions, the voice, the body, and they react in concert with one another but individually as well.

Little Shop of Horrors begins performances Aug. 29 at the Virginia Theatre with an official opening scheduled for Oct. 2. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200.

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