One of the most lovable characters on the Broadway stage these days is Adolf Hitler. No, that's not a misprint; perched on a stage, coyly mouthing "I love you!" to a worshipful audience, Der Fuhrer is packing them in at the St. James Theatre. Of course, it helps that this dictator is actually a mockery of the real thing, courtesy of Mel Brooks' and Thomas Meehan's juggernaut hit musical, The Producers, based on Brooks' classic film comedy. It helps even further that this smarty who runs the Nazi party is played by Gary Beach, a Tony nominee for Beauty and the Beast and a musical theatre veteran since the 1970s. Beach has picked up another Supporting Actor Tony nomination for The Producers, alongside co-stars Brad Oscar and Roger Bart. Add to that the monster-sized hype and hit status of the Susan Stroman-directed show, and Beach is, not surprisingly, having the time of his life playing a man who makes his first entrance wearing a ball gown (as director Roger DeBris) and then gets to sing, "Heil...myself."
So, um...has it always been your dream to play Adolf Hitler?
Gary Beach: It had never occurred to me. But as soon as I found out about how the role was structured in this play, I was dying to play Hitler. In the film it's different, LSD [a stoned hippie] does it. When I found out Roger got to do it in the musical, this was perfect. They tell me that was Mike Ockrent's idea, to have Roger DeBris end up doing the role himself. Mike was originally to direct, with Susan choreographing. After the tragedy of his death, Susan took the helm, really with a divine hand.
Speaking of divine hands, there's a moment in the show when you pose with your arms raised, hands turned and fingers pointing oddly. Is that a nod to Lumiere the candelabra, your role in Beauty and the Beast?
Uh huh. No one's mentioned that to me before. Later in the number I also sort of give another nod to that show; it's in the "showbiz" portion of "Springtime For Hitler." Glen Kelly, our musical supervisor, was also on Beauty and the Beast. He structured "Be Our Guest" for the stage and also did "Springtime." I think they're the two biggest, most expensive production numbers in Broadway history, and we're both in them. In one I'm a candlestick, and another I'm Adolf Hitler.
Did you audition?
I didn't audition. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I was at home in L.A. and my agent called. He said [casting director] Vinny Liff wants you to fly east and read Roger DeBris in a reading. I thought for 10 seconds...and packed my bag. I already knew Nathan Lane was doing Max. And for a person of my generation to be in a room for a week with Mel Brooks, no matter what happens, you don't say "no" to that. And this was the part of a lifetime.
You've had a hit run before, with Beauty; is it so different having a mega-hit?
When we were in Chicago in the tryout of Producers, we didn't realize what was happening in New York, that there were lines already. When we came here, all of a sudden our friends were saying we can't get close to the theatre. There was a line down the block. Of course now, there are just people milling in front of the theatre, just standing around. Lines for tonight, for cancellations, for the future, to get into the theatre. Broadway has never ever, ever, seen this. This is not just rare; this has never happened before. Not on this scale. I think Howard Kissel of the Daily News asked in his column, "How did this show get so quickly into the mindset of an entire country? Go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they'll know what you're talking about when you say The Producers." This cast album was in the top ten of all albums last week—with Eminem. The last time that happened was My Fair Lady. We don't understand it. It's so much bigger than we can fathom. I thought Beauty and the Beast was huge, and it was, but the atmosphere in the theatre community at that time was so different. We were the first Disney show, before 42nd Street changed. Before the theatre district was made safe for families—and for Hitler. Sometimes, with Beauty, the community looked down on us a little bit. That's all gone now. Being the first, everyone was a little frightened: what are the Disney people going to do, ruin Broadway? I think they've just broadened the appeal. We have everything now, from Beauty and the Beast to Stones in His Pockets to The Producers to Follies. There's room for everybody. I think the theatre is healthier than it's been for many many years. I started doing shows in the early 70s. Then the curtain time was 7:30 PM, changed from 8:30 PM because people were afraid to be in Times Square after 10 o'clock at night. The thinking was "get out before the gangs hit Times Square!" But 7:30 PM also meant people didn't have time to have dinner. Again, the atmosphere was so different. You'd never see a family of people walking down the street after 11 PM at night. Now, for me to get to the subway, it takes 20 minutes because the crowds are so thick. Of course, it's not all good. But I think it's certainly healthy for business. The people that come, the more tickets we sell, the more shows we can have.
You talk like a dyed-in-the-wool musical theatre buff. Do you remember the first live performance you saw that made you want to go into that wonderful business we call Show?
I was about 11 years old. I grew up in Alexandria, VA, and the National Theatre in Washington D.C. had the national tour of The Music Man starring Forrest Tucker [of "F-Troop" fame]. I'll never forget it. My aunt took me, and we sat way up in the second balcony. I remember the footbridge scene. I remember thinking, "These people are here right now doing this. The orchestra I hear is live, right now, playing." The immediacy struck me as incredible. So I had no choice. I wanted to do theatre. I never thought "Oh boy, I want to do television."
So faced with this calling, what did you do?
I did nothing. I went to high school and became a thespian, but then went to college and tried to sway myself away from going into the theatre. My family weren't even theatregoers. I convinced myself political science is what I wanted to do. So I went to Old Dominion in Norfolk, VA for a year — the liberal arts thing. But then I found out about a new school: North Carolina School of the Arts. I auditioned and was admitted into the drama department. For the first time I became serious about studying and becoming an actor. And it was the best thing I ever did. If had come to New York cold, without training, I would have been eaten alive, thrown into the Hudson. This provided the training. And to be around 300 people in the school who had the same love and fire inside for the arts that they had never been able to express—these were people who argued about a play. I'd never even around people who'd seen a play. It was thrilling for me. I remember when Company opened on Broadway. One student brought back the LP, and we put it on. That telephone sound — it changed all our lives. Musical theatre had grown up with that sound. It was so immediate, so new, refreshing. I knew I wanted to do nothing else after that but musicals. A year later I came to New York and saw that show finally. At intermission at the Alvin (now it's the Neil Simon Theatre), this blowsy dame out front was having a cigarette, and I heard her say, "This isn't a musical; where are the dancers?" Being 18 at the time, I wanted to slug her. But it changed my life, just listening to that album.
Have you since done any Sondheim shows?
Actually no, but I did get to do The Music Man. It was in Niagara Falls in a place called Art Park. I don't even know if it still exists. [It does.] It sat 4,000 people indoors, but the back of the theatre opened like a garage door onto a terraced hill. People would bring blankets. The first one I did there was Music Man. It was wonderful, the shortest two weeks of my life. Then My Fair Lady and Fagin in Oliver!. But nothing matched doing Music Man. A year and a half ago Terrence Mann called from his North Carolina theatre and said, "Gary, I'll be directing Music Man; do you want to do it?" I said, "Absolutely!" He directed it beautifully, and I got to do it again.
So far we've discussed only your good experiences onstage. Any funny/embarrassing nightmares you'd like to recount?
Well, there was one that happened to me at Art Park. I was playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Now, you mount these things in 10 days — full Broadway production values, with huge sets and costumes. So I was doing "Hymn to Him," which goes on and on and on. It has more words than Genesis! Well, I went sky high. Sky high! You're in the middle of the stage by yourself.
Couldn't Pickering help?
Pickering didn't know his lines, how would he know mine? So I pretended my mic went out. [At this point, Beach demonstrates, impersonating his voice popping in and out like radio static.] I did this for a whole verse, till I knew where I was again. After the show, a friend in the audiences said, "I hate to tell you, but on that big song, you had all these mic problems." I said, "I know. I heard." Now, I don't recommend that solution, but what the hell else are you gonna do? Another incident: This one in Beauty and the Beast in New York. We'd been running long enough for everyone to be comfortable onstage. It was the top of Act 2. Terrence Mann in on the throne; Susan [Egan] is bandaging his wolf wound. I'm standing behind looking. Susan sees me and her eyes grow to the size of saucers. She starts throwing her head back to indicate something's wrong. I look and my arm's on fire. The prosthetic is totally on fire and smells to high heaven. I turn the gas off, but it's still on fire. [Beach mimics blowing the fire out.] It became a scene about this man blowing on his arm. The audience was in hysterics. Oh, and another time Heath Lamberts, the original Cogsworth [the clock], Beth Fowler and I were doing a scene. Heath's clock door opened up and the pendulum fell out and hit the floor. And, being inanimate objects, none of us could bend over and pick up his pendulum. The audience got it immediately. Eventually, he kicked it over to me and said, "Pick that up!"
One more Producers question: How much or how little did the movie influence you?
I can remember the afternoon I saw that movie 30 years ago. I sat in that theatre laughing my head off. And at the time, I didn't know anyone else in the world who thought this sort of thing was funny. I grew up in Virginia; does Mel Brooks get laughs south of the Mason Dixon line? It's New York—his humor is hard-edged, funny, satiric, it's ferocious. I didn't realize anyone else thought this was funny. When Roger and Carmen came on screen I didn't even laugh; I'd never seen anything like that before in my life. But the movie became part of our vocabulary. When there's a major theatre disaster, what do we call it? "Springtime for Hitler."
What about the part of Roger DeBris, played by Christopher Hewitt on film?
I bow to him. But Roger in the musical is a much larger role and goes many more places. The wonderful thing is you get some of the great comic pieces—the audition scene, which plays like gangbusters in front of a theater and non-theater crowd. It's just funny.
And it plays in Virginia?
Well, my mother was supposed to come up to see it, but she fell and hurt her back a few days after we opened. She'll come up as soon as she can. My friends and family are more thrilled to pieces. I've had nothing but total support from my family all these years; they're thrilled with the success of the show. I don't think they comprehend the largeness of the success of this show, but to be fair, neither do we.