PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jonathan Pryce

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jonathan Pryce
 
Time was, Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was most widely known as a classical actor who tackled Shakespeare's major roles. His musical theatre career is a recent development.
Jonathan Pryce
Jonathan Pryce Photo by Aubrey Reuben

On Jan. 17, Pryce stepped into Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in the part of Lawrence Jameson, the smooth Continental con man originated in the production by his pal, John Lithgow, who was a castmate in Broadway's Comedians in 1976-77.

At the bottom of his DRS Playbill bio, the Tony Award-winning Pryce writes, "He dedicates his performance to all classically trained actors who wind up performing in dirty rotten musicals."

There aren't very many "dirty rotten musicals" on his resume, but what's there is big. He won the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical for playing the Engineer in Miss Saigon (repeating his London work), and starred in the West End as Fagin in Oliver! and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. All three musicals were produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

On March 10, after critics had returned to the Imperial Theatre to see Dirty Rotten's replacement cast —including Mylinda Hull and Rachel York — Pryce woke up to a handful of rave reviews. In the new 2006 Tony category of replacement performer, Pryce may very well be recognized, adding a third Tony to his mantle. (For those keeping score, in addition to Miss Saigon, he also won Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1977, for Comedians).

Pryce spoke with Playbill.com in January, in the days leading up to his first performance. Playbill.com: I remember talking to director Jack O'Brien before Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opened in 2005 and he said one of the things he loved about it was that it's delicious, shameless burlesque.
Jonathan Pryce: Yes, it's all those things. That's why I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something which was sort of more openly, unashamedly comic and out front. A little more anarchic than a few of the things I've done recently.

Playbill.com: You can spill out into the audience more than you could when playing Henry Higgins…
JP: It's Higgins on speed, I think. It's a crazy version of My Fair Lady, which is what attracted me to it in the first place.

Playbill.com: How did the property come to your attention?
JP: It's almost 30 years [that John Lithgow and I] have been friends, ever since we did Comedians together [on Broadway]. He was the reason I saw [Dirty Rotten] in the first place. I was in town, and went to see John and we had dinner afterwards. He told me how much fun he was having doing it, how much he loved it. At the time, I had no thoughts about replacing John. I just remember having a very good night in the theatre. A few months later they asked me if I'd want to replace John. The first thing I thought is, I had to see it again — with different eyes, see it not just enjoying John's performance but looking at myself there. And especially looking at [co-star] Norbert [Leo Butz] and looking at the way he worked and thinking I could have a lot of fun working with him. Which is turning out to be the case [laughs] — maybe too much fun at the moment.

Playbill.com: In the range of musical roles you've done, is Henry Higgins the "Everest"? The most draining?
JP: It was a journey getting there through Saigon and Oliver!My Fair Lady is always regarded as the perfect musical, the great mix of the book and the music.

Playbill.com: Oliver!, I imagine, was the most physical role for you — Fagin scrambles around a lot.
JP: Yeah, but not as much as I move with Lawrence in Scoundrels. I took this and thought this was going to be an easy job — I completely misremembered it! This guy moves a lot, and there's a lot of dancing. The "Schüffhausen" scene is very physical.

Playbill.com: You have to beat Norbert Leo Butz with a stick in that scene. It's an upper body workout. Have you ever thwacked anyone with a stick?
JP: I've never been paid for it. It's always been for pleasure.

Playbill.com: As a young actor did you think you would be doing musical theatre?
JP: Never like this, no. Saigon was my first after however many years of [classics]. The theatre I started with in Liverpool was what you'd describe as a "rough theatre" — a political theatre that had a very out-front style. Lots of shows we did had music within; we'd have a rock band on stage. Everybody at some point would be singing or dancing or doing Shakespeare; it was a great mix. It was a very anarchic style of theatre, which made everyone in that company, hopefully, quite fearless — so they could approach any style of theatre. And it certainly paid off when you came to do musical theatre.

Playbill.com: What was your exposure to theatre, as a kid?
JP: Nil. I came from a small town in north Wales. [I was raised in] what we describe as shopkeeper class. My father owned a small grocery shop. There was no theatre to go and see; you'd have to travel to a city or a big town to see something. I'd always loved television, and musical films. I remember dueting with my sister on some Donald O'Connor and Ethel Merman song — "I Hear Singing," that one. So I'd always enjoyed performance when I was little, but it was never my ambition to work in the theatre. I trained in art for a number of years.

Playbill.com: Is there any chance you may take Dirty Rotten to London?
JP: I haven't thought about it. I've heard they want to do it in London.

Playbill.com: Your work in the film "Brazil" is being rediscovered in DVD release. Someone needs to write "Brazil — The Musical" for you.
JP: Yes, that's possible, yeah.

Playbill.com: Really!?
JP: [Laughs.] No! I’d be playing my own father now! The great thing about the film is that it keeps being shown and it's hugely popular with young audiences. It keeps finding a new audience. It's extraordinary to keep getting recognized for a role which I played over 20 years ago.

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