THE LEADING MEN: Chase, Gets and James

News   THE LEADING MEN: Chase, Gets and James
 
This month I was able to speak to the entire cast of a new Broadway musical: That would be Will Chase and Malcolm Gets of The Story of My Life. Not only that, but Shrek himself, aka Brian d'Arcy James, took time out from being made into an ogre to have a chat.
Will Chase
Will Chase

WHERE THERE'S A WILL. . .
Will Chase and Malcolm Gets aren't lifelong friends. They just play that relationship onstage in The Story of My Life, the story of a friendship that gets lost for a while. Chase plays Thomas, who leaves his small town and conquers the world as an author. Gets is Alvin, who stays and takes over his father's bookstore. Audiences who saw them at the Goodspeed Opera House production enjoyed the depth of their performances so much they were sure the actors had known each other since youth, just as in the show.

The two actors were both raised in the South — Chase in Kentucky, Gets in Florida. Both have formal musical training — Chase in percussion, Gets in piano. And both agree that Story is one of the most personally affecting shows they've ever worked on—and they've got stories to back that up. Chase debuted on Broadway as Chris in Miss Saigon, and more recently starred in High Fidelity.

Question: What will people love about this piece?
Will Chase: It's very theatrical. I know that sounds redundant, but there are a lot of Broadway shows that aren't terribly theatrical, or we've seen the film or read the book. The great thing about this is it's original, and it's just the two of us onstage. It's the sort of thing that can only happen in the theatre. Of course, I say that, and they'll probably try to make a movie out of it [laughs].

Q: Do you find that Story's story is one you relate to on a personal level?
Chase: Absolutely. A buddy of mine, we grew up in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and I went away to college and moved to Chicago to start acting, then moved to New York, and he stayed back in Frankfurt, then we lost touch. Recently we got back in touch, and I think it is primarily because of this show. That's the interesting thing about this show. Even though it is two guys, we all have those friends that we lose touch with, not that it is malicious, but so many years go by, like with me and my buddy, that I was almost embarrassed. Once you make that first phone call, it's like, "Oh yeah. This is my best friend. I should have called you three years ago." So this is a piece I connected with really easily.

Q: Is there a lot of pressure being half of your entire cast?
Chase: It's a little daunting, but by the same token it was great to do it at Goodspeed to find out what we're made of. I mean, Malcolm and I are on the stage for an hour and a half, but I look across that stage and I see Malcolm, and I know that I could literally come out and fall over and Malcolm would make me look good. In what I'd call a "normal" show, you do a scene and it may be intense, but you get to go offstage and recompose yourself and get a drink of water or some throat-spray or think about the next scene. In this one, we are pretty much on stage the entire time. Q: So you have to have a lot of faith in your co-star.
Chase: Malcolm's one of the most open, generous people I've ever met. It is really comfortable to be onstage with somebody like that. I was cast first, and we were figuring out who was going to play Alvin. We'd done the High Fidelity reading and a couple of auditions together and had some lovely conversations, and it was like a no-brainer. He embodied the spirit of the whole piece.

Q: Do you find your similar backgrounds helped?
Chase: Yes, we both have musical backgrounds, which is nice. This is not the easiest score in the world to learn. Being musicians, we both got it on a musical level that sometimes people who don't read music don't get immediately. We just did a gig at a group sales event, and he sang the song from the show, "Mrs. Remington," and I sang "The Butterfly." This gentleman in the audience commented, "It looks like you've been friends for years," and I thought, how the hell did you get that from just this ten-minute thing? But I guess it exudes from us, which is half the battle, and I don't think either of us is working terribly hard at it.

Malcolm Gets with Will Chase
photo by Aaron Epstein

Q: That's that chemistry thing folks talk about.
Chase: Yeah, and I always thought that had to be manufactured. I found over the years that if you are a decent person to work with, then half of that is taken care of, but Malcolm and I definitely have that X-factor chemistry. Q:How did you originally get into theatre?
Chase: I fell into it. I was studying percussion and conducting at Oberlin. I'd done some theatre in high school and I grew up singing, but I never thought I wanted to do it as a career, but enough people at the school were like, "You should think about doing it." And I thought the business was so scary and how the hell do you deal with the unemployment and the auditioning part of it? I did one summer of summer stock, and I no longer cared about the unemployment and auditioning. I moved to Chicago, was fortunate enough to work right away. The other day, I was speaking to a master's class at my fiancé's old school, and I told the kids, "If it's something where you wake up and go 'I need to act,' then you have to deal with the rejection and the unemployment and all that." I didn't set out to do it. And I find a lot of actors who didn't are more passionate than the people who signed up to do it right away.

Q: Did you ever get discouraged? Your last couple Broadway shows didn't turn out to be blockbusters.
Chase: What do you mean? Those were huge hits! [Laughs.] Every actor is lying if they say they don't pour their soul into a show, even if you know it's a piece of crap. In those two cases, Lennon and High Fidelity, I would have never done the pieces if I thought they were crappy. You never know what the reception is going to be with a piece, you don't know the mood of a Broadway season. When a show closes, it is discouraging [because] you just want to still be able to play [that part]. At the end of the day, the reason I got into this is to get onstage and play a character, so you go through all this work on a character in what you think is a good show and it closes so quickly. The toughest part is, you don't get to play that character anymore. High Fidelity, I loved getting to play that character. I loved it. And I got to play it for a week and a half! [Laughs.] There's also the discouragement of unemployment and all that stuff, but you're in the wrong business if that holds you back. I'd love to be in a long-running show, and I'd love it to be something like The Story of My Life, because it is a piece that I think can actually change people.

Q: You got to be in the final Rent performance, soon to be out on DVD. Was that emotionally charged?
Chase: Yes. I was there the last three or four months of the run, and it was at a fever pitch the whole time. And luckily we were shooting, which kept my true emotions from coming through where I didn't want them to. I didn't want it to be, "Aww, Will's sad, singing 'One Song Glory.'" I'd rather it be "Wow, Roger's really f'd up!" So it was nice that they were shooting, it kind of took the onus off of us, focused us on doing the show as opposed to 13 sad people moping around the stage.

Q: I have to ask you about Miss Saigon
Chase: That show took up, all in all, four or five years of my life, doing the tour and on Broadway. In your head, you're like, "The Vietnam War is way past." But we had veterans come to the show and talk about, "You really captured that great." Here's one great story: We were doing the show… I was coming offstage between shows, and this woman stopped me and said, "I didn't want to interrupt you, but I just wanted to tell you that you depicted the helicopter getting off the roof so well. I was on that final helicopter." She said her mother had married a guy that worked at the Embassy and she got out. You forget that what you do really touches and moves people. It's not brain surgery, but it's important. It allowed that woman to have that moment, and that can only happen in theatre, which is why I love theatre.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS


Malcolm Gets

The other half of Story is Malcolm Gets. Ever memorable as irascible Richard on TV's "Caroline in the City," Gets is happy to be playing the antithesis of that character in this show. His last stint on Broadway netted him a Tony nomination for his role in Amour. Q: How are you feeling as Story gears up for Broadway?
Gets: This is the most connected I've felt to a part or a project in a long time. It's a hugely personal show, and I think that's why it is so moving to audiences. Even though it is a show about two male best friends, a number of women went out of their way to say they identified, that it was written in such a universal way that it reminded them of their best friends. It's the kind of show that working on it, and, I imagine, seeing it, you can't help but reflect on the choices you made and the friendships you've had.

Q: In what way do you personally relate to this material?
Gets: I ended up reconnecting with my childhood best friend, a man who was my best friend from like 9 to 13, [but] by the time we went to college, we lost touch. Halfway through the run in Connecticut, I found him, he was living in Florida where we grew up. And I went down for Thanksgiving and we hung out for a few days. It's that kind of piece.

Q: Was it a powerful experience, meeting up again with your old friend?
Gets: Yes, and I think it was most enlightening for my partner, who I have been with for ten years and is such an integral part of my family. . . . I have to admit, at first I was embarrassed, because my friend, whose name is Clyde, had no reservations about immediately hauling out memories of the things we used to do when we were 9, 10, 11 years old, all of which were wonderful things. Like Clyde had a marionette theatre, and we used to put on these elaborate puppet shows that were inspired by that scene in The Sound of Music. Clyde just started hauling out those memories, and…there was a part of me that felt because it had been so long ago, the memories seemed so, for lack of a better description, childish. But my partner was laughing and laughing. My real name is Hugh, and they called me "Hughie," till I was in the fourth grade, and by that time I wanted nothing to do with that, so I started going by my middle name, which is Malcolm. Clyde really only knows me as Hughie and that sort of helped me make peace with who I was, and that is so much what the show is about: reconnecting with who we were as kids before life intervened and took us off course, getting back to who we were meant to be in the first place.

Will Chase with Malcolm Gets
photo by Aaron Epstein

Q: What can you tell us about your co-star?
Gets: He's the most amazing, open human being. At the callbacks, he was already cast, and at my callback they had me do the scenes with Will, and we did this pivotal scene where the two characters have a falling out — beautifully written — and when we were through, Will put his arm around me, and in front of the entire room, he goes, "That was fantastic." You know, they say that chemistry between two actors you can't rehearse it, it's just there, and there is some strange bond between Will and I. Q: It has to be great when you have such a bond with your co-star and the material.
Gets: I was talking to a friend recently, and I said, "This is what I went to school for." I have this very, what I call my "carnival past." I was a classical pianist, and then I was a dancer. I was dancing with the Rockettes when I got accepted to Yale, and four three or for years I tried to pretend that I didn't have any musical abilities. I've bounced all around this profession, and this show draws on all of that.

Q: What is Richard Maltby, your director, like?
Gets: I really love working with Richard because he's a writer. He's so good with Neil [Bartram, music/lyrics] and Brian Hill [book]. So patient with them. He was so nurturing. Encouraging them to write their show, not Richard Maltby's show. He guided them with a gentle hand, and I think he was the same way with us, he encouraged Will and I to play as much as possible. I call Richard the Papa Bear. He has that level of warmth.

Q: You did Merrily We Roll Along. This show sounds like it explores similar emotional territory.
Gets: I have thought that very thought myself many times. They're both, in a way, cautionary tales (my term). Stories about friendship over long periods of time where you see how people can derail or get lost. Of course, Merrily goes backwards, but there is that similarity, and Merrily was a show I felt as strongly connected to as I do to this. In Merrily, I was playing the person who'd lost my way. Happily, in this show, I play the person who stays on the beam. I am the person that helps the lost person find his way back, which I'm grateful for, because I've played a lot of angst-y guys earlier in my career.

Q: Most famously, Richard on "Caroline in the City."
Gets: I loved that character because I could be in the worst mood, I could have the worst day possible, and it just made the character better. And I have to say Alvin is the antithesis to Richard. But it's funny that you mention that. Just when I think the character has gone away... For instance, yesterday we were in the group sales meeting, and they were bringing people groups in and out of the room to meet us. And the first groups they would say, "Oh, I enjoyed you in Amour." "I enjoyed you in A New Brain." Then here comes this woman, she goes, "You're that guy from 'Caroline in the City!'" I was like, "Yes, I am." Plus I recently went on vacation to South Florida. Man oh man! I was famous in Fort Lauderdale, to the point where it sort of shocks me. I'll go to a gym to work out and people will come over and say, "Are you the guy from 'Caroline in the City?'" God love television and syndication. It lives on and on. I'm very grateful for that experience. I loved that time. I loved that cast. We've all stayed in touch.

Q: I have known so many people who were just in love with A New Brain.
Gets: Isn't it funny? Because, boy, we only did it for a few months. At the beginning of this interview when I said this was the most connected I've been to a piece in years, honestly, the last piece that I felt this passionate about was A New Brain. That piece was an extraordinary chapter of my life because I worked on that for two-and-a-half years. Boy, I loved that show, and god bless CDs for being out there, because, obviously, not a lot of people got to see the show, but people still listen to it and love it, and I can't tell you how many times I meet young people who come up to me in K-Mart in St. Augustine, Florida, and say, "I played Gordo in Cincinnati." And I directed a cabaret at Williamstown a couple years ago, and the kids, they wanted to do a number from Brain. God, I love that show. I love William Finn. I'm just finishing my solo CD, which will be out in March, and we recorded a song that was in A New Brain for the previews and was cut, but was used in Elegies. It's called "Anytime." It's a perfect song.

Q: You are also in the new HBO movie, "Grey Gardens." Sounds like this will be a big year for you.
Gets: Yes, I got to kiss Jessica Lange, which was great. It's so funny, it just seemed to kind of creep up that way. I'm in a good place. What can you do? You keep doing your work, and then there are places where it all seems to happen at the same time. I just feel very fortunate to be a working actor. I'm all into '09 being a great year!

[The Story of My Life begins previews Feb. 3 at the Booth Theatre. It opens on Feb. 19. The Booth is located at 222 West 45th Street. Go to thestoryofmylife.com for ticket information.]

Brian d'Arcy James

JAMES AND THE GIANT OGRE
Brian d'Arcy James is one of the nicest guys on Broadway, so you'd never describe him as an ogre. But through his acting chops and a whole ton of makeup and costume magic, he is transformed nightly into the world's most famous ogre, Shrek. Question: Are you having fun as Shrek?
Brian d'Arcy James: I've been having a ton of fun since this thing began. If you're familiar with the movie, you can imagine what it would take to create a similar spirit. There's so much humor in this that it is not uncommon for us to be cracking up at any given moment.

Q: How did you approach the role of Shrek since it is by now iconic?
James: I didn't spend too much time studying the films. I only looked at "Shrek the Third" for about ten minutes before the audition to remind myself of the rhythms, get a ballpark of what they might expect. After getting the part, I haven't gone back to the movies. The other thing is, by virtue of re-imagining the story in a musical context, you go to great length to find your own way and your own character, because by definition, it is going to be different. For me it was important to stay true to what David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori had written as opposed to the road map the movie provided.

Q: What is it like to play a character beloved by children?
James: I can tell you that I've never had the experience of wearing the mantel of an iconic figure, and that is something that is very powerful. I feel a great sense of responsibility in terms of honoring what people expect. The silhouette alone of the character is in our culture. It is part of our DNA. That's everybody, kids and adults. But children are drawn to the character in a great way. On the face of it, you'd think he'd be a little off-putting, in terms of a big, smelly, loud ogre, but it is magnetic for children. The best representation of that came in Seattle when we had a snafu with the set and we had to wait to fix it, so I went out in my costume and took some questions along with the director, Jason Moore, and Jason allowed all the kids to come up, and they just flocked to the edge of the stage to get a closer look at this ogre. The make-up is so tremendous and the transformation so complete that you can really sense that magic and belief. I don't get a true sense of it after the show, because the few faithful that do wait 45 minutes see me after the makeup is removed. I always wonder what a kid thinks when I walk out and a parent says, "That's Shrek." And I look nothing like Shrek.

Q: You have a seven-year old daughter. How did she take to seeing you as an ogre?
James: I will say, definitely when she first saw me, it was a little breathtaking. I have to admit, I felt that when I first saw myself in the costume and the make-up, so I can't imagine what was going on in her head. She didn't know what to expect, but once we crossed that bridge it was no problem.

Brian d'Arcy James as Shrek
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: I always wondered what one does for 90 minutes while makeup is being applied. Is it just like getting a lengthy haircut every day?
James: I listen to music. We have a TV, so on Sundays I watch football, which is a good passage of time. There are moments when I have to participate in the process, and can't completely "check out" till after a certain point. Sometimes then I do doze off a bit. It's really not as bad as you might think it is. It's quite easy, to be honest. All I have to do is sit there. It is a good time to have some time to sit still and gather my forces before the show. Q: Do you ever look in he mirror and say, "I never imagined this for myself back in college."
James: It's definitely the furthest thing from anything I imagined I'd be doing in the theatre, but because the transformation is so incredible and because people are responding so positively, it makes it completely worthwhile.

Q: How do you like working with the lovely Sutton Foster?
James: I love it! I've worked with her a couple times in brief readings here and there, and socially a little bit, but this is the first time I ever got to really work with her, and she is a phenomenal talent, a wonderful person, a leader of the company. I can't say enough good things about her.

Q: In an old "Leading Man" column, when you were doing Sweet Smell of Success, Wayman Wong asked you about doing a comedy for a change. Now you've had a string of comedic roles.
James: I have. I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Apple Tree was kind of a different flavor of comedy, and this as well. The Lieutenant of Inishmore definitely was a comedy, but a little more on the dark side [laughs]. This by far is the most unabashedly comedic thing. Although it's kind of an interesting line to walk for Shrek because he has to have his own comedy pulse, but he is also the straight man. He doesn't get to be the cut-up like Donkey and Farquaad.

Q: I saw the film "Ghost Town" recently and I knew you were in it, but I watched the whole thing without recognizing you as the hit man.
James: I'll take that as a compliment [laughs]. I joke that I was probably more in the trailer than I was in the actual film.

Q: Was it fun to work on?
James:It was fantastic. It was my first feature film. It was shot across the street from where I live, but the best thing about it was Ricky Gervais and my complete adoration for that guy. My first scene was with him and Tea Leoni.

Q: I also found YouTube footage of you singing a Chinese menu…
James: [Laughs.] That's the genius of Dan Lipton and Dave Rossmer. That, of course, is from their revue Don't Quit Your Night Job. I have had so many responses from that.

Q: You are a Michigander. Do you still have the spirit of Michigan in your heart?
James: [Laughs.] Do you work for the Chamber of Commerce? The truth is, I actually do! There's a lot of Michigan folks who are actors. I absolutely love Michigan. We have a cottage we go to in northern Michigan every summer, and the older I get, the more I realize if I can't get there, it is really a depletion for me. I dream about it when I'm stressed out. It is my Shangri-la. I had a happy childhood growing up in Saginaw, Michigan. I wrote a song about Michigan about four or five years ago called "Michigan Christmas." A lot of people have been responding to it very positively. My grandfather was the governor of Michigan in the forties. I have a lot of concern and compassion for the state itself. It's really on its knees with this economic downturn. It's got a lot of re-imagining to do for itself.

Q: I talked to your old White Christmas buddy Jeff Denman a couple months back. You guys are known as sort of the "Bad Boys of Broadway."
James: [Laughs.] Yeah, the bad boys of all those Irving Berlin shows! I'll take this opportunity to praise him. I'm convinced he's found his new niche as a director with these videos he's been doing. I was so happy about White Christmas finally coming to New York and Jeffry doing it. He can do it all. He's quite extraordinary.

Q: So you have been working steadily for the past few years. Do you feel comfortable at this stage of your career?
James: Really, the only thing you have going on is the thing you're doing. You really only have the comfort of the show that you're in. In that sense, I feel happy. "Comfortable" is not the right word, because the show always ends. Lately it's been great, but there's a lot of stuff from before that makes me realize, "Hey, don't put it on cruise control just yet."

[Tickets for Shrek the Musical at the Broadway Theatre are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com. Visit www.shrekthemusical.com for more information.]

HITHER AND YON
The esteemed St. Bart's Players are paying tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein with their revue, Some Enchanted Evening Feb. 27-March 8 at the St. Bart's Playhouse on the corner of Park Avenue and 50th Street. Scott Kerstetter, Brett Lowell, Brien Milesi and Robbie York make up the male side of the cast. Call (212) 378-0248 to order tickets. . . . Johnny Mercer fans can get their fix at the Oak Room throughout February as singer/pianist Tony DeSare plays a show celebrating Mercer Feb. 3-21. The Oak Room is in the historic Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street. Call (212) 419-9331 for info. . . . Symphony Space is always a fun place to see a show. On Feb. 23 John Treacy Egan (Little Mermaid) and Gregg Edelman (Into the Woods, Passion) will be onstage there as Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum's new musical, Einstein's Dreams, will be performed in a benefit concert for the Harpswell Foundation. Tix can be reserved by calling (212) 864-5400 or going to symphonyspace.org. . . . Speaking of fun places to see a show, I must take time here to lament the loss of the Zipper Factory, as chronicled on this site and elsewhere. One of my favorite venues, very Broadway-friendly, quirky programming, and a great interior with cheap brews. I wish the best to the staff and the performers who were affected by the sudden shutdown…Vinyl find of the month: Tony Perkins' "On a Rainy Afternoon."

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.

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