THE LEADING MEN: Gaines and Gunn

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Gaines and Gunn
 
Chats with Gypsy's Herbie, Boyd Gaines; and Camelot's Lancelot, Nathan Gunn.
Boyd Gaines
Boyd Gaines Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Mad About the Boyd
Boyd Gaines is currently offering a masterful Herbie opposite Patti LuPone's Mama Rose in Gypsy, and he just received a Drama Desk Award nomination for his portrayal of Herbie, which builds from a quiet frustration to an emotional explosion toward the middle of the musical's second act. Gaines and awards are no strangers. He won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play last year for Journey's End, and collected Tonys in 2000, 1994 and 1989 for his work in Contact, She Loves Me and The Heidi Chronicles, respectively. Gaines, who grew up northeast of Atlanta, got his start onstage singing with his white-soul garage band, Soul Service (sorry, no recorded evidence). He attended Juilliard and later gained fame as Valerie Bertinelli's dentist-husband on "One Day at a Time" before becoming a fixture of the stage (and award ceremonies).

Question: Congratulations on your Drama Desk nomination. How is Gypsy going?
Boyd Gaines: It's going well. Everybody was sick, and we're finally getting over that. Laura [Benanti] actually had pneumonia.

Q: Oh no! That makes me curious: Gypsy follows the story of a familial showbiz troupe. Does that sort of togetherness rub off on the cast?
Gaines: Absolutely. It's true of most shows. Some casts, there is more of a feeling of family. We haven't been running that long, but the fact that we did it before [at City Center last year] gives us a feeling of closeness. It tends to happen more often in a show that is doing well and is good, quite frankly.

Q: I guess it's a romantic notion that stage families become like second families offstage.
Gaines: The intimacy of the relationships in the show does add to a sense of intimacy between people. If the characters are close, it lends a feeling of being close as well. Although I did Twelve Angry Men, and we yelled and screamed at each other, that group of guys couldn't have been any closer [offstage]. There seems to be a very close bond between Patti and Laura. I feel like the three of us are very close, although it's not like we socialize. Everybody's too tired! The feeling at work though is one of being very close. Sometimes the relationships are carried on. There is a paternal or avuncular feeling about all these kids in the cast. You wonder how they're doing, make sure that they're happy and well.

Q: If you're a decent person, you'd likely feel the same way if you were playing an abusive, terrible guy as well.
Gaines: That's absolutely true. I have a cross moment with Jimmy Bracchitta who plays Pastey, but I have known him for years, and I adore him. Q: When you did the marvelous Encores! run last year, was it always in the air that the show would come to Broadway?
Gaines: There certainly was talk by the end, just because there was so much heat about Patti in the show. Everyone was hopeful. I personally don't like to count chickens, so really, when I went into it, I wasn't looking ahead in any way, but by the end of it, there was talk. Then everyone hoped it would happen.

Boyd Gaines in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: What was the sequence of events?
Gaines: There was all kinds of talk. There was talk about London first. There was talk about it going quickly to Broadway. Laura wasn't available. She was on a TV show, and I had committed to Pygmalion long before. I secretly hoped they'd wait, which ended up happening. Q: How did you first approach the character of Herbie?
Gaines: They first approached me about the possibility, I read it, and of course I greatly admired the piece, and I had done a one-night gala performance with Patti and Howard McGillin reprising their roles in Anything Goes at Lincoln Center. Anthony Heald wasn't available at the time. I think he was shooting "Boston Public," so they asked me to do Lord Evelyn, and I had such a hilarious time with Patti that I was immediately interested in working with her again, but I wasn't sure about Herbie. Frankly, I didn't think I'd be any good. So a meeting was arranged with me and Arthur Laurents, and he explained what he thought Herbie's journey was, and I felt like, "Okay, that's something I could do." The evening is so much about him falling in love with this woman and wanting to have a family and sticking with her, and the great fun is getting to play with Patti and Laura. They are both so playful and so good, it's really enjoyable.

Q: Herbie is such a patient, enduring character, very put-upon at times.
Gaines: Herbie's a character who doesn't get what he wants. But the final scene provides a kind of catharsis, and yes it's genuinely painful to go through. But still there is great pleasure to be had because it is very nicely written. Rose and he have a great relationship. I would love to be a fly on the wall for the offstage things. I think they have great sexual chemistry.

Q: Is working with Patti LuPone all one might imagine? Are there times you just stand offstage and marvel?
Gaines: That's true of every single one of us in the cast. We often gather in the wings just to watch "Rose's Turn" at the end. You should see those little kids with their jaws wide open. Hardly a show goes by where we don't marvel. She's a force of nature. She's so fearless [laughs], she's capable of taking your breath away.

Q: And bringing it at that same level every night—
Gaines: I mean, she was really sick a few weeks ago, and I had friends come to the show, and I said, "Patti's actually not feeling very well." And they go, "You're kidding! [laughs] How could anyone possibly do what she just did and be sick?" She doesn't leave anything in the dressing room.

Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: What gave you your start in acting?
Gaines: Well, I'm so old now, I can hardly remember. I played in rock bands in high school. I don't know anyone my age who didn't. The summer before my senior year in high school we moved from Atlanta to California. We moved all the time, so the peripatetic life of an actor I was prepared for. I hadn't had any drama classes when I lived in the South, so I took one and was cast in a couple plays and I thought, "I kind of like this." I didn't get into any drama schools, but I did get into a little rep company in Santa Maria, California, which is the town known recently because that's where the Michael Jackson trial was. But this was called the PCPA, the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, a bloated title for a small place, but it had two theatres, and I did more than 30 productions while I was there. I worked with Robin Williams there, Harry Groener, Daniel Davis, a lot of great people. They had a big rep in the summer. Question: And then you were an overnight success!
Gaines: [Laughs.] Then it took me eight years of training to get out of Juilliard. My great luck was that I worked. I was able to start working immediately, then a steady slog after that.

Q: Including your stint on "One Day at a Time"?
Gaines: Yes, I did that really early. That was two- and-a-half seasons, and that was great. It was a very popular show. If you've been doing theatre, you quickly discover the difference between the amount of people who see theatre and the enormous amount who see television shows.

Q: NBC was having different sitcom cast reunions a few weeks ago, but no Mark the Dentist at the "One Day at a Time" gathering. Do you ever get invited to those?
Gaines: There was one where they were doing interviews in L.A., but I was in a show here, so I couldn't get out, and that's happened a couple of times, but I think I came onto the show so late that I don't think they cared [laughs].

Q: As a veteran winner of some prestigious awards, give us your awards philosophy.
Gaines: It all falls into the category of things beyond your control. You don't nominate yourself, and you certainly don't cause yourself to win. The only thing you can do is nod your head, say "thank you" and do your work. Other than that, they are a wonderful honor, and you much appreciate them. If you ask anyone, you'd rather be nominated, and you'd rather win, but most of the time, neither of those things is going to happen. If you live by them, you'll die by them, and I think the best thing to do is do your work as well as you are able to, and the rest takes care of itself.

[Gypsy is playing the St. James Theatre at 246 West 44th Street. Tickets, priced $42-$117, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]

Nathan Gunn
photo by Bill Phelps

Camelot Gets Its Gunn
Read about opera sensation Nathan Gunn on the internet, and you are as liable to read about his washboard abs as his dynamic baritone. His casting as larger- and louder-than-life Lancelot in the NY Philharmonic's upcoming production of Camelot seems a no-brainer. Alas, potential Gueneveres, Gunn has already found his queen, his pianist wife Julie, who accompanied him at a recent recital at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. The couple has five kids ranging in age from 6 to 13, and Nathan was recently able to elicit a huge cheer from them over the phone when he announced that yes, they would be getting a dog. You'll be able to see what cheers Gunn elicits from an audience yourself, as the star-studded Camelot will be televised on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" series on May 8. Question: Lots going on for you lately. Has it been hectic?
Nathan Gunn: You could say that, pretty hectic. But good! The projects I've been doing have all been really enjoyable. Mostly it's a matter of finding the time to make sure everything is prepared and ready to go. The recital at Zankel was great. I just got back from Boston where I debuted a piece by John Harbison, his Fifth Symphony, which is going to become a standard. It is absolutely terrific.

Q: I caught your recital at Zankel Hall, which had some unique touches with graphics and modern dance added to the mix.
Gunn: Yeah, there are a couple things I'd like to fix because it's a whole new way of doing a recital. I might add more to the program notes about what I'm trying to do. So often, tradition gets in the way of communicating. Moving [recital convention] into the twenty-first century and having all those senses drawn into what's happening onstage can really take us out of the crazy modern world and into an artistic one for a little while.

Q: Having been known primarily for opera, is Camelot in any way a relief, something a little lighter?
Gunn: It is little bit lighter, but especially the old musicals like Camelot or Show Boat or Oklahoma! or Carousel… Things like that were written at a time when there wasn't such a divide between the American classical singers and vaudeville and all that stuff and musical theatre. You could get someone like John Charles Thomas, who was one of the great American baritones ever, who would do both, and I've always wanted to do some musicals, and it seems like now I'm getting more of a chance. Lancelot is a beautiful sing [laughs]. He gets great tunes. I was talking to [director] Lonny Price last week about how the stories of The Pearl Fishers, the Bizet opera, and Camelot are not that different. A king feels like he has been betrayed, and he has to choose. It's a love triangle. The men feel like they love the same woman, and they also love each other. The story is heavy in some ways, and has a lot of humor as well.

Q: Beautiful sing, indeed. Lancelot gets to balance the comic arrogance of "C'est Moi" with the beautiful ballad "If Ever I Would Leave You."
Gunn: I'd never seen the show. Ever. So I'm coming at this new. We're playing with the idea of giving Lancelot a little French accent that I think I'm going to make a little bit thicker at the beginning, and after he's there at Camelot for a few years, it starts to diminish a bit. Mostly because I think "C'est Moi" is hilarious if you think of the guy as actually being French. It's so French! With a bit of an accent, it's very funny. I don't know if anybody's ever done it like that or not. We might scrap the idea if it becomes too ridiculous [laughs]. The fights are going to be great, too. That's another fun aspect to it all.

Q: Of course, Robert Goulet made his career in the role. Musical theatre mavens are somewhat more accepting of change than opera lovers, but are you ready for comparisons?
Gunn: I'm pretty good at focusing on my job and what I'm meant to do. The way I try to get around that sort of thing is really by serving the piece. I focus on the words and try to bring what I have to bring. I'm very much okay with understanding that some people are going to want what I bring to a role and some people are not. You can't compromise what you choose to do and try to please everybody or you get a very generic performance. I won't do it like Robert Goulet, and that's okay. It's much like the recital [at Zankel]. There are some very conservative individuals who don't want to see things change. That makes them very uncomfortable. I can't satisfy those people, so I won't even try. With Lancelot, it'll be my interpretation, and hopefully it will be unique and still acceptable to die-hard musical theatre fans. Q: Has working on Camelot seemed foreign to an opera guy?
Gunn: What's really fun is that it is such a different process with musical theatre. We focus primarily on the book and the text and the dialogue, and in the world of opera it is almost flip-flopped — you focus almost entirely on the music, and the dialogue is given much less time.

Q: I heard it from the other side last month, from Richard Kind and Dan Reichard, who were going from lighter musicals to Candide.
Gunn: [Laughs.] That's right. In the world of opera, I forget that we use Italian so often just to describe musical terms. We'll say, "Here we'll have a ritardando at that point, and a slow crescendo here," and I was talking about the first song with Lonny, and I realized afterwards that I'm not sure if he knew what I was talking about at all [laughs]. So it's amusing and fun, but I'll enjoy.

Q: You mentioned John Charles Thomas, who could do pop, religious, show music... Is your goal to be sort of a modern version of him?
Gunn: He's certainly a big influence. Also, my teacher was one. My teacher was old when I met him. His career was when radio was king — he primarily worked in Chicago and would sing on the "Carnation Breakfast Hour" and then go over to Orchestra Hall and do Haydn's "Creation" or something like that. It was really important to him that you be understood when you sing and that you sing in your own language a lot. So with him as a model, and people like Thomas, he did a lot of new music. A lot of what he sang at recital was written for him — an all-out complete approach to making music. There are some voices I just love. Bing Crosby was a beautiful singer. Guys like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, where they have this sense of rhythm and ability to tell a story that I've always admired. Robert Merrill, there was some recording of him that I heard at the very beginning and I thought, "My God, I didn't know people make such beautiful sounds!"

[Camelot will play Avery Fisher Hall May 7-8 at 7:30 PM, May 9 at 8 PM and May 10 at 2 and 8 PM. Tickets for Camelot, priced $65-$225, are available by visiting www.nyphil.org or by calling (212) 875-5656.]

Hither and Yon
Great piece on Playbill.com by Sheryl Flatow on Marni Nixon. Marni can also be heard soloing on fifties records by one of my favorite vocal ensembles, The Voices of Walter Schumann. Schumann is famous for creating the "Dragnet" theme and composing the music for the film "The Night of the Hunter," but if you ever get hold of those "Voices" LPs, ooh, that's gorgeous stuff… The Milk Can Theatre Company's The 5 Borough Plays features a musical among its five shorts dedicated to each of New York's components. Mike Steinmetz, Robert Tann and Chris Yonan are the men in 1600 Feet, a tuneful romantic battle dedicated to Brooklyn. Manhattan gets Bethany Larsen's Hot Corn Girls featuring monologue champ extraordinaire, Katie Northlich. The plays run May 3-18 at the Michael Weller Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street. Check out www.milkcantheatre.org for more info… What Seth Rudetsky modestly didn't mention in his column is just how nicely he and Brad Oscar transmogrified into the new Hope and Crosby at Jim Caruso's star-studded (Hello Lucy Arnaz! Hello Doug Wilson from "Trading Spaces"!) Cast Party last week. Not sure who would be Hope and who would be Crosby, but the story behind Stephen Cole and David Krane's The Road to Qatar is too outlandish not to make a great musical. Check out www.castpartynyc.com for more about Caruso's Birdland events… Cole, by the way, also co-wrote the bio of Ms. Nixon ("I Could Have Sung All Night") and the book for the Off-Broadway musical The Night of the Hunter. Sometimes it all just comes full circle. The spirit of Walter Schumann must be looking out for me. Until next time, enjoy the lusty month of May!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com

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