THE GRINCH SPEAKS
"Greatest day ever." That's what Patrick Page said it was when I reached him for what I thought was going to be a chat about how frustrating it is being offstage during the strike. Minutes earlier, he had gotten the news that the State Supreme Court had ruled in favor of The Grinch producers, and the show was back on. He gave us a first-hand account of what an actor goes through during a labor dispute as well as what an actor goes through covered in a green fur suit.
Question: Give me a glimpse of what it had been like during the holding pattern days of the strike.
Patrick Page: It was an incredible roller coaster for us because the threat of the strike had been looming for so long, and we had not known from day to day whether or not we were going to open. We thought, "Will we do our final preview? Will we do our opening night?" Both times, we got by, there was no strike. We opened. We had a fantastic opening-night party. We wake up the next morning to across-the-board wonderful reviews, and then we go to the theatre, and we find out the strike has started, and we can't get in the theatre because there's a picket line. Of course, we were devastated. The other thing is, since we were the very first show struck — we had an 11AM matinee that day — we were the ones that were actually greeting the audience and giving them the news for the first time and trying to cheer them up, so that was a very emotional day. And, every news camera in the world was there, which also made it very stressful. We then began trying to convince Actor's Equity and Local One that Grinch producers did, in fact, have a separate agreement with the Local One, and the Local One should take down the picket line in front of The Grinch. That was ongoing, a week of back-and-forth — then they went into their negotiations with the League of American Theatres and Producers. The Local One said they would take the picket line down in front of the theatre because it's a limited run, and [they] know this would devastate [our] show. We thought, great, we're going to get to do our show. At that point, we found out, not so fast, the theatre owners are going to lock us out of the theatre. That's when the producers of our show filed an injunction.
Q: Was it tough as far as making plans to do anything or be anywhere while the dispute went on?
Page: Sure. I'd been planning on being onstage.
Q: Did you imagine that you would have this much drama doing The Grinch this time around?
Page:[Laughs.] I had no idea. It's a cliché, but clichés are clichés because sometimes they perfectly describe the situation: It was a roller-coaster ride.
Q: It is interesting that you were not passive but quite active in the cause of getting the show up again — not just sitting back, waiting for a phone call.
Page: Actors can do a lot when they give their voices because we're the ones that have the ability to speak to the public most frequently. And, in this case we also have the ability to speak to our union members. As a representative for the show, I'm able to speak directly to our executive director of Actor's Equity, and make the case that Equity ought to support us and ought to petition the Local One to take down their picket line, and he was extraordinarily helpful with that. That's something that as a member of the union and the most visible member of the cast, I can go to my union and say, "Look here's our case, help us out with this." And that's something that maybe somebody else wouldn't be able to do, so I did do what I can do, and you have these incredible people in all the other departments doing what they can do. Q: There was that powerful image in the newspaper of Cindy Lou Who crying when she saw she would not be performing.
Page: Yeah, it was very hard for both the kids in our show and for the kids who were in the audience and got turned away. I was there in the theatre comforting a lot of crying kids. The adults can talk about the labor disputes and the contracts and all those kind of things, but when you're six years old and you've shown up at the theatre and you've driven three hours that morning to come see a show in New York City, it's pretty hard to explain to them why it isn't on.
Q: Good that it's back, though.
Page: It's great that it's back, and what is so peculiar and wonderful is that it's very hard to find the villains and heroes in [the strike] situation — just like in our show, the title character is both the hero and the villain. In this case, you have a lot of people talking about how they are going to keep Broadway viable, and I think everybody thinks they are doing the right thing. But I am so grateful to the Local One for their support of our show and for taking down the picket line.
Q: Let's move on to the show itself. How much do you relish the role of the Grinch?
Page: It's the most wonderful role imaginable and especially this year because we're in the St. James Theatre. I was talking with Tim Mason, who wrote the book and lyrics, and to Mel Marvin, who wrote the music, and I was saying the thing about rehearsing The Grinch is it's very difficult because really your main acting partner is the audience. I have my great acting partner onstage, Rusty Ross, who plays Young Max. But the Grinch, until the very last scene is really dismissive of Max and uses him more as a sounding board than as a friend or a partner, and the Grinch has the one scene with the little girl. Other than that, he is essentially playing the audience. So it's very difficult to rehearse because your main acting partner isn't there. When we did the show last year and the audience came into the Hilton Theatre, to a certain extent they weren't there. Although I loved doing the show last year, the Hilton is so huge, and the audience is so distant from the stage, that the real back-and-forth play was not possible in the way it is this year in the St. James, where it is just a constant volley between me and the audience. I talk to them, they sometimes talk back to me. I run up the aisle, I scare them. I touch them. I come out of holes in the ground, so it's very interactive with the kids. I know from my own childhood experiences of being six years old and going to the theatre, those are the things you remember when you grow up and you're 40 years old: "The Grinch ran up the aisle and his sweat got on me." That's what you remember!
Q: Yes, at the show I saw, a kid made a comment to you during an otherwise quiet moment, and your reaction was priceless. That has to be fun, coming from a non-cynical audience member.
Page: Exactly right. Of course, the great thing is, in the St. James, I can hear them. For all I know, last year there were kids talking back, and I just couldn't hear them.
Q: What other differences are there between Grinch, year one and Grinch, year two?
Page: Jack O'Brien went back into it with all of the creative team, and they improved the storytelling. They added new songs. They did an enormous amount of work, which is very unusual for a show that last year was the highest-grossing show over the holidays. You'd think, "Well, that's great, let's leave it alone." But they didn't, they went back and they took a risk, and they made the show so much better.
Q: There's that sequence when you become sort of a wealthy Texan Grinch. I thought that I'd like to see a whole show featuring that character.
Page: That's right. That wasn't in the show last year. That's a lot of fun. I actually did a wonderful reading of a show written by Louis Flynn, who's a wonderful composer, and Flynn wrote the music for a show that at the time was called Democracy, but now I think it's called something else. I played a character based on LBJ that had a Texan accent like that.
Q: There's the old saw: Don't work with kids or animals. You get to do both, in a way. How has that been?
Page: I teach acting a lot. I teach privately and down in the graduate program at NYU and all over the country. One of the things that I talk about is why it is that kids and animals are so dangerous to work with onstage. It's because the audience won't look at anything else. Why won't they look at anything else? Because [children and animals] are alive and unpredictable. They are absolutely there in the space, for real, at that time. Therefore, you can't take your eyes off them. So it shouldn't be a bad thing to be onstage with a kid or a dog. As long as you're as alive and present as the child or dog, you'll be fine. It's only when you've got everything sort of fixed and planned and calcified that being onstage with a child or animal is a problem.
Q: Does it ever lead to scary moments onstage though, not just because of where the audience's attention is, but because a child can be unpredictable?
Page: If by scary you mean something exciting and good, yes. If it has any negative connotation, no. It's a mistake to try to get rid of the fear. You're going out into a situation, and although you've rehearsed it, the situation is live. It's the same with playing the audience. In the same way that the audience is unpredictable, the child is unpredictable. As long as you're there and ready to play off whatever she does, you'll be fine
Q: Obviously as the title character, you carry the show, but also, physically, you do a ton. Do you get a chance to breathe during the show?
Page: One of the things that they were doing this year in going back into the show is trying to find a couple more places for me to breathe. Once I go on, there are about six minutes when I'm not on. And, of course, I'm covered in a fur suit and a fur hat, make-up on my face and gloves. It's a challenge, but everybody — the costume designer, the costume shop, the make-up designer, the wig designer — has worked very hard to make sure that given the reality of the show, which is that I have to wear a fur suit, nevertheless, I will be as comfortable as anyone can be wearing a fur suit under hot lights. So we've done a lot of stuff. I have an amazing dresser, Danny Paul, who the one time I am able to go offstage for a few minutes, takes off my suit and puts ice packs under it. I wear an ice pack in my hat and two ice packs on my wrists. I sit in front of a huge fan for about 60 seconds when I go off and I have some time. It's an incredibly physically challenging part. Not only for me but for Rusty in his fur suit, for Ed Dixon who plays Old Max in a fur suit. But everybody's working as hard as possible to make it as comfortable as it can be.
Q: You have a lot of Shakespearean acting experience. How does that inform your take on the Grinch?
Page: It is enormously helpful to have performed a lot of classic parts, especially the bad guys like Richard III, Macbeth and Iago. We owe everything to Shakespeare. All of our storytelling ultimately goes back to Shakespeare. Before Shakespeare wrote Richard III — or, more specifically, the third part of Henry VI in which Richard III first appears — a character who was a bad person basically came out on stage and they were just evil and that was it. Then everything changed when Shakespeare came to town and the bad guy walked out on stage and said, "I am evil because... because my body is deformed, because I cannot fit in with the rest of the people. Therefore I am determined to prove a villain." It was that "therefore," that one word in the first speech in Richard III, that changed the history of drama in terms of, we as an audience want to know "Why?" So when you are playing a character like the Grinch, which is very sparely written, because it is Dr. Seuss verse on the page, having done all of those roles where you have to go, "Why does Macbeth do what he does, why does Iago do what he does?" I am able to fill in the blanks so that the Grinch can be genuinely frightening at the beginning, genuinely bad, and also we sense there's more going on so we buy it when he turns around, later on. So there is no question that playing Shakespeare informs everything I do.
Q: How much fun are you having now?
Page: Oh, I am having the time of my life. Believe it or not, I want back in that sweaty, nasty green fur suit.
[Dr. Seuss's The Grinch Who Stole Christmas plays the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street.]
Fascinated by the concept of Michael Feinstein's new "By Request" show he debuted Nov. 30 at his namesake club at Loews Regency, I went to the source for details. "By Request" will run through Dec. 29 at Feinstein's in tandem with his seasonal show, "Winter Dreams." The request show will put to the test cabaret's standard-bearer for standards and a guy who works harder than anyone to keep great music from disappearing down the rabbit hole.
Question: How is "By Request" going to work?
Michael Feinstein: I'm going to have cards that will be passed out to the audience, and people will be invited to write down three selections of things they would like to hear me do. And, while they are sitting there enjoying their dinner, I am going to be putting the set together made up totally of things that people have asked to hear, so it is in some ways high pressure, but I love the challenge, and I love the idea of doing a show that people have completely requested. Hopefully, it will fulfill every type of song, so I can put together the perfect set [laughs].
Q: Is your hope that the audience will come up with some songs that challenge you, some rarities?
Feinstein: I expect that they will, and I will do my best. The short answer is "yes." I love the challenge. You never know what's going to come from that. That's the exciting part. It may take me in a direction that hopefully will be pleasing for me and the audience, or I could go down in flames, too, but I'm willing to take that chance [laughs].
Q: But you're committed to it. You don't have a backup set, so you're like, "We didn't get anything good tonight, so I'm gonna do the ol' #27"?
Feinstein: I don't have a backup set, but I will have my book with me, and I can always say, "You wanna hear this? You wanna hear that?" But I really want to keep it honest. It's not going to be one of those pre-planned things like they do on TV where they call it "By Request," but everything's already planned. They just wait till someone shouts out what they want to play or they have a shill shouting it out. I won't be doing any of that!
Q: You figure in an audience of enough folks, there will be enough choices, especially if you're giving them three to write down.
Feinstein: Well, I'm banking on that [laughs]!
Q: Talk a little about "Winter Dreams." You've done similar shows to this before.
Feinstein: Every year, it is always a challenge to come up with a new holiday program. I always try to put together a show that will have interesting things, things that are unexpected, and to do familiar things in a new way, so there is a sense of freshness about the holidays. It is not always easy to do because, for one thing, people like to hear familiar things that they are accustomed to hearing, and one has to be very judicious in the way they dole out things that are not familiar. So for me, it is always the most difficult challenge to come up with a holiday show that has something fresh and will please the people who want to hear holiday fare and also the people who don't. That's one of the reasons I'm doing the "By Request" shows, the late shows. It's fascinating because the shows always take on their own form or life, if you will. And so this show, "Winter Dreams," I got to thinking about all the things that are created in the fall, all the different shows that opened on Broadway, musical shows that produced great standards, people who were born at this time of year and such, so it's something that turned out very nicely, I think. Q: What makes a perfect show for you as a performer?
Feinstein: Being in an intimate space, the most important thing is feeling connected to the audience. As any performer will tell you, whether it's Broadway or a club or the Hollywood Bowl, audiences are different every night. They've done research and found that some of it has to do with the weather and the position of the planets and the tides and all that. And, it also has to do with the day of the week, where if it is a Friday night, people sometimes are bone-tired. They just have gotten off of work, and they just made it to the club by the skin of their teeth, and sometimes people are gregarious for dinner and they have a few drinks and they kind of lose their energy. Saturdays can be fantastic, but they're all different, so the bottom line is, connecting with people. I discovered early on as a performer that because what I do is largely not staged, I have to be completely open and honest with the people, so they can relate to me. One of the mistakes that people make is they come from Broadway and they do a nightclub act for the first time, and they are too prepared. They are accustomed to saying the same thing every night and playing the same way. And, we've had a number of entertainers in the room who haven't totally successfully been able to make that transition because they're terrified of looking people in the face and just speaking for themselves, as opposed to hiding behind a character. That's not to criticize an actor or an actress, because God knows it's a fiendishly difficult thing at its best. It's just fascinating from my perspective because, for me, being in a club and doing concerts is one of the easiest things I do.
Q: It's important to be able to roll with the punches, too, in that setting because the audience is so close.
Feinstein: They're literally within arm's reach. It's a club where people want to have a good time. There is also alcohol served — that means that people could go over the edge sometimes. [Recently] there was a woman who was having the time of her life, she was putting her hands out and doing high-fives with me and talking and talking through the show. She didn't mean any harm, but she was disruptive, so I had to find a way to get on with the show, to pacify this woman, to get her to be quiet without being angry and upsetting the audience, and I did it. It was extraordinarily difficult, but I knew that I had to just keep the energy up. I just kind of joked with the lady, and I got her to settle down a little bit, and she'd say something, and I'd kind of acknowledge it, and I'd go on. I was never rude to her, and she felt good, and she calmed down, and the audience was able to relax. Now, I've seen performers that don't know how to handle people that are unruly. I guess the first thing for me is to determine what the motivation is. If they're a heckler or just a mean-spirited person, then you gotta get rid of them. But if they're out to have a good time, and they've just had a little bit too much to drink, I try to work with them and get them to calm down and gently let them know that they gotta get with the program. Inevitably, those will be the people who will fight their way backstage and say, "I'm the person you were talking to in the show!" Proud as all get-out [laughs].
Q: And you say, "Aww. No kidding!"
Feinstein: Exactly [laughs]. "You're the one I wanted to kill."
Q: I have an image in my mind of you as a kind of archaeologist of music, exploring the rarities and some of the undiscovered gems of the past. Is that fair?
Feinstein: Absolutely. It's one of my passions. It has been great to be able to bring songs to people that they embrace. In this show, for example, I'm doing a song called "The Steam is on the Beam," which is from a 1942 Broadway show called Beat the Band, which only ran for two months in the fall of '42. And it's so much fun to tell a little story about that song and to present it. It was written by a man I knew, Johnny Green, who wrote "Body and Soul" and "I Cover the Waterfront." He was a dear friend, and he died in 1989. It makes me feel so good inside to present something of Johnny's, to share with the audience the experience of discovery and also to present new songs from time to time. There is a new Christmas song written by Don Rebic, who is a great musician, and I heard him do it in a club in Brooklyn one night and I asked him for a copy. I'm doing it my show, and people come up to me and say, "Oh my God, what is that song?" So, that's wonderfully fulfilling for me.
Q: To that end, do you have any songwriters that you consider underrated?
Feinstein: There's a lot of them. Even the known composers have songs that deserve more attention. But people like Johnny Green, Ralph Ranger, Burton Lane, Willard Robeson, Arthur Schwartz…there are so many spectacular songwriters whose works are obscure. Or people may know a few songs by the great songwriters, but there's so much else of quality. If I mention Alan Jay Lerner, people think of My Fair Lady, but the scope of his work is much more than that. My Fair Lady would have been enough, but there's much more. So, for me, it's finding the opportunities to present the material in a way that's interesting and will draw the audience in.
Q: Can you talk about the Kay Thompson project you've been working on?
Feinstein: Yes. I was lucky enough to know Kay Thompson. It was mostly a telephonic relationship because she was quite reclusive, then later in her life, she moved in with her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, and Liza took care of her for the last several years of her time on earth, and I got to know Kay and adore her. She was as crazy as they come, but it was her craziness that was the genius that allowed her to create "Eloise" and this great body of musical works that is largely unknown to the public. Liza has always wanted to do something to celebrate and pay tribute to Kay and to present the great material that she did, and so Liza has been performing in her touring show a big chunk of a tribute to Kay, which she is developing into an individual show that she hopes to develop for Broadway and have filmed for television. She's asked me to produce the album of Kay's material.
Q: That's swell. Will she be doing the "Eloise" song Kay had a hit with?
Feinstein: No, I don't think she's planning on doing that song. Kay wrote a whole "Eloise" score that's hanging around someplace, but at this point, Liza's not doing any of that material. She's mainly doing material that Kay did with the Williams Brothers, starting around 1947. It's considered the greatest nightclub act of all time. People who have seen that act still talk about how it was so innovative and groundbreaking.
Q: That's Andy Williams and his brothers?
Feinstein: Yes. Andy Williams was one of the Williams brothers and was working in Hollywood doing a lot of session work at studios and met Kay at MGM, and the Williams Brothers became her guys for five or six years, and she wrote these fiendishly difficult choral arrangements, did all this extraordinary choreography, had these outfits that she called cat suits, and had them suspend the microphones from the ceiling so they could all work with their hands free, which nobody had ever done before in a club. It was absolutely sensational. And, it's gone. Nobody knows exactly what sets she performed. A lot of the music is lost. Talk about archaeology, this is a real labor of love to try and reconstruct what she did.
Q: A friend wanted me to ask if you have any memories of appearing on her favorite soap opera, "Santa Barbara," back in the day.
Feinstein: I do. It was around the time my album "Isn't it Romantic" came out, and I sang a song called "My Favorite Year," and it took place on a train where this character C.C. Capwell proposed to Sophia, and I was the music that he brought in to propose to her. I had never watched the show, but at the time, I got a lot of attention for being on that show and singing that song.
Q: I don't know if singers and songs are still given a boost via soap operas, but there definitely was a period where that was great exposure.
Feinstein: It was great. It was one of the things that helped get my face out there, so it was wonderful. That was, I think, literally 20 years ago, so time moves on.
["By Request" is offered 11 PM Friday and Saturday nights through Dec. 29. "Winter Dreams" is presented Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 PM. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or check out feinsteinsattheregency.com.]
HITHER AND YULE
A wise man once said, "Time moves on." It was actually Michael Feinstein just a couple lines above, but how true, how true. This column represents the end of my first year of work on "The Leading Men," and it has been an absolute blast so far. Look for another great year of interviews in 2008, but I do want to thank a few folks for making 2007 a wonderful ride. Thanks to Playbill.com's Andrew Ku, Andrew Gans and Ken Jones for shepherding my work and giving me the opportunity and ideas to boot. Thanks to all the great publicity folks out there who bent over backwards to get me in touch with a lot of wonderful names over this year. And, thanks to those wonderful names themselves. Sure, performers are on their best behavior for an interview, right? But you can go over the whole list of fellas I spoke to this past year, and to a man, they were generous with their time and info. I don't think there was one person who ended a discussion with me before I'd gotten to my last question, and that has certainly given me a lot of material with which to work. Of course, a huge thank you to Playbill.com's readers, the most intelligent folks on the net. Those who have given me feedback, it has been incredible, and if any of you have suggestions of people you'd love to see given the Leading Man treatment in 2008, by all means drop a line and let me know. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. Until next month, you will find me listening to the Kingston Trio's "Last Month of the Year" Christmas album—on vinyl of course.
Tom Nondorf can be reached at email@example.com