PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Davidson, of The Fantasticks, "The Happiest Millionaire" and More

By Robert Viagas
28 Jul 2012

John Davidson, Jeremiah James, Aaron Carter, Juliette Trafton, Scott Willis and Tom Flagg
photo by Monica Simoes

What's it like making your entrance in The Fantasticks "from out this box," a big prop box beside the stage?
JD: I hate that damn box. It's smaller than it was at Sullivan Street. It's made for a smaller Henry than I, and I'm scrinched in there with the Indian, and we have to get in and out three times during the show. Waiting for our cues is an interesting problem, but when I come up, I have to be ready to be Henry.

Still, that first moment of being Henry is my favorite moment in the show. The biggest thrill of appearing in this production is the thrill of being under lights again — the joy that every actor feels when he get his with that spotlight. Standing on that box in the spotlight and saying, "Sir, the players have arrived!" is still a thrill. I'm 70 now and just to have a job back in the theatre in New York is a thrill. To paraphrase Henry, there are no small theatres — only small actors. I also do love playing the fop in Act Two. Putting on the makeup and bamboozling this young kid. I imagine him as a bright-eyed young John Davidson — naive and not street wise, the way I was when I came to New York in late 1963. I see a lot of me in him.

You grew up in White Plains, NY, and went to the same high school as Rent composer Jonathan Larson. Is there something especially theatrical about that school?
JD: Not for me. In White Plains I wasn't theatrical at all. I was a model and I used to take the train into New York three days a week to do travelogue work. It wasn't until I went to college that I met the theatre people and began to admire them because they were learning a trade that was guaranteed to make money! [Laughs.]



You've traveled all over the U.S. performing in regional and road productions of classic musicals. Do you have a favorite role?
JD: I loved playing Harold Hill in The Music Man,, but there is no question that my favorite of all time is Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha [which he performed at the Surflight Theatre in Barnegat, NJ, June 19-July 8, with Heather Provost as Aldonza]. The challenges of playing Don Quixote is making it real. He's obsessed with changing the world.

You've had a chance to work with some incredible older actors over the years, Bob Hope, Bert Lahr, et al. Did you model your Old Actor on any of them?
JD: Working [on The Fantasticks and the 1964 Broadway musical Foxy] with Bert Lahr [the vaudeville and Broadway comedian best known as the Lion in "The Wizard of Oz"] was an amazing experience. I would watch him from the side of the stage constantly. He was a really improvisational actor and never gave the same performance twice. He was a major star and always so funny on stage, but I never saw him happy offstage. He was always brooding. I'm like that too sometimes. People think of happy-go-lucky John Davidson on the talk show "Hollywood Squares," but I'm a worrier too. He [Lahr] never seemed to be happy with his own performance, but he was always very supportive of me. A lot of old actors tend to direct other actors in scenes and he never did that. The closest we ever came to that was in one scene where I was supposed to hit him, and he taught me how to throw a stage punch. He knew what he needed, but he didn't try to direct.

But to answer your question, no, I'm not really basing my Old Actor on any one performer. I just play someone who has a lack of being able to see clearly or move easily, but someone who needs the job and is just trying to manage to go on and kind of do his best. It's like me. I'm 70 and I've never worked harder in my life.

(Robert Viagas is editor of "The Playbill Broadway Yearbook" series and founder of the news section of Playbill.com. He is author or editor of 16 books including "The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks." His latest book is "Scales To Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine." Write to him at rviagas@playbill.com.)