THE LEADING MEN: A ‘Phantom’ phenom - McGillin, Tartaglia & Gurland

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01 Apr 2003

Howard McGillin and <i>Phantom</i> friend.
Howard McGillin and Phantom friend.
Photo by Wayman Wong
It’s the month for April showers, so we interviewed three of the "reigning men" of Broadway, Off-Broadway and cabaret.

Howard McGillin has been giving a heartbreakingly haunted and haunting performance as the Phantom of the Opera since August 1999, and when he leaves Andrew Lloyd Webber’s monster hit on April 12, 2003, he will have passed the point of no return. With 1,278 shows under his belt, and under his mask, this Majestic performer will have played the Phantom more than any other man on Broadway. And from here, he goes from one Harold Prince-directed musical to another: Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Bounce, which opens June 30 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

A two-time Tony nominee for Anything Goes and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, this Theater World Award winner from L.A. also has appeared in Sunday in the Park With George, The Secret Garden and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Away from the Broadway stage, the 6-foot-2 heartthrob has released a romantic solo CD, “Where Time Stands Still,” and he happily shares his life with his two "great" sons, Christopher, 22, and Brian, 19, and his partner for the past 8 years, Richard Samson.

Question: Congratulations on Phantom! Wow, 1,278 performances. Did you ever expect to break the record?
Howard McGillin: Omigod, never! It’s truly mind-boggling. It’s been so much fun. It requires so much stamina to play the Phantom, like climbing the ladders while I’m in costume, and thanks to [makeup supervisor] Thelma Pollard, it now only takes an hour to put on the makeup. But I go through a hugh emotional catharsis every night, and I love it. I won’t lie to you. "The Music of the Night" can be a beast of a song to sing, and there are nights when I think I can’t do the show. But the music, the role and the story work their magic, and it’s such a thrilling and fulfilling journey.

Q: Why do audiences find the Phantom so fascinating?
McGillin: He’s all of us in extremes. Yes, he’s very manipulative and even murderous, but he is also very wounded. We can all identify with the pain he feels as someone who doesn’t fit in, and what it’s like to long for someone who doesn’t return our love. Plus, the story is beautifully told by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, with amazing staging by Hal Prince, and there’s the sheer spectacle.

Q: It must feel fantastic to make the leap from Phantom and jump into Bounce. I understand it’s a new Sondheim show about the Mizner brothers, who were real-life dreamers and schemers, especially in the 1920s, right?
McGillin:Yes, it’s a great project. I play Wilson, who’s a bit of a cad. He wants to be rich and get the pretty girl, and wait’ll you see Michele Pawk as my love interest. Richard Kind plays my brother, Addison, who was responsible for a lot of the architecture in Palm Beach, Fla. They both reach for the brass ring. It’s a story about sibling rivalry, greed and second chances. It has hints of vaudeville, but Sondheim has written many, many exciting musical-theatre moments, and I can’t wait to do the show. For example, there’s an amazing song in Act I called "The Game." It’s really Wilson’s philosophy in life: Life is a game and you gotta play your cards close to your chest. I know I’m gonna learn a lot in Bounce and enjoy every moment.

Q: Speaking of Sondheim, you recorded "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going" on your CD, which runs the gamut from Richard Rodgers to Mary Chapin Carpenter. You sound glorious on it, but I especially love how personal it feels.
McGillin: Thanks. I wanted to make a CD that expresses who I am. I had a lot of help, starting with David Lai, the conductor of Phantom, and Joseph Thalken, who orchestrated many of the songs, and is a wonderful composer, too.

Q: Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, how did you wind up singing as Gregory the revolutionary in the "South Park" animated film? That’s so cool.
McGillin: My partner, Richard, and Marc Shaiman are IM [instant messaging] buddies, so one day Marc phoned me and asked if I’d like to be in the "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" movie. I said, "Are you kidding? I’d love it!" The funny thing is my older son and his friends had just put together a CD of rap songs, and some of the lyrics were so offensive and godawful, I lectured him. The next thing I know, I’m singing lyrics like "They may cut your dick in half and serve it to a pig" in the "South Park" movie. When my kids and I saw it together, we had to laugh. By the way, I think "South Park" is one of the best all-time movie musicals.

Q: Looking back on your career, what are you proudest of?
McGillin: My work on Broadway. I’ve had life-changing experiences there. Sometimes, it’s amazing how shows can parallel what’s going on in your life. When I did The Secret Garden [in 1991], I was starting to "come out." And the musical was about "the garden buried beneath the snow" and neglect of the heart. I had just gone through this very difficult separation [from my wife], and it was extraordinary to do that show. And [playing Molina, the gay window dresser in] Kiss of the Spider Woman also had equal resonance. It was about being who you are and not being cowed by society and homophobia. Being part of that ground breaking musical by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb was a very proud moment in my life. I’ve also loved doing film and TV, but Broadway is really where I feel most at home and can shine a little.

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Imagine an adult version of "Sesame Street" that’s populated by peppy, non-P.C. puppets and you’ve got Avenue Q, the cheerfully charming Off-Broadway musical that’s playing through April 27 at the Vineyard Theatre. Wittily written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, it’s a sly spoof of kiddie shows, only here the puppets and real people sing tunes like "Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet Is for Porn."

John Tartaglia, a gifted and engaging young puppeteer, heads the tiptop cast and gives an astonishing hands-on tour de force as both Princeton, a college grad who’s just moved to Avenue Q, and his next-door neighbor, Rod, a closeted gay Republican whose favorite book is "Broadway Musicals of the 1940s." The 5-foot-11 actor has his hands full as he sings, dances and acts, while carrying his puppets and manipulating their movements.

Tartaglia, who is making his Off-Broadway debut, says, "There’s part of me in both puppets. Princeton is very much like me. He’s got a good heart, and he’s eternally optimistic and positive.” As for Rod and his roommate, Nicky, who are tongue-in-cheeky takeoffs of Bert and Ernie from "Sesame Street," Tartaglia says, "Rod is closeted and has this incredible love for his friend, but he’s a geek at heart and so was I."

"Growing up, I was a total dork," he adds. "I liked to play with puppets, so I got picked on a lot. I was in every musical and I got teased for being gay all through middle and high school. I wasn’t cool, and it hurt. So like Rod, I know what it’s like to feel like you’re the only one reading ‘Broadway Musicals of the 1940s.’" But he was lucky, says Tartaglia, who "came out" at 18: "My parents and friends always gave me so much love."

Though Princeton searches for his "purpose" in life in Avenue Q, the 25-year-old performer from Maple Shade, N.J., always knew what he wanted to do: "When I was 12, I wrote to Jim Henson and told him it was my dream to be a puppeteer. Months later, I got an autographed photo from him and a note. Omigod! We were supposed to meet, but a year later, he passed away. When I was 14, I wrote to Kevin Clash, who performs Elmo, and one night I got a call from him and he said, ‘Yeah, Jim mentioned you to me,’ so he invited me to New York to see the show. And at 16, I started working at ‘Sesame Street.’ It’s amazing. That’s where I met [my Avenue Q co-star] Stephanie D'Abruzzo. She’s been like a big sister to me. She’s so hysterical and supportive."

A "Sesame Street" puppeteer for eight seasons, he says he first began working on Avenue Q three years ago and credits its appeal to the "brilliant" team of Lopez and Marx and Rick Lyon’s delightfully designed puppets. While that’s true, Princeton and Rod wouldn’t come so magically to life if Tartaglia didn’t have a hand in them.

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