PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Frank Galati

By Robert Simonson
June 12, 2001

Last season wasn't a good one for director Frank Galati. After shepherding the promising Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty project Seussical from it's inception, he was jettisoned from the show during its tumultuous Boston tryout—a remarkable circumstance for the man behind such Tony winning Broadway triumphs as The Grapes of Wrath and Ragtime. But hope springs eternal and this fall Galati will begin work on another huge, Broadway-bound musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Visit, based on the Friedrich Durrenmatt morality play. And Galati even found a way to end 2000-2001 on a positive note. After a 12 year break, he has returned to acting, taking a lead role in Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he in an ensemble member. The show, which also stars John Mahoney, recently extended until June 16. Galati spoke to Playbill On Line about his experience working on Seussical, his hopes for The Visit and why he decided to stride the boards once more.

Last season wasn't a good one for director Frank Galati. After shepherding the promising Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty project Seussical from it's inception, he was jettisoned from the show during its tumultuous Boston tryout—a remarkable circumstance for the man behind such Tony winning Broadway triumphs as The Grapes of Wrath and Ragtime. But hope springs eternal and this fall Galati will begin work on another huge, Broadway-bound musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Visit, based on the Friedrich Durrenmatt morality play. And Galati even found a way to end 2000-2001 on a positive note. After a 12 year break, he has returned to acting, taking a lead role in Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he in an ensemble member. The show, which also stars John Mahoney, recently extended until June 16. Galati spoke to Playbill On Line about his experience working on Seussical, his hopes for The Visit and why he decided to stride the boards once more.

Playbill On-Line: You haven't acted in over a decade. Why return now?
Frank Galati: I flipped away from it. I had always acted. Acting was a part of my life since I was a kid. I was always alternating between being in shows and teaching and directing. When I joined the Steppenwolf ensemble, which was in 1985, within six months of that, Bob Falls became artistic director at the Goodman Theatre and asked me and Michael Maggio to join him as associate directors. The combination of Gary Sinise, who was artistic director of Steppenwolf at that time, and Bob Falls both giving me directing assignments kept me focused on directing. It worked out that I'd do a show at Steppenwolf and Goodman almost every year. And that, with a full teaching schedule, meant there wasn't any time to do any acting. But then, John Mahoney, with whom I've done a couple shows at Steppenwolf—we always wanted to do something together, and then he found this play.

PBOL: Tell me about the role. Your character is brain damaged, I believe.
FG: Yes. The play is set in Canada in 1972. The two old friends, who are farmers in rural Ontario, they grew up together. They were both drafted and sent to World War II and served in France and England. The character I play, Angus, is out one night [during the war]—the guys have two girlfriends. They're both kind of wild guys; they're dispassionate soldiers, not too keen on the war, but they're very keen on these two girls. Angus goes out to get a bottle of brandy and a bomb explodes in a house where he's standing, and he's hit by a piece of shrapnel, loses his memory and becomes diminished. It's a very typical story that is corroborated over and over in accounts of injuries during the war.

PBOL: Any temptations to tell the director how to stage the work?
FG: Oh, my God, no! No, no, no. God, no. As an actor I know what the job is and I'd prefer to do the job. [Director] Anna Shapiro is a brilliant artist and has been enormously helpful.

PBOL: You've become known for directing musicals in the New York theatre community, though that was hardly your reputation before Ragtime. Do you find that odd?
FG: Well, no, because I've done a couple musicals which have popped up in New York. I've also done plays in New York, of course—The Grapes of Wrath and The Glass Menagerie at the Roundabout Theatre Company. So, I've actually done half plays and half musical. But, yes, Ragtime is the main handle I get associated with. I've done a lot of opera, too, though I haven't done much in New York. We're moving the Chicago Lyric Opera's production of A View from the Bridge to the Metropolitan Opera in 2003. That was a tremendously interesting and beautiful project.

PBOL: Your most recent musical assignment was a bit rocky. Now that you have a little distance, how do you view the whole Seussical experience?
FG: Well, it was a show with a split personality. It was borne along in a sort of conflicted state from the very beginning—although the workshop was charming and didn't really reveal the turbulence that lay ahead both in terms of shaping the artistic work and also the commercial mission of the show. When I say "split personality," even the creators were curious from the beginning about "What does this show really want to be? What is its audience? To whom do we want to speak?"

PBOL: What did you want it to be?
FG: I thought that its virtues were in the simplicity of the story and the playfulness of the language and the sweetness of the theatrical convention that the show embraced, which was all about narration and storytelling and poetry. But I think that the producers were thinking about something else. They were thinking about the Almighty Buck and reaching the widest possible audience regardless of age or taste. They wanted something that would be sexy and colorful and would really rock. And many of those qualities are not inherent in the work of Theodor Geisel, who was a really droll guy and went to Dartmouth and actually believed that less was more. So we parted company in Boston.

PBOL: Do you consider the show that opened on Broadway your work at all?
FG: You know, it's hard to say. When you're involved with something from its creation, it's almost impossible to trace your work. Having worked with Lynn [Ahrens] and Stephen [Flaherty] so intimately on Ragtime and going through a very similar process on Seussical, I feel I'm largely present in a certain way. On the other hand, a great deal was done to the show after I left and it was changed in some very significant ways, some visible and some invisible.

PBOL: What is the status of The Visit?
FG: It is officially scheduled to play at the Goodman in September with Chita Rivera. We go into rehearsal in the middle of August.

PBOL: Do they still hope to bring it to New York eventually?
FG: Yes, they do. It's a Kander and Ebb musical and Ann Reinking is doing the choreography and Terrence McNally is doing the book. It's a thrilling piece of theatre. I think it's a very bold musical narrative. The whole idea of combining Durrenmatt's play with a musical theatre mode is tremendously exciting, I think. Actually, it's something, I think, that Durrenmatt himself would be turned on by. He was really into detective fiction, he loved thrillers and suspense, and he loved the music hall. He loved this sort of grotesque, Grand Guignol aspect of popular culture. The Goodman is a strictly Chicago engagement in that it will have a limited run and it will be an opportunity for the producers to see the show in full cry, and then to make plans to transfer hopefully to New York.