PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder — Die! Die! My D'Ysquiths!
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new Broadway musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.
The hardest working man and woman in showbiz these days must be Jefferson Mays, who, regardless of gender, routinely runs through 64 spectacular demises a week — eight per show-times-eight performances a week — in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. The counting officially commenced Nov. 17 at the Walter Kerr.
Mays, may he rest in peace when that time comes, works up an industrious lather as the entire doomed dynasty of D'Ysquiths (pronounced DIE-swith), rather merrily go to hell in a handbasket — courtesy of the ninth of their lineage, Monty Novarro, who is not above bumping off the whole silly tribe to become the Earl of Highhurst and enjoy the rank, wealth and privilege that goes with that title.
This Guide, adapted by Robert L. Freedman from a 1907 Roy Horniman novel called "Israel Rank," puts Murder before Love, and, because Bryce Pinkham's Monty Novarro is such a busy, busy boy, only one D'Ysquith is left standing at the end of Act One.
Love arrives with Act Two — a little late, you might say — but just as turbulently with our money-driven Monty in push-pull conflict with two women — his gold-digging mistress (a luscious Lisa O'Hare) and his true-love fiancée (Lauren Worsham). The triangle physicalizes itself in a scene of sculptured slapstick, with Pinkham in the corridor struggling to keep one woman in the bedroom and the other in the parlor.
Because the show's about clawing your way up to another class, Joey Parnes and his three dozen other producers issued a black-tie edict for opening night. Even the press tuxed it out.
The post-show destination was indeed elegant, just the place you'd like to be seen: The Pierre Hotel. There have been theatre parties and Drama League galas there, but the Pierre hasn't hosted a Broadway opening-night party in eons — if ever. I can say with some authority the last 400 Broadway openings were definitely elsewhere.
There are several large rooms on the left leading in to the vast second-floor ballroom, and the theatre press laid siege to them for sound bites and photo ops.
Jane Carr was one of the first to putter in and putter out and do a deep dive into the ballroom glitz and glamour where she was forever lost to further press chit-chat. You might know her as "Mary McGregor," the "schoolgel" that Miss Jean Brodie sent off to fight, and die, on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War in the 1969 movie version of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Forty-four years later she's a character actress, and, here in her fourth Broadway appearance, she's the matronly messenger who brings Monty Novarro the news that he is entitled to a slice of the D'Ysquith pie. But, best of all, she's the ditzy voiceover for the TV ads of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, sounding a lot like Carole Shelley — only demented.
Just to demonstrate what a gentlemanly show this is (despite its big body count), the two leading men designated themselves at the curtain to distribute the bouquets of rose to their six female co-stars. The deed photographed considerate and classy.
Pinkham and Mays, the killer and the killed, again demonstrated their social manners by letting their lady cast members to have the first crack at the press.
Pinkham waited his turn and worked at not looking weary. "Yes, it's very draining," he allowed. "I used to play soccer as a kid. It's a little like playing a full soccer game. By the end of it, I'm pretty worn out — but in a way I love. It's a real blast for me. It really is. It's sort of where theatre and athletics meet. To prepare for it, I take a lot of naps, drink a lot of water and say my prayers. You go into this somewhat hermit-like existence when you do a Broadway show eight times a week. You just kinda go home at night and go to bed. It's easy to fall asleep, I'll say that much!"
It wasn't until the show went into its Broadway homestretch that Pinkham took over the lead. "It's not lost on me that there have been many actors who had their hands on this role over the course of the ten years that this has been in development, and it's certainly not lost on me that I'm the lucky one to take it across the finish line."
As the manically moving targets that Pinkham has his "sites" on, Mays has an even more strenuous, and nonstop, workout, punctuated by a colorful backstage life. "My dressers, I often say, are my true scene partners," he cracked. "I don't go to the gym. This — the theatre — is my gym. I call it The D'Ysquith Weight Loss Program.
"I must say it's such fun to vault from one character to the next in the same play. I know lots of actors like to settle down — I do, too — and spend the entire evening, and, of course, months as one character, exploring every nook and cranny of your psyche. Being constantly on the run is a great thing for the nerves. There's nothing worse for an actor than sitting back in his dressing room, waiting for that scene in Act Two. Here there are tons of scenes in Act Two and there are tons of scenes in Act One, so there's no time to reflect. It's all completely active, and then it's over."
The addition of music to the mania is quite welcoming for him. "Doing a play, there's a lot of heavy lifting involved in which you come on in Act One, Scene One and have to launch into lengthy exposition to get the audience into the world of the play. Doing a musical is like stepping aboard a magic carpet. The orchestra tunes up and launches into the overture, and, all of a sudden, you're aloft in this glorious music that carries you along and sustains you through the course of the whole evening."
This is the voice of limited musical experience speaking. Mays snagged the lead in an Encores! presentation of Of Thee I Sing (vice president Throttlebottom, the forgotten man), and a Broadway gig as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion got him the musical Higgins in My Fair Lady in summer stock at the Maine Ogunquit Playhouse. That's it. Now he's making his Broadway musical debut — perfectly cast, all the same.
The two leading ladies in an amorous tug-of-war over that bounder Monty — O'Hare and Worsham — sing beautifully and should be remembered at Tony time for their Broadway debuts. And there is also that flawless physical comedy they participate in where where they both sing of their love to their Monty-in-the-middle, who is struggling almost heroically to keep his women from colliding.
"People just love a door-slamming farce, I guess," reasoned Worsham. "This was the most applause we've ever had for that number, but it stops the show every night."
Added O'Hare: "Peggy Hickey has done a wonderful job with that number. It's very tightly choreographed, but it took us a long, long time to get to that."
An hour after the show, O'Hare was holding on to her British accent, which turns out to be authentic. She's from Northwest England and was a London Mary Poppins.
She's having a lot of fun as the blonde Sibella, and, although she really is a blonde, she showed up as a brunette at the party. "Sibella's so much fun for me," the actress admitted. "She's the ultimate narcissist, and that kind of woman is always fun to play. And she's very complex. There's a lot to her. The minute you think you've understood her, she has gone off in a different direction — and that's a fun thing."
Composer Steven Lutvak's champion is Worsham. "I love the music. I'm obsessed with the music, and it's so easy on the voice. Steven has written a timeless score. It borrows from so many traditions but also creates something new — especially in the second act. I think you hear a bunch of stuff that you don't hear every day on Broadway. It's an honor to get to sing it every night."
Lutvak said the score took "only" ten years to write, but time often stopped when he and Freedman were collaborating or working collectively on the lyrics. "Whenever it's Robert and me alone in a room writing, it's always been incredible fun," Lutvak relayed. "We had so much fun writing it, it was criminal. The fact that the audience laughs — it's like 'Oh, my God! It's gravy. It's fantastic.'"
The two are already off and running on their next. "It's called Campaign of a Century," Freedman revealed. "It's about America of 1934, about the Depression and Upton Sinclair and the race for Governor of California. Few people remember that Sinclair was the Democratic candidate for the Governorship of California, and there was a huge media campaign against him. And that's what our musical is about."
Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage and former artistic director at La Jolla's Old Globe, tried out the musical in both places, and is now making his Broadway-directing debut with this giddy enterprise.
"It's been a really joyous journey, by and large," he said. "It's a piece that I love, and it suits my imagination. I like macabre things. I love this kind of material. I'm not a very sentimental guy, so this kind of show is perfectly at my speed."
One of the murders in the play salutes the thing that led him down this professional path. "I became a director because I saw 'Vertigo' when I was six years old — and that trick is totally an homage to 'Vertigo.' That's my favorite movie — still, to this day."
The curse that plagues the D'Ysquith who lives to (and almost through) the second act is his harridan wife, Lady Eugenia, who is played in a deliciously mean-spirited manner by Joanna Glushak with no attempt whatsoever to hide their miserable marriage from company. It seems to be some sort of Edwardian Albee arrangement.
Producers and personnel with the show sported boutonnieres with green leaves and a purple bloom. Veteran tenor Eddie Korbich, who butlers in the play and does nine other roles, showed up at the party bloomless and depressed. "I feel like Morticia Addams, who used to chop off the blossoms in the old television show," he mourned. "When I put my coat on, I knocked the blossom off and I haven't figured out how to reattach it. It's the Bella Donna flower, the poison flower used in the show."
Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert were the last celebs to arrive, barely making it over from their Big Fish matinee four blocks away. They were preceded by Laura Benanti looking forward to the upcoming Encores! of The Most Happy Fella; director Walter Bobbie; Betsy Brandt, breaking up her professional allegiance and alliteration with "Breaking Bad" by taking on "The Michael J. Fox Show"; Daniel Breaker with son Rory; Tyne Daly in a gorgeous, long-flowing garment I offered to kiss the hem of; Jamie deRoy in her glitteriest Madame Producer gown with Tony Roberts; Ryan Eggold; Katie Finneran, also from Fox's show, and actor-hubby Darren Goldstein; a gone-platinum Alison Fraser; Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who starts workshopping this week a musical version of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; Jackie Hoffman; Dee Hoty, opening Nov. 18 at Theatre Row's Beckett in The Preacher and the Shrink (she ain't the preacher, believe me); Marin Ireland, a.k.a. Marie Antoinette for another week at Soho Rep, with mom; Judith Ivey, off tomorrow to direct a play in Washington (Derrah Cloud's Our Summer, "a bit of homage to Our Town") amd enjoying a night out with daughter Maggie Braine; playwright Terrence McNally (And Away We Go at the Pearl Theatre any day now) with hubby-producer Tom Kirdahy; Nathan Lane; Matt Leisy, a Fantasticks Boy; Ilana Levine and Dominic Fumusa; Ghost The Musical's Caissie Levy (as if she didn't know Bryce Pinkham was a villain); Jose Llana hirsuting himself up for Bill Sikes in the Paper Mill's upcoming Oliver!; Tony Lo Bianco, who's just turned the story of his life into a screenplay and making plans to play his pop; Patrick Page of A Time to Kill; Julia Murney and David Hyde Pierce now of The Landing; Joseph Sirola (with his signature homegrown rose); director Alex Timbers, getting ready to rock with Rocky; Kathleen Turner arriving all in black (does she know something?); ice-skating Olympian Dick Button; orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who gave composer Lutvak real lift and lilt; Tony Yazbeck, who'll be dancing out Little Me's "I've Got Your Number" for Encores!; Tony Chiroldes formerly of In the Heights and now the Spanish-language Bryant Gumbel for HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" and MGM Golden Girl Marge Champion, a huge booster of Darko Tresnjak.
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