Oh, Boy!: Creators and Stars Chat About New Musical Taboo
By Andrew Gans
September 30, 2003
Two world-famous celebrities — Rosie O'Donnell and Boy George — as well as a handful of stars-to-be — Euan Morton, Raúl Esparza and more — were on hand to offer scenes from and chat about the new musical Taboo, which begins previews at the Plymouth Theatre Oct. 24 prior to a Nov. 13 opening.
Rosie O'Donnell welcomed the slew of reporters and photographers who attended the press event at the new rehearsal studios on West 42nd Street. "Thank you all for coming," said the former talk-show host, who is now co-producing (with Adam Kenwright) her first Broadway musical. "I am the producer. According to some in the press, I've been a little too vocal a producer, but I love the show, that's all I can tell ya. It's an amazing piece of work, and I'm thrilled to be associated with it. As you know, I saw the show in London, thought right away, 'If Charles Busch would get on board and write the book, we would have an amazing musical for Broadway.' Much to my pleasure, he said yes."
O'Donnell went on to thank the rest of the creative team: "The idea came from Christopher Renshaw, and it was all in his little brain," said O'Donnell. "He created it in London, and he directed it in London as well. Christopher Renshaw is here, and our thanks [go to him], too. We wanted a choreographer who would embody the spirit of Leigh Bowery and that era, and that man is Mark Dendy, and we're thrilled he's on board. John McDaniel, I will do no show without him. So, for the rest of my career, there he is," she said.
O'Donnell then spoke about her cast, which includes the "stunningly fabulous" Euan Morton as Boy George; Raúl Esparza — "who I begged and pleaded and cajoled" — as Philip Sallon; Jeffrey Carlson, "who plays Marilyn and channels Keith Richards as well, which is excellent"; Liz McCartney, who plays Big Sue, "the role I salivated over, but knew I was not talented enough to pull off, but she is"; "brand-new mom" Sarah Uriarte Berry as Nicola; and "from the cast of Rent, the young and beautiful" Cary Shields as Marcus. "Boy George, of course, is playing Leigh Bowery, the performance artist who died of AIDS in 1995," O'Donnell added. "He will not be performing for you today because I want you all to have to pay $100 to see him! As a producer, that was my decision," she added with a laugh.
Before introducing book writer Charles Busch, O'Donnell singled out one of the attending writers, Village Voice scribe Michael Musto. "Michael Musto, nice to be in the same room with you — you're trying to hide from me, I see," O'Donnell said. "Every time I [look your way], you look down. 'That's the woman I used to complain wasn't gay enough.' Well, now, Michael, guess what, it's a big gay musical," O'Donnell said to a laugh-filled room.
"We are so moved that we got Rosie to speak," playwright Busch followed. "Goodness, she's such a shy, timid little star. It's painful for her to speak in public. So we really appreciate that." Busch went on to introduce the four numbers sampled for the New York press: "Freak," featuring Raúl Esparza and the ensemble; the ballad "Stranger in This World," sung by Euan Morton; Sarah Uriarte Berry's belty "Safe in the City"; and Liz McCartney's moment of truth, "Talk Amongst Yourselves."
After a brief photo session, the press had the chance to speak with the show's creators and stars. Here's a sampling of what they had to say:
Euan Morton (stars as Boy George)
About the show and its creator, Boy George:
"George has written some wonderful stuff for this piece; when you get material like that to work with, it's so easy to perform. I didn't really know a lot about George when I was younger. I was only five when Culture Club made it big, and you get an impression of a man who dresses like that and who makes that kind of music. . . . In my naiveté I had no idea that George had a writing talent, and suddenly he hands over this piece of music, this musical. You've only heard snippets of it today. Without any bias — whether I was in this show or not — the music is fantastic, and you kind of look at him in a whole new light. Not only is he onstage acting, and very well, as Leigh Bowery, but he's also written this fantastic score and giving us the opportunity to do it."
About his acting background and joining the London Taboo:
"I was born in a town called Bo'ness. It's just outside Edinburgh in central Scotland. I lived there until I was 16, and then I moved to London to go to drama school. I've lived in London since 1994, so really nearly 10 years in London, and now here . . . I've never done any musicals before. This is my first musical. I've mostly done television in london and some fringe theatre, a couple of small movie roles, nothing particularly grand. I was working in Tower Records before they found me to do Taboo. . . . I have an agent in London, and I go to a lot of auditions, but I always said, 'I don't want to musicals. I don't think I'd be very good at them.' I finally decided that I hadn't worked in about six months and I was in Tower Records, and I was a bit depressed, and I thought, 'Oh, God, go for it,' and I got it! [Laughs]"
About playing Boy George onstage opposite the real Boy George:
"He's never sat down and said, 'This is how I want you to play me.' We both sat and talked about it and agreed [that] if he wanted an impression of Boy George, he would have gotten an impressionist. So George allowed me to have the freedom to just do my interpretation of it. What he's been there for is to help me [figure out] the relationships that the character has with people like Philip Sallon or Marilyn or Big Sue, people in George's life that [are] hard to research. So George was there for all that, but most of the playing George and being George just came from reading his book a couple of times, and he had some documentary footage that he let me watch. Just kind of being around him — I've known George for two years now. Just being around him and watching how he works, but he's never laid the law down and said, 'I wouldn't be like that' — and there are places where I do things that he wouldn't do."
Rosie O'Donnell (Producer):
About how producing has or hasn't been what she had thought:
"Well, I didn't really know what it would be because the only thing I had produced was my own show and the Tonys, so I didn't really know. I knew that half the challenge was going to be to make sure that George O'Dowd arrived in the United States. Once we were there, I felt as though we had clicked on the rollercoaster — click, click, click — and then you go for the ride! That was the difficult part, truly. When he arrived and he was in New York, I thought, 'We're more than halfway there.' It has challenges. There's a lot of personalities. I've always been on the artist side where what you say, people do. [Laughs.] On the producer side, it doesn't happen quite the same way . . . Luckily, we have a really good creative team. They [have] runthroughs, and I'll come for the runthrough, and I'll give notes, and the next time I see that, it's changed. Chris Renshaw came up with this whole concept, and I didn't want to do it without him because it's his baby. And we're very lucky because everyone, so far, is getting along."
John McDaniel (Musical Supervisor)
About working with Boy George:
"It's really exciting. It's so fun to work with a living composer. I've worked with so many dead ones. To have the feedback is really exciting, and [George is] writing new songs all the time. In fact, this afternoon we're going to hear probably the last song that'll go in called 'Fifteen Minutes,' which George knows a lot about!"
Raúl Esparza (stars as Philip Sallon)
About the Taboo rehearsal process:
"I think that this show has the potential to be spectacular, and I didn't know that till last week. . . We're right where we need to be. Things are being fixed, things are being broken and reset, which I hope will make them better. Details are being added. Numbers are being reversed and changed. New numbers are being written. In every case I think the decisions are good. For myself, the creative team really trusts and respects me, and it's been a very collaborative process, down to helping them shape the way scenes work and the way songs are . . . you can't ask for more. I can't ask for more as an actor. It's wonderful to be treated with that kind of respect. I will say that I think the score is outrageously wonderful. It's the first thing that drew me to the part."
About the character he plays:
"Philip Sallon is a club promoter —that means hosting different kinds of club nights all over London — who is also the narrator for the story. There's a second narrator called Big Sue, who tells the Leigh Bowery story. Philip Sallon, in real life, is a very good friend of Boy George's and was one of the first people to encourage him in his career. And that's what he does in this story. He becomes the guy who believes in him, takes him through, introduces him to London life, gets him jobs — which he did in life — finds him a place to live and helps him with his career. But Philip, as a narrator, is also sparring off of the Big Sue character, who is telling the Leigh Bowery story. And he begins to screw up the story a little bit. It's not your typical narrator. He goes places he doesn't want to go, and he gets things wrong, which I think is pretty interesting."
Boy George (Composer and stars as Leigh Bowery)
About how the show has changed on its way to Broadway:
"What Rosie's done is brought out the kind of emotional aspect of the characters. There were a lot more characters in the London show, and I think what Rosie decided to do, which I think was a very sensible move, was to hone in on key characters and bring out their emotional elements, rather than just have surface characters that looked great but didn't have much mind, body and soul. So, I think in that respect, it's a better show. I'm playing Leigh, and it's much more enjoyable for me to play Leigh in New York because Leigh's a real person now. He's a person with a life outside of clubbing. He has a wife, he has domestic problems. He goes up and down, so it's really fun for me to play it."
About whether musical theatre had been a lifelong goal:
"I've always loved theatrical stuff. I grew up on Busby Berkeley, always loved musicals — Hello, Dolly!, Oklahoma! — all those ones. I am theatrical. It's in my genes. When I was a kid, you know, my mum used to describe me as highly strung on the theatrical, which I think is what all mothers say about their gay sons . . . . Chris Renshaw first approached me [about doing the musical]. He came to visit me, presented this idea, and I thought, 'I'd love to do this. This would be a real adventure' because it took me away from the normal constraints of my career, and [then] I started getting into the songwriting process. In theatre you have a lot more freedom than you do in pop. A song can have a sense a humor and also be quite bittersweet. You can go for lots of journeys in theatrical songs, which is why I think I love it. I've definitely taken to it like a duck to water. Some of the songs that have been written while we've been in New York, I think, are some of the best in the show."
Charles Busch (Book)
About how he joined the creative team:
"I really didn't know Rosie before — other than I'd run into her at benefits and Broadway Cares events. Then I got a call from her, and she tried to sell me on doing this musical, and I just wasn't buying it. I had a lot of plans of my own, and then she said, 'Why don't you just come with me to London for the weekend and meet Boy George?' I really couldn't resist that — if nothing else, it's good for a story to tell my friends! And I really was enraptured with the whole ambience and feeling of the show, and the music is really gorgeous. And I was so impressed with Euan Morton, who played the young Boy George. He's a wonderful actor, too. As a playwright, I was really hoping to work with singers who really could act, and in this case we really did cast with people who are legit actors. When I saw the show in London, by intermission I thought I had something to offer because the London of the early eighties — that kind of funky scene — reminded me a lot of the East Village in the mid-eighties when I started doing plays. And I kind of identified."
about how the show has changed since its London run:
"It really is a brand-new book. In London the protagonist actually was a fictional character named Billy, and Boy George, the character, was sort of a supporting character, and I thought — really by intermission — the one I'm interested in is Boy George, and I'd like to see his story front and center. So that's the really big change I did. I cut Billy and Billy's mother. [Laughs.] Then, also, my writing has always been so centered around female characters: In doing some research about Leigh Bowery, who's the other main character, I saw that the two main people in his life were these two women who were rather obsessed with him, who worked with him creatively and were so important in his life, and one of them he married. And they weren't really in the London Taboo, so I kind of created that whole new story. So, there's more of a female presence this time around."
Perhaps producer O'Donnell summed up Taboo's message most succinctly. "It has the same heart as South Pacific," said O'Donnell. "You have to be taught to hate and fear, and this show is about accepting others and yourself and how we're all the same. I think every great musical sort of has that message. That's what the show is, and it is, innately, a love story."
Tickets for Taboo are available by calling (212) 239-6200.