THE LEADING MEN: Vamp Till Ready

By Wayman Wong
April 5, 2006

“Though April showers may come your way,” any one of these guys would light up your day: Hugh Panaro (Lestat), Matt Cavenaugh (Grey Gardens) and Jonathan Rayson (“Shiny and New”).



HUGH & THE BITE & THE MUSIC
Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Lestat might’ve been left for dead by some critics during its San Francisco tryout earlier this year, but its creative team and cast hope to revive it with a major “revamp” before its Broadway bow on April 25 at the Palace. With a book by Linda Woolverton based on Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles,” this Gothic musical aims to succeed where Dance of the Vampires and Dracula failed in vein. Hugh Panaro, who stars as Lestat, says, “We’ve got a whole different show than the one in San Francisco. Now the story is crystal-clear, and the relationships have been enhanced. We have a new opening and a new ending, and [creative consultant] Jonathan [Butterell] has brought in so many fresh ideas.”

Keeping up with Panaro, neck and neck, is Carolee Carmello, who plays Lestat’s immortalized mother, Gabrielle. “I love Carolee,” says the sexy six-foot tenor from Philadelphia. “We did the first national tour of Les Miz.” Carmello adds, “That was 18 years ago. He was gorgeous and sang like a dream — and he still does. Besides his incredible talent, Hugh is just the sweetest, warmest, kindest and most generous man you’ll ever want to be onstage with. He really taps into Lestat’s soul, and with all the changes we’ve had, I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Hugh.”

Panaro, who was phenomenal in The Phantom of the Opera, is also working on his first solo album for Sony: “I’ll be doing mostly new tunes: Elton John, Desmond Child, Richard Marx. I want to get back to beautiful singing. When you hear songs these days, there’s so many bells and whistles that you can’t hear the melody.”

Question: Congrats, Hugh! How did you land the lead of Lestat?
Hugh Panaro: When I first heard about the show, I couldn’t get an audition. My agent told me there was no interest in me, so I let it go. Two years later, they let me try out. No matter how much experience you have, you always have to prove yourself. Tyne Daly once said in an interview that not only does she still have to audition, she wants to. Even if it’s only for five minutes, she says it’s her chance to play that role. And that’s how I look at it. I don’t go into an audition to impress anyone. I pretend the role is mine. For Lestat, I did the Jean Valjean soliloquy from Les Miz, and I sang the s*** out of it. And because I’d read the books, I knew who Lestat was. He and I are so parallel. Like him, I’ve gone through a lot of painful life experiences, like deaths in my family and deaths of my colleagues to AIDS. I’ve been in this business since I was 12, and you have to find that fire in you, despite whatever showbiz throws at you. I love this character. He has balls of steel and stamina. And doing Lestat is so much more physical than Phantom. I beat the crap out of Armand. I carry Nicholas on my back. I’m at the chiropractor every other day.

Q: What’s the story of Lestat?
Panaro: Lestat starts off as a mortal young man living with Gabrielle, his mother, whom he adores. Through a tremendous act of courage, he confronts his abusive father and leaves for Paris to find a life for himself. Magnus, a deranged vampire, bites Lestat and turns him into his heir. That’s how Lestat’s dilemma begins: How do I make peace with who I am, someone who has to kill in order to live, but still maintains a human conscience and the knowledge that killing is wrong? And how do you deal with the loneliness? Do you turn others you love [into vampires], like Louis, Nicholas, Claudia and Gabrielle? In the end, Lestat learns to do the right thing.

Q: In the books and in the show, Lestat has passionate and intimate relationships with Nicholas, and later with Louis. Are they lovers?
Panaro: No. If I had to label them, I’d say that Louis and Lestat are life companions. In Anne Rice’s world, vampires do not have sex. The deepest way they can show affection is through an exchange of blood. It’s their equivalent of having an orgasm. Louis and Lestat also have a daughter [Claudia] together, and that’s a complete mirror of where we are in our current culture. So many same-sex marriages are now adopting children and raising, quite honestly, much more functional families than someone who’s divorced or staying with [a spouse] he or she hates.

Q: In the song “To Live Like This,” Lestat sings: “Don’t fear the world out there because of who you are. So free yourself and you’ll see there is no need to live like this.” Is there a coming-out theme in there?
Panaro: There could be. But to me, it’s about freeing yourself of the shackles that are holding you back. That could be homophobia. It could be religious repression. The bottom line is: Have the balls to live the life you want to lead.

Q: Elton John said writing Lestat “was like being bitten by a f***ing vampire” and it’s some of his best work. For instance, you get a beautiful, soaring solo called “Sail Me Away.” How would you describe the score?
Panaro: It’s not a rock opera. It’s not Aida. It’s surprisingly legit. It’s rangy, and we are singing our asses off. I love Elton and Bernie. I just got a new song called “Right Before My Eyes” and it’s f***ing great. The day after Elton sent it, it was so cute. He wanted to know if I liked the song. Omigod, the melody’s great and Bernie’s lyrics are so poetic and show-specific. Now it’s my favorite song in the show.

Q: Anne Rice’s website boasts that “during its pre-Broadway run at the Curran, Lestat grossed $4,315,293, breaking the record previously held by Wicked.” What was it like trying out in San Francisco?
Panaro: It was one of the most helpful workshops I’ve ever done. We were given scenes at midnight sometimes that we put in the next day. I don’t read reviews, but I know they were mixed, negative and great, and Elton, Bernie, Linda and Rob [Jess Roth] addressed [the criticisms], which is why we have this kickass version. We also had amazing fans there who came back each week and they don’t bull**** you.

Q: In San Francisco, Drew Sarich took over the role of your nemesis, Armand, from Jack Noseworthy. For the record, what happened?
Panaro: I believe Jack is very close to the character as he’s described in the book. But we were told that they wanted a more menacing presence, and Drew is maybe 6-foot-1. Jack was a class act and told us all that he was fine with it. Since then, he’s been on “CSI,” so hopefully he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Q: Finally, Rice has said she wouldn’t be doing any more vampire novels and would only “write for the Lord.” What’s she think of Lestat?
Panaro: We’ve kept her abreast of everything, and she loves the show. That’s how I know we’re already a hit. When the movie of “Interview With a Vampire” was first cast [with Tom Cruise], she was not happy and said so. I’m gonna toot my own horn for a second. I met Anne in San Francisco, and it was like meeting the Pope. We hugged, and she said, “When I wrote this character, I never thought anyone could play him. You are Lestat. You sound like him. You look like him. I have nothing to add.” Her blessing gave me the freedom to let go of any insecurities. It was great.

For more information, visit www.lestat.com.

THE COURTSHIP OF EDITH’S DAUGHTER
Three years ago in Urban Cowboy: The Musical, Matt Cavenaugh burst onto Broadway playing a redneck. But now until April 23, he’s co-starring in Playwrights Horizons’ Grey Gardens as a blueblood: Joseph Kennedy Jr. With a book by Doug Wright, this mesmerizing musical boasts the season’s most gorgeous and glorious score (by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie). It’s based on Albert and David Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” a 1975 documentary about Edith Bouvier Beale, a socialite and Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt, and her own daughter, “Little Edie.” Act I is set in 1941 amid their elegant Long Island mansion, where Joe Kennedy comes to see Little Edie [played by Sara Gettelfinger]. Christine Ebersole, who gives a tour de force, plays her mother, and then returns in Act II, now set in 1973, as the middle-aged Little Edie. There, she battles with her elderly mother (Mary Louise Wilson) in their rundown estate, befriended by a good-hearted gardener named Jerry (also played by Cavenaugh).

Cavenaugh, 27, says, “I first got involved with the show when Scott asked me to play Joe, and we did a workshop at Sundance. It’s fun to play a Kennedy. Joe was the golden child who was being groomed to be the first Catholic President of the United States. He was in love with Edie, and our number, ‘Better Fall Out of Love,’ harkens back to a Rodgers & Hart tune like ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again.’ It’s catchy, but if you listen to the chords, they clash and don’t quite go together. It’s very smart on Scott’s part, and Michael’s lyrics are clever.” In this delightful duet, Kennedy sings, “I need a leading lady by me neck and neck to help me lobby for a campaign check,” and Little Edie, who’s an aspiring actress, replies, “The only lobby I know is the Martin Beck.”

In Act II, Cavenaugh becomes Jerry, a long-haired Long Island teen. “I love playing him. Jerry’s got a goofy, sweet nature. And he had a real affection for Mother [Beale], who treated him like a son.” Though the old woman brags that this boy “has a new girl every night,” the real-life Jerry is gay. At one workshop, “Doug Wright told me that ‘Jerry’s here and he wants to meet you.’ I thought, ‘Omigosh. I’m s***ting myself.’ Jerry couldn’t be sweeter. He loves the show. And he lives in Queens. The New Yorker interviewed him, and Jerry says that Jackie Onassis once asked him out to go clubbing and invited him home for a drink. But Jerry said “no, thanks” and went to a gay bar instead. That’s hilarious!” (Speaking of hilarious, Cavenaugh adds, “Christine’s a great leader. She’s kooky, crazy fun. She’s a nutcase — in all the best ways.”)

This 5-foot-11 hunk from Jonesboro, AR, has toured in Thoroughly Modern Millie; tackled new musicals like Palm Beach at La Jolla Playhouse; and played a gay student on ABC’s “One Life to Live.” And like riding the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy, he’s learned to enjoy the ups and downs: “I’m very proud of that show. I loved every minute. As tumultuous as it was, I’d do Urban Cowboy again in a heartbeat. I’m a much better actor for going through that. It was tough sometimes. I kept a bottle of Jameson [whiskey] in my dressing room. I’m not gonna lie. Some matinees, I might take a shot. It was disheartening to know you were in a theatre that seats 1,100, and there might be only 200 people there, but they came to see a show, so we gave it to them. It was a great ensemble, and we had so much fun.”

Though he’s single, Cavenaugh enjoys keeping company with an Idiot. That’s the name of his blue Betta fish. “When Michelle Kittrell and I dated, she gave him to me. I was in L.A. for pilot season by myself, so she sent me a beautiful vase of flowers, and Idiot was swimming in the bottom. He drove cross-country with me, and like me, he’s a loner. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s a good listener. I love my Idiot.”

For more information, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.

HE’S RAYSON THE ROOF WITH THAT SEVENTIES CD
Do you love 1970's pop songs sung with warmth, sensitivity and sincerity? Then take the Doobie Brothers’ advice and “whoa, whoa, listen to the music” on Jonathan Rayson’s “Shiny and New” debut CD (LML Music). Whether he’s sweetly singing Richard Carpenter’s “I Need to Be in Love,” Don McLean’s “And I Love You So” or Tom Waits’ “Rainbow Sleeves,” this Broadway pro proves beautiful ballads are his Rayson d’etre. “Shiny and New,” which hits the stores on April 11, was inspired by a bright idea. “When I started putting together this CD, I wanted to do an homage to my musical roots,” says the friendly 5-foot-11 singer-actor from Omaha, NE. “I started performing when I was six or seven with my dad’s cover band, and my signature tune was Clint Holmes’ ‘Playground in My Mind.’ It went: ‘My name is Michael/ I’ve got a nickel/ I’ve got a nickel shiny and new.’ And that’s how we got the title for the album.”

Rayson, 38, says, “I picked songs for this CD that had a personal connection, like ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.’ In kindergarten, I’d get up on a table and sing that for the other kids. Usually, ‘Raindrops’ can sound kinda cheesy, so Dan Chouinard, my amazing musical director and co-producer, slowed down the tempo. I wanted to give it more weight. I’m a ballad boy at heart. I tend to gravitate toward the melancholy and concentrate on the lyrics. And there were so many great lyrical writers in the 1970's: Billy Joel, John Denver, James Taylor. This CD’s really about what we choose to hold onto and what we choose to let go — not just things but our beliefs.”

If making this album was a dream for Rayson, so was getting to play Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. On Broadway he understudied Hunter Foster, and on tour, he took over for Anthony Rapp. He says Seymour was his dream role because “I always felt like a dork growing up. I was in the junior high mime troupe.” As much as he loved the show, there were problems working at the plant: Audrey II, that is. On tour, “the plant had a lotta technical difficulties. Once the computer went down while I was inside Audrey II, and I couldn’t get out, so the cast had to do the finale without Seymour. It was terrifying.” Rayson adds, “The road was very challenging. There were places that seemed to hate us. Houston was miserable. But Boston was fantastic. And I was blown away by the response in Minneapolis. I had spent 13 years there [as an actor]. One of my friends is on the City Council, so they declared it Jonathan Rayson Day.”

In Minnesota, Rayson played in everything from A Little Night Music to Love! Valour! Compassion! He was a big tadpole in a small pond, but he got to leapfrog to Broadway as a standby for the Children’s Theatre Company production of A Year With Frog and Toad (2003). Jay Goede, who played Frog, suffered a burst appendix, so Rayson had to hop in on short notice: “Mark Linn-Baker, who played Toad, is a fantastic man and a brilliant comedian. I was so intimidated. I didn’t want to let him down. Mark came in that day on his own time to go over some scenes. That night, he was so generous. At the end of the show, Mark told the audience: 'One of the most difficult jobs in our field is being an understudy, and I want you all to know that this was Jonathan’s first night going on as Frog. And not only did he do a terrific job, this performance marks his Broadway debut.' I still get choked up about it. Sometimes, I feel like I live under a star. I once left this business for three years, but I came back because I wasn’t doing what I love. I feel so fortunate and appreciate it every day.

For more information, visit www.jonathanrayson.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: David Gurland and Randi Driscoll share a delightful double bill, joined by Tim Di Pasqua, on April 9 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). . . . Douglas Ladnier (Jekyll & Hyde) brings his deep, beautiful baritone to Danny’s Skylight Room on April 11, 18 and 25 at 9:30 PM at 346 W. 46th St. (212-265-8133). . . . Finally, “Roasts, Toasts and Tributes” will whistle a happy tune as it salutes cabaret booster Michael Nelsen on April 30 at 8 PM at the St. Clement’s Theater, 423 W. 46th St. (212-868-4444). Produced and hosted by Carolyn Montgomery, it’ll include Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter, Baby Jane Dexter, Tim Di Pasqua, Natalie Douglas, David Gurland, Julie Reyburn, Sue Matsuki and many more.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the “boys”!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.