THE LEADING MEN: Garber, York and Denman

By Tom Nondorf
01 Feb 2007

<I>Follies</I> co-stars Donna Murphy, Victor Garber and Christine Baranski.
Follies co-stars Donna Murphy, Victor Garber and Christine Baranski.
Joan Marcus

Welcome, Friends! It's February, which is the shortest month I can think of; therefore, I believe in packing extra entertainment into it so we do not make it feel inferior to the other months.

To that end, I present a couple of in-depth chats for you to sit back and enjoy. Well, don't sit so far back that you can't read the thing, but sit — figuratively speaking — and sup at the table of knowledge with luminaries Victor Garber and Michael York, and true showman, Jeffry Denman.

GARBER TALKS
New York City Center certainly understands my February theory, and they have frontloaded this month with an Encores! show that has excitement reverberating off its neo-Moorish façade and out into the streets. Beginning Feb. 8, Christine Baranski, Philip Bosco, Victoria Clark, Donna Murphy, Jo Anne Worley, and a host of other wonderful names take on the challenge of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. One such other name is a fellow you would only recognize if you do such things as watch TV, go to the movies, or enjoy plays and musicals. Victor Garber, who will be playing Ben Stone in Follies, has had great success in all of these areas: multiple Tony nominations; several Emmy nominations; a key role in "Titanic," the highest-grossing movie of all time. A glance at his career reveals it to be one of the most balanced you'll ever see. It has been noted that he played both Jesus (Godspell) and Satan (Damn Yankees) on stage. But Garber also once played Liberace and Ernest Hemingway in two movies in the same year. He spent five years as Jennifer Garner's pop on "Alias," and then he performed the ceremony when she got married in real life. Now, the stage is reclaiming him for a brief few days at City Center, and I spoke to him while he was still in LA, contemplating his second whirlwind ride in an Encores! show. "I realize what the implications are of doing this," he says, slyly acknowledging that Follies is a show that engenders almost mythic-level expectations from fans and critics alike.

Question: You enter Follies having done numerous Stephen Sondheim shows. What connects you to his work?
Victor Garber: Yes, I stopped counting. The last thing I did was A Little Night Music with the LA Opera. It is sort of nice to grow into these roles and revisit them. My first major musical was Sweeney Todd, so I've had a long affiliation with him. For me it is sort of the reason I became an actor and came to New York. I responded to his work when I was quite young, when I was in Toronto and listening to Anyone Can Whistle. That was sort of like my call to New York — then I've been fortunate to work with him several times, so Follies seemed like a natural progression for me.

Q: You'll be playing Ben Stone. How have you approached the role so far?
Garber: I've learned the music. I think it will all sort of happen when I get there. I've been working on the script and learning the music and just kind of getting it in my mind, and I'm sure that the minute I hear Victoria Clark sing "In Buddy's Eyes," I'll weep, so it will be perfect. In the meantime, I'm singing in the bathroom. It's a phenomenal cast, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it.

Q: Is it tough to do an Encores! show, where the prep time is so limited and the run ends just as the show gets under you?
Garber: Actually, that's the appeal to me. I love the idea that it is six performances and it's over. I have no problem with that at all. I would be much more nervous if it was going to be six months or a year run. I don't know if that's because I reached a point in my life where that's really a challenge that is almost too much. I think it's the perfect way to do Follies at this point. It's too big a show to actually mount any kind of elaborate production. I remember the original, and I'm sure a lot of people do. They tried to do it again at the Roundabout, and it didn't really work as a kind of deconstructed Follies. But it is a great show and it deserves to be seen, and I think this is the perfect venue for it.

Q: You were a part of Encores! last season as President Wintergreen in Of Thee I Sing, which was a lot of fun. What did you learn from that?
Garber: It was my first Encores! I had never done it, so I was kind of nervous. Actually, I remember talking to Victoria Clark once about it. I saw her in A Light in the Piazza, and I said I was going to do Encores!, and she said, "Just know everything before you go in," and she was completely right. You just have to know it before you step into the first rehearsal because it's like a roller coaster ride, and you really have to be prepared. I worked hard on Of Thee I Sing. I knew what I was doing by the time I got to the dress rehearsal, which is basically the opening night. I felt pretty comfortable. It certainly got better, but I feel that's the way you have to do these things. It was a fantastic cast again. I loved the people involved. [Director] John Rando, I thought did a great job. It was also fun to do something sort of light and breezy and kind of comedic because I've been playing such serious things lately. And, it's such a beautiful score, and for me to work with Paul Gemignani again was such a great treat. I just love him, and we have such a history, so it was really, really fun.

Q: Now with Follies, you step out of the light and breezy…
Garber: It's serious, completely, with some fantastically funny things in it. But it's incredibly complicated relationships and people going through a kind of cynical… They're not particularly likeable, these people. Particularly my character, but I've played Franklin In Merrily We Roll Along, which seems like a precursor to Ben Stone, like I've played the younger Ben Stone, and now I'm moving into this age range for me, so it is a familiar kind of character.

Q: You said you remember the original Follies. What are your memories?
Garber: I remember it as being spectacular to watch. I was young, and I sat in the front row, which I don't think is the best vantage point, but I just remember being blown away by it. I can remember the performances. I can remember Dorothy Collins really well. And John McMartin, who I just saw in Grey Gardens, and I said, "I listen to you every day now!" and he said, "Well, that's not a good idea." He was spectacular. Just spectacular.

Q: You've done literally every kind of show: serious musicals, comic plays, serious films, comic musical TV films, everything. How have you been able to be so wide open in your career choices?
Garber: My idea of being an actor when I was young was to play as many different kinds of people as I could, and I have been very lucky that I was never typed. I didn't start out in musicals in New York. I did Ghosts, one of my first New York performances, and that kind of set the tone. And, it was just fortunate that I could sing, and I was able to bridge that. It wasn't so much a conscious choice as it was fortunate that these roles came along and, yeah, if I read a script and I think, "Gee, I've played this before," it doesn't interest me as much as something that offers a different kind of approach to a character. I think it is really a combination of good fortune, and I was lucky enough to be able to sing. When I auditioned for Sweeney Todd, I certainly wasn't trained, and I remember thinking, "Oh, I'll never get this part because the voices I was hearing at the audition were so incredible." I think what they liked about my voice was that it didn't sound trained, and I think that appealed to them. So I've been fortunate in that way. I love singing, and I love musicals, and I love Sondheim, so it has worked out really well for me.

Q: Did you have extensive training in your youth in Canada?
Garber: No. I didn't have training, per se. I came to New York from Canada to do the movie of Godspell when I was 20, and I got an agent, and then I did Waltz of the Toreadors on tour with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. That was my first play in America. Then I did Ghosts.

Q: Godspell was certainly a major break for you, on stage and screen. What are your memories of it?
Garber: I think more of the Toronto production than the movie because the movie was not successful, although it has achieved a cult following which I have discovered. But the play was a big show in Toronto, [and] I'm still friendly with a lot of the people in that musical, and it was sort of like that was a very seminal point in my life. I can't really describe it, except that the people that I knew then — Andrea Martin, Marty Short, Eugene Levy, Paul Shaffer — they're all people that I'm still in close touch with, and there's something very grounding about that, having that kind of continuity of friendship and enjoying that. Then I did the movie of Godspell, and basically that's what brought me to New York.

Q: You mentioned a "cult following," which you also had with "Alias," although it was a pretty fair-sized cult for that show.
Garber: You never know when you step into something what the outcome will be, of course, but I think it broke ground for television. I think J.J. Abrams is kind of a genius, and they lucked out. They got Jennifer Garner who became a huge star, and I think that's why the show stayed on the air for so long. It was a great experience. Yes, it does have an avid following. It wasn't a large following, but they were certainly enthusiastic. People who watched that show were devoted to it. I was just in France, and it was incredible. Ron Rifkin and I actually went together, and it was amazing to walk through the airport in Paris. People were very excited. It's kind of wild.

Q: Shrinking the cult-size a good deal further, as a connoisseur of obscure pop music, I am curious about The Sugar Shoppe, a band I see mentioned in your bios.
Garber: The Sugar Shoppe was my first foray into the United States. We were a singing group modeled after the Mamas and the Papas, formed in Toronto by a friend of mine and myself, and we subsequently ended up making an album on Capitol Records and appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show." And then we were sort of like a lounge act. We never broke through with a single. Although we did a version of Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" that the Fifth Dimension kind of copied and had a hit from, but we were that kind of group. An intricate vocal, very entertaining lounge act, quite frankly. I was very young, and that was the beginning of my career. I thought that's where I would always be. I thought music and that kind of performing would be my life, and it changed when Godspell came to Toronto because that's when I realized I liked acting so much. It was a few years of my life and very intense.

Q: Do you have a role still out there that you would love to tackle some day?
Garber: I don't really have like a longing to do King Lear. I had talked about doing Henry Higgins in a revival of My Fair Lady. That would be a role I would love to do because I love Shaw, and I love that story. I thought that would be sort of something I would love to do someday, and hopefully I still have a few years before I can't do it. Honestly, I'm going to do Present Laughter, the Noel Coward play (in Boston in May at the Huntington Theatre). I hadn't been yearning to do it, but when I read it, my friend suggested he would direct it, and I thought, "This is something I want to do." It kind of comes to me in the moment.

Q: So there's no Master Plan?
Garber: No master plan. My master plan is just to stay healthy and keep going. That's really it. Every day is a challenge as one gets older.

Q: Any plans to officiate any more weddings, or was that a one-time deal?
Garber: One-time only, but it was pretty great.

[Follies will play City Center, West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, Feb. 8-12. Tickets are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by logging on to www.nycitycenter.org.]

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT
Garber noted in our discussion that he would not seem that unique in England, where young actors are trained to play every kind of role under the sun. Michael York was born in England — Fulmer to be precise — and he definitely has not been shy about taking chances with different types of characters over his career. He gained fame early on in Franco Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films, sustained it through popular adventure films like "The Three Musketeers" and "Logan's Run," and maintained it in the "Austin Powers" series. Although he was part of one of the most celebrated film musicals, "Cabaret," he is admittedly not known for his singing, so he could be stepping into one of the great performing challenges of his life, taking on the role of King Arthur in the newly minted touring Camelot that opened Jan. 30 in San Jose. If you're wondering what the King is doing tonight, he certainly isn't fazed by the task at hand. When we spoke during the final previews in La Mirada, CA, he said he was focused on "all Camelot all the time," and seemed in wonderful spirits. "I've always gone by the principle that I'd rather rue the sins of commission than omission, so let's see where this goes." Let's!

Q: What is the story of your involvement with this Camelot?
Michael York: It was a combination of things. You know how the actor's life is such a strange one. There's no logic to it. Maybe it's just destiny, I don't know. I once wrote an autobiography, and I called it "Accidentally On Purpose." It was meant to be attention-grabbing, but also it was deeply meant. Was this just a collection of happenstance, all these jobs, or was there some logic to it? Camelot came up, and I thought, "Well, I'm not sure." Then the idea began to sink in because the story is so great. Plus, the other factor was that Alan Jay Lerner's children were involved. Liza Lerner as a producer, and Michael Lerner, who is a brilliant screenwriter here in Hollywood, went back to examine his father's papers and adapted it to give it, I suppose, a modern sensibility. This is a cherished work, so you can't tinker with it too much. But [he] just moved things around. The placement of "If Ever I Would Leave You," for example, which always began the second act, he put in a very kind of important, crucial place in the middle of the second act, and it was interesting because Micheline Lerner, one of Alan Jay Lerner's wives, called me to say she enjoyed the production, [and] she said, "You know, Alan always wanted to do that." So that felt justified. The other important factor is that the play was going on tour, and I've never done a tour, and I wanted to see America. I've lived here a long time, but you tend to fly from where you are to where I am, missing out on all the America in between, so it all came together.

Q: Well, you just answered my next nine questions!
York: [Laughs.] I'm sorry. I just sort of went off.

Q: No, that was great. Now, are you ready for battle, so to speak, the life on the road in America?
York: I checked out with friends of mine, [and] they said, "You'll love it." In particular, one of our producers is Cathy Rigby, who has Peter-Panned all over America, and she said, "I think you'll really enjoy it," and I respect her opinion. And let's face it, if you're doing movies, you're spending a lot of time in hotel rooms and you're gadding around, flying here and there. So it is much the same, but [this is] just concentrated here in America.

Q: Did you work hard on the singing aspects of your performance?
York: We did a lot. I tried to get the singing out of the way. I took singing lessons whenever I could, particularly with our wonderful music director Craig Barna. And I'm enjoying the singing because it is brilliantly designed, this show. They did it for a non-singer, basically, and it is Guenevere and Lancelot who have the real singing.

Q: Richard Burton, of course, lives forever as Arthur due to the tremendously successful cast album. Did you find yourself comparing yourself to him?
York: I'd never seen it onstage. Of course, I'd heard the music. In fact, Richard Burton gave me my first job. He was one of the producers on "The Taming of the Shrew," which was my first movie, and at the end of it, he and Elizabeth Taylor gave me a photograph in a silver frame, and inscribed were the words, "You will tread greater boards than these. If not, we want to know the reason why." So, in a way, I feel very comfortable.

Q: Camelot has long been considered a problematic show because it has no true moral center with the King himself so conflicted. How do you deal with that?
York: He's very human and very understanding. These things happen in life. He has this very significant line when he's trying to think it through: "Can passion be selected?" Our version is very cleverly written, in the sense that you actually commiserate and feel sorry for and sympathize with each of the characters. This is the great job that Michael Lerner has done, so you don't come out despising Guenevere for what could be a story of adultery. It's a very fine line. Of course, I haven't seen our show, I've just been in it! But this is what people tell me, how pleased they are by the way this is handled.

Q: In 1982, you were in the cast of a musical version of The Little Prince story with a young Anthony Rapp that never opened on Broadway after 16 previews. What is the story behind that?
York: It didn't stand a chance. They didn't go out of town with it, didn't workshop it, which is the sine qua non [today]. It was done with a few weeks rehearsal. We followed Merrily We Roll Along, and the same thing happened there — they didn't go out of town, they tried to do it, you know . . . so we were fixing it every night in front of an audience. Not ideal. The tragic thing was, at the end of it all, at the last performances, you saw what it could be. It had a very good pedigree. Hugh Wheeler did the book and John Barry the music. In the end, I began to feel like The Little Prince exists in the imagination. It's far better there than being realized.

Q: I hear also that you have an extensive collection of theatrical memorabilia. Tell me about that.
York: I do love art, and it sounds more significant than it is, but over the years I've collected theatrical Staffordshire portrait figures. These were first produced in Britain in 1840, and there's one I really love. At the time they were for the people, and they were produced cheaply. Now, of course, they're treasured. But there's one I have which to my knowledge is unique, and it's of Charlotte Cushman who was an American actress who toured Britain in the nineteenth century, and she was a superstar. She was a sort of Britney Spears. She was a sensation, so I have her.

Q: What are your memories of working with the legendary Bob Fosse on "Cabaret"?
York: Very, very happy ones. We really enjoyed working with each other. It was a marvelous relationship, and we continued it afterwards. I know that Liza and I, everyone working on the film, sensed that he was someone who had a vision. It must have been hell for the producers because he had a sense of what he wanted to do, and we loved it because he was constantly feeding the imagination. There was no down time. I've said this before elsewhere, but usually on a film set, it is a highly technical thing, and you need to step out while the technicians take over, but he would take us away and we'd work on things and try things different ways. It was a very happy time for me.

Q: Do you think that the best creative types have to have a little tyrant in them?
York: I think all of our great legends do have it. You think of the Balanchines, but you have to have something also in your personality that people want to follow you through hell and high water: The sense that there is a leader in charge. He had it in spades, and it was so interesting where he was taking it. I don't think theatre is a half-hearted art. I went back to see A Chorus Line, for example, when I was in New York, and having known Michael Bennett, just what it must have been [like] when he was charting this territory, doing something so pioneering and remarkable, but how his cast must have just embraced his vision, having literally given so much of their own, their life stories; very exciting.

Q: To young people today, you may be best known as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers movies. How much fun were those to make?
York: Listen, you don't know how these things are going to turn out. This film came up. My agent said, "I don't know what you're going to think of this — it's not very promising." But I have to say this: Most actors go on instinct. There's no logic to what we do. You're guided by the gut. And I just thought there was something here. Also, having seen Mike Myers work on television, "Wayne's World" and so on. And having lived through the period in England in the sixties, swinging London and all that, I just loved the setting and the sensibility, and I was very glad to be proved right, not just once but three times.

Q: Four words the world is waiting for: Logan's Run: The Musical. Would you do it?
York: [Laughs.] Except I'd have to play the Peter Ustinov part now.

Q: Kind of like Robert Goulet moving up to play King Arthur. No more Logan 5 for you?
York: No, I don't think so. I've long gone to Carousel, or whatever it was called [where people went to die in "Logan's Run"]. [That movie] actually hit a nerve in a boomer generation because everyone of that age comes up to me and will say, "There was one movie you did when I was growing up that really had an effect…" and I know what they're going to say. Then I try to turn the tables and say, "Tell me why." I think it was the theme about parentless society, hedonistic society, having to give it up at an early age. Maybe the whole sense of where civilization was going in great underground cities and malls, but anyway, it touched a nerve. I keep hearing they are going to do a remake. Of course, now we expect the special effects to be extra special, so we'll see.

Q: Do you meet a lot of "Lost Horizon" fans?
York: Curiously, yes. The film wasn't considered a great success, but there are people for whom it means a lot, which is an object lesson. You feel that failure and success are never absolutes. And also some films take time. They come out, and maybe they are not appreciated when they first come out, but later they are. Conversely, films that are huge successes can completely die and lose favor. It's an odd thing, but that's the great thing about having the films on DVD.

Q: Finally, with Valentine's Day this month, can you tell some of us "How to Handle a Woman"?
York: You gotta come and see the show. I've got very secret information from a very powerful source. I think he has it right. Love, you know? It's a simple very powerful message. It's a lovely song.

[Camelot runs through Feb. 11 at the Center for Performing Arts in San Jose before moving about the country.]



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