Life is like a string. Actually, more like a bunch of strings, each tied to memories of people and moments and things learned throughout your life. Strings tied to strings tied to strings. Sometimes you pull one of those strings and all sorts of nifty things come cascading back at you because so much of these things are tied to one another. That's what it's like for me when I think about On the 20th Century. This entry may be a chore to slog through, full of tedious youthful exuberance and nerdy name-dropping and self-indulgence. But if you'll indulge me, I think you'll find a few glimpses into why I love musical theater as much as I do:
First off, for those not familiar with On the 20th Century, it's an American musical written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green (On the Town, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town) and Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Barnum, City of Angels) in a broad screwball comic operetta style. The story unfolds on the 16 hour journey of the titular train (from Chicago to NYC) wherein a down-on-his-luck former theatrical titan of a producer attempts to rise again by reconnecting with his once muse and lover who is now a glamorous Hollywood starlet. Add to the mix a vainglorious and jealous actor boyfriend, a couple of put-upon theatrical cronies, everyone and his sister pitching plays for a shot at showbiz glory, and a religious zealot on the loose covering the train in stickers ("REPENT for the time is at hand!"). The original production, directed by Hal Prince, starred Madeline Kahn (famously replaced by Judy Kaye), John Cullum, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca. It was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won five.
In 1998, I had never heard of On the 20th Century. But a friend recommended me to help fill out the ensemble in a staged reading presented by Los Angeles based membership group Musical Theatre Guild. It was to be directed by Joanna Gleason, the Tony-winning Baker's Wife of the original production of Into the Woods, whom I had most certainly heard of. I was also very familiar with this fine group of actors (star-studded to me) presenting lesser-known theatrical works. For a few years, I had been happily planting roots a bit further south in the CLOs and dinner theaters of southern Southern California. Getting on the train with MTG was going to be whole heck of a lot of fun, but it was also a little step out of the comfort zone for me. I was expanding my horizons.
The Musical Theatre Guild production was a one night event on the stage of the Pasadena Playhouse. The rehearsal process was a whirlwind, and show night was even crazier. My main contribution was to help hold down the tenor part (and not be destroyed by it) in this behemoth of a score. And, honestly, a highlight for me was the chance to take part in one of the finest overtures in musical theatre. To replicate the sound of steam engine exhaust, a fellow actor and I got to play the fire extinguishers. I loved it! Such a wonderful experience and quite a well-received night in the theater.
Flash forward five years. Five more years of shows and new friends and more stuff learned. And goals and dreams that had started to grow. 2003. I auditioned for the Reprise (a sort of west coast version of NYC's Encores series) production of the show. I knew Kay Cole (A Chorus Line's Maggie and choreographer of one of my very first shows), but the rest of the production team was new to me. Jerry Sternbach on music and David Lee (co-creator of Frasier and Wings) directing. And it was announced that the production would star Carolee Carmello (Parade, john & jen), Bob Gunton (Evita, The Shawshank Redemption), Mimi Hines (renowned vocalist and personality who was the first Fanny Brice after Streisand in Funny Girl), Robert Picardo (Star Trek Voyager), Dan Butler (Frasier), and Damon Kirsche (a talented fellow who I wasn't familiar with but who has since become one of my dearest friends). I still remember the thrill I felt when I found out that booked it. A part in the ensemble.
But there was a wrench in the works. Still non-Equity, I would be making a small weekly stipend for the five-week run. I also had an offer to play Marcellus in The Music Man at the Lawrence Welk Resort Dinner Theater in Escondido, CA. I'd be reprising a role I had already played, at a theater that was new to me (and at that time, a potential "card farm" gateway to union status). And I'd be playing with many old friends and others I had admired but had yet to work with, and I'd be making a pretty decent weekly salary for at least twelve weeks. In my estimation, a cushy gig. This was a quandry! In what I've often thought of as my first "big boy" or career-minded decision, instead of the more comfortable choice, I accepted the ensemble role in On the 20th Century for the networking opportunities and the chance to see if my abilities could share a stage with this particular group of stars and not stick out like a sore thumb of ineptitude. What follows is a bit of a stream-of-conscious remembrance of so many wonderful things that shake out when this string gets pulled:
I had to go to Western Costume in Hollywood for my costume fitting. Our designer took me through my costume plot, my suit and my tux and my overcoat and my hats and shoes. Then he told me that the dress maker would be coming in next to take my measurements. Um. Just out of curiosity, I nonchalantly asked, "So, why will I be in a dress?" He broke the news to me that I would be a body double for the role of Letitia Peabody Primrose in the "She's A Nut!" chase. Ha! I was overjoyed by the possibility of having such a unique credit on my resume: Stunt double for Mimi Hines. Alas, I was eventually reassigned to the role of Mental Hospital Orderly during the chase. Ah well. Incidentally, Ms. Hines is an absolute sweetheart and crackerjack performer. In addition to giving a hilarious performance onstage, she also made me laugh in moments offstage. During tech rehearsals, she sat in a little chair off stage left. And she wore a Simpsons watch that went off every hour. So periodically, from the darkness of backstage, I'd hear (Bart:) "Are we there yet?" (Homer:) "NO!" (Bart:) "Are we there yet?" (Homer:) "NO!" Every time it happened, she would laugh out loud, and then I'd get the giggles.
An American Idol.
Another person making the leap as a non-Equity actor into Los Angeles theatre from the happy stages of San Diego County was Adam Lambert. He was playing a Porter (the tenor) at Reprise. This was well before American Idol and his current successes. I had shared the stage with Adam a few times at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista, CA, the last of which was their 2000 production of Grease which featured Adam as Doody and yours truly as Roger. (You should hear our "Rock & Roll Party Queen.") In 2003, Adam had moved to North Hollywood with some other mutual friends, and they graciously let me crash on their couch during the run so I could cut my commute down a bit. I remember sitting at the living room table, drawing my closing night gift illustration and listening to Adam while he sang in the bathroom. The range and riffs were like nothing I had heard come from him, and I wondered if he would ever do something with that part of his abilities. Well, it looks like he did just that.
A step stool to the stars.
Early in the show, the mousy Mildred Plotka blossoms into her life as glamorous Lily Garland. It's during a French-themed number called "Veronique" and in this particular staging, Carolee Carmello had to get off of an upright piano rather quickly. It was requested that someone onstage at the time get down on all fours to allow her to step down easily. I volunteered. I can't remember the number of times Carolee apologized to me, but it was quite a few. But I was so happy to have such a unique part in the show, and, honestly, she's very light. We've had the chance in NYC to reminisce on our train ride. What a lady!
End of the Line.
It was during this production that news traveled from NYC that Al Hirschfeld, legendary theatrical "characterist" illustrator and a hero to me, passed away. His work meant – and still means – so much to those in the theatre, and at the time, I was very emotional about his passing. I had never even met the man. It's possible that had something to do with my sadness, but I think it had more to do with the fact that I really felt I knew the man because of what he drew and how he drew it. And I now had dreams of being that kind of an artist. Anyhoo, I brought my entire collection of Hirschfeld books and folios to the male ensemble dressing room table, and I watched as folks from all over the Freud Playhouse dropped in to peruse the drawings and talk about their favorites. It was really very special and made me feel like I had said goodbye in a way. As I completed my traditional closing night sketch, I included a little tribute to Mr. Hirschfeld. I would never think of putting my work in the same room as Al's, but I do fully embrace that what I do is in the same spirit and is carrying on the tradition he symbolizes. So as my commemorative doodle made its way to folks on closing night, Bob Gunton stormed from his dressing room to mine and paid me one of the most weighty compliments I've ever received. It moved me to tears. It was an instance of enthusiastic support that, along with many others, became a collective sign that I should pursue the illustration work more earnestly. Seven years later, after a few more developments and some preparation, I moved to NYC to pursue my dream of drawing the Broadway.
Life is like a train.
Both of these productions saw the beginning of many friendships and the continuation of others. And as a bonus, I've been able to work with many of these folks again. I returned a few times to Musical Theatre Guild and Reprise even after taking my Equity card. David Lee has been incredibly generous over the years, pulling me into many beloved projects, including Can-Can, first on the stage of the Pasadena Playhouse and then in an NYC workshop and then a full Broadway-aimed production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2014, my first east coast stage credit. This likely would not have happened had I not chosen to get on the train.
See what happens when I pull that string? My head and heart get flooded with stories about moments in my life when I was encouraged and enabled to grow and dream bigger, and I discovered that it might just be possible for me to flourish in a bigger pond than I had envisioned for myself. And all of this was wrapped in a score by Coleman and lyrics by Comden & Green.
So then, on an afternoon in March 2015, I sat in the American Airlines Theatre watching the first Broadway revival of the show starring Kristen Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Michael McGrath, Mark Linn-Baker, and Mary Louise Wilson. It's a stellar production. And my buddy Greg cheerfully indulged me as I gabbed and sniffled and told him way too much about the show and nudged him during numbers and bragged too much about the good ol' days. You see, here I was sitting in a Broadway theater on press tickets, preparing to create an illustration for an internationally renowned Broadway website, nearly five years into my tenure with them. And I was fully aware of this long string that was reaching way back to before I was new, all the way to now and beyond. And I'm so grateful.