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On the Twentieth Century

Interview with Actor Peter Gallagher

Posted on: March 3rd, 2015 by Ted Sod

 

Peter-Gallagher-2

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews actor Peter Gallagher about his role in On the Twentieth Century.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated, Peter?

Peter Gallagher: I was born in New York City in Lenox Hill Hospital and grew up in Armonk, NY, where I went to Byram Hills High School and then to Tufts University in Boston – where I met my wife.


TS: Did you have great teachers who have influenced you?
PG:
I have been very lucky to have had, and still have, some amazing teachers – they are really important. Mr. Gene P. Bissell was my music teacher in high school, and he was the one that introduced me to the theatre. He had worked in New York professionally years before. He was a wonderful pianist and composer. It was on one of his field trips that I saw my first Broadway show (Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway and a young Morgan Freeman in the chorus). It was my first exposure to anything like that, and he also introduced me to the discipline of the theatre. I did a bunch of shows with him and learned a lot and will always be grateful to him.


TS: Did you always know you could sing?

PG: No. I suspected that I could because I would do impressions of people like Dean Martin. To me, they sounded pretty good, but I'd never sung in front of anybody. In fact, I was misbehaving in Mr. Bissell's music class, and I remember, in an effort to humiliate me, he had me stand up and said, “Okay, sing this solo by yourself.” It was sort of a pivotal moment because I was deeply terrified but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of embarrassing me, so I thought, “Goddammit, I'm going to give this my best shot.” I guess it was okay because he didn't say anything after I was through – although I was the only one in the class he didn’t ask to be in the first show – I got my chance on the second one, Pajama Game, and never looked back.


TS: Why did you choose to do On the Twentieth Century and to play Oscar Jaffe?

PG: Because Oscar Jaffe is a great role. Throughout my career, I've always come back to the theatre because that's where I've always gotten the best roles. I've wanted to work with Kristin Chenoweth for years. Scott Ellis is an old friend of mine. We started off our careers in a bus-and-truck tour of Grease in the '70s. I also had the good fortune of working with Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Hal Prince on the very next show that they did after On The Twentieth Century, which was A Doll's Life. A Doll's Life was a pretty big flop, but it's still one of my favorite experiences. I've learned that whether a show hits or misses, it doesn't have any relationship to the quality of the experience you have in helping put it together. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have this role in this production. This is the first day of rehearsal, so fingers shall remain crossed for months.


TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do in order to play Oscar?

PG: I've been working on the music with my wonderful singing teacher, Joan Lader, for a little while - it's a lot of big singing. I've been researching great theatre artists of the period, in particular, David Belasco. I think Betty and Adolph were intrigued with Belasco, as well. Some people think of him as a genius who insisted on the most natural kind of settings, detail, lighting, and acting. Other people think he was just a hack. Between idiot and genius, there's a lot of fun to be had with a character like Jaffee.


TS: What are some of your early thoughts about the character of Oscar?

PG: He very much believes in the long shot and the power and the importance of what he does. He thinks every moment in life could be improved with a little salesmanship and stagecraft. I love the fact that Oscar has to write a play in 16 hours. I also love the fact that Belasco, who didn't have the benefit of Chekhov or other great playwrights, wrote a lot of the plays he produced himself. Some of the plays are really cool, and some of them were not so great, but he wrote over 200 plays! That’s extraordinary. I'm looking forward to finding that intersection of art and life for Oscar. For him, the theatre is like life and death. It's that important. It's a vocation. It's a calling. He’ll do whatever he needs to do at the moment to make the moment work. When Belasco did a show that required a laundry set or kitchen set he would insist that they be fully functioning, so the audience would believe in what was happening.. He put an active, functioning laundry on stage so the actors would be actually washing clothes. If it was a kitchen scene, actors would actually fry eggs so the smell of food would waft into the audience. Belasco was all about capturing the right light. He would study light. It was all an attempt to create real life on the stage as closely as he possibly could.


TS: Sometimes Oscar's described as a megalomaniac. Do you see him that way?

PG: I think that Belasco’s fascination with detail and dedication to it certainly, in others' eyes, could easily pass for megalomania. I think all good directors are megalomaniacs – and know it. I recently realized this will be the third director I've played in a row on Broadway: Bernie Dodd in The Country Girl and Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off. Hopefully third time’s the charm! I’ve also had a few trains in my past on Broadway…hmmm.


TS: Will you talk about your understanding of the relationship between Oscar and Lily?

PG: I think it's a love story. The musical focuses on Oscar's pursuit of his own salvation and Lily's pursuit of her renewed legitimacy as an actress, which allows them to rediscover how much they've missed each other. Oscar has kept his ear to the ground and figured out a way to be in Lily’s proximity. There's a freedom and comfort they provide each other because they intimately know one another. In a way, there's nothing more important to them than being as good as they can be, and they love taking no prisoners. Of course, the relationship really depends on who is playing Lily, and because it’s Kristin, it’s wonderful.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Kristin Chenoweth & Peter Gallagher. Photo by Joan Marcus


TS: Would you say they have a symbiosis?

PG: Yes, there is give and take between them. There are some people that understand each other. Very rarely do you get a chance to revisit those wonderful feelings you have with certain people. I think in their early successful times together, they both made the mistake of thinking that they were the one who had something to do with it, instead of recognizing their good fortune. Both of them have said, “Oh, I don't need him,” or “Oh, I don't need her.” The truth is they are better together.


TS: I also wanted to ask you a little about Oscar's relationship to Oliver and Owen. Why do you think they're so loyal to him?

PG: That’s a different kind of love story. What else do you have except your relationships and your friendships? They’ve been through the wars together and survived. Why throw your lot in with someone new? When things are going well and the money's coming in and the audiences are filling the seats, everything is great. This just happens to be a time when everything's gone to shit. And it may very well be the end of Oscar Jaffe. It might be just his swan song, and nobody wants to get any of that on them – but Oscar still owes them money – and where else will they go?


TS: How do you like to collaborate with the director, musical director, and choreographer?

PG: Rehearsal might be my favorite part of the process, and these rehearsals are led by an amazing group of creative people. I have ideas about Oscar, but I’m just as interested -- if not more so -- in their ideas. I'm not really a dancer, so I’ve just got to work hard and hide behind our truly amazing dancers. Warren is a great choreographer and director in his own right and a really kind person, so I seriously doubt he's going to be giving me something that's going to make him or me look bad. Kevin Stites is a great music director who has assembled some of the finest voices on Broadway and is succeeding in teaching the rest of us this amazing score, too. I have every confidence in Scott, who is the premier director on Broadway right now. I love his work: its diversity, precision, and heart, and I couldn't have more respect for him. I'm thrilled that he wanted me to play this part. I think we'll all have to work really hard to have a lousy time.


TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to be a performer?

PG: I truly believe ninety percent of life is showing up. Regardless of what you do, whether it's in show business or not, it's all about showing up. If there's anything else you can imagine doing other than going into show business, do it. If there's absolutely nothing else you can imagine doing, then you owe it to yourself to give it your best shot because you don't want to be lying on your death bed thinking, I wish I had...I shoulda...I coulda. And if you’re lucky enough to get to do what you love and can make a living at it – have fun and don’t forget that you’re one of the lucky ones.


On the Twentieth Century is now in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Twentieth Century, Upstage


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Interview with Lyricist Amanda Green

Posted on: March 2nd, 2015 by Ted Sod

 

Amanda Green Headshot

Amanda Green

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews lyricist Amanda Green about On the Twentieth Century.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated and when did you decide to write for the musical theatre?
Amanda Green: I was born in New York City and grew up in the apartment my mother, Phyllis Newman, still lives in on Central Park West. I went to Brown University, got a BA in Dramatic Literature, and I attended the Circle in the Square actors training program after that. I started to write for the musical theatre after I'd been singing at various cabaret gigs and writing country songs. On a whim, I applied to the BMI musical theatre workshop. As soon as I started writing theatre songs, I thought, oh, of course, this is what I should be doing. I went a round-about way to writing musical theatre songs because, at first, I wanted to act, and then I thought I'd write contemporary, non-theatrical music – maybe subconsciously I thought, don't go there. My father, Adolph Green, and my mother both were notable in the musical theatre world. But as soon as I started writing theatre songs, I felt at home. I realized this is what I know how to do and what I love doing.

TS: How did you get involved with the revival of On the Twentieth Century? Can you describe exactly what your role will be?
AG: Scott Ellis, the director, asked me to come aboard to look at one specific moment in the show -- Oscar's “11:00 number,” originally titled “The Legacy.” It's a superb song that is totally in character with Oscar. But Scott was looking to make that moment have more heft, and when I studied it, I agreed the moment could be more emotional and revelatory about Oscar. As it exists, it is hilarious, but essentially a list song. I thought it could be a reckoning with himself about how much he loves and needs Lily – not just for his success on stage, but in his life, and owning his part in why she left. At the same time, it should be funny and, like him, a bit grandiose and myopic. Musically, I toyed with using melodies from several songs in the show, or maybe even using a Cy Coleman trunk song. In the end though, the existing melody to “The Legacy” suited the moment perfectly; as did the brilliant and hilarious lyrics of the song’s introduction. So I kept both those intact.

TS: Is that difficult, to get into the heads of the original writers, one of whom was your father?
AG: At first, I didn't know if it could be done or if it needed to be done. I love On the Twentieth Century, so I wasn’t thinking, “Oh my God, how can you fix this show?” I really went into it saying, “Let me see if I can come up with something. If not, then not.” Anyway, as I started to write, I asked myself that very same question: what is this going to be like? But Oscar is such a huge, rich character, thanks to my father and his writing partner, Betty Comden, that he is really, really fun to write for. I had a blast working on it.

TS: Do you have any recollections of the original production? You must have been a tween at the time.
AG: Yes, exactly. I was a tween. I remember being out of town one weekend. My brother, Adam, and I were with my dad in Boston. I remember the fun of it. God, I love that show. Who can forget Kevin Kline and Madeline Kahn and John Cullum? I have vivid memories of that production. The set was so exciting and the train - it was amazing when the steam came out, seeing it at different vantage points - it was all very dazzling.

TS: Can you talk a bit about Comden and Green and their working relationship from your perspective? What was that like?
AG: They were true partners. Whatever their private talks were about work, they always presented a unified front. They really created one voice together. I think that they were loyal, and they absolutely shared a theatrical mindset and an exquisite sense of humor. They had tremendous fun, intelligence, intellect and understood and loved human foibles and relationships. Theirs was a truly symbiotic partnership.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Betty Comden and Adolph Green

TS: Were you ever able to watch them work or was that a private thing of theirs?
AG: It was a private thing. I certainly heard them when they were rehearsing, and I was there at early readings or backers’ auditions. I could hear them all at the piano: Cy Coleman, my father, and Betty doing backers’ auditions for On the Twentieth Century and then later, I remember them singing “Never Met a Man I Didn't Like” from The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue when it was first written. And I know what they ate when they were working. They'd go over to the kitchen and come back with a tray of soup and lots of matzo and things like that. They liked to snack to a lot. I could tell you what they snacked on when they wrote.

TS: Do you personally relate to any of the characters in On the Twentieth Century? If so, which one and why?
AG: I think one of the reasons why it's such a beloved musical is because of these characters they’ve created with these huge theatrical egos. I can relate to all of them in different ways. Actually, they remind me of my father. Oscar reminds me of my dad because I can hear him singing “I Rise Again,” which he loved. The show makes you love theatre people because of their egos, vanity, and fun, and their undeniable love of the theatre. That's why the show is so much fun; it obviously loves the world of the theatre and it pokes fun at it, too. You love the characters even as you see them scheming and trying to put one over on each other. It makes you fall in love with theatre people even with all their flaws.

TS: Do you see it as a love story between Oscar and Lily?
AG: I do. I do. If they have a true love, it is each other, absolutely.

TS: I was wondering if you would share what other projects you're working on currently?
AG: 2014 has been the year of my dad and Betty. I just finished doing Peter Pan Live, which was really fun. I wrote a few additional songs using Jule Styne's music and starting with the base of the songs that he wrote with my dad and Betty to create some new song moments for Captain Hook, Wendy, Mrs. Darling, and Peter. That was very exciting. Again, another outsized character that reminds me of my dad, Captain Hook. I just started working on a new musical I am very excited about.

TS: Is there a question you wish I had asked but didn’t?
AG: I just think that people today will enjoy On the Twentieth Century as much as, if not more than, when it first came out. It's truly a fantastic musical. It's so funny and smart, and you fall in love with these characters. I love the operetta style of it. And I'm so excited to have Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher and the rest of this great cast be part of the first Broadway revival.


 

On the Twentieth Century is now in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Twentieth Century, Upstage


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Profile on Composer: Cy Coleman

Posted on: February 24th, 2015 by Roundabout

 

Neil Simon and Cy Coleman

Neil Simon and Cy Coleman

“A permanent gem in Broadway’s crown." So said theatre critic Clive Barnes in praise of Cy Coleman and his nearly half-century of contributions to the American musical. Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman on June 14, 1929, the son of Russian immigrants. His mother owned an apartment house in the Bronx, where Seymour started playing music at age 4 when a tenant vacated, leaving behind a piano. The building’s milkman heard Seymour play and was so impressed that he introduced Seymour to his son’s piano teacher. Seymour made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 7. He attended the High School of Music and Art and at age 16 changed his name to “Cy Coleman” on the advice of a music publisher.

While attending New York College of Music, Coleman formed a jazz trio and earned money playing in cocktail lounges and clubs, where his enthusiasm for jazz and standards drew him away from classical music. He met lyricist Carolyn Leigh in the early 1950s and embarked on a fruitful but stormy collaboration. Coleman’s pop-jazz melodies combined with Leigh’s sophisticated, often suggestive lyrics to produce songs like “Witchcraft” (1957) and “The Best Is Yet To Come” (1959). Recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman and Leigh’s classic songs have been described as “the ultimate musical distillation of sophisticated cocktail party banter of the period.”

In 1960, Coleman and Leigh were brought on to compose a Broadway vehicle for Lucille Ball. The show, Wildcat, had a short run, but the song “Hey Look Me Over” became a standout hit. Next, the team scored Little Me (1962), book by Neil Simon, directed by Bob Fosse, and starring Syd Caesar. Despite its success, this was the final collaboration for Coleman and Leigh, who were fighting constantly.

Coleman continued to work with Fosse and Simon and paired with lyricist Dorothy Fields for Sweet Charity. The score included the numbers “Hey Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Coleman and Fields followed up with Seesaw, a modest success, featuring a young Tommy Tune. Fields passed away in 1974, and Coleman next worked with Michael Stewart on I Love My Wife (1977).

When approached about composing On the Twentieth Century with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Coleman was initially reluctant. He thought the 1920s pastiche had been overdone, but when he realized that the larger-than-life characters could be musically expressed using a light opera style, he got on board. Coleman won his first Tony Award for Original Score for this show in 1978.

Coleman's next triumph was the circus-style show Barnum (1980). He later took the Tony two years in a row, for the film-noir inspired City of Angels (1990) and the country spectacular The Will Rogers Follies, again with Comden and Green (1991). His last Broadway show was the gritty urban musical The Life (1997). For each new show, Coleman established a unique musical idiom and never repeated a style.

Remarking on his work ethic, Coleman said, “I don’t like to let go. I will drain to the last drop." Until his death he was was juggling multiple projects: a 2005 revival of Sweet Charity and several new shows, including a stage version of Wendy Wasserstein’s children’s book Pamela’s First Musical. He also continued to perform his own cabaret act regularly at Feinstein’s. Coleman passed away in February 2004; the following evening, the lights in all Broadway theatres were dimmed to honor his memory.

American Operetta

At first, Cy Coleman was reluctant to compose On the Twentieth Century because he felt there had been too many other musicals set in the ‘20s and referencing popular music of that decade. But as he considered the characters’ large personalities and “tikka-tikka-tikka” patter sound of a train, Coleman was excited to reference operetta, also known as “light” or “comic” opera, which had its peak popularity in America in the 1920s.

The origins of operetta go back to 19th-century Europe, with Jacques Offenbach in France and the ever-popular W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan in England. For his inspiration, Coleman drew largely from two great composers of American operetta: Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml. Both came from Eastern Europe in the first decade of the 20th century. They struck musical gold collaborating with American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. How else could Friml, a piano virtuoso from Prague, dream up Rose-Marie, an operetta set in the Canadian Rockies, with lovers yodeling the “Indian Love Call”? Romberg’s great success, The Desert Song, traded on the success of American movie star Rudolph Valentino and the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia.

With sweeping scores and romantic stories, operetta appealed to middle-class audiences who wanted something in between the rough entertainments of the Bowery and the highbrow refinements of the Metropolitan Opera. With the Great Depression, the attraction of operetta’s grandness shifted to more sophisticated musical comedy. Productions of Friml and Romberg shows are rare today, but their works would influence musical theatre for many decades. Hammerstein went on to pen the books and lyrics for some of Broadway’s greatest romantic musicals, including Showboat, The King and I, and South Pacific.


On the Twentieth Century is now in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Twentieth Century, Upstage


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