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.
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.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Twentieth Century, Upstage