NINETEEN WONDERFUL GUYS would be a more apt title.
Yet Eddie Shapiro, author of A WONDERFUL GUY, used the singular when naming his 358-page tome of “conversations with the great men of musical theater.”
Actually, after you read his new book from Oxford University Press, you might up that nineteen to twenty. For Shapiro – who certainly knows what questions to ask – proves he’s wonderful, too.
Shapiro certainly must like SOUTH PACIFIC. Once again he titled his book after one of that musical’s songs, as he did with his much-acclaimed previous book of “conversations with the great women of musical theater”: NOTHING LIKE A DAME.
And so he talked to three members of The Greatest Generation (Len Cariou, John Cullum, Joel Grey), seven Baby Boomers (Michael Cerveris, Norm Lewis, Terrence Mann, Howard McGillin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael Rupert, Ben Vereen) and nine from Generation X (Christian Borle, Norbert Leo Butz, Will Chase, Gavin Creel, Raul Esparza, Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson, Marc Kudisch, Christopher Sieber).
They ruminated on the musicals that missed. Marc Kudisch believed that CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG “should have run five years.”
Terrence Mann lamented the loss of RAGS because “the music was extraordinary. Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse were geniuses.”
If they had hits, they told of them, too. Joel Grey described CABARET as “one big yes that touches every part of your life.” As for TITANIC, Michael Cerveris credited much of its success to Rosie O’Donnell.
Although O’Donnell wasn’t professionally connected with TITANIC, she emotionally connected to it. Said Cerveris, “She almost singlehandedly reoriented people’s thinking about it by going on her show every day and saying ‘I love this show!’”
Many of these nineteen had humble beginnings. Christopher (THE PROM) Sieber comes from a Minnesota town so small that a new baby’s birth spurs a resident to go out and change the number on the sign that tells the burb’s population.
Norbert Leo Butz is one of eleven children, but was “only” one of eight when his father took his brood to see YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD. Butz “became obsessed with black musicals” and gorged on the cast albums to THE WIZ and PURLIE.
(Don’t miss reading what Butz, at one of his first Broadway auditions, did after he was asked to bring a certain item. His naivete will make you guffaw. But oh-ho-ho, who’s got the last laugh now? If Butz is ever again asked to audition, he can now bring in what Beth Leavel and Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee Allen did in THE PROM: two Tonys.)
Gavin Creel detailed two injuries. In 2018, he blew out his knee while doing HELLO, DOLLY! – and wouldn’t you know that this was just hours before the Tonys? As he sat at the ceremony, he told his date “I kind of hope I don’t win, because I don’t know how I’m going to get up those stairs.”
But win he did. “I was like bouncing up the stairs,” he said. “Adrenalin is a beautiful thing.”
The earlier injury wasn’t as severe. When the phone rang on the morning that the 2001-2002 Tony nominations were announced, Creel – hoping for one for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE – was nevertheless sleeping. He was so excited to hear the phone ring that he literally hit his head on the ceiling.
(Yes, literally. Creel slept way up high on a loft bed.)
Shapiro reports other fun facts. Cheyenne Jackson’s rabid fans are known as Cheyennetologists. Jackson told of the unexpected and priceless gift he received on the opening night of ALL SHOOK UP from two world-famous celebrities.
Yet Jerry (42ND STREET) Orbach’s early encouragement may have ultimately been worth more to Jackson. It was similar to the feedback that Raul Esparza received from Lea DeLaria that helped him shine in THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. That success led to Esparza doing Tick, Tick … BOOM! during much of 2001, including the weeks after 9/11.
“We were so close to the towers at the Jane Street Theatre,” he said, “that you could smell it.”
Shapiro gives time to elder statesmen. You may, however, take issue
With John Cullum’s opinion that CAMELOT’s “The Seven Deadly Virtues” is just “a list song.” No, Alan Jay Lerner probed Mordred’s nasty mind and had him give a cynical interpretation for each of the seven. (“It’s not the earth the meek inherit; it’s the dirt.”) And in a mere ninety-six seconds!
Len Cariou talked of the time that he was sought by Hal Prince to play Carl-Magnus, the second male lead in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Cariou wasn’t interested in a supporting role, but he wouldn’t miss the chance to audition for Stephen Sondheim.
In fact, many spoke about performing for Sondheim and enjoyed saying that they got him to cry. Their egos may get a bit bruised when they read Cerveris’ opinion that “Getting Stephen Sondheim to cry is not always the most difficult thing.”
Norm Lewis admitted to shedding some tears, too, after he’d learned that he’d landed a role in SIDE SHOW. He boarded a plane, started crying for joy and thus caused a flight attendant to nervously ask “Are you all right?”
As for SIDE SHOW – one Broadway’s best cult musicals – Lewis said “People gravitated towards it – even though not enough of them gravitated.”
Lewis didn’t gravitate toward A NEW BRAIN when offered it. You might assume that he did, given that he appears on the cast album. He’ll tell you how that happened.
Back to Cariou, who instead of landing Carl-Magnus got Fredrick, the unquestioned male lead. A few years later, Prince told him “By the way, Steve has written a musical for you.” It was SWEENEY TODD, and Cariou, at the first reading, thought “They’ve lost their minds!”
(Cariou didn’t mean the characters.)
By the way, did Prince’s “By the way” bring Michael Bennett to mind? A CHORUS LINE’s auteur was famous for offhandedly saying “By the way” as if the information he was about to impart was no big deal when he knew full well it was. So did Bennett get the expression from Prince or vice versa?
No matter what Irving Berlin told us in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, not everything about show business is appealing. As ideal as Christian Borle was for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, would the cast assume he got the job because Sutton Foster, his girlfriend at the time, had demanded it? For that matter, would the creators cast him fearing her hard feelings if they didn’t?
Brian Stokes Mitchell revealed what came to be known as “The F.U. Lunch” he and the cast of RAGTIME had with producer Garth Drabinsky. Yet that bad experience was dwarfed by a letter that a RAGTIME attendee wrote him: “When I left the theater, I realized I’d been a racist all my life and I didn’t even know it.”
Delicious opinions on co-workers abound. Will Chase revealed that Chita Rivera is a “notorious prankster.” Mann admired Angela Lansbury when they did MRS. SANTA CLAUS: “It was swelteringly hot. They had lamps on us and she was in this Santa Claus suit outfit up to her neck with a muff and we were there for hours and hours. She was so dignified, so gracious, so sweet.”
Michael Rupert reported that Julie Andrews, with whom he did PUTTING IT TOGETHER, would “make sure we had our vitamins.”
As for Gower Champion (who gave him his big break in THE HAPPY TIME) he was “a very hard worker and a very nice guy.”
That might not surprise you, but what about Mann’s revelation about his director-choreographer when he was rehearsing JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY? “He was,” said Mann, “really, really kind and funny.”
Now there’s a minority report …
There are, however, some less-than-wonderful opinions on some performers. Sieber stated that Davey Jones was such “an absolute nightmare” that you’ll be glad that the cast album for OLIVER! was recorded before he joined the show as The Artful Dodger.
There are three observations on Elaine Stritch. Rupert called her “the worst human being on the planet.” Cullum said “There was a part of me that wanted to work with Elaine Stritch but there was a part of me that was scared to.”
But Howard McGillin had the best Stritch story, which was the result of their doing FOLLIES IN CONCERT.
“It’s opening night,” McGillin reminisced. “She does ‘Broadway Baby’ and I say ‘Elaine, that was unbelievable!’
“And she looked at me and said ‘Who are you?’”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.