After six visits over the past two years, New York officially peaked for me last weekend. I suppose it’s possible to top the awesomeness/epicness of Oct 22-24, 2010, but it’s going to be damn hard.
This was actually over a year in the making. Summer 2009, Nicki and I met in New York for a trip to see Next to Normal. At some point, our mutual love of David Hyde Pierce came up, and we decided then and there that when he came back to Broadway, we would go see him.
Let me pause here and say that in case you don’t know who he is – and if you are reading this blog there’s a slim chance you don’t – he is best known for playing Niles Crane on my beloved Frasier, but he’s also a kick-ass and Tony-award winning stage actor, recently seen in Spamalot and Curtains (he won the Tony for the latter) as well as a ton of other stuff pre-Frasier. You can also check him out in the super twisted but hilarious film Wet Hot American Summer, as well as Down With Love, A Bug’s Life, the weird yet intriguing Wolf, and the promising yet-to-be-released The Perfect Host (playing at a film festival near you). And if that’s not enough for you, check out the newest audiobook of The Phantom Tollbooth, which he not only narrates but also plays every single character. (A mighty task as the book has at least 30 distinct characters.)
Flash forward a year, and it’s announced that Mr. Pierce is indeed returning to the boards for a limited run of the 1991 David Hirsen play La Bete. I don’t think it’s what we were expecting, but hey, it was a play, it was on Broadway and it had DHP, so we were there.
We got tickets way in advance. A few days later, I found out that Mr. Pierce would be participating in the 92nd Street Y Broadway Talks series the day after we were seeing him in La Bete. Obviously, we needed to see this as well. And so it turned into a “DHP-themed weekend.”
And that would have been enough, truly. Butttt…a few weeks ago I get an email from Nicki (now a full-fledged New Yorker) asking if there was anything else I wanted to do while in the city, since both of our events were in the evening. I jokingly said maybe we could get discount tickets to another show and see a matinée on Saturday. And that led to getting balcony seats to La Cage Aux Folles, which fit into the theme of the weekend since Kelsey Grammer is currently playing Georges in the revival.
See how that all worked out?
After looking forward to the weekend for months, it finally arrived, and could not have gone better. Seriously you guys: New York has peaked.
We weren’t sure about La Cage Aux Folles. Sure, it won the Tony for best revival, but it’s also Jerry Herman, whose music is…well, old-fashioned. But hey, it fit the theme, the tickets were cheap, and Nicki had heard good buzz. Despite a slow start, the show was…great. Fantastic. So, so joyful. I had a smile on my face almost the entire time, and left with a full heart. Also of note: we did not see Douglas Hodge, who won the Tony this year for playing Albin. Instead, we saw Dale Hensley in the flamboyant role. But honestly, if we hadn’t gotten the little notification in our program, we would have never known. (Sorry Douglas Hodge, I am sure you are great, but I don’t *really* know who you are.) Hensley was superb in the role, rounding out a wonderful cast. Kelsey Grammer plays the (pardon the pun) straight man in the show, someone trying to do right by and please both his son and his partner; anyone familiar with the show or the movie The Birdcage knows that does not happen. Grammer has a very pleasant, easy singing voice, which actually makes his main songs (“With You On My Arm”, “Song On The Sand”, “Look Over There”) that much sweeter. Robin de Jesus as Jacob, Alvin and Georges’ maid/butler steals every scene he is in. The dancing is incredible – weird (see: the title song, where all the Cagelles sport bird costumes and strut around as such) – but great. We clapped along to “The Best of Times Is Now” and while I can’t speak for Nicki, but I got pretty teared up at the show’s signature song and show-stopper, “I Am What I Am.” Yeah, it’s a total cliché of a song, and we knew it was coming, but damn. See that song performed live and I bet you’d tear up, too.
The musical first premiered in 1983, and as timely as it was then, it is timely once again today. I don’t know if the producers did that on purpose; who knows how long the revival was in the making, and perhaps they had already decided to do it before Prop 8 and DADT came into the spotlight, but it certainly makes an impression. As we left the theater, I remarked to Nicki that the La Cage really did everything you can ask of a Broadway show: It took me to another place for a few hours, made me laugh, made me think, and left me with a full heart. So, to sum up: Go see this show. And as proven with our understudy: This show need not rely on a star-studded cast – it is what it is, speaks for itself, and can hold its own.
Also, I now renounce my Jerry Herman bashing for winning a lifetime achievement award two years ago. You actually can write music, sir, and even though it’s old-fashioned, that doesn’t mean it’s not good.
So, part 1 of our journey was over, but the best was yet to come.
Later that evening, we headed over to the Music Box Theater to see La Bete, but before we went in we took some pictures, because we are dorks.
Let me just stop here and briefly discuss my love for DHP. I know that I often gush over this or that actor on the blog. And I do love all those guys – Neil Patrick Harris, Malcolm Gets, Ewan McGregor(/McSexy) Lauren Graham, Jon Hamm – they’re all great. However, gun to the head, David Hyde Pierce is my favorite actor of all time. I’ve loved him since Frasier began when I was a mere 6th grader. Also, unlike a lot of people I gush over, it’s not a shallow crush because I think he’s hot (though he does have stunning eyes). I really admire DHP, as an actor, a humanitarian and just the way he carries himself – unpretentious, smart, calm. And seriously, dude can act. If you’ve only seen him in Frasier, think about all he is given to do: there is the physical comedy – ironing his pants and lighting the apartment on fire, carrying around a sack of flour for a child, dueling a fencing instructor– but also: dealing with the deterioration and eventual end of his marriage, his longing for and eventual relationship with Daphne and the endless squabbles with his brother, which range from the ridiculous to the heartfelt.
So umm, anyway, all of this to say: of all the shows I’ve seen on Broadway, this meant the most. I mean, it’s not every day you get to see someone you’ve loved and admired for most of your life perform mere feet away from you.
And now, on with the show.
Wow. First of all, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Second, Mark Rylance is definitely an early frontrunner for the Tony. The show takes place in France in the 1650s, and is written in rhyming couplets. (Are you on board yet?) But don’t let that keep you away – because the performances are just terrific.
At the start of the show, playwright Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) leader of a high-class theater troupe, is up in arms because his benefactor, the Princess (Joanna Lumley) wants him to add another actor to the ensemble – Valere (Mark Rylance). Elomire believes in high art, in preserving words, and views Valere as an example of everything going wrong with society and art. Enter Valere, a crude, spitting, farting, rambling beast of a man, who speaks non-stop for the next 30 minutes, yet never completes a thought and never really says anything. It’s a tour de force performance for Rylance, and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Equally as entertaining as listening to Rylance give his rambling monologue is to watch Pierce and Stephen Ouimette (playing troupe member Bejart) react to him. They can’t get him to shut up, and engage in their own silent dialogue throughout Valere’s verbal one.
Eventually, Valere shuts up, and the Princess arrives to convince Elomire to bring him into the troupe. And that’s all I’ll say about the actual plot.
The play itself has a lot to say about high art versus low art, and at the end of the show, it’s not clear who is right and who is wrong in that argument. Which is kind of the point.
On a shallow note, Nicki and I were transfixed by DHP’s wig. Seriously, take a second look – this is an AMAZING wig.
For those interested, here is a preview of the La Bete. It’s worth seeing for sure; I encourage all of you to get tickets!
So then it was time for after the show, and the stage door. As a rule I do not have to do the stage door. In fact, I’ve only done it once before, after The Story of My Life. I have sort of lingered on the outskirts and observed other people, which is kinda fun from a people-watching perspective, but isn’t what I could consider actually waiting by the door for actors to come out.
However, this time, we were on a mission. Well, okay, to be fair, I would have made Nicki wait with me regardless because it was freaking David Hyde Pierce, but we DID have a mission: to get my friend’s birthday present signed. A few days before the trip, I got a flash of inspiration, and decided that it would be the coolest thing ever to get a picture or poster or something from Spamalot (which my friend absolutely loves), take it to the stage door, and ask DHP to sign it for him. Awesome, right? I also figured that even if my friend didn’t like it, it would still be cool getting it done. So, we searched high and low (read: like, 45 minutes max) for a Spamalot picture or poster or something, got a smallish picture already framed and small enough to fit in my bag for the rest of the night.
Being the dork that I am, I’d read a few accounts of people’s experiences stage dooring for DHP. So I figured he’d be nice and friendly to everyone, the only hitch would be we’d have to wait awhile, as I read he tended to take his time leaving the theater. Fortunately, it was a nice night, and while there was a crowd waiting, it wasn’t a full-on nuts crowd like I imagine the ones for Spamalot or Curtains were.
While we were waiting, the lovely Joanna Lumely came out, and stayed for quite a while, signing Playbills and taking pictures with people. Next came Mark Rylance, and this deserves to be mentioned: That dude is freaking badass. While Ms. Lumely and (eventually) DHP had cars waiting for them, Mark Rylance came out dressed head to toe in biking gear: helmet, spandex shorts underneath regular shorts, and brown sandles with purple socks, and HIS FOLD-UP BIKE. He also signed stuff and took pictures, and then took his bike about 10 feet away from the crowd on the street, set it up, and rode away. The whole thing was awesome and also..erm…weirdly hot.
After about forty-five minutes of waiting, DHP finally came out, and started signing things and taking pictures. Nicki and I had devised a plan beforehand: She had both our Playbills as well as my camera, and I just had my picture. We didn’t want to be those people taking up all of his time, so she was going to have him sign our Playbills and then take a picture if he granted me one, and I would just concentrate on getting the gift signed.
And…it all worked out! After signing our stuff (and Nicki complementing him on the show) he came to me.
“I have a special request,” I said.
“No,” he said completely deadpan.
I told him it was my friend Jeff’s birthday, who is a huge fan of Spamalot and loved DHP in it, and then asked if he could sign the picture as part of the gift. He asked if Jeff was spelled with a J, then asked me where I wanted him to sign. We decided around the edges would be best, and he wrote the following:
When he finished, I thanked him and asked if we could take a picture (felt okay about this since other people had been doing it). He obliged and Nicki was ready at the camera.
So, yeah. That happened. Really couldn’t have gone better. Afterward, Nicki jokingly (/partly not jokingly) said that I should keep the picture. And while it was tempting, a.) My name is not Jeff and b.) I would’ve actually felt guilty about it, like I took advantage of DHP’s kindness. And for those wondering, I gave it to Jeff on Monday and he seems to like it. My favorite reaction (there were about three different ones as he processed it) was “Bullshit!” to which I said, “No, seriously! I have photographic evidence!”
I think the best part of the experience (aside from…you know, THE EXPERIENCE) is that I was on a mission, so I didn’t really have a chance to be nervous or act like a jerk. I thought about what I was going to say, stuck to my mental script, and my hands didn’t even shake when I handed him the picture. Though, to be honest, Mr. Pierce is like, the least intimidating person ever. He has very kind eyes and a calm demeanor that puts one at ease. (At least, put ME at ease). Again, I only ever met one other “celebrity” so maybe I am blowing things out of proportion, but I was kind of amazed at how easy the whole thing was.
I didn’t think that experience could be topped, but was once again wrong, as my favorite part of the weekend was still ahead of us.
Going in, both Nicki and I expected it to be your standard moderated Q&A, starting with questions about his childhood, how he got into acting, highlighting some of his roles, etc. Which would have been fine. But what we got was so much better.
First of all, I have to give major props to Mr. Roth, who proved that a good moderator makes all the difference. Not only was he prepared to the letter, he DIDN’T make it the standard interview. Instead, his questions focused mainly on La Bete, the experience of working on the show, and Mr. Pierce’s thoughts on how the shows ideals about high and low art relate to today’s world. When Mr. Roth did ask more “standard” questions (i.e. when DHP came out, his work with the Alzheimer’s Association, and a bit about Frasier), the conversation did not lapse into familiar territory; it remained thoughtful and interesting.
The other thing Nicki and I appreciated is that Mr. Roth just let DHP talk. He knew his role in this conversation. When he would respond, it would be with a follow-up question relating to what DHP just said. Now, this might seem obvious, however I’ve been to/listened to a few interviews where the moderator brings himself into the conversation – “Oh, what you just said reminded me of this event in my life”, or whatever. And even though there were times when you could see what DHP was saying touched or reminded Mr. Roth of something, he kept it to himself, and continued on with the conversation. Well done, Mr. Roth. Well done.
Some highlights from the conversation:
* Started out talking about high art vs. low art. About 1/3 of the conversation was about this, and despite what it sounds, it was not at all pretentious or dry; both Mr. Pierce and Mr. Roth appear to be above that. DHP talked about the impossible nature of doing true “Art” and not make it commercial (“There were no plans to do the play for free.”)
* He likes the conversation La Bete brings up about the world today. “If you’ve ever heard a news station call itself ‘fair and balanced,’ you know what I’m talking about,” he said. “And I mean that from both sides.”
* Mr. Roth asked him to comment on playwright Edward Albee’s recent bashing of Broadway, in particular musicals. “Having been in musicals, I tend to like them,” he said. He then went on to say while he understood what Albee was saying, he doesn’t necessarily agree. Especially for long running shows that were first bashed by critics, such as Wicked. All those people going to see glitz and glam can’t be wrong; they have to be getting something more out of it. And this brought us back to La Bete – his character has a speech toward the end of the show about how people just talk and talk and talk and never really say anything. This always gets a reaction from the audience; you can see them going, “yeah, he’s right.” On the other hand, the first 30 minutes of the show are Mark Rylance’s character going on and on and never really saying anything, and it’s “one of the funniest things you will ever see.” He then said they did the same thing on Frasier – it was a high-class show but it also had low art moments of slapstick, etc. Everyone praises Frasier for being such a high-class show, but in the end the writers didn’t set out to make it one – they just made the show they wanted to, and it happened to touch on things a lot of sitcoms shy away from: difficult family relationships, loss, etc.
* He talked about being in a long run of a play or musical, and how it related to being in a long running TV show. In every pilot episode for a sitcom, all of the characters are really broad, and have one defining characteristic. As the show goes on, the characters mellow and evolve. He feels the same way about playing a character in a play for a long time – it’s the same sort of process, really delving in to who the person is, and evolving the character.
* Evidently, before wanting to be a musician or an actor, Mr. Pierce briefly toyed with idea of being a priest for the Episcopal church. His priest suggested he go into the insurance business like his father, because both professions help people. He then added that his dad was in insurance when the industry was VERY different, and the insurance agents actually helped people. “Everyone in town knew my dad,” he said. “If there was a fire, he was there.”
* Growing up, he wrote plays for his friends and always gave himself a death scene. However, he went to college intending to be a pianist. His parents were not happy with the decision, but were oddly okay when he called them up to let them know he had changed his mind and wanted to be an actor. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he told them.
*He talked about how his father was an active member of community theater, back when New York shows would tour to towns and use community theater actors in their shows. His dad fully intended to go to New York and become a professional actor, but then the depression hit and he stayed home and joined the family business. He never saw his dad act in a show. However, one night after Curtains, an old family friend came to the show and backstage, told him, “You are your father.”
* Mr. Roth asked what he did when he found himself in a situation where he was going through a similar situation as his character, citing the example of playing Niles, whose father has health problems, when his own father was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Did he use this? Mr. Pierce said he didn’t, but talked about when he did a play with Uta Hagen in LA called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. His character had just lost a parent to Alzheimer’s, and he was also in the middle of that in his own life. Every night he would have to give a speech about it, and he always felt the emotion come at one particular point. Except one night, it didn’t come, and he kept on going, and it didn’t come, and he finally realized it wasn’t going to, and kept going. Then when the speech was over, he got up and his next line was something like, “Can I get you a glass of water?”, and that is when the emotion came. So you just never know when or where that’s going to happen, even if you aren’t specifically using a moment from your own life to influence a character.
* Again, the conversation came back to La Bete. Mr. Roth asked about the rehearsal process for the infamous 30 minute monologue Mr. Rylance gives. Was rehearsing how to react any different from rehearsing a bunch of lines? It wasn’t – that process was, “Just three kids in a room together figuring things out.” A lot of the business that goes on is stuff that happened by accident or in the process of the three actors figuring out the scene. He talked a lot about how much he admires Mr. Rylance, and cited his famous Tony acceptance speech as a testament to the kind of person he is.
*DHP wrote a play as Elomire in order to get more into the role. It is in rhyming couplets, and is to be performed for the Princess’ birthday. He description of it sounds funny, and Mr. Roth encouraged them to do it for a one-night only type of performance.
* Mr. Roth asked him about his decision to come out (only did it in a manner that was not uncomfortable, as those types of questions tend to be…I’m looking at you Terry Gross), and DHP said he never really felt like he was hiding, because he was always out in his personal life and professional life, just not “publicly.” He doesn’t feel like anyone should be forced to do it, and there was a lot of pressure to – from both sides of the coin. “Having said that,” he said, “Once I did acknowledge it publicly, I felt very liberated.”
* He talked about he and his partner’s decision to get married. They’ve been together since 1983, and were never huge advocates of gay marriage. They didn’t plan on getting married but were at a friend’s wedding out in California during the brief window when gay marriage was legal, and felt like it was the right time and right place. Then a few weeks later, they were watching the TV on election night, and saw that Prop 8 had been passed. “It’s very weird to have your life put up for a vote,” he said. He called the whole thing “de-humanizing and de-Americanizing.”
* After talking about getting married, Mr. Roth said, with a big smile on his face, “And may I say, happy anniversary.” It was their second wedding anniversary that day, “And he’s spending it listening to me talk,” he joked. His husband Brian (who, as luck would have it, was sitting right behind us) called out “Nothing’s changed!”
* A few questions from the audience, one of which was a two parter about Frasier: What was your favorite episode and how are you like Niles?
He groaned a bit at the question, saying he’s often asked what his favorite episode is, and there are so many to choose from. But, off the top of his head, he cited: The Innkeepers (where Niles and Frasier open a restaurant), Three Valentines (where he lights the couch on fire), Something Borrowed, Something Blue (Niles and Daphne first get together) and Ham Radio (the infamous radio play). As for how he is like his character, “Well, we’re no longer the same age,” he joked. “Syndicated TV is very cruel.” He said that both he and Niles are very family oriented and that “Niles really, really loved Daphne, and I really, really loved Jane Leeves.”
*Last, as I said, we were sitting right in front of his husband, Brian, who cutely remarked before the evening started, “Maybe I’ll learn something.” (Note: We did not talk to him, but people around us did. So we listened.) Because we were directly in front of him, we saw that when the evening was over, Brian was the first one to stand up, and led the crowd in a standing ovation. As I pointed this out to Nicki, she said, “I think my heart just burst.” My sentiments exactly.
So after two plays, one stage door, a handful of restaurants, and some Frasier marathoning, my favorite part of our DHP themed weekend ended up being the last thing we did – attending that Q&A. As Nicki said after it was over, “I am speechless. That was amazing.”
Which really describes my feeling for the whole weekend. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Sure, I will see more shows and go to Q&As and visit New York again. But I can’t imagine the stars aligning quite that perfectly ever again.
Thanks, New York, thanks DHP and thanks Nicki!