SHOW FOLK: Howard McGillin on “Phantom” and those “Damn Yankees”
Yesterday, I said that Show Folk this month was “getting epic;” you thought it was just a lame Homer joke. Truth is, we’re doubling up on great interviews with another leading man of the stage pulling up a chair to our cyber table and joining us for a little conversation. As usual, I’ve edited the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and posted the results. If yesterday was all about Gods, today we’re going straight to the devil…
Tony-nominated actor Howard McGillin has exchanged a mask for a set of horns…and we ain’t talking a brass band. Having famously played The Phantom of the Opera for more than 2500 record breaking performances, he’s descending to new devious depths (and crossing the river to Jersey) to take on the devilish Applegate in Paper Mill Playhouse’s new production of the classic musical comedy Damn Yankees. Busy with last Sunday’s opening night, the dashing star still found the time to chat with us about some favorite co-stars, making up lyrics to “Music of the Night” and his run-in with a bionic wardrobe malfunction.
The devil comes in so many different guises; what inspired your take on Applegate in Damn Yankees?
Well, he’s the classic comic villain. He’s vain, revels in all the mischief he causes, and is ultimately brought down in a satisfying tumble of self-inflicted grandiosity. It’s delicious. Of course I remember Ray Walston’s performance, and my friend Victor Garber’s wonderful take on the guy. But I just try to find a way to make it mine, and I think the key is his ridiculous vanity. It makes it so much fun to see him fall.
You famously hold the record for playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera more times than anyone else. What are the benefits and challenges of doing a short run like the month of Damn Yankees at Paper Mill?
It’s a joy to tackle any part, no matter how long or short the run. Of course, when you sign on for something like Phantom you never imagine you could be doing it over 2500 times! It just happened that I loved performing it and the creative team seemed to like what I was doing and decided to keep me on. The process of performing a role remains the same. You always set foot on stage with the goal of making it a fresh performance. The only difference is that after many years of doing long runs in Broadway shows, four weeks seems unfairly short. I know I will miss doing this show. It’s just so much fun.
I did a long run of a show (though nothing compared to you) and friends would say, “Bet you can do that show in your sleep.” Thing is, that was the danger. Once in a long while, auto pilot would switch on and I’d be in big trouble when I “awoke” and was certain I had no idea where I was and what I was saying. Did you ever have a moment like that in Phantom? Forced to scat some lyrics in “Music of the Night”?
Well, as I said, it’s important to try to give each audience your best. But you’re right, no matter what your intentions the mind does wander when you’re repeating a performance, and it’s a terrifying experience to suddenly realize you’ve “gone away” and have no recollection of how and when. That’s when you find yourself singing some interesting new lyrics, including in “The Music Of The Night”. I always try to come up with something that scans with the music, and better yet rhymes with whatever nonsense I’ve just sung. It can get interesting. Thankfully, often the audience hasn’t a clue.
I checked your bio on imdb and found that you had a very active TV career when you first started working as an actor, including two episodes each of my faves The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man. We’re you ever on the business end of some bionic powers in an episode?!
My partner jokes that I started my TV career on Our Miss Brooks. But yes, I started out in Hollywood many years ago appearing in all kinds of episodic television. I was on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man one day when Lee Major’s pants were so tight they ripped right up the seat during a take. Hilarity ensued.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is returning to Broadway next season at the Roundabout. You were nominated for a Tony in the original production. What advice would you give to the new cast as they prepare to revive this wonderfully unusual and challenging show?
And Patti Cohenour, who is our Meg in “Damn Yankees”, was also in it. It’s hard to believe a show I was part of on Broadway is now old enough to be revived, but I can’t wait to see what they do with it. It was a joy to be a part of. No advice. They’ll be just fine. It’s a wonderful show.
After appearing together in the original production of The Secret Garden on Broadway, you were recently (and most deliciously) reunited with the lovely Rebecca Luker in concert and at Encores. What makes that pairing work so well together? What other former co-star would you love to work with again and why?
I absolutely adore Becca Luker. She’s one of the most radiant talents ever to appear in musicals. And I’m a lucky guy to have been able to share the stage with her so many times. I think our voices just happen to blend nicely together, and our natural affinity for one another comes across. We’ve developed a concert together of Broadway hits, and get to perform it often. I just sang at a tribute to Patti LuPone last night for The Julliard School’s Acting Company. I’d love to work with Patti again. I’ve never laughed so much as when we were together in Anything Goes at Lincoln Center back in the day.
Speaking of Rebeccas, any word on the delayed musical adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca in which you were scheduled to appear this season?
They say it’s coming to Broadway this fall. Couldn’t be happier! [Note: The producer of the musical announced yesterday via Facebook that the show is indeed on for Fall 2012 at the Broadhurst. No word yet if casting will remain the same.]
Finally, if you could switch lives for a short time like Joe Hardy does in Damn Yankees, what would your fantasy be?
Wow. That’s a good one. I think I’d like to be a brilliant doctor discovering cures to terrible diseases. Or a tumbler!