Gaines, who has played the Phantom more than 2,000 times on Broadway, and in Los Angeles and San Francisco, is taking on the role of King Arthur in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Musical Theatre West, which starts performances June 29.
“I’ve actually done a lot of comedy, and I love it,” Gaines says. “Comedy for me is so much fun. As an actor, you get the audience reaction. In a serious piece, you may not get to gauge how the audience is feeling as much.”
The Broadway hit, based on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” retells the medieval legend of King Arthur’s quest for the fabled chalice, with as much song and absurdity as possible.
Coincidentally, Gaines, a Florida native, had his big break playing the Squire of Sagramore in “Camelot,” with Richard Burton after moving to New York with dreams of performing on Broadway. Now, after a prolific theatrical career, he will return to the court of Camelot, only a drastically different version.
Regardless of the change in tone, Gaines says that while donning the Phantom’s mask, or more recently, the feathered hat of Don Quixote, he has always relied on humor to understand his characters better.
“It’s funny that even in ‘Man of La Mancha’ or ‘Phantom,’ or other serious things, I always try to find a sense of humor in the character and bring that out, even when it’s not a full-fledged comedy like this is going to be,” he says.
Despite the madcap quality of “Spamalot,” Gaines says King Arthur is also a relatable character with earnest motivations.
“As an actor, you always have to find the truth about any character you play, and if you don’t play it from a point of truth, the audience doesn’t buy it,” he says. “I think King Arthur has a mission in life. He wants to find this Holy Grail, and it’s an urgent quest to find it.”
It was the serious side of King Arthur that presented Gaines with a challenge, as he plays the straight man in an outrageous cast of characters
“He’s just trying to make order,” Gaines says. “He’s the ring leader of these crazy knights. He is not as involved in all of the comedy happening around him. I do think the character can be funny, though. Don’t say he’s not! I can’t wait to dive in and find the funny.”
Overcoming the hurdles of various genres and evolving as an actor is what Gaines says he strives to do, and performing in “Phantom” made him more versatile in his acting approach.
“I try not to go backwards,” he says. “I had to keep my role as Phantom fresh for six years. Each time I was out there, I would realize a lot of the people were seeing it for the first time. That taught me how to be present every night, and not to be stale. My performance in the beginning was vastly different from how I performed at the end of my run.”
Refusing to be pigeonholed, Gaines’ next role after “Spamalot” will be even more unconventional than Monty Python. Gaines has been cast as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence! The Musical” in Los Angeles. A spoof of “Silence of the Lambs,” the role will take Gaines into the realm of gruesomely dark comedy.
“It’s only an hour and a half long, and it’s all for laughs,” he explains. “Some of the dialogue is actually pretty silly when you see it on paper. It has very adult language, and I have told my parents that they can’t come to this one.”
Although Gaines said he never imagined he would star in “Spamalot,” let alone a farce about a serial killer, he realized the importance of being open to new roles and experiences as an actor.
“I have learned never to have expectations,” he says. “There is no plan; I take whatever comes along. I might take a totally different role tomorrow, depending on who calls.”
For now, Gaines is enjoying living in Los Angeles and working with Musical Theater West, a company he says has become like his family. While he is sometimes nostalgic for the energy and creativity of the theater culture in New York, Gaines is happy to be on the West Coast.
“I love the weather in Los Angeles, I love where I live, and I love my house,” he says. “It’s peaceful here. I would love to do another Broadway show, and I love traveling. But right now I just want to work where I am.”
“Monty Python’s Spamalot” runs June 29-July 15 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach, CA. For tickets and more information, visit www.musical.org.