The worlds of opera and musical theatre are generally regarded as quite separate, though the musical grew out of operetta, which grew out of opera. In an era in which such shows as Contact and The Car Man blur the line between dance theatre and traditional Broadway fare, musical productions in general are becoming harder to pigeonhole.
So are the performers. Veteran opera star Rodney Gilfry recently made a rare and triumphant musical comedy appearance as Joey in the Reprise! Broadway's Best revival of The Most Happy Fella. Conversely, veteran Broadway/cabaret star Jason Graae is making his opera debut in the Los Angeles Opera's acclaimed production of The Merry Widow, also starring Gilfry, continuing through Dec. 22. Back Stage West recently met with these two stellar performers at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion prior to a rehearsal of the Franz Lehar operetta.
Graae has endless credits on Broadway (Falsettos), Off-Broadway (Forever Plaid), in L.A. (Ragtime, Forbidden Broadway), and regionally, as well as on television and recordings. Gilfry has starred with L.A. Opera 18 times, in many regional and international opera productions, and in the 1998 premiere of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire in San Francisco. He co-hosts the weekly Opera Notes on Air for KMZT-FM and is becoming increasingly involved in cabaret.
Rodney Gilfry: Jason, you've done a lot of opera, haven't you?
Jason Graae: (laughing) Yes, I just did a Rigoletto in Japan, which was fun.
Rodney: You're actually an opera virgin, but we'll be gentle. People in the industry do tend to peg performers—both ways. They say, "He's an opera singer. We're looking for someone to do a musical."
Jason: Nowadays if you can't sing, that's actually an advantage in New York, because then they assume you're a great actor. That was the case with the recent Follies on Broadway and the Carousel tour, with actors who were very good but couldn't sing.
Rodney: Audra McDonald was fantastic in Carousel on Broadway. She's a great actor and great singer. That's what the show takes. But that wasn't the case with most of the cast. I was just appalled to see that show from the golden age of musical theatre cast without the required singers.
Jason: It's amazing, but they go for actors first, and it's at the expense of the show and the score. Yet they've done it both ways. They've certainly hired their share of singers who couldn't act. You know, there really are many people who can both sing and act. On the other hand the crossover between performing musicals and opera is certainly happening more often these days, though it shouldn't be unusual. It's all theatre. I think musical theatre and sitcoms, for instance, go hand in hand. You have a rhythm to the lines, and you're used to performing for a live audience. Musical theatre to operetta is a very logical crossover.
Rodney: I think so, too. In both you've got dialogue between numbers and an overall light mood.
Jason: The conventions of operetta are certainly different from modern-day musical theatre, which strives for honest emotions. All of a sudden you guys launch into "Little Soldier Boy," which comes out of the blue. It's really sometimes hard not to let our own cynicism get in the way. You just have to go with it. There's no reason for my song in Act Three to be in the plot, though I'm very grateful they added it.
Rodney: What has it been like for you to be involved in this kind of a rehearsal process?
Jason: It's been a unique experience. What I've heard is that singers come to the first opera rehearsal essentially knowing the part cold.
Rodney: (laughing) All except me.
Jason: I think Carol [Vaness] and several others did. I'm used to coming into the rehearsal not being too prepared so I can go any direction and the director can work with me and guide me. So I always come in very loose, sometimes dangerously so, and in this one, we didn't have our director [Lotfi Mansouri] until two nights ago. Stan [Garner, the associate director] has been wonderful, but his job was basically to get the piece up, and he didn't spend a lot of time in scene work. He's used to directing on his own, but Lotfi's very familiar with this piece. It's his show. He came in two nights ago, because he was directing it in San Francisco. We hadn't really gotten into it or felt like a company until he arrived. Lotfi really knows what he wants. He's very specific. We had to unlearn some things and learn others.
Rodney: It's great to have a director who knows exactly what he wants. Often they don't. Sometimes they come around way too late. When that happens I've just sort of winged it the whole time and got a meager stamp of approval for what I'd been doing. In this case Lotfi has an extremely precise vision of what each character should be—down to the line readings. He has very little time, and he has to get it accomplished. The downside is, I go onstage feeling a bit like I'm going to make a mistake because I don't do the gesture or line reading exactly as I've been told.
Jason: It certainly has been challenging. For me it's been a different kind of process in learning this character. I do a lot of broad comedy, and I usually start out not so big, until it makes sense to me, and then go over the top. This time when we did the first read-through, just because it was the Music Center, I started yelling all my lines. I did that for two days, and I finally went to Stan and said, "You've got to let me not be funny now, and trust me that I'm really going to have the laughs. But now I need to make sense of it for myself and not go for results."
The rehearsal period at Reprise is also a challenge. The first time I worked there, we were holding books, which was great. My second show, The Boys From Syracuse, was before they added an extra week's rehearsal, so we learned it really fast. I played twins opposite David Hyde Pierce, so I had no choice but to pull out all stops and do everything I could because he was so brilliant. You panic, then you just do it. I've been amazed in this company how game everyone is in trying things and going out on a limb with their characters.
Rodney: Did you expect us not to be? That's kind of the reputation of opera singers—saying, "I can't do that."
Jason: I thought it was going to be a little more serious, a little more strait-laced, and found that everyone is really willing to take a chance. I don't think everyone here always gets the opportunity to do this type of comedy and scene work.
Rodney: Reprise was fun for me. The character of Joey is not big—less to learn, less time onstage, hardly any lines. In this show I have about 10 times as much music and sing about 10 times as high, so this is much more challenging. I also think Joey's a much easier character to play because he's a California guy, like me. He's just a regular Joe. And Danilo is high society, having a very different way of carrying himself and speaking, even of thinking. And because we're doing comedy, the timing is very important. I've done the show before but never did the character quite like this.
Jason: Was it a different script?
Rodney: There were a lot of similarities but quite a few differences. There are lots of numbers in this score we didn't have. Some have been added from another Lehar operetta.
Jason: In terms of me doing more opera, that's not particularly what I want. This was certainly a complete shock. It just sort of popped into my life. I'm thrilled because it's a learning experience. I have a very strange career that seems to go everywhere, so this fits right in.
Rodney: I'd love to do musicals again. I'd actually like to do something on Broadway. Don't know how I would swing that logistically because I'd have to move my family there. But I'm very interested in becoming much more of an entertainer as opposed to an opera singer.
Jason: In this profession you have hot periods and you never know how long they will last, so you go along with them, then they stop, and you do something else for a while. It's basically just surviving. As I get older I find that I need things that challenge me. I also love cabaret, because I choose my own stuff. It gives you so much independence. I like to go with the flow and interact with the audience. The trouble with the one-man show is, you can't blame the material because it's all your choices. Here if I stink I can at least blame Lehar. The solo show is one of the most freeing but terrifying things I've ever experienced, but I've grown to need that terror. BSW