by Vaughan Edwards on March 29, 2021

in Books,Theater-New York


To misquote Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that most actors love to talk about themselves. Eddie Shapiro has taken full advantage of this fact and the result is a refreshingly honest account of what it means to be a musical theatre performer.

A Wonderful Guy is a companion volume to Nothing Like a Dame, Shapiro’s 2014 collection of interviews with Broadway actresses. In his new book, subtitled Conversations with the Great Men of Musical Theatre, he turns his attention to the gentlemen. There was a time when the musical leading man’s primary function was to gaze adoringly up at the female star as she descended a sweeping staircase. But as the musical stage grew up in the 40s and 50s, the leading man’s role gained in importance. Musicals became more dramatic and operatic, and more was required than a chiseled profile and an ability to wear a tuxedo. A wider range of talents was essential and all nineteen of the subjects in this book fit the bill perfectly.

Shapiro clearly has a gift for putting his subjects at their ease, prompting gently, then sitting back and letting them do the talking. And talk they do, about themselves, colleagues, writers and directors. The guys (and they are wonderful) range in age from the 30s to the 80s. All of them have created lead roles on Broadway. Many have parallel careers in film, television and non-musical theatre. All are by definition successful – Mr. Shapiro doesn’t waste his time talking to runners-up!

Joel Grey transforming to Cabaret's Emcee during the original Broadway run.
Photo by Raymond Jacobs.

By placing his interviews in chronological order from oldest to youngest, Shapiro takes us through seventy years of changing musical theatre history as seen through the eyes of its performers. When Joel Grey played his first Broadway show, the season’s hits were Guys and Dolls, The King and I, and Call Me Madam. When Jonathan Groff made his debut, the hot tickets were Spamalot, A Light in the Piazza and Jersey Boys. By the end of the story Broadway is home to Moulin Rouge! Pretty Woman, and The Prom.

Audra McDonald and John Cullum in 110 in the Shade. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The common characteristic in all these conversations (aside from the extraordinary range of talent involved) is passion for the craft. In two of the earliest interviews Joel Grey and Ben Vereen bring the energy of their stage personas to the discussion, as ready for the next challenge as Cheyenne Jackson or Jonathan Groff. By contrast, to read John Cullum and Len Cariou’s experiences with Lerner, Loewe and Sondheim is like relaxing in a leather armchair at the Players’ Club with a glass of Scotch at your elbow.

Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd (Photofest).

For the most part, the actor’s life is presented in a positive light – these guys love what they do and take the rough with the smooth courageously. Colleagues and collaborators are described with admiration and respect; in the entire book, only one fellow-player is presented in negative terms, and no, I won’t name names – you’ll have to buy the book. Similarly, flops and firings are endured with equanimity rather than bitterness – so the show closed, that means there’s a better one coming our way! Occasionally the euphoria gets a little out of hand, as in, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m on stage with Chita Rivera! (or Bernadette Peters or Patti Lupone)”. But thankfully, jubilation is mainly reserved for recognition of a job well done and the approval of one’s peers.

Ben Vereen: Pippin's "Manson Trio"--"Tah-dah!" (Photofest).

Nineteen actors and nineteen different paths to Broadway; each of the guys has his own story. Some saved pocket money to buy cast albums, others fell into the world of musicals by accident, playing in a rock band or singing in church. Almost all were in high school plays. Some got off the bus not knowing where, or even what, Broadway was. Many came from conservative or religious backgrounds and had to overcome parental opposition. Several struggled with sexual identity.

Michael Cerveris (right) with Joel Perez in Fun Home. (Joan Marcus).

That First Big Break also comes in a variety of guises. Michael Cerveris studied opera, but his first Broadway show was the rock opera Tommy. John Cullum auditioned for Camelot with a speech from Henry V. Interestingly, more than half of those interviewed have played Shakespeare, suggesting an unexpected connection between Shakespeare performance and musical theatre. Both forms require a larger-than-life performing style, and a frequent breaking of the fourth wall for a character to share his dreams and fears with us. Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel performs the same dramatic function as a solo speech in Hamlet or Macbeth. An important difference being that if you’re doing Shakespeare it doesn’t get rewritten every night during previews.

Norm Lewis in Les Misérables on the West End.

Many of the actors in the later part of the book came of age during the British Invasion of the 80s. The arrival of Cats, Les Misérables and their look-alikes brought about a profound change in theatrical production. The age of the star vehicle with the leading lady’s name over the title was over. The new shows were essentially ensemble pieces, relying on production value and spectacle rather than star power. To put it another way, the show became the star, with less attention paid to who was appearing in it.

Jonathan Groff (center) with Rema Webb, Quentin Earl Darrington, Josh Lamon, Jenni Barber,
and Alyse Alan Louis in A New Brain at Encores! (Joan Marcus).

With play runs now measured in decades rather than years, a new breed of performer has emerged; the working actor prepared to spend a year or more in a show that is no longer in the news, able to keep his performance fresh and alive. Many of these actors have appeared in the same half-dozen blockbusters, show-jumping from Phantom to Wicked to Chicago and back to Phantom without having to endure the agony and ecstasy of the creative process. This is the reality of many an actor’s life on today’s Broadway, but at times it makes for less than stimulating reading.

That said, this is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Broadway, or musicals, or acting. The book should be on the syllabus of every theatre arts course in the country, and required reading for anyone contemplating a career in twenty-first century theatre.

photos courtesy of Oxford University Press

A Wonderful Guy: Conversations with the Great Men of Musical Theatre
Oxford University Press
Hardcover | 368 pages | English | May 3, 2021
available at Amazon

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