Ruminations on Broadway
"Phantom" actor Davis Gaines, in town for a fundraiser for the Hawaii Performing Arts Foundation, discusses the rewards and challenges of working the Great White Way
After more than 2,000 performances of "Phantom of the Opera," one of Davis Gaines' most cherished mementos is a letter he received from a 6-year-old girl.
On stage: 7 p.m. Saturday
Place: Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $35-$125, to benefit the Hawaii Performing Arts Foundation
Call: 528-0506 or online at hawaiitheatre.com
"'Dear Phantom: If I was in the play I would have married you because you were so lonely. I know you would have not been so mean if you had somebody to love you."
"She captured what I was trying to get at (in my performance). At 6 years old she got it," Gaines said.
He noted that playing the Phantom, one of the most charismatic roles in musical theater, is a challenge for several reasons. For instance, is he a monster, a deranged villain or a tragic but romantic hero?
"On paper, when you read the libretto of 'Phantom of the Opera' there's not much to go on as far as who this guy was and what made him this way. It's up to the individual actor to find and bring your own stuff to it."
"Some guys play (the Phantom) as an angry monster evil thing ... but I think he was socially stunted. He was an oddity, and he was made fun of, and he was belittled -- he was a freak, basically -- and he had no social skills (because) he wasn't around people, so he was kind of like a caged animal. He wanted to be part of society, but society wouldn't accept him."
Gaines developed his interpretation expecting audiences to pity the Phantom rather than view him as a murderous stalker.
"At the end you really feel like he's not a monster, he's a human being with feelings. At the end of the show, as I was giving the ring back to Christine ... I would hear people crying in the audience. To me (that meant) I was doing my job right because they were feeling something."
Another challenge was not going on auto-pilot after hundreds of performances.
"You have to have to keep it fresh. People pay a lot of money and they're seeing it for the first time and you're doing it for the 2,000th time, so as an actor I really had to dig deep into my bag of tricks to make it fresh and keep it new."
His interpretation has evolved to become more streamlined, he said. "I think when I first started I was probably horrible -- just over the top, too much, too much -- so as I went through the years I tried to pare it away and make the most economical decisions both physically and dramatically."
Gaines describes the process as reaching a series of plateaus.
COURTESY JOY ABBOTT
Joy Valderrama Abbott and her late husband, George, shared a love of musical theater. George Abbott worked with Davis Gaines, who will be featured in "Broadway Reflections" along with Valderrama Abbott.
"It would be six months and I would hit my personal best -- I thought, of a performance -- and then I would go along for a while and then I would hit another plateau. ... That's what kept it fresh for me, always changing and evolving."
Gaines says that although the Phantom is physically difficult, his stamina has increased and it "got easier physically ... easier vocally."
"What it was for me also was a cathartic experience, because in New York life is kind of crazy, and it's in your face all the time, and I always felt better after leaving the theater every night. I could use the Phantom's anger and his angst and his emotions to get out all of my frustrations of the day."
Although he'll likely always be best known for his portrayal of the Phantom, Gaines has also played five presidents (Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George Bush), and worked on Broadway with Hal Prince, George Abbott, Tommy Tune, Richard Burton, Carol Channing and Stephen Sondheim.
"Sometimes I pinch myself ... is a shy guy from Orlando, Fla., really having lunch with the Bushes?"
Other "pinch myself" moments came while doing "Damn Yankees," directed by the playwright, George Abbott, and receiving personal feedback from Stephen Sondheim on his performance in the 20th-anniversary concert production of "Sweeney Todd" with the San Francisco Symphony.
"On the closing night ... in San Francisco I was packing up my dressing room at intermission and there was a knock at the door and it was Stephen Sondheim.
"He said (my performance) was the best he had heard 'Joanna' sung in his life. I asked if he was kidding, and he said, 'No, no, it was perfect,' and then he left ... and there was no one to hear it except me. It's like a tree falling in the forest 'cause no one was there, but to be able to please him -- or Mr. Abbott or Hal Prince -- that's exciting!"
It's thanks to the late George Abbott that Gaines will perform in "Broadway Reflections," a fundraiser for the Hawaii Performing Arts Foundation. Gaines will join Abbott's widow, Joy Valderrama Abbott, in a celebration of Broadway musicals and of George Abbott's seven-decade career as a playwright, producer and director.
Gaines met Joy Abbott while working with her husband on "Damn Yankees." George Abbott was 99 at the time; he was working on revisions to the second act of "Pajama Game" shortly before he died at 107 in 1995.
Gaines will perform hits from shows he's done -- "Phantom," "Sweeney Todd," "Damn Yankees" and "Whistle Down the Wind," to name four.
"Then she has a section where she talks about being married to him and her experiences," Gaines said. "It's a 'broad Broadway retrospective,' not so much pinpointed on his life."