Playing the Icon

...that those performances are still not only definitive but demanded to be seen by the "Big Black Giant" that sees every show ever done. Either way for the actor in the role there are expectations and no small number of burdens but when we get such a part in such a show we jump at the chance and not just because work is work is work, especially for money, but that helps. No, we want to play great parts. I’m not talking Hamlet, the Scot, his lady or any numbered Henry. No, I’m talking musical theatre.

Right now I’m wrapping up just such an iconic role as I rehearse another show where the main four characters are from a film that’s been loved for decades and been seen countless times by everyone who will be coming to our venue waiting to see it rain on a guy jumping up a lamppost. I know the lamp jumper from another show a few seasons ago with its own iconic baggage, as well as some cross over time from other shows. I’m happy for the chance to renew the friendship and confirm his bastard son-hood, but the real treat has been comparing notes about the work we have to do to get into a part we very much want to make our very own but one that carries the status of icon. From my vantage point he’s going to be just fine…

How do we do that? My first iconic role was over a decade ago as the Lion in The Wizard of Oz at a dinner theatre in Ohio. I was thrilled. Like all save maybe a handful of people, I grew up with the annual TV showing, and even with that once a year period of Oz visits, all of us were off book for the script. The director kept to the spirit of the film but the producer really was the enforcer for authenticity and just like the movie stuff. In fact every time he changed something it was better biz for my character. I was told to emulate the film and Mr. Lahr’s performance as much as possible because it was what was expected. I did my best to do so, but I also had a few line readings inspired by the way I’d always wanted to hear Mr. Lahr say them. The big thing is unlike the movie, this or any other one adapted for the stage years later, we had live audiences and that will always tell us how to adjust our timing. Thank you, Big Black Giant.

There’s a Christmas show I’ve done a couple of times already and may well again over the years at that same Ohio venue. Lucky me, I got to play Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life and as unlike Jimmy Stewart as my two different Georges were, they made the audience and me think of him all the time. How the second chap achieved this was by striking some poses, making some pictures with his body, from the big beat moments in the film but in a very natural way. It surely worked for him and all of us. Me? Well, it took me a few days last time to get all the Lionel Barrymore out of my system because I’m not a good mimic and I had to get the trying-to-sound-alikes out of my system. What I kept were the beats and the spirit of the performance people know and love to try to get into my take on the character. If I get an offer for it again next year I guess I’ve been doing that right.

Back in my childhood when variety shows were all over the network line-ups there were always movie parodies and imitations of the stars a big part of them. Think of Carol Burnett and her spin on Norma Desmond that developed a life of its own. Her Gone With the Wind a classic with Harvey Korman doing grand imitations of Eric von Stroheim, Clark Gable and in many an MGM parody a spot-on Lionel Barrymore. Imitation in these forms is essential to exaggerate the performance to go with the exaggerated spin on the story but that’s not what we want when it comes to a stage adaptation of a well-known film. The line is even finer and harder to traverse when the film being adapted was an animated feature first. Beauty And The Beast is a good example of this with the added burden of all those complicated character costumes. In these instances it is a love of the movie, the source material, that sends so many of us to the casting cattle calls for these and keeps us able to get through eight a week. That and the love we feel from a laughing, smiling and clapping giant.


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