Danny Gurwin's role of the Caliph in the upcoming City Center Encores! production of Kismet is not his very first assignment as a romantic leading man, but it's true that his career thus far has been founded on such "juvenile" roles as Laurie in Little Women, Henrik in A Little Night Music, Younger Brother in Ragtime, Tobias in Sweeney Todd, and Jack in Into the Woods. So Gurwin is especially pleased that, in Kismet, he'll be making (musical) love to Marcy Harriell in the role of Marsinah as they sing "Stranger in Paradise," "And This Is My Beloved," and other gorgeous songs.
"I've always loved the score, so I'm thrilled that I get to sing it," says Gurwin. When did he first become aware of Kismet? "I saw the movie a long time ago, and I saw a stage production when I was 12 at the Michigan Opera Theater. I remember thinking how beautiful it was. The show isn't done too often; maybe people think it's too big a show vocally. The thing that I love about it is that it's old-fashioned but the book is not just a romantic fable. There's a lot of musical comedy in it, too."
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie head the cast of the Encores! production as the beggar poet Hajj and the scintillating Lalume, with Harriell as Hajj's daughter Marsinah and Gurwin as the incognito Caliph who falls in love with her. The original Broadway production of Kismet starred Alfred Drake, Joan Diener, Doretta Morrow, and a young Richard Kiley as the Caliph. In the 1955 film version, that role was played by pop singer Vic Damone. "He was a great singer," says Gurwin, "but I'm going to try a more legitimate approach. This is the style of music that I'm most comfortable with in terms of it needing a full, legit sound. I've done a lot of contemporary, pop-ish shows, but that's not where my voice really lives. I'm going to put all of my training to use [in Kismet], all those years of lessons!"
He's excited to be doing his first Encores! show: "I've been told it's a very intense process, and I'm totally looking forward to it. I've worked with [musical director] Paul Gemignani before. He's amazing." Over the years, the Encores! presentations have become more elaborate in terms of costuming. So, what can Kismet audiences expect in that regard? "I've had a couple of fittings and I've seen some of the designs," Gurwin tells me. "They're very colorful! The show will definitely be fully costumed. I'll be wearing a turban for the duration, and all of my costumes are purple. Oh, and I grew a full beard for the part. Now you know!"
Like all Encores! offerings, Kismet will only have a brief run at City Center, February 9-12. What are Gurwin's plans after that? "I'm doing a pilot of a TV show," he says. "It's supposed to film in New Orleans, so it's been postponed a couple of times, unfortunately; but it looks like we'll shoot it in April or May. I guess I'm going to Los Angeles for awhile. You get to a point where you try to make choices for a career, rather than just choosing a show. I don't know what this year will hold for me, but I think it's going to be a good one."
Those sighing and sniffling sounds you heard last Sunday came from actors, aspiring actors, stagehands, press agents, producers, and other showbiz folk mourning the loss of yet another old favorite theater district restaurant: Barrymores, a longtime presence on West 45th Street.
This fixture was only the most recent casualty of the real estate boom in Times Square, and it won't be the last. January 16 was closing night for McHale's restaurant and bar, which had done a thriving business at the corner of 46th and Eighth Avenue since 1953. Sam's, Frankie and Johnnie's, and Puleo's, all in the same block of small buildings as Barrymores, will be gone within a few years. And Mont Blanc, a Swiss restaurant on West 48th Street that has been a closely guarded secret of stagehands and other theater cognoscenti, will close on February 25 to make way for something that Manhattan needs very badly: another ridiculously high-priced condominium.
"Frankie and Johnnie's is on the same lease that we are, but they've been extended another year," says Barrymores' co-owner/maitre d' Craig Dawson, who worked there for 12 years and at the restaurant next door -- now Sam's, previously Charlie's -- since 1976. "The demolition appears to be about three years away. We had a lease extension till the end of January; then we were offered another year, but we couldn't handle the rent increase. This whole section of the block is supposed to be torn down so a new hotel can be built.
"McHale's had a lot of locals and stagehands and other theater people," says Dawson. "We had our share of those too, but also a big tourist base. I've found that, especially since the revitalization of 42nd Street, people who come to town either eat at restaurants in the Marriott or whatever hotel they're staying in, or they eat at chain restaurants. If they do happen to find a real New York theater spot, they come back year after year: 'Remember us? We're from Indiana!' But most people today go elsewhere." Of course, under the right circumstances, even a chain restaurant can become a favorite hangout of showbiz folk and theatergoers: The Howard Johnson's that stood at the corner of 46th Street and Broadway for half a century, once so popular a place that it's fondly mentioned by several living legends in Rick McKay's wonderful documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, closed its doors forever last year and is soon to be demolished.
There are two basic reasons for these closings: (1) smaller, older buildings continue to be torn down to make way for more of the skyscrapers that have proliferated in the Times Square area over the past several years, and (2) even if a restaurant is located in a building that is not marked for demolition, rents increase so dramatically when leases expire that mom-and-pop eateries must yield to deep-pocketed restaurant chains. Some people may be surprised to hear that the landlord for Barrymores and Frankie and Johnnie's is the Shubert Organization, which has owned the property for the past five years or so.
"I just don't get the logic of why they want us out right now," says Dawson. "Why would the Shuberts want to have boarded-up property on 45th Street? They still have to pay the taxes, and they don't own the entire property yet; Daniela's and the Playwright Tavern on Eighth Avenue aren't yet sold and, to my knowledge, neither are Sam's or Puleo's." (The Shubert Organization declined to comment for this article.)
Just like the disappearance of HoJo's and McHale's, the shuttering of Barrymores has occasioned much lamentation. "It's been such an important place," says press agent Barbara Carroll, whom I spotted in the dining room just last week. "I love Craig and I love everyone else there." At the time of our interview, Dawson didn't know where he'd be working next; but he expressed his certainty that, once all of the old-style New York restaurants are gone from midtown, they' be sorely missed. "Where will people who work in the theater and live in this neighborhood go for dinner?" he wonders. "They can't go to fancy-schmancy restaurants every night. They want to go to their favorite little place to get a burger or steak or whatever. I don't understand how the city can allow this to happen; it would take a much smarter man than me to figure it out."