What's it like to have the juiciest part in the most acclaimed Broadway musical in years? "Incredible!" says Gary Beach, who plays queenly director Roger DeBris-- and, later, "Adolph Elizabeth Hitler" himself--in Mel Brooks' The Producers. "I've been in this business for a long time, honey, and I've never experienced anything like it."
Beach's joy at sashaying around singing "Keep It Gay" in a 45-pound evening dress and later leading a corps of Nazis in "Springtime for Hitler" is infectious--and it couldn't happen to a more deserving actor. As Beach says, "I've been in the kind of shows that run one night [The Moony Shapiro Songbook, the short-lived Doonesbury] and long runs [a Tony-nominated turn as Lumière in Beauty and the Beast], but this is a phenomenon. If you're an actor and you can't enjoy an experience like this, you should look for another career."
As he chats about the thrill of his Tony nomination (competitors include co-stars Roger Bart as Carmen Ghia and Brad Oscar as Franz Liebkind) and his happiness at being back in New York after several years on the West Coast, the 53-year-old actor clearly seems at ease with himself and his life. And why not? This is, after all, the man who survived a year on the road with Carol Channing and Mary Martin in James Kirkwood's now legendary tour of Legends!, an experience he calls "my favorite year." Invited to participate in the first reading of The Producers, Beach was given the role immediately. "I said, 'That's it? I don't have to jump through any hoops?'" he recalls. No, because director Susan Stroman and Brooks recognized a pro who was willing to embrace his inner diva. "Yeah," he says with a laugh, "and I look so damn good in a dress!"
THEATERMANIA: Given the number of big names involved in The Producers, were you leery at first about how the show would develop?
GARY BEACH: Not really. Nathan Lane was involved in the first reading and, when I heard that Matthew Broderick would be doing Leo, I thought, "Oh wow, that's two big stars." And Mel Brooks, of course, is an icon. But in this instance, everyone had a healthy ego, which was great for the show. When Mel looks at you with a big smile on his face and says "It stinks!" you just move on and try something else. You couldn't deflate anybody's ego in that rehearsal room because they were all too creative. It was like, "You don't like that? Okay, well how about this?"
TM: Brooks and Susan Stroman seem to have really hit it off.
BEACH: Yes. She had told me before I came back east to work on the show that Mel was being really collaborative, and that's exactly what he was. Let's face it: The man is used to writing, directing, and sometimes even starring in his movies, so you had to wonder what it would be like when he not only wasn't directing but had other actors up there doing his stuff. But there was nothing but support from him. He was totally collaborative and bowed to whatever Susan said. She had the last vote.
TM: Did you have memories of the movie version?
BEACH: I not only remember seeing the movie, I remember the day and the time and the theater! It was 1968 and I was in North Carolina. The Producers was such a departure; I couldn't believe that anyone else thought this kind of thing was funny. I was used to Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers, but [Brooks'] New York slant was funny in a way that I had never seen before. I remember when the actor who played Carmen Ghia opened the door and said, "Take off your shoes! White, white, white is the color of our carpet!" I was sitting there totally shocked but knowing that it was the funniest movie I'd ever seen. When [casting director] Vinny Liff called and said, "I want you to read Roger DeBris at a presentation of The Producers," it took me 10 minutes to get to the airport.
TM: Will you ever reveal who it was that inspired your portrayal of Roger?
BEACH: Never in a thousand years! And, of course, there's no one that bad. This is a man who is most free when he's on stage playing Adolph Hitler. He doesn't understand the repercussions of what he's doing. He just knows that he gets to perform as every theatrical icon he's ever fallen in love with.
TM: I detect your Legends! co-star Carol Channing in there.
BEACH: Channing and Judy Garland, a little Jimmy Cagney, Ethel Merman of course, Mary Martin--all the icons that man would have loved. The fact that he happens to be dressed like Adolph Hitler means nothing to him.
TM: Have you talked with anyone who is offended by the show?
BEACH: I have. I don't know them personally. If you're offended by this show, you probably wouldn't be a friend of mine, because this is my sense of humor. I've heard people say things, but this is a Mel Brooks musical; if that doesn't tell you where you're going for the next two and a half hours, then where have you been for the last 40 years? Roger Bart and I talked a great deal about developing these characters, and we decided early on that we could not do "Mel Brooks Lite." The audience would hate us if we didn't deliver full-barrel what Mel Brooks has come to mean. As far as the gay thing, I haven't heard one person say a negative thing.
TM: Paul Rudnick's plays have that same spirit of political incorrectness. It's not really shocking anymore.
BEACH: Yes. And, if you've done two musicals, you know a Roger DeBris. It's not that much of an exaggeration! Not the drag part, but the theatricality--the feeling that the theater is everything, and not knowing a thing about what's going on in the outside world. I mean, Roger is shocked to find out that the Third Reich means Germany!
TM: Has Carol Channing come to see the show?
BEACH: No. I haven't talked to her in a couple of years.
TM: Diary of a Mad Playwright, James Kirkwood's book about Legends!, is one of the funniest memoirs ever. What are your memories of that tour?
BEACH: I was like the Mark Linn-Baker character in the movie My Favorite Year. I'll never forget the first day of rehearsal. Mary Martin was on my right and Carol Channing was on my left. We got through my big scene in Act II, and they laughed and applauded. I just stood up, let my script drop to the floor, and said, "I have to tell you that I have never been so nervous in my life. I'm sitting between Dolly Levi and Peter Pan and I am so thrilled." They embraced me and, from that moment on, they were like my two aunts. I have a picture in my dressing room of Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Helen Hayes, and myself. It's like me standing in the middle of 20th century theater.
TM: How did Helen Hayes get in the picture?!
BEACH: She came backstage one night. The whole year was like that. I met everyone I'd ever heard of.
TM: As I watched you in The Producers in that ballgown and wig, I couldn't help thinking of the unusual costumes you've worn. How many people can say that they've played both a candelabra and Hitler?
BEACH: People say, "Oh my god, that dress! Have you ever had such an outrageous costume?" And I say, "Yes. How about the one where my hands were on fire?" Actually, I didn't realize how heavy and unwieldy that [Lumière] costume was until I quit the show. Six months later, I went down to do Disney World's Christmas parade. They put the costume on me and I couldn't wait to get out of it. I said, "I can't believe I wore that for so long."
TM: And that show is still going strong.
BEACH: The other day, I heard that [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner said, "When the world ends, there will be three things left: styrofoam, cockroaches, and Beauty and the Beast!" [laughs]
TM: He did not say that!
BEACH: That's what I heard! Although he didn't say it to me.
TM: Let's get to the important questions: Who are you taking to the Tonys?
BEACH: My friend Jeff, the same guy who went with me last time.
TM: What are you wearing?
BEACH: I'm wearing my wonderful Brooks Brothers tuxedo. It's plain and ordinary; but I think what I wear in the show says plenty, doesn't it?
TM: You should use this opportunity to get a brand new Armani or Hugo Boss tux.
BEACH: You're the second person who has said that to me. Do you really think I should?
TM: They'd be thrilled to dress you and to see you on camera...
BEACH: [Obviously afraid of being jinxed] Don't say anything!
TM: Putting aside your own situation, it's lovely for the show that so many actors are nominated.
BEACH: It's a great thing. Brad Oscar went to Chicago as an understudy and stepped in on opening night to save the show. Now he's got a Tony nomination. How cool is that? The mood backstage is absolute elation.
TM: And you can stay in this show until you reach retirement age.
BEACH: Or until my arms drop off. Oh no, that was the last show!