Joey is one of those roles that ain't easy to fill. Aside from the fact that it's written for an opera-level baritone voice, which Gilfry has in spades, it also requires the services of a performer possessed of enough physical beauty and sexual magnetism to make it believable that (1) the main female character of the show, Rosabella, would leave her home and travel to another town to marry and live with the guy on the basis of having seen only his photograph; and (2) when Rosabella arrives and finds out that Tony Esposito, the man who sent her Joey's photo as a ruse, is actually an unattractive older man, she has sex with Joey anyway (and becomes pregnant by him) on the night of her wedding to Tony. That Rodney Gilfry is blessed with this kind of appeal is superfluous to say to anyone who saw his breakout performance as Stanley Kowalski in André Previn's opera based on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Gilfry played Stanley at the San Francisco Opera opposite Renée Fleming as Blanche, and the performance was nationally televised.
Though Gilfry is an opera singer first and foremost, he is making a concerted effort at branching out: He was lauded for his cabaret show at Joe's Pub last season and, prior to that, he triumphed as Billy Bigelow in a staged concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. If you're going to be in L.A. anytime between now and November 18, you should definitely check out his performance in Happy Fella, perhaps the most underappreciated of all the truly great musicals that opened on Broadway in the 1950s. The Reprise! production also stars George Ball, Anastasia Barzee, and Jennifer Leigh Warren, with the great Peter Matz as musical director. I spoke with Gilfry about this and other projects when he was in New York for one day a few weeks ago, just having flown back from Zurich and very much looking forward to being reunited with his wife and three children in California.
TM: The Most Happy Fella is such a wonderful show. Were you familiar with it before you got the job? Do you know the original cast recording?
RG: I just recently bought the album. I had heard some of it because I did a kind of a semi-staged concert version of it years ago in Santa Barbara. They sent me a tape of Joey's excerpts from the recording with Art Lund, and I thought, "Man, what a great part. What beautiful songs." It always stuck in my head as requiring a real, legitimate baritone--not a half-baked baritone.
TM: How did you come to be cast in this production?
RG: I went to see Strike up the Band, which was part of the Reprise! series last year; Charles Nelson Reilly was in it. I looked in the program and it said that their next production was going to be The Most Happy Fella. I thought, "I gotta get into that!" Then I noticed that the director was going to be Arthur Allan Seidelman, with whom I had just done Carousel at the Hollywood Bowl. So I called him up and said, "Can I be in the show?" He said he'd love to have me, but then I had to work out all these scheduling complications. This is a great opportunity for me because I am making a move toward doing not just opera but also musical theater, stage acting, and film. I have a radio show now in Los Angeles that I co-host with another opera singer. It's an opera show, but at least it's a radio presence--every weekend on Sunday nights. I'm trying to expand my horizons. That's why I'm also doing this cabaret show that you saw. I'm going to be doing it again in Hollywood, in December.
TM: Tell me about the film stuff.
RG: Well...I had a film scheduled, but it fell through. It was with Burt Reynolds and it was going to be called A Woman in Love. I would have played an opera singer who is just being discovered. Burt was going to play an opera director. I guess they just couldn't get the money together--and then, after September 11, the whole thing fell apart. I sure hope I get another film. That might have been my once-in-a-lifetime chance, but I hope not!
TM: I know you've done Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Was that your only experience there so far?
RG: No, I also did A Midsummer's Night Dream and Cosi Fan Tutte.
TM: I'm surprised that they haven't used you more often. Is everything okay between you and the Met?
RG: It's okay. It's kind of up in the air right now. I think it's just a matter of finding the right project, finding what they want to bring me back in. It'll happen, but maybe not for a couple of more years.
TM: When I saw you in Streetcar on TV, I immediately thought, "He'd be perfect in Billy Budd." I didn't know at the time that you've already done that opera.
RG: Yeah, Billy Budd is one of my favorites and one of my best-suited roles, I think. But I haven't done it for a while. I was just asked to do it in Paris, to jump in for someone who got sick, but I felt like coming home. I've done it in Geneva, Paris, London, Dallas, Los Angeles--all in the same production. It would be nice to try a new one.
TM: The Met production is so great.
RG: I haven't seen their Billy Budd but everybody says it's fantastic. It would be a real source of pride for me to be able to do that opera at the Met, and I think I'm the person they should ask to do it. But, you know...
TM: With Stanley Kowalski as with Billy Budd, the physical requirements for the role are so specific--and so unusual among opera singers--that I'm guessing they wouldn't have made an opera of Streetcar unless they knew that someone like you was available to perform it.
RG: Yes, as a matter of fact, André Previn decided to use me before he started writing it. That was kind of an interesting story, because he'd only seen me do Billy Budd, and Stanley is so different. He's like the polar opposite of Billy. I met André in Vienna; I just happened to be there and I found out that he was, too. When we met, I did my best to be as little like Billy Budd as I could: I hadn't shaved in a few days, I slicked my hair back, and I wore a big, bulky sweater, trying to look tough. I gave him a real firm handshake and kind of plopped down next to him. He said, "Great!" Then I saw him a few days later in Washington; I was singing for the Kennedy Center Honors and he was one of the honorees. Now I was clean-shaven, my hair was blown dry, and I had on a tuxedo. I went up to him, all smiles, and he didn't recognize me. I could tell he was worried: "Oh, I don't think he's Stanley!" I called my manager and said, "I've gotta do something, I think he's going to bail on me." So we sent him a tape of the Don Giovanni that I did in Amsterdam, when I played the Don as a real grungy, nasty guy. Previn said, "Okay, okay!" And then he started writing Streetcar.
TM: That's one reason why you'd probably be wonderful in films: Your face is so malleable. Comparing these pictures where you're smiling to the ones where you've got a serious expression, you almost look like two different people.
RG: Well, I have to confess: that's not me. My brother does all the nasty ones and I do the nice ones! Seriously, I hope the film opportunity comes. It's interesting: In his show, Charles [Nelson Reilly] has got this line from Emily Dickinson that goes something like, "She lived in the state of Massachusetts but actually lived in the state of regret." We're all given talents and gifts, and I think it's our responsibility to exploit them--in the good sense of the word. Use them, discover them, don't waste them. I feel like I can do more than just sing opera. I might fall on my face in attempting other things, but that's okay. At least I can say that I tried.
TM: I haven't been able to find any photos of you in Carousel at the Hollywood Bowl. Were you in costume for that?
RG: We performed in front of the orchestra, but it was entirely staged--choreography, costumes, lights, everything. It wasn't originally intended to be so elaborate but, as we went along, we said, "Let's just do it all!" Alice Ripley played Julie and Faith Prince was Carrie. I love John Mauceri so much; he's a really fine conductor and a fine person, and he has such a great level of communication with everybody. When he's conducting something, he's watching you and following every word. If you do something different, he's there with you. And he can turn around and talk to an audience of 17,000 people and entertain them.
TM: Had you ever played Billy Bigelow before the Hollywood Bowl concert?
RG: I had done it in San Diego at an outdoor amphitheater. It was a pretty amateurish production, but I still had fun. At the time, I had just come from doing Oklahoma! with the L.A. Opera. They've never done anything like that since, but it was fantastic to have a major opera company putting on a musical. Jean Stapleton was Aunt Eller and I had a real horse. It was a great production!
TM: Your cabaret show at Joe's Pub was so well directed by Charles Nelson Reilly. He seems to have become sort of a mentor to you. When did you first meet him?
RG: It was during Streetcar. He's a friend of Renée Fleming's and he came to some of the final rehearsals to help her with her acting; she asked him to come and watch and see how she was doing. Charles and I became good friends really quickly. Our first collaboration was a production of Fledermaus that he directed in Dallas a few months ago.
TM: It's great to hear you sing the musical theater repertoire, but some people fear that general audiences are growing less and less comfortable hearing legit voices in musicals. Do you agree?
RG: When we did Carousel at the Hollywood Bowl, I did get that feeling. The director said, "You have a beautiful voice, but be sure you don't give us all of it right at the beginning. We have to get used to it." I would say the lines before "If I Loved You'--something like "Ain't much wind tonight, hardly any." Then I'd start singing: "You can't hear a sound, not the turn of a leaf..." And I noticed that when a person is speaking and then they start singing, if there's too huge of a difference in the sound, it's like a different character. The speaking has to be dovetailed into the singing. I really tried to do that, to make it sound like sung speech until I really had to sing. I mean, when I'm singing, "How I l-o-o-o-ved you..." up on F-naturals, then I'm sorry--I'm going to use my training and not try to make it sound like a strained musical theater voice. It's a good exercise for opera singers to do musicals because we need to always be singing on the words. A lot of opera singers will just make pretty sounds and leave the text behind. Not the good ones, of course; the good ones never do that.
TM: Where do you come down on the whole amplification issue?
RG: I really liked having the mike at Joe's Pub. It's a small place but you've got people eating and drinking there, so there's a lot of ambient noise. I'll probably use a mike again when I do that show in Los Angeles because it allows you to be a lot more intimate. You can bring the audience into your own sphere. Sometimes, it does get in the way; if I'm going to play the guitar, I've got to put the mike in a stand. And if I do something like the soliloquy from Carousel, I have to hold it back all the time. In L.A., I think I'm going to add the "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville just to throw in a different vibe. When I sing that, I might put the mike down.
TM: What are some of your musical theater dream roles?
RG: I'd love to do Kiss Me, Kate and Annie Get Your Gun. And I'd love to do...well, I'm probably too old for it, but I'd love to do Curley in Oklahoma! again.
TM: Did you audition for the upcoming Broadway revival?
RG: No, I didn't know how to contact anyone. I would love to do a starring role on Broadway; that's one of my goals. But it's not going to happen if I don't really put some concentrated effort into making it happen. Maybe I'm trying to make too big of a jump.
TM: You had such tremendous visibility in Streetcar...
RG: Yeah, but now that's ancient history. I am doing another world premiere, which should help a lot: I'm doing the operatic version of Sophie's Choice in London next December. And I may also be doing a new opera in L.A. in the fall of 2003. That should have high visibility because Placido Domingo is going to be in it. But it's amazing: The musical theater and opera worlds are so separate.
TM: That wasn't always the case.
RG: You're right. In the golden age of musicals, when the vocal standard was very high, it wasn't such a huge thing for an opera singer to cross over. Now, musicals have gone in the direction of Rent. I mean, that show has its place--it's a great show, I enjoyed it, but that has now pretty much become the musical theater sound. I don't know how they can sing like that and do eight shows a week. Maybe they don't do eight shows a week! Anyway, I'd be happy to do my little part to try and get us back to more traditional vocal values.