It seems likely that no one has ever performed more death scenes on a Broadway stage than Jefferson Mays. "I think it's around 9000 deaths," he speculates, reflecting on the past two years he has starred in the Tony- and Drama Desk Award-winning musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, which is set to end its run at the Walter Kerr Theatre on January 17, 2016.
The reason for this inordinately high death-to-performance ratio is that Mays plays eight different characters. Specifically, he portrays the eight members of the aristocratic D'Ysquiths clan, in line to inherit the family fortune ahead of Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham). The black sheep of the family, Monty resolves to bump off each of the D'Ysquiths, positioning himself as the sole heir.
Mays spoke to TheaterMania about nearly losing a finger for his craft, Gentleman's Guide groupies, and his amazing run in this musical marathon.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say/sing?
"This fish in an abomination."
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
Oh, they're all too arcane to explain and far too incriminating to relate. We're all working like Billy-be-damned backstage, so there's no time for mirth or levity in the wings.
3. Every show deals with technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
A drunken patron (although I think he was on more than just drink at the time) wandered into the house and caused a scene. He had to be physically subdued by some of our more strapping crew members. We were singing "It's Better With a Man" at the time and I was completely oblivious until the stage manager walked out and stopped the show in the middle of the number. My head almost exploded from this reality colliding with my imaginary world.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
A lovely young woman had tattooed a D'Ysquith coat of arms on her torso. It was complete with the Latin motto Cum volare porci (when pigs fly). She lifted up the lower part of her shirt and there it was…in ink. What does one say to that? It was an odd little gift.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She's the tiniest little thing and just adorable. She loved the show and she told me, "If you can do that performance every night, you don't need a sex therapist!"
6. Of all the characters you get to play, who is your favorite and why?
They come and go so quickly, it's hard to get inordinately fond of any of them, but I do like Lord Asquith D'ysquith, Sr. He gets to wear a very nice frock coat and he's the most humane of the D'ysquiths. He has two scenes with Monty where he doesn't sing, just talks. And best of all, his death is the least painful: He has a quiet coronary thrombosis while seated at his desk. I look forward to that every night. I don't have to fall over the back of a swing or get beheaded. It's a nice little reprieve.
7. Since all of them are invariably murdered, which of the other D'Ysquiths has it coming the most?
I love that after a series of near misses with disease, armed insurrection, and cannibals, Lady Hyacinth ultimately falls off a gangway and drowns at Southampton. For all her self-serving missionary zeal, she deserves it.
8. At what point in your show do you have your tightest, most nerve-racking costume change?
That's my change into Lord Ezekiel D'Ysquith, the vicar. It's about eighteen seconds. I'm getting out of mustache, hair, gloves, and into false teeth and clerical garb. It takes four people. I almost lost my thumb doing that change.
9. Seriously? How did that happen?
A hook caught under my thumbnail and got lodged there. I saw it and I was bleeding and I almost said, "Just cut the finger off! We can sew it back on at the intermission. The show must go on." With all that adrenaline, you become like an animal chewing its leg off trying to escape.
10. Which of your many costume pieces do you intend to liberate and incorporate into your normal wardrobe?
You've plumbed the depths of my innermost thoughts of late. I've been wondering what I can abscond with, but I'm afraid that since this production has a wonderful life ahead of it on tour, I don't think I'm going to get a thing. If I could, I would take everything. My late father came to see the show in Hartford and he said, "Oh, it's so wonderful they put you in a musical where you can wear all your favorite clothes."