Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rex
Rex Smith, starring in Kiss Me, Kate on tour, talks about his unique career.
Smith checked in with TheaterMania from the infamous Watergate Hotel, where he was ensconced with his family while the production wowed the crowds at the Kennedy Center. (The tour has since moved on to Dallas, and its next stop is Los Angeles.) After a brief apology for eating during our morning interview--like many of us, he hates it when his cereal gets soggy--he waxed enthusiastic about puppies, Pirates, and the President.
THEATERMANIA: So, Rex, I hear that George W. came to see your show.
REX SMITH: Yes! We got a nice photo in The Washington Post that was taken by my wife, Courtney. The real neat thing is that our son Gatsby, who is almost two, is traveling with us. So is Jane Russell, our Jack Russell terrier. She's going on the road with us. I mentioned to the President that I was thinking about bringing Gatsby along for the whole tour, and he said, "The greatest Gatsby, right?" They quoted that in the Post. So this morning, as my son is running around with a little plane, I said to him: "The President is talking about you in the paper."
TM: Kiss Me, Kate is a big show to tour, isn't it?
RS: It's like a 27-layer cake, with all of the technical aspects and the performances and everything. Michael Blakemore is just the most wonderful director I've ever worked for--ever. He's like the professor in Goodbye, Mr. Chips; he has a very gentle manner but he's very acute, very astute, and very accurate in his job. I brought my talent into the room, but I was built into this part by Michael.
TM: Have the Shakespearean sections of the show been a challenge?
RS: No. And I'm not saying that off-handedly. It was surprising to me that, out of all those 27 layers, that was the first one to settle in. Once you have accomplished getting off book, the language itself starts to take over and carry you along. The most challenging part is just to remain honest. Really, it's like a Southern accent--it's just another way of getting the point across.
TM: And what's it like to perform those incredible Cole Porter songs?
RS: "Where Is the Life That Late I Led" is not as much about singing as about, "Where is the next breath I'm going to get?" It's about oxygen! Once you get off book on this show, the rest of it is heart and lungs: How am I going to oxygenate and not pass out? It is the most physical work I've ever done--not to mention that I'm wearing a good 40 pounds of leather and suede and wool.
TM: The tour opened in New Haven?
RS: Yeah, and what a great place to begin. That was my fourth time to New Haven. In the backstage area of the Shubert, there's hand-drawn art from all of the tours that have passed through. I'm like the old man: I've got four shows up on that wall! It's pretty cool.
TM: You've balanced Broadway work and tours for years. How do those experiences compare?
RS: The most wonderful aspect about a touring show is that the company really, truly is a company in terms of being in this together. The cast is separated for a great deal of time from the people we love, from our homes and all our personal little tchotchkes. We're reduced to the very minimum of suitcase living. We're together for missed flights and delays, and we open a show 30 times a year, as opposed to once. There is a great camaraderie and esprit de corps that goes along with all that--a "can-do" kind of thing. It's like when the military is really out on exercises, instead of just swabbing the deck. On Broadway, as soon as the curtain comes down, you kind of scatter and everybody gets back to their tchotchkes. Here, there's more opportunity for finding a little piano bar or something like that and hanging out together. That's a cohesive element for the company. Doing a Broadway show is always exciting because you feel like a newly minted coin: You're the template that every other company will follow, and there's a huge amount of pride in that. But I don't think any less of my work on tour. I try to put 110% into it every time I step out there, regardless of the venue.
TM: Where is home for you?
RS: California, outside of L.A. I'm not a real fan of L.A.; I think of it as some bastard hybrid of nervous New Yorkers looking for the next gig.
TM: You mentioned that you have a Jack Russell terrier named Jane Russell?
RS: Yeah, she's a classic. She looks just like the RCA dog--all white, with two black ears. I got her when I was doing Sunset Boulevard up in Canada, which is also where I found my wife. Or she found me. We found each other!
TM: Was she in the company?
RS: No, no. She was a probation officer for the Ministry of Correctional Services--so I'm basically on probation for the rest of my life. I not only met my match, I exceeded the mark. There's got to be a relationship here, because my mother had a masters in criminology and I married a corrections officer. I know my mother is finally happy that I have somebody to keep me in line.
TM: Most people would agree that it's harder these days than it used to be to maintain a career in musical theater, especially as a leading man or woman. But you seem to have done a good job of that.
RS: True. I'm like the Harrison Ford of musical theater. I'm really amassing quite a wonderful repertoire of these roles. To be able to live like I do in today's world...I think that's a fortunate thing.
TM: You made your first big splash in a really great production: The Pirates of Penzance with the New York Shakespeare Festival. Did you have a vision of where you wanted to go from there?
RS: I started out doing hard rock and roll. My first two albums for Columbia were very hard rock; I was managed by Aerosmith's manager. My band was out on tour with Ted Nugent for two years as an opening act, and we played Lynyrd Skynyrd's last concert. Ted and Lynyrd Skynyrd were co-headlining. Then the plane crash happened, three days before our concert at Madison Square Garden, and we became the "special guests" instead of, like, the baby band. Some people saw me at that concert and it led to my doing the TV movie Sooner or Later, which "You Take My Breath Away" came out of. There I was, being groomed to be the next Van Halen and, suddenly, I became a teen idol! After I filmed Sooner or Later, Columbia Records dropped my band and just retained me; but the movie wasn't scheduled to air for a while, and my hands were tied as far as work. One day, I was driving my motorcycle around and I saw an ad for an open call for the lead in Grease. It was a non-Equity call, and I went to it because I was curious. I studied one of the songs, "Alone at the Drive-In Movie," and I ended up getting that part--Danny Zuko. I was the last Zuko in the original [Broadway] production; I followed Peter Gallagher into the show. While I was doing that, the teen idol thing hit, so then I traveled around the world doing that stuff.
TM: Tell me about Pirates.
RS: That was the crossroads for me. It was originally supposed to be three weeks of free theater in the park, and it was the smartest choice I ever made. Pirates really turned out to be the Holy Grail. It was in the last days of the gypsy chorus and everything--before AIDS, that phantom visited on every theater. And Joe Papp! One night, after the show, I'm standing in a towel; I've got a Budweiser in my hand, because Paul Newman came to the show three times and I always kept Budweiser in my little fridge. So I'm there in just a towel, drinking a beer--and I wish I had had a camera with me, because here comes Joe Papp with Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni. They start pinching me on the cheek, going "Bravo, bravo!" And I'm thinking, "This is the way to go!" Three weeks of free theater turned into a lifetime career for me.
TM: You stayed with Pirates after it transferred to Broadway. And you got to do a movie version of the show, even though they weren't making too many film musicals in those days.
RS: And they aren't now! That film is sort of a time capsule. For people in the future who'll be studying musicals and Gilbert & Sullivan, it'll be a great tool. I think Gilbert & Sullivan will always be seen as a bedrock, because so many musicals came out of that style.
TM: I don't want to let you go without mentioning another show you did for Joe Papp: The Human Comedy. Just a couple of years ago, they finally issued the cast album on CD. Galt MacDermot's score is so terrific.
RS: I'll tell you one thing I learned from that, a little adage: Critics can close a show, but they can't keep it open. The New York Times ran a full-page thing saying 'Save this show'! The critics loved it, but it just didn't run.
TM: Well, I'm looking forward to seeing Kiss Me, Kate at some point on the tour.
RS: I hope you do. Rachel [York] is just wonderful in it, and we've had the benefit of working with the original production team. This is not just a poor copy of the Broadway show. You know how you used to take Silly Putty to the Sunday comics and then pull it off--but it never looked quite right because, when you pulled it off, it got a little distorted and the face was stretched out? This is not like that. This is a hands-on production with all the finishing touches, all the refinements and accoutrements that Michael Blakemore and Kathleen Marshall put into it.
TM: You sound very happy about the show.
RS: Yes. One of the reasons I'm excited about doing it is that I feel it's a really important step on the ladder. If Broadway is not beckoning or I'm not the flavor of the month, maybe I can carve out a thing for myself where I can work hard and play all these characters on tour. I'm hoping that Kiss Me, Kate will help solidify my next 20 years of doing shows like Man of La Mancha, Camelot, Guys and Dolls--the roles that I've yet to play.