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Malcolm in the Middle

Douglas Sills adds Carl-Magnus Malcolm to his list of colorful characterizations. logo
Douglas Sills (center) with Blair Brown and John Dossett
in A Little Night Music
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
On his way to an interview at the Kennedy Center, where he is one of the stars of the Sondheim Celebration production of A Little Night Music, Douglas Sills stops to chat with several fans who are thrilled to recognize him and excitedly approach. Sills deservedly gained scads of admirers with his Tony Award-nominated performance in the title role of two different versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel, on Broadway and on tour. Other recent career highlights include Mack and Mabel for the L.A. Reprise! series and Carnival for City Center Encores! In Night Music, he has garnered praise for his characterization of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm -- a handsome, dashing egomaniac who, in Sills' masterful performance, exhibits a nasty facial tic whenever things aren't going as well as he would like. (Among the other stars of this terrific production are Blair Brown, John Dossett, Randy Graff, Barbara Bryne, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Natascia Diaz, and Danny Gurwin.) For our TheaterMania interview, I spoke with the ingratiating Sills at the KC Terrace Café between the matinee and evening shows on Saturday, August 10.


THEATERMANIA: It's great to see you on stage again, Douglas. I don't know a lot about your career before Pimpernel....

DOUGLAS SILLS: You want to hear about the pornography?

TM: Maybe later! Primarily, I was wondering if Night Music is your first Sondheim experience.

Sills offstage
DS: No, I did the first national tour of Into the Woods. I was Rapunzel's prince and then I went on to understudy Cinderella's prince. Before that, I did Sunday in the Park With George at ACT; I had just gotten out of grad school there and they somehow got the West Coast premiere of that show. I played Louis the baker and I understudied George. What other Sondheim stuff? I did Company in college. It's funny; I don't really think in terms of "Sondheim shows" because each one of them is so distinct.

TM: Did you see any or all of the first three productions in the Sondheim Celebration?

DS: None of them, unfortunately. I was doing a five-week workshop for Disney that Tina Landau directed called When You Wish, with Faith Prince, Julia Murney, Natascia Diaz...great people. Then I did a two-day workshop of An American in Paris, knowing full well that I'm not a dancer; I really wanted to work with [director] Daniel Sullivan. Right before that, I did a concert of Richard Rodgers' music with the Boston Pops, Lillias [White], Audra [McDonald], and Rebecca [Luker] for PBS.

TM: They aired two concerts, one of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs and one of Rodgers & Hart.

DS: Right, but we did it all in one night.

TM: You were so terrific in Carnival at Encores!

DS: Thank you. That was fun to do but it was one of those "pour and stir" things -- it happened so fast! Right now, what interests me is relationships on stage, depicting them in a way that is both honest and interesting. How many layers can you create? I loved doing Carnival and was honored to be asked, but when you have so few rehearsals you're not going to get a lot of those layers. So that's the snag with Encores! and Reprise! I was completely jazzed to be invited but, as I'm sure it must be for other actors and the creative teams as well, that one element was frustrating for me. That said, however, it wouldn't at all keep me from doing another.

TM: You played Percy in Pimpernel for such a long period; I guess you had plenty of time to keep finding things in the role as you went along. Do you prefer long runs?

DS: Yes, to a certain degree. With each play, I feel there's an optimal amount of time to rehearse and perform it, and that depends on a lot of factors that I don't claim to understand in their entirety. When I did Much Ado at South Coast Rep, we rehearsed for a month and then did it for five weeks. That seemed just right.

TM: Some people say that they prefer short rehearsal periods because their work is more instinctual; they don't have time to overanalyze things.

Sills with Nike Doukas
in Much Ado About Nothing
at South Coast Rep
DS: I certainly understand that. There is a point right at the beginning where you might get a spark of inspiration or creativity -- but then you have to try to put all of the elements of the show together. It partly depends on how much of a stretch the role is for you. Is it a straight play or a musical? Are there rhyming couplets? Is it Molière? All of these things play into that timetable.

TM: From an audience perspective, the whole Sondheim series has been amazing. What has it been like to be involved in one of the shows?

DS: Exciting! It's great to see other actors whom you respect coming in and out of rehearsal or at your hotel, talking about the day's work. It's sort of what you dream about. People are coming from all over the world to see the shows, and the performers are so well thought of. There's a feeling that we're in an incubator where the gestation period is heightened and accelerated. You get a sense of the synergy that comes with being part of a community of actors. There are some negatives that go along with it -- a very abridged tech and preview period, for example. But I feel humbled to be part of the group that's down here this summer, to work with a lot of people I haven't worked with before. And I've fallen in love with the piece.

TM: In a way, the repertory schedule of the shows in the Sondheim Celebration might be thought of as ideal: You get to do a run of your show but you don't have to perform it every night, so there's not much chance of getting stale.

DS: I like it, but I've really just been introduced to this particular style of rep. When I have done repertory before, it was at the California Shakespeare Festival. There were four plays running in rep and I was in all four of them. Here, you take time off from your play and the other actors; you might not see each other for a while unless you kibitz together on your days off, which we have been doing. When one show is opening, the others are not playing for a week to 10 days, so you do brush-ups. I remember that, when Pimpernel had its shift, people asked me how I could rehearse the new version during the day and perform the old one at night. It was difficult, but it wasn't that much different from doing rep. That was great training for me! If somebody asked me to play Carl-Magnus for a year, I don't know that I would have jumped at it, but who could say no to this? It's the best of all worlds. I wanted to work with [director] Mark Brokaw and, of course, I also wanted to work with Steve [Sondheim] again and have a little more contact with him; he was around for rehearsals of the Into the Woods tour but his involvement here was much more significant. And the part is great.

TM: Is there anything coming up for you after Night Music that you can talk about.

DS: Well, John [Dossett] and Raúl [Esparza] and I were going to do Assassins...

TM: I believe [director] Joe Mantello has been quoted as saying that the Roundabout will definitely be doing it sometime in the near future.

DS: Is he? That would be nice. I hope everybody is still available and into it. I'm also doing a reading of a new Ken Ludwig play called Shakespeare in Hollywood, which takes place during the filming of the movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the '30s. I've been made a very lovely offer from Reprise! in L.A. and I'll answer them shortly after I've familiarized myself with the piece a little bit more; I think it will happen but I don't want to say anything yet, because I'm not definite. And I've been recording demos for Leslie Bricusse's new musical of Cyrano.

TM: It would have been wonderful to see you in Kiss Me, Kate.

The dashing Douglas with Rachel York and Rex Smith
in The Scarlet Pimpernel
DS: Thanks. I wish that would have happened but it just wasn't meant to be.

TM: Well, you still have time to do that role.

DS: I was thinking about that the other day: What parts are you dying to play? I'm more and more interested in new characters and new pieces. It's so much more vibrant to do something like that because you're not carrying any baggage from the previous incarnations.

TM: Did you ever think that, perhaps, you were born a little too late in terms of the kind of performer you are and the kinds of great roles that used to be written but are no longer abundant?

DS: Sure, absolutely -- but it's not a good idea to spend a lot of time in that frame of mind. I grew up thinking, "God, if I lived in the time of Henry Irving..." But my mother said to me once, "You know, if you were born any earlier, as a Jew, we wouldn't have been able to send you to college and you'd probably be slaving over a sewing machine or working in a deli somewhere." It was her way of saying that, karmically, this is the way it's supposed to be. Really, I've been very lucky.

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