Front Row Q&A: Terrence Mann
A Broadway vet rules the boards at UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre this summer.
Twice Tony-nominated actor TERRENCE MANN, 61, is a bona fide Broadway star, having originated leading roles in Cats (Rum Tum Tugger), Les Misérables (Inspector Javert), Beauty and the Beast (The Beast) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Chauvelin). But this summer, as he did last, he's working with an old friend from his pre-Great White Way days—Frank Mack, managing director of UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre—as a key player in the Rep’s Nutmeg Summer Series. Last season, he played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady; last month, he starred in CRT’s production of Man of La Mancha (pictured). In July, he’s directing Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, which runs July 12-22. For more info, call (860) 486-2113 or visit crt.uconn.edu.
How's it going with Man of La Mancha?
It's going, fast and furious. Y'know, we've got 10 days to put up a major musical. But it's all good—everybody's on the same page; there's a lot of laughing. It's not the cure for cancer, so we're having a good time.
How are you approaching the character of Don Quixote? Do you have a conception that's different than previous actors who have played the role?
No, not really: If it's not broke, don't fix it. I've seen the Richard Kiley interpretation and the Peter O'Toole movie. And I've seen a production of it on Broadway. This character is not unlike a lot of Shakespearean characters, sort of a King Lear, actually. It comes from the same template. I try to draw on what's honest about the character, be sincere and authentic.
You're also directing Pirates of Penzance in July. Have you had any time to think about that, to prepare?
I've done Pirates before; both directed it and played the Pirate King. So I'm familiar enough with the territory, but that was more than 15 or 16 years ago. I've seen the Joe Papp version; that's a "romp." Right now, I'm just going to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Will you act in Pirates too, or simply direct?
Simply direct. Last time, when I both directed and played the Pirate King, was crazy. You just can't have that conversation with yourself.
What kind of a director are you? Are you a taskmaster? How would you describe your style?
Well, I am an actor first. So, I'm not a technical director and I'm not very organized. Hopefully, I can cast a show and get the right people in the room. And hopefully, when I've got everyone assembled, I can suss out how to treat people. You have to treat each person differently, figure out how to plug into their strengths and weaknesses, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Everybody in theater has a pretty healthy ego—when they walk into a room, they want it to be about them. Whatever their role, however small or large the part, it's your job to make them feel it's the most important thing in the room.
Why do you think Gilbert & Sullivan—and particularly this operetta—continue to charm an audience?
Well, because Gilbert & Sullivan did a kind of winking-at-the-audience, tongue-in-cheek form of comedy that was popular at the turn of the 20th century—it's a very specific form of melodrama, if you will, that's musicalized by some really gorgeous melodies. To me, it's a forerunner of what musical theater became: Vaudeville, burlesque and the follies, which were all really American. But Gilbert & Sullivan pioneered that sort of wacky, zany comedy.
The Pirate King is a great satirical character.
Right. His whole sense of hubris: He believes it and he doesn't make fun of it; it's important to him. It's as deep as a teaspoon but boy, is he the most important shallow person you ever met!
Your wife, Charlotte d'Amboise, worked with you last year on My Fair Lady. Will she be involved with these productions?
Yep, she was the choreographer for My Fair Lady. This year she's too busy taking care of our daughters, who are 10 [Josephine] and 9 [Shelby]. They have their own lives and she's supermom, managing all that right now.
How did you get into acting? I had heard that your parents were both performers.
Both my mom and dad loved music, and there was always music and singing going on in my house. They were both musicians—my mom trained in classical piano and could play and read anything. But in her work life, she was a travel agent. My dad was a social worker who loved to sing barbershop, so he used to sing in barbershop quartets. When I was growing up, on the weekends we'd have parties at our house and there'd be people singing everywhere, playing jazz and standards upstairs and guys in the basement woodshedding and singing four-part harmonies.
I was required as a kid to play an instrument, starting in the third grade. It didn't matter what it was, but I had to play it for at least a year. And if I didn't like it, then I could go on to the next instrument. But I had to play one all through high school. I started with the flute, then piano—which didn't turn out too well—then I found the drums in the 5th grade, and played percussion and drums all through high school.
Were you in marching bands?
I sure was, including the national champion Largo [Fla.] High School Band of Gold.
So, did that make you cool in school?
No, I wasn't cool. I wasn't cool until I got cast as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady senior year. Then all of a sudden, the editor of the yearbook—Dixie Lynn—wanted to be my girlfriend. The musicians were the geeky, freaky kids. The yearbook people were different, they were like "cool."
Do you remember your first, professional stage role?
I do. I was a freshman at Jacksonville University. My acting teacher was a guy named Bob Knowles. He asked me if I wanted to work in an outdoor drama on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in this huge waterside theater, called The Lost Colony. I was an Indian in the show, and officially hired as an actor-technician. I started out being featured in crowd scenes and ensembles. But the choreographer also chose me to be a dancer in the show. And I eventually understudied the lead. I made $35 a week, $10 of which went toward rent.
Did you always know you would be a performer?
When my high school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to major in in college, I didn't miss a beat. I said, "I'm going to be in theater." I didn't have an epiphany of, "I'm going to be an actor!" It was always the plan.
When I talk to people about you and what you've done, the one thing that seems to get them most excited is Les Miz. Do you find that?
It depends. I do find that theater fans always want to talk about Les Miz. Others remember the sci-fi Critters movies, still others the soap opera stuff. It depends on who you run into.
I almost named my cat Rum Tum Tugger, because he has that personality. I read that you auditioned for that role by doing an Elton John song?
That's a very long story, and I've used it in conducting master classes about making your own break versus somebody giving you your break. I was given my first Broadway break, in Barnum, because I knew the director, Joe Layton, who had directed me in The Lost Colony. He was directing this Broadway show, and I happened to be in New York City at the same time. But I couldn't get seen for Cats. So I ended up flying myself to London, talking my way into an audition with the choreographer, Gillian Lynne, and playing the piano and singing the Elton John song "Take Me to the Pilot." Then, I got a callback.
That makes me wonder: Did you ever do the rock band thing?
I did, yeah. Back in the 1970s, I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts; then after I left there around 1973, I went back to Florida for a couple of years and was in several different bands. But it didn't pan out; this was the'70s when there was a lot of substances floating around. That wrecked everything.
Of the Broadway roles you've done, is there one that's your favorite?
I used to say Cats was my favorite role because it was a lot of fun, and at the time it was something incredibly new and special. Les Miz was an incredible experience because it was such a seminal piece of work. It was extraordinary to be a part of that process. However, the role that floated my boat more than anything in the world, in terms of I just couldn't wait to get to the theater every night, was playing Frank 'n' Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. That whole show was incredible—the band sounded amazing, and I could hear everything; I could even hear myself singing with the band. And we got all that slapback from the audience, which was extraordinary. We used to have 12 or 13 people who would come regularly who really knew the show, who could really do the Greek chorus of comebacks on the jokes, which was really, really great.
You were in another play that I looked forward to at the time, Lennon, which didn't work out so well.
That was a shame; I wish it had. Yoko Ono had a lot of say on what the script was going to be. So it really wasn't the story of John Lennon as we would have liked to have realized it. When Yoko Ono enters on page 25 of a 100-page script, that's not giving full shrift to the other love in his life, who was Paul McCartney. That was weird. We had nine people playing Lennon, because 9 was his special number. We had different men and women of all races and cultures playing him. That was what sold Yoko on the concept of the show. Don Scardino, the director, is a brilliant guy. It was a great experience, but it was flawed—and it's tough to make a musical work.
What is your take on Broadway right now?
Financially, Broadway is the healthiest it's been. Last year's receipts were up some extraordinary percentage—six or seven or nine percent from the year before, which in this economic downturn is pretty incredible. It's weird, when I'm not in a Broadway show, I'm kind of not in the Broadway scene. I don't keep my ear to the ground about how things are. But having done a lot of workshops over the years—and a handful this year—it seems to be healthy; people are doing good stuff. I'm not sure there's great storytelling going on. The jukebox musicals are pretty clever: I don't know what you think of Mamma Mia!; I always thought it was a pretty great show. I'm not sure I really know what I'm talking about here. [laughs] But if I go to see something and I'm moved, that's great.
There are corporations that are producers now, sometimes involving 20 to 30 people. And everybody wants his two cents, especially these corporations that put big bucks into productions. I've been in some shows where these people come to rehearsal, sit there and give notes. And you go, really? The directors and producers have to give them lip service; but it's a very strange animal these days, everything's gone corporate.
You've been teaching theater of late, at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. How'd that start?
They called me about six years ago and asked me to help them get their musical theater program going. I said, "I can'tcome live there"; they said, "Okay," and hung up. Then they called back a year later and asked again, saying, "We'd like to reinvent this idea. How many days a week can you be down here?" I literally think I had a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich, and I said, "Oh . . . three days?" They went, "Okay!" So I went down there. The first year we had four or five majors. Now we have 34, and at least 60 to 70 students audition for the program each year—we're only allowed to admit 16 a year. It's coming along.
Would you ever consider becoming a full-time teacher?
I don't know—I haven't had to yet. It seems I'm having my cake and eating it, too.
And how'd you happen to start working with the Connecticut Rep?
Frank Mack, the managing director, is a friend of mine from The Lost Colony. He literally called me up one day two years ago and invited my whole family. We've talked and kept in touch over the years.
Would you like to do more movies and TV, or not?
At this point I don't care; I'm happy to take whatever comes along. I'm more concerned right now about spending time with my family and my girls and watching them grow. I go up for the odd film now and then, but there isn't anything that I'd really rush out and say, "I gotta do this," at this point in my career.
Have either of your daughters shown an interest in performing?
They've been involved in the arts since they were both 3. They've both performed with the National Dance Institute since that age. I put them both in My Fair Lady last year, as urchins. My younger daughter, Shelby, is getting ready to do A Midsummer Night's Dream with the New York City Ballet, and her sister Josephine just did a big solo with the National Dance Institute. I don't know if this is what they'll choose to do in adulthood, but I've been in plays since I was 6, and I've always felt that that discipline—with the responsibilities it requires of everybody and the kind of work ethic and discipline that that instills—is invaluable to anybody.Front Row Q&A: Terrence Mann