Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Play That Changed My Life

The Play That Changed My Life

Over the past week, the theatre blogosphere has been buzzing as members of the Independent Theatre Bloggers Association (to which I belong) have been sharing fascinating stories from an array of theatre world luminaries on the plays that forever changed their lives.

Today, I'm proud to add to the ongoing discussion in sharing stories from two of this year's Tony-nominated actors, Gregory Jbara (who went on to win a Tony) and Gavin Creel. I've had the good fortune to meet both of these extraordinary actors, so it's a thrill for me to provide their anecdotes exclusively on Steve On Broadway (SOB). Additionally, I'll also tell you a little bit about the inspiration behind these stories and an associated contest, along with the play that indeed changed my life.

First, about that inspiration. Proving yet again that it is so much more to the international theatrical community than simply "the Tony Award organization," The American Theatre Wing is celebrating the December 1 launch of its new book, The Play That Changed My Life. In it, 19 of the foremost American playwrights talk about the works that first captured their imaginations and inspired them in their careers and thus transformed their lives.

So what were the impetuses that propelled Jbara and Creel to Broadway's boards? Here are their stories.

Gregory Jbara

As one of Broadway's most beloved contemporary actors, Gregory Jbara has seven Main Stem shows among his stage and screen credits, including Serious Money, Born Yesterday, Damn Yankees, Victor/Victoria, Chicago and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Jbara can still be seen in his first Tony-winning role as Dad in Billy Elliot - The Musical.

This Michigan native first came to my attention as Mr. Bernstein in Victor/Victoria, and he's even graciously provided yours truly with a backstage tour of his current show.

When asked to name the play that changed his life, Jbara said:

I don’t know that there was any one specific play that I had that experience.

I’d have to say it was being an altar boy in church. It was High Mass, which is, you know, a lot of theatre. In third grade, that was my experience in front of people that I really think gave me the bug for speaking in front of large groups.

Crazy, crazy as it is, I have to attribute the Catholic Church for me being an actor. It was either that or a nun. So I’m glad it was being an actor.

Gavin Creel

As one of today's fastest-rising stars, Gavin Creel not only has three Broadway shows among his credits, including Thoroughly Modern Millie, La Cage aux Folles and the current revival of Hair, but he's already been nominated for two Tony Awards.

I've had the pleasure of seeing this Ohio native in all three Rialto productions, as well as in the Chicago incarnation of the Stephen Sondheim musical known as Bounce. I had the pleasure of catching up with Creel at this year's Drama League Awards and was surprised a couple days later at a performance of Hair when this gifted actor tried something new out on me in my second row seat.

When asked to name the play that changed his life, Creel said:

Mine was The Most Happy Fella.

I saw a musical production of it at the University of Michigan that the university put on there and I thought I was watching a movie on stage. I thought it was the most beautiful thing, the music was stunning, the performances were incredible.

Totally The Most Happy Fella.
Edited by Ben Hodges, The American Theatre Wing's new book features an introduction from Paula Vogel. The Play That Changed My Life features distinguished contributors, who have a combined total of some 40 Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prizes and Obies. They include Edward Albee, David Auburn, Jon Robin Baitz, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Charles Fuller, A.R. Gurney, Beth Henley, David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, David Ives, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl, John Patrick Shanley, Diana Son, Regina Taylor and Doug Wright.

In further celebrating the launch of the original book, The American Theatre Wing has also kicked-off an online essay contest. Here is your official invitation to participate:

[W]hether you work in theatre, hope to make your life in the theatre or just enjoy being in the audience, surely you’ve had that same experience: a single play (or musical) that you saw at some point in your life that had a profound effect on you, be it a childhood production of Cinderella in a school auditorium featuring an older sibling, a parent’s appearance at the local community theatre, a Broadway spectacle like Les Misérables or The Phantom of the Opera, a journey to a small out-of-the-way theatre that told its story with a minimum of technical tools.

Frankly, it could be any production, and that’s what ATW wants to hear about: what show had the greatest impact upon you, when you saw it in the course of your life, and most importantly why it meant so much to you. Entries (limited to 350 words) will be judged based on their creativity, their clarity and perhaps most importantly, for how they convey your passion for the theatre.

So tell ATW about the play that changed your life – those few hours in the theatre, at any age, in any theatre, that had the greatest impact on your life and your perception of theatre — and have the opportunity to share your story with the thousands of visitors to while getting the chance to win an autographed copy of The Play That Changed My Life and other theatrical books from Applause Publishing. Enter by clicking here.

The contest entry period runs through Sunday, November 29. The final expert panel judging the contest includes ATW Board of Directors Chairman and President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin; Applause Books’ Editorial Director Carol Flannery; award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and former Time Magazine arts editor and Broadway & Me blogger (as well as dear SOB friend) Janice Simpson. Additional prizes will be given based on voting by the general public, which will continue through December 11.

As for the play that changed my life? Regular readers will recall that earlier this year, I waxed nostalgic regarding the thirty years that have passed since I first took in a Broadway show, albeit on the London stage. That show was the British mounting of Annie.

In that post, I mused:

[M]y view of the world and all its possibilities was forever and inalterably changed.

Little did I know upon entering London's
Victoria Palace Theatre (current home to Billy Elliot - The Musical) how swept away I could become by just one show. From my front row center mezzanine seat, I witnessed nothing short of pure magic.

I was absolutely riveted by the legendary
Stratford Johns as Daddy Warbucks and the glorious Sheila Hancock as Miss Hannigan -- she simply blew me away with a sublime performance I can still vividly recall even today.

I marveled at Charnin's ingenious direction,
Peter Gennaro's breathtaking choreography and Theoni V. Aldredge's dazzling costume design. But it was David Mitchell's sliding set designs that completely floored me as they transported Annie's array of characters across the stage without them even having to take a step.

To say it transported me as well would be a major understatement. I was wowed. Big time.
[T]he exhilaration I felt in seeing Annie was a life-changer of a different order.

With a strange new tingling sensation down my spine, I was replete with goosebumps from head to toe. This live performance would forever change my expectations of entertainment. I now saw just how brilliant stagecraft could be. Entertainment became art. And I was forever hooked on live theatre.

For those of you who may quibble that a musical doesn't count as a play, you may be interested in knowing that later in 1979 when I was a freshman in college -- with memories of Annie still dancing in my head -- I decided to take in a Broadway tour during its Milwaukee swing at the Pabst Theatre.

That play was The Belle of Amherst starring none other than the legendary, 5-time Tony winner Julie Harris, who also was honored with a Tony for this show.

Seeing Harris was like striking theatrical gold. Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, Harris completely mesmerized in this solo performance with her brilliant portrayals of poet Emily Dickinson and her contemporaries, including Charles Wadsworth. I had no idea that an actor could take on so many diverse roles and make each and every one of them seem so believable and immensely credible.

In learning how potent the power of the spoken word could be when delivered so passionately by Harris that one evening 30 years ago, I was spellbound. Thus, The Belle Of Amherst truly was the play that changed my life.

What play changed yours?

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 05 November, 2009, Blogger Linda said...

I have to know--what did Gavin Creel try out on you?

At 05 November, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

During the song "Hair," when the cast descends into the audience, Creel took off his belt, perched himself on the armrest directly in front of me and looped it around my neck, shimmying it back and forth as he sang. It's a moment like none I've ever had before both on or Off-Broadway.

When I subsequently asked him about the moment, he indicated that it was the first time he ever did that and the moment moved him to do so.

At 08 November, 2009, Blogger Linda said...

What a great moment! I'm jealous. =) If we're talking about shows that changed our lives, that revival of Hair would be up there for me (though not at the very top). I grew up loving the music and I was so happy to have the chance to finally see the show in such a wonderful production. I didn't expect the story to move me as much as it did. I didn't used to see the same show many times because there was always something new to see, but I've seen Hair more times than I'd care to admit between the park and Broadway and so far, it hasn't failed to move me.

At 08 November, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Glad you enjoyed that little story. Were you among those who were able to make their own Broadway stage debut at the end? I certainly didn't pass up that opportunity.

At 22 November, 2009, Blogger Rob said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 22 November, 2009, Blogger Rob said...

Your mention of "The Belle of Amherst" brought back my memory of seeing the play's final rehearsal before going to its first out-of-town try-out before heading to Broadway. It was at a tiny theatre in West Hollywood. Before the curtain rose, Julie Harris apologetically explained to the packed house that there would be no set or costumes because they were on trucks headed for Seattle. She brought a kitchen apron from home and wore it to evoke a housebound persona. There was a folding card table and chair on the otherwise bare stage. Ms. Harris did not require any props to transfix her audience. She became Emily Dickinson. It was truly magical, one of the greatest performances I've ever been privileged to see.

At 22 November, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


I can't thank you enough for sharing that wonderful back-story to Belle Of Amherst. Makes me treasure having seen the legendary Julie Harris even more.


At 28 November, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg Jbara is very impressive -- both as an actor, but more importantly, as a human being. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but everything about him, all that I've read and all the video I've seen, reinforces my positive impressions of him.

His successs is well deserved in my estimation.

At 28 November, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Anonymous, There are few Broadway actors I've met who are as genuinely nice and decent as he is (and I've met many!). I'm thrilled for the success he's enjoying and can't wait to see what he does next.


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