These days, due to the pandemic, an actor's ability to make a living in the theatre is virtually impossible. It's also no secret that even in the best of times actors work hard to make a living when the theatre is doing well. Sure, it's great when they land a hit, but more often than not, actors invest the same heart and soul into shows that close in a weekend. Actually, not really the same, as the work and pressure put into a show that's struggling can make tensions unbearable on a rocky road to Broadway. Sometimes all that hard work pays off, but more often than not, it doesn't. It’s a rare feat for a musical to come into town already a hit, not having been through the wringer like Guys and Dolls or The Producers managed to accomplish.
A Little Night Music opened in 1973 to mostly favorable reviews that secured the third Best Musical Tony for a Sondheim show and awarded him personally with the third of an eventual seven awards for writing music and lyrics. It had a seventeen-month run, not bad for a Sondheim show (it was longer than Company or Sweeney Todd, two other Tony winning Best Musicals), and backers did see a return on their investment, placing Night Music in the “hit” category.
For the company of Night Music, rehearsals started with an unfinished score, and book by the British playwright Hugh Wheeler, which resulted in a good deal of material to try out in live in front of audiences almost up until its opening night. Sondheim tabulates this in the first volume of his two books, stating in Finishing the Hat: "Five songs [were] written during the five-week rehearsal period, which is as fast as I've ever written."
To counter that, Hal Prince, Night Music's director, told Craig Zadan in his book Sondheim & Co.: "Going into rehearsal with ten of our sixteen songs was sheer lunacy. It was maddening and I'll never allow it to happen again with anyone!"
Maddening for sure. During the Boston and New York previews, even more songs were removed and added. In my recent conversation with Laurence Guittard, who created the role of Count Carl-Magnus in that production, we discussed the arduous nature of performing in a musical when songs are written right up until the last minute:
"Steven had a terrible time coming up with that number, 'In Praise of Women,' Guittard recalled. "That was the last thing that went into the show and it was literally days before opening night that I got it. He tried various numbers, everyone knows 'Bang,' of course. But there were many versions of 'Bang,' with the original one featuring the Liebeslieders in it, then they got taken away (fortunately for me). Then he started working on a song called 'Women Were Born to Wait,' which I think nobody knows about. I think Steve ran out of steam on it... but he took snippets from everything to create the final number. His 'Eureka!' moment was realizing it was meant to be a ballad, and not a military number. And he said something like, 'I know I have to write 'Dancing in the Dark' for you.'"
When I mentioned that it must have been a thrill and half to have had Sondheim compose a song specifically tailored to his voice, Guittard was practical in his response. "I didn't have time to be thrilled. It was quite harrowing. If I remember properly, 'A Weekend in the Country' came in shortly before we went to Boston... We didn't have 'It Would Have Been Wonderful,' as that went in during the run there. And that one was a hard to remember. So, I was always slightly concerned that I would blow it. And then weirdly, when I played Fredrik in London [in 1995 opposite Judi Dench's Desiree] I had to do the other words. So, my old neurosis came back in spades. It was always tricky."
"What was best working with Steve was when he brought it in to you because he was so specific about what he intended. And I remember those sessions gratefully."
As for landing the role that would result in a Tony nomination, Guittard added an interesting twist to the story. "When I auditioned for Carl-Magnus they liked what I did, but I guess felt they could do better, so they kept looking. And they offered me the standby. A short time later, they brought me back, and I got it. Somehow, and I don't know this for a fact, but Steve and Burt Shevelove were extremely close [co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum] and I've always thought that Burt might have said something since I knew him so well due to his daughter being one of my closest friends. And because Hal sort of thought of me as a chorus person because I had been in the chorus of Baker Street and in the chorus of Anya, which had been directed by Mr. Abbott... Well, in any event, I hope Burt had something to do with it because I loved him."
There were no other Sondheim shows for Guittard between 1973 and 1995 (though he made up for that with his final two major roles). Mention must be made though of the plethora of parts he did regionally over the course of his career. Just a sampling include: Billy Bigelow (Carousel), Danilo (The Merry Widow), Pierre (The Desert Song), Joey (The Most Happy Fella), Johnny (The Unsinkable Molly Brown), Frank Butler (Annie Get Your Gun) and Ben Rumson (Paint Your Wagon), which was one of his absolute favorites. And when I asked if he had ever done My Fair Lady, either Freddy or Higgins, he told me that he did — in Alaska!
"I played Higgins and I had a great time doing it. I just wish someone had seen me other than my mother and some elk. I played opposite Susan Watson and we had a great time."When I asked if he sang much of the role, I loved his answer: "I didn't until Higgins was in love. 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face' was the first time I sang in any recognizable way."
Now that's an actor!
Getting to play Curly in a first rate Oklahoma! was another highpoint. Touring the country for months before landing on Broadway before the end of 1979, New York critics took notice of a beautifully realized production, in particular Guittard's magnificent voice singing the glorious Rogers and Hammerstein score. Here's a clip of him and the entire company singing the title song. See if it doesn't give you a jolt as it does the audience, which rewards it with a standing ovation:
In 1990, he played Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music at City Opera at Lincoln Center, a role to which he was well suited. In 1992, when Man of La Mancha was revived on Broadway starring Raul Julia, Guittard was asked to take over when Julia became too ill to continue the run. It proved his last Broadway experience before heading to London to play Fredrik in the aforementioned A Little Night Music, which not only allowed him the opportunity to play opposite Dame Judi Dench, but take away from the production a deep friendship that continues to this day.
Before retiring, Guittard closed with a winner: the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse Follies, which sadly did not transfer to Broadway, as many had hoped. But a double-disc CD offers not only his singing the role of Benjamin Stone, but some songs written for the character that never made it into the show. It's the one, true complete Follies recording, and if you've never heard it, give it a listen. His co-stars, Donna McKechnie, Dee Hoty, Tony Roberts and Ann Miller are all pretty damn great.
In the previous column devoted to the first part of his career, brief mention was made of Guittard’s composing over these past twenty-one years while in retirement. Only recently he has completed a full-length opera (which he has orchestrated himself) and that he has hopes seeing to a production in the near future, whenever theatre returns — the sooner the better.
At the end of our two-hour talk, I had just one last question for him: "Do you sing anymore? Even in the shower?"
And I got a definitive answer.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.