BACK STAGE WEST
February 19, 1998
ACTORS' DIALOGUE : Kingsley Leggs & Mary Gutzi
Reporting by Rob Kendt
Call them Ragtime's replacement killers. Eight shows a week at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles, Kingsley Leggs and Mary Gutzi go out and knock 'em dead in roles first played by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Judy Kaye, who are now with the show on Broadway. Leggs plays the proud, passionate pianist-turned-terrorist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and Gutzi plays a pivotal historical character, the anarchist Emma Goldman. Both have been with the show in its Toronto and/or L.A. incarnations for the past year as ensemble members and understudies.
A native of St. Louis, Leggs is making his L.A. debut. He starred as John in the Broadway, Canadian, and touring companies of Miss Saigon, and in the Chicago and Japan companies of Forbidden Broadway. Regional stage credits include The House of Martin Guerre, Cry, the Beloved Country, and Annie Warbucks. A native of Detroit, Gutzi starred in the Broadway production of Les Miserables and understudied Diahann Carroll in the Vancouver production of Sunset Blvd., in addition to working on national tours of Cats and Pump Boys and Dinettes. Off-Broadway credits include Tapestry: The Music of Carole King and Jule Styne's Song for a Saturday.
In Ragtime, Leggs and Gutzi only have one song onstage together (the brilliant, Brechtian "He Wanted to Say"), but they've bonded backstage. They met recently at Campanile to discuss life in the theatre and life on the road, and to rave about Ragtime, in which they'll next perform in Vancouver after its L.A. run closes Apr. 11.
Kingsley Leggs: I did Miss Saigon for a long time, on and off, but this is the longest I've ever spent in one project. I find it interesting that it still feels really fresh at this point. It's a wonderful journey to take every night as a performer. This guy Coalhouse, he goes everywhere--he feels every emotion, and he's at the height of these emotions every time. It's draining as hell, but it's really an incredible thing to have the opportunity. That's the challenge for me: if I can really completely lose myself and just really live through it every night.
Mary Gutzi: It happens, though. It is an incredible journey, and part of the journey is a gift that's been given to us by the craftsmanship of this piece. It's written so beautifully. The words roll out of your mouth, the lyrics and the music cry out to be sung. I know it sounds dramatic, but it's the honest-to-God truth: I have never struggled with a single moment of this text, with a single moment of the music, and I've sung Lloyd Webber and everybody else, and I can't say the same from those other experiences. So when those nights happen that you just believe and this character takes over, it is the most exciting thing in the world.
Kingsley: It takes you. I find that even if I'm not feeling well or feeling less than 100 percent, it takes you away. Last night I was really hurting; my body was just like really tightening, my legs were hurting, I was sore, I was thinking, My God, I just feel awful here. But once you get going, you're gone.
Mary: I notice at the end of the show when I'm back in my dressing room, I have to sit for a second or two. If I have people who come to see me and they want to talk, I'm not coherent--I sort of babble, and I can't get my brain back in gear for a while, because this piece just sort of wraps itself around you.
Kingsley: I don't like labels. I really do love musical theatre, and I'm proud to be a musical theatre performer; when it's done well, it's an enriching medium, and you can't get from anything else what you get from musical theatre. But I certainly like to be considered for more than that. I mean, my first background was with a repertory company in St. Louis, and we did six shows a season, two musicals and four straight plays. But once I really started working in musical theatre--I can't remember the last time I did a straight play.
Mary: Right, I know. I can't either.
Kingsley: If they see you and know you to be a strong musical theatre performer. . .
Mary: And the irony is that in order to do musical theatre really well, you have to be a good actor, because you're taking it totally out of the normal realm of reality. Like the townspeople all get together every week and learn these songs? It's totally surreal. So in order to make it real and breathe life into these characters in a surreal situation, you've got to be a good actor.
We studied the classics. We did Shakespeare. But once you start becoming known as a musical theatre performer, the business will pigeonhole you.
Kingsley: And this show and the way these roles are totally fights against that. Because they are demanding in a way that most musicals are not. The essence of these roles is acting and telling the story. I think when people see us doing these parts, they would be more likely to see us as just actors.
Mary: Let's hope, yeah.
Kingsley: We can only hope.
Mary: The first time I went out as Emma, I had about 15 minutes' notice, and I hadn't had a rehearsal in about 11 weeks. You just have to get out there and do it.
Kingsley: Often, you've never actually even worked with the other actors onstage. I had a rehearsal with most of the key players that I come in contact with.
Mary: But the first time you and I sang together was onstage. We never rehearsed.
Kingsley: It's just the nature of the beast. It happens. You start the rehearsal for a show and everybody gets to know each other, and then you become this family and it's just happy, happy, happy--and then other companies start, people get tired, and little by little the family starts to spread out and different people come in. . . It's like its own little show on the side.
Mary: When I was doing a national tour of Cats--you know, with the elaborate makeup, you can't really see who's behind that makeup, and it's a specific design so that character always looks that way. People were coming and going in this company because it had been on the road for six years, so you would be in a scene with a completely new person--and you didn't know they were new because it was the same face. "The voice sounded a little different--who was that?"
Kingsley: I've had a long life on the road. I plan to settle here eventually.
Mary: I want to go a little farther west: I want to start a theatre company in Hawaii. Seriously, that's my goal. The island of Oahu has two really lovely theatres, Diamond Head theatre and Manila Valley, and there's a wonderful pool of talent there. And I don't think it will be a very tough job to get actors to come from the mainland to perform in Hawaii.
Kingsley: I don't think so.
Mary: If I called you, Kingsley, and I said, "I don't have a real lot of money, but you can stay on the beach and do this groovy play"?
Kingsley: I'm there.