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Pride Month 2021

Howard McGillin 
Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language
lancaster.ac.uk/Paul-Baker

Hi Howard thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during these very strange times?

 

Hi there! Thanks for having me join you today. Oh, these are difficult times!

As someone with such a deep connection to theatre it must be really hard to see all these incredible theatres closed for such a long time. Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?

 

There's really no describing the artistic/cultural vacuum created by this pandemic, especially in the theatre which depends so completely on the bringing together of artists and audience. I wish I could say I've found creative inspiration personally, but lately I've really felt stuck in that regard. When your entire work has depended on interaction with fellow artists, this prolonged period of drought has been crippling. I do take inspiration from the teaching I do, both at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and as a private coach. The indomitable spirit and talent of our young people does give me hope.


Where did your passion for musical theatre come from and what draws you to a character? 

 

I fell in love with the theatre as a high school freshman and felt I'd found my home way back then. I've felt privileged and lucky as hell to be a part of this wonderful community ever since. That's what makes this quarantine so devastating. I suppose I'm drawn to characters with passion, even when that passion is misguided and/or leads the character into troublesome places. In life, passion for something or someone is often both blessing and curse.


What was your first time like out on stage, did you pick up any superstitions before going out?

 

Well, like I said, I was a high school student when I appeared in my first play. I was a member of the chorus with one solo line (and I'm quite certain I was godawful). But I got better. I don't remember much, but I do recall the thrill of being on stage and wanting MORE. Not very superstitious, aside from the prohibition against whistling backstage or not mentioning the Scottish play by name.

 

With Anything Goes you appeared on both Broadway and The West End (and you got to meet the Queen Mother) what was it like to bring this a hit show to London, was this the first time you had appeared on the West End?


Yes! I actually led the audience at the Prince Edward in singing Happy Birthday to the Queen Mum, and was part of a little champagne toast in the Royal Box that night. Something I'll never forget. It was an unforgettable time for me, the whole thing. Elaine Paige was my leading lady, de facto host, and along with Tim Rice and Robert Fox, my producer. I can't say how gracious and generous Elaine and Tim and Robert were to me, in bringing me over to London and making me feel welcomed and included in many lovely experiences apart from our big West End opening. It was my first time in London, let alone on a West End stage.

You also hold the record for playing the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, when you first took on the character did you envision you would break such a unique record?


I was doing Anything Goes at Lincoln Center with Patti Lupone when Phantom opened on Broadway, and I saw it then, never for a second imagining that it would play such a huge role in my life and career some ten years down the line. But the opportunity came my way, and I felt a strong connection with the character, the massively theatrical spectacle and the gorgeous score. I guess it was meant to be. I loved playing a part in the show's fabled history.

What was your experience like playing Phantom and why do you think the Phantom continues to connect with audiences?


I think we all have some of the Phantom in us, don't you? Each of us knows what it's like to feel trapped by fear of exposure, our inability to risk expressing our true feelings out of fear of rejection, what rejection itself feels like. Of course, The Phantom is a tortured, tragic figure whose psychoses takes things to a disastrous conclusion, but that's what makes for great theatre.

"The theatre is essential to society, and as soon as audiences can gather again, we will be back."

When you're in a role for such a long time how do you manage to keep the character fresh?


It was the most exhausting thing I've ever done, and consistently. My time at the Majestic Theatre spanned a ten-year period during which I performed well over 2500 performances, for what amounted to a total of seven years, laid end to end. I don't know what it is about live theatre, but for me, it doesn't matter whether your run lasts seven weeks or seven years. Each and every night you get into make up, put on your costume, and find yourself onstage in front of a new audience. They're expecting your best, and you damn well had better serve it up. You're part of a marvellous, sacred tradition in the theatre. You can't ever forget that. Now, it's a fact that there are days when you don't think you have it in you. But there is something magical that happens when the orchestra strikes that first chord, and you're off and under way. And your fellow company members are counting on you to deliver a performance.


Do you have a favourite role that you have performed?


Well, Phantom is up there. And you mentioned Anything Goes, another highlight for me. A show of pure joy and great Cole Porter tunes. Sheer bliss.


One of your TV credits is an episode of Columbo, The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case, directed by the renowned Sam Wanamaker and also featured a cameo by Jamie Lee Curtis. How did this part come about, was it a fun episode to film?


So, I had an unusual path to Broadway musicals. I actually started out in Hollywood. I was put under contract at Universal Studios shortly after I arrived in LA after finishing college. Universal was the last studio to still have a contract system where they put actors under long-term deals to develop series stars. I was at Universal for over five years, playing in a truckload of series and television movies. Jamie Lee Curtis was also under contract, and we appeared together in a scene in that Columbo episode. It was a blast. Jamie and I met in the van on the way to the set and hit it off! She was hilarious, all of about 20 years old, and clearly headed for a big career. 


In Peter Falk's autobiography he takes pride in telling his reader that he would ad-lib sometimes to putting off his fellow actors, is that something you experience during the making of this The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case?


I had been such a fan of Peter Falk's, he could do no wrong. I don't recall his ever veering off script. He WAS Columbo.

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Do you keep any mementos from your past productions?


Not from my television days. I might have an old Phantom mask lying around somewhere.


What was the best piece of advice you got when you started out in musical theatre?


Do your homework, never fake it, and give it all you've got. Otherwise, why bother?


With theatre's across Broadway and The West End still closed do you have any advice you would offer theatre makers who may be feeling a little discouraged?


I share your pain. We will get through this, not sure when, but we will. We just have to hang in there. The theatre is essential to society, and as soon as audiences can gather again, we will be back. And it will mean more for having suffered its absence.


And finally, what do you hope audiences take away from your work?

 

I love everything about the theatre. The actor's passion for playing, the magic of theatre to transform and transit time and space, the audiences willingness to go along for the ride every time. I hope some of that love gets conveyed.