I was honored when the great Ed Gero, now stepping into the shoes of Scrooge, and Broadway’s Terry Burrell who is applying her signature to the role of Julie in Show Boat, agreed to interviews.
Through January 3rd, Ed Gero is “Bah! Humbuging!” on the Ford’s Theatre stage, and is wowing audiences and critics alike playing the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge in a new version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Baron. Later in the season, from February 9 through April 4 Ed will be occupying the barber’s chair and providing the pie filling on Fleet Street in Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre.
Ed Gero as Ebenezer Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s A Christmas Carol
Joel: Why did you want to play the role of Scrooge?
Ed: Scrooge is one of the great roles of literature. I grew up watching Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve. Alistair Sims was my childhood Scrooge, as was Reginald Owen. But I noticed that serious actors include the role as part of their legacy, and when the opportunity came, I thought, of course. I was also attracted to playing it at the newly renovated Ford’s in a brand new production.
Joel: How do you personally relate to Scrooge?
Ed: Although I am not as old as he is typically portrayed, I think I have lived enough life and made enough mistakes to recognize the value of having a second chance. The lessons of self-examination and forgiveness are never out of style, or worth reinvestigating.
Joel: How much of the real Edward Gero is in the way you play Scrooge?
Ed: Well, that’s an actor’s secret. But I think we all have some of Scrooge in us. The question is which Scrooge do we want to be, the Scrooge of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?
Joel: Ben Demers wrote in his review for DC Theatre Scene, “As Scrooge, Edward Gero has the daunting task of putting his own stamp on one of literature’s most famous curmudgeons. He imbues the beloved grouch with an impressive range of emotions – sneering, cowering in fear, sobbing, and laughing joyfully as he slowly learns the true meaning of the holiday season”.
How have you put your own stamp on your performance of Scrooge?
Ed: I think Ben said it pretty well, but I think what I bring to Scrooge is a clear sense of journey to the character about the heart. My Scrooge goes through a physical journey from a tight, compressed individual who learns to open up his heart to others – as he discovers how much he has decided to close his own. I try to show that physically by becoming more open and expansive in the role as the journey continues.
Joel: Did you base your performance on anyone?
Ed: I have seen many film versions that I suppose have influenced me, particularly George C. Scott’s version, but I don’ t think there is any one person that I based the performance on. I may recognize a certain attitude from my father, but just attitudes rather than an impersonation of him.
Joel: What makes this production of A Christmas Carol so unique?
Ed: I think the director Michael Baron has brought a great musical sensibility that blends perfectly with a great respect he has, and I share, for Dickens’ story. I remember one day in rehearsal Michael said, “We started out with a show, but now we are building a tale”. There is a weight to this production, a darkness, which I think Dickens intended, that allows for a palpable sense of reclamation in the end.
Joel: What was the best advice director Michael Baron gave you on playing Scrooge?
Ed: Michael was terrific to work with, a real collaborator. He worked very closely on getting the rhythms and journey very specific, including adding bits of Dickens’ text to flesh it out some. I think the best advice he gave me was to trust the story and enjoy the ride.
Joel: There are 20 Christmas carols in this production. What do they contribute to the story and the production?
Ed: The carols serve several purposes I think. They put us in the holiday mood immediately, and they serve to set the scenes, make transitions. Most importantly, the choice of the carols are connected thematically to the part of the story we are in, so, without commenting on the action, it bolsters the audiences connection to the story, perhaps even unconsciously.
Joel: Which is your favorite carol in the show?
Ed: I love the “Don Nobis Pacem,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” because they reflect the spiritual heart of the story of granting peace in the darkness of winter. We celebrate the coming of light in the darkest part of the year with Christmas, but these two carols speak to the metaphorical winter of the soul, the place where Scrooge has put himself, like we all do to one degree or another, and the deep seeded drive in all of us to seek peace and consolation in our lives.
Joel: There are special effects in the show. Which special effect that you are involved in – is your favorite, and the scariest for you?
Ed: There are several, but I think the most fun is the tiny little effects between sound-scape and action. When they work together, they build a sense of plausibility and magic that sets the stage for the larger effects. Those you will have to come and see for yourself.
Joel: You are on the stage the entire evening. What scene that you “observe” is your favorite?
Ed: There actually is no scene that Scrooge is not in. However, in the scenes where I observe more than speak – I have to say I enjoy the farewell scene between young Scrooge and Belle, his fiancée. Both Nick DiPinto and Margo play it beautifully. Scrooge gets to see himself as a younger man being left by his beloved. Margo imbues the character with real integrity, while Nick captures the seeds of stubbornness and self-righteousness that we se in the older character. Watching it, I get a strong sense of truth that Scrooge should have listened to the tough love that Belle was
Joel: What is the most difficult scene for you to play?
Ed: The hardest seen to play is the reclamation, the Christmas morning scene. This is the iconic scene of the play, the part of the story that draws every actor to it. So it wants to be different from other performances in the history of the production. Second, it requires an emotional height, a release from all the fear, sadness, anger of the entire evening. And finally, all that comes at the end of the play and demands the most energy. It’s a sprint at the end of the marathon. So it’s tough physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Joel: Later in the season, you will be playing another very unhappy and angry man – Sweeney Todd, at Signature Theatre. You sing a lot in that production, and many of us – who love your work and have seen many of your performances – didn’t know that you had vocal talents.
Ed: I started out in musicals having played professionally in The Fantasticks, Shenandoah, The King and I, and so many others in my formative years. The last musical I performed in was The Beggar’s Opera, playing Macbeth at The Shakespeare Theater Company, 20 years ago. I am proud to say that performance earned me one of my twelve Helen Hayes nominations, this one for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical.
Joel: Why did you want to play Sweeney Todd and sing that difficult- tongue-twisting Stephen Sondheim score?
Ed: Sweeney Todd is a great role for an actor. I think it ranks among Sondheim’s best scores, too. Its language is as rich as the music, and it is a great dramatic story. I am so excited to begin that process, even though my knees are shaking a little having been 20 years since I prepared for a musical.
Joel: When do rehearsals begin for Sweeney Todd?
Ed: One week after A Christmas Carol closes!
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Ford’s Theatre after seeing A Christmas Carol?
Ed: I hope they have their holiday spirit awakened with a renewed sense of good will toward others, gratitude for the blessings of this year, and a sense of hope for the new year to come.
I have seen the very talented Terry Burrell in many of her Broadway and touring performances, and I’m a big fan. Terry has played the role of Julie in Chicago and overseas, and takes it on once again in Eric Schaeffer’s reinvented production at Signature Theatre.
Joel: Tell us what Show Boat is about from the point of view of Julie.
Terry: The show boat is refuge for Julie, a place where she is valued, accepted, unconditionally loved (by Magnolia) and more importantly, a place where she feels safe in a world that could be uncertain for her.
Joel: How do you relate to Julie?
Terry: The most obvious is that we are both women of color who through choice and design are performers. We are both married women and although childless, ourselves enjoy close and loving relationships with the children in our lives.
Joel: You have played Julie in London and Chicago, and now at Signature Theatre. Why do you enjoy the role?
Terry: I think because she has so many layers and over the years I’ve enjoyed fleshing them out. Each time I play Julie I find something else to tease out in the performance. I still haven’t found everything that makes her a complete person to me.
Joel: How is the Signature production different from these other productions?
Terry: The difference is that is much leaner. The cast is smaller and the set and props are less elaborate – which makes it more about the story and the people, but the essential story and style remains the same.
Joel: How has your performance of Julie changed over the years?
Terry: I think it is more nuanced today and I feel better equipped to integrate my own personal experiences and perspectives into the character.
Joel: Your performance of “Bill” is very moving..What personal experiences did you bring that influenced your performance of these songs?
Terry: “Bill” is such an emotional and heart-breaking song. I lent my own experience of loss; loss of my parents, close friends who have moved on and sometimes even the imagined losses that will inevitably come with life.
Joel: How did you get involved in the Signature production?
Terry: Signature asked some casting agents for help in finding a Julie and one of them -Arnold Mungioli – who had cast me in the Livent production 10 years ago suggested me.
Joel: What was your first rehearsal like?
Terry: On the first day of rehearsal, Eric Schaeffer, our director, had us form town meetings with small groups to discuss how we felt about using and hearing the “N” word. Since I had never experienced this approach before, and it was fun and interesting, and was a great way to get to know the actors I was about to work with.
Joel: What was director Eric Schaeffer’s vision for Julie in this production of Showboat, and what advice or suggestions did he give you on playing Julie?
Terry: He wanted there to be no doubt from the beginning of the show that Julie was the star of the Showboat, so the first thing he did was have them change my costume. He wanted a mature Julie who was more of a big sister and mother figure to Magnolia, and to play her as and already accomplished actress in the “Tempest and Sunshine” rehearsal scene.
Joel: As an African American appearing in Showboat, is it difficult to be in a show that depicts an era where African Americans were not treated equally?
Terry: Not at all. It was a shameful time in America and Showboat provides an opportunity to share that history with younger audiences of any race.
Joel: I am a big fan of yours, and I’ve gone up to NYC to see you in Eubie, Dreamgirls, Threepenny Opera, And The World Goes ‘Round, and Swinging on A Star. You have been a replacement in some original Broadway casts, including Dreamgirls and Thoroughly Modern Millie. What was is it like to be a replacement, and come into a hit Broadway show? Is there more pressure on you than if you created or understudied the role?
Terry: I replaced my sister Deybe in Dreamgirls, and since we look so much alike and have similar personalities – it was almost as though she’d never left. When I joined the Millie cast, I was welcomed so warmly and treated with such affection and respect, and it helped that I already had friends in the cast. There is probably more pressure replacing someone, especially if you are filling some big shoes, and the biggest challenge for me is bringing my imprimatur to the character while remaining within the parameters that were already set. Not always easy.
Joel: Why do you think Dreamgirls is still so popular today?
Terry: It’s the classic rags to riches story that appeals across the board, and one that is very well written. There are plot twists, surprise endings, glamour, betrayal, love, redemption, great talent, not to mention songs and music that is memorable. It’s a story of hope that resonates with audiences today who are dealing with recession fallout .I haven’t seen the revival and although I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, I hope it does well on tour. I did see the film, however, and really enjoyed it. I understood that some things had to be presented differently because it was a different genre and possibly geared to a slightly different audience, but there were moments when I had goose bumps because it was so similar to the stage version.
Joel: I saw you play Mrs. Meers and Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and you were a hoot in both performances. What did you enjoy most about playing these roles?
Terry: That I could do it in the first place! They were polar opposites of each other and outrageous in their own way, but I have to say that of the two, I had the most fun playing Mrs. Meers. She was so deliciously evil that I fell madly in love with her!
Joel: Why do you think there are still so few lead roles for African Americans acting in and directing on Broadway?
Terry: I think that from a producer’s or a director’s perspective it may feel more risky to sell non-traditional casting to “John Q Public” too many times on Broadway, especially in a country where race can still be a polarizing issue. It’s likely to happen more often in Europe where society is more inclusive, and in regional theatres whose houses are subscription based. Broadway has certainly seen in recent times successful shows directed by people of color – Fela, Passing Strange, In The Heights, and Raisin In The Sun, to name a few.
Joel: Do you see any hope that it will improve?
Terry: Of course! Showboat is a great example of how theatre and casting has improved. Today, I see a younger generation that appears to be the least color conscious and more inclined to be inclusive, and in general I think that we are becoming more aware of the dangers that lie in labels that denote race and religion. It creates a feeling of separation, and makes it impossible to imagine that we share similar goals, similar perspectives, even similar fears.
Joel: You continue to have a wonderful career in the theatre. What is it about Terry Burrell that makes directors and producers continue to hire you for their shows?
Terry: It is easily apparent that I love what I do, and although I am always the professional, showing up on time, learning my lines and or music, I am also a team player who can bring a sense of fun to the table as well.
Joel: Tell me something about yourself that only your family and best friends know about you?
Terry: That I am absolutely insane! The friends and family who saw me do Mrs. Meers thought it was the most natural role for me to play. They also know that I am a great friend to have in a crisis, and I love life beyond measure.
Joel: What other roles that you haven’t played yet – would you like to play?
Terry: I’d love to do more Shakespeare because I have come to appreciate how profound and beautiful his perspective is, and I love playing quirky, non-traditional roles because I can.
Joel: How has your Signature Theatre experience been?
Terry: Da bomb!! The staff is so professional, the cast has been amazing, and Eric Schaeffer (my director) will be a friend for life.
Joel: What advice would you give young actors?
Terry: Show up ready to work, be a team player, don’t complain too much, study your craft cause’ it still takes skill to hone that natural talent, never be afraid to seek the truth from people you trust and respect, keep your body healthy because it is your instrument, and above all else… enjoy the ride!
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when leave the Max Theatre, after seeing Showboat?
Terry: I want them to leave thinking to themselves that they just had one of the best theatre experiences that they could remember in a long while.
A Christmas Carol plays through January 3, 2010, at Ford’s Theatre 511 10th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Showboat plays through January 17, 2010, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.