The Greatest Star of All: Ed Dixon on playing Max Von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard.
It’s rare when an actor gets a chance to reprise a role he loves, and that’s what happened to Ed Dixon when Eric Schaeffer asked him to play the mysterious Max Von Mayerling in Signature Theatre’s popular production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Critics and audiences are raving about Ed’s powerful performance and his glorious voice.
But there’s more to Ed Dixon than his singing. He’s also a playwright, composer, lyricist, and teacher.
Joel: Tell us about Max Von Mayerling.
Ed: In my experience, Max in Sunset is a completely unique creation. I can’t think of another part that’s even remotely like him. He’s so restrained and yet dynamic at the same time. It’s like this enormous expression in an extremely repressed expression – so dark and brooding and taciturn, yet bizarrely emotional at the same time. It’s a wonderful challenge.
How do you relate to Max?
I grew up in a very constrained environment. (Oklahoma in the 1950’s with very austere and religious parents). I wasn’t allowed to express myself then. I can really identify with Max. And who can’t identify with unrequited love or perhaps more accurately, unexpressed love?
You played Max in the National Tour of Sunset Boulevard. How has your performance of Max changed in this production at Signature Theatre?
It’s funny to come back to something after so many years. (14). You’re not the same person. Your emotions are different and your memories are different and your body is different and your voice is different. Since I know the material so well, it just kind of happened, or had already happened before I arrived on the first day. (I do a lot of homework and had been preparing for months.) So I arrived differently and then Eric gave me a completely different kind of environment, a very, very intimate environment, and that changed everything. It’s like the entire audience is privy to your every thought. It’s the opposite of the first National Tour where the first audience member was at least fifty feet away.
You have performed with Florence Lacy and directed before again by Eric Schaeffer. Tell us about that.
I have played opposite Flo at least four times, and I think always as husband and wife or in relationship similar to husband and wife… and always directed by Eric. We were so simpatico that we were like old friends the moment we met, and since she and Eric are best friends, that just added to the whole bonding situation. (Eric and I met on the National Tour of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas with Ann Margret about a decade ago.) Shortly after that I did a reading with Eric and Flo in New York. It was a new piece that never got off the ground. Then we all did Kathie Lee Gifford’s Under The Bridge Off-Broadway and her Saving Aimee at Signature. Flo and I were love interests in all those pieces. This also meant that much of the work in Sunset was done before we even arrived. We were like an old married couple.
How would you describe Florence’s performance as Norma?
I’ve seen three different Normas on stage and heard many more on recordings. It’s easier for Flo to sing it than most women which gives an ease to the performance. And she’s softer than most of the women who played it which, I feel, gives the part a more sympathetic leaning, which is helpful to the part. It’s hard to enjoy the ride if you don’t believe that she’s a good person under all that affect.
Talk about “The Greatest Star of All” which sends shivers up the spines of the audience. It’s the first time we really learn about Max’s devotion to Norma , and the first time the audience gets to hear your gorgeous voice.
The moment I heard the very first recording from London, I said to myself, “this is my part. I am SO going to play that part.” I completely identify with the musical ideas in the song and the way it causes one to use one’s voice. Once again, I think it’s utterly unique, not only in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music but in all music. In my opinion, it’s his best song.
It’s one of my favorite songs of his also. Which song that you don’t sing in the show is your favorite to watch and hear?
I’m very fond of “With One Look”. It’s my other favorite song in the show.
How would you describe the score?
It’s my favorite ALW show. Reviewers often say it’s both similar to his other shows and less good than some of them. I disagree. I think it’s his best by far. And I find it the most interesting story with the best book of all his works. There is one song I don’t care for, but I’m not going to tell you what that is.
Why do you think this production is so popular with Signature Theatre audiences?
Well, it’s never played in the DC area before. That was one of the big selling points on my wanting to do it. but there were so many selling points for me. As soon as I heard that Flo and Eric were involved, I was in. But for the audiences, it’s their first chance to see it in this area and there has been so much coverage of the gigantic orchestra in the press. And the photos of the show demonstrate how lavish the production values are, so it just seems like a no-brainer.
You are a multi-talented man – an actor, a playwright, composer, lyricist, memoirist, writer, a fabulous singer, performer, and teacher. Is there anything you can’t do or would like to do that you haven’t tried yet?
I wish I was a better pianist. I play every day when I’m at home, but I’ve always found myself a rather rotten player. No matter how many times I play something or how much I practice, I always seem to make at least one mistake… if not MANY. Even in songs I wrote myself. I find it mysterious. And whenever I hear someone who plays marvelously I always think, “How much would I have to practice to play like THAT???”
What are some of your hobbies?
I don’t really have hobbies. (I do love to watch TV shows on DVD and see one episode after another for a whole season.) I do meditation and breathing exercises every day, but I regard them as part of my career, so they don’t really count as hobbies. I also do aerobics most days. Does that count?
Yes it does! Where did you get your vocal training?
I was a voice and composition major at Oklahoma University until I got a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, but after only a year at Manhattan School, I started my career, so I don’t actually have a degree. This is particularly amusing when you consider that I’ve taught in MANY major universities at this point.
You have written several musicals – Whosdunit… The Musical, Fanny Hill, Richard Cory, Cather County, A Park Avenue Christmas, She Devil, and an operatic version of The Merchant of Venice called Shylock, and several plays: Norma, Scenery, The Spectre Bridegroom, Murder at the Apthorp, and Pere Lachaise.
Can we see any of them this year?
Whodunit… The Musical has had many productions this year, more than any other show of mine in a one year span. It’s about to go up at the Clague Playhouse in Cleveland. This is particularly funny when you realize that The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is doing my play Scenery at this very moment.
Your wrote your memoir about your 40 years in ‘the business’ called “Secrets of a Life on Stage.. and Off”. Tell us some of your secrets for succeeding and continuing to work in the theatre for four decades.
A teacher said to me many years ago, don’t toy with the idea of doing something else, it wastes your life energy. I decided what I was going to do and I went after it with everything I could muster. I came from a very unpleasant background in a very unpleasant little town and I was hell-bent to get out, get to New York and be in the theater. I pity the obstacle that stood in my way!
I have had an offer from a small publishing company to take my book, but I didn’t like the offer, so I passed on it. I have a couple of other options, but for now, I’m not in a hurry. The most important thing to me was to write down forty-something years worth of anecdotes that involve Leonard Bernstein, Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, Alvin Ailey, Stephen Sondheim, David Merrick, Ann-Margret, Kevin Spacey, etc. so that the stories would not be lost. I don’t care when or how it’s actually published. I wanted it to be written down. (I’m still adding bits and pieces as things happen.) Perhaps it will come out when I’m… you know… no longer here.
When you were writing the book –what did you learn about yourself that you didn’t realize’ or forgot about yourself and/or your long career?
I think everyone should sit down at some point and try to write down what has happened to them. It’s a marvelous exercise and makes you see your journey in a whole different light. I really enjoyed it.
Any roles that you haven’t played yet that you wish you could play or are looking forward to playing?
Not really. I’ve done most of my big desires. I like to be surprised, and I like whatever I’m doing at the moment… unless I don’t.
I saw you perform the role of Thenardier five times in Les Miserables. How many times did you play him, and why did you enjoy playing him so many times?
I played Thenardier seventeen hundred times. It just happened. I never intended to. And then I came back to him after twenty years and did him again. That was VERY amusing. (At Houston ‘s gigantic Theatre Under the Stars to completely sold out houses twenty years later. Amazing.) He’s not a nice man, but then, I’ve played a LOT of not nice men. The thing is, they don’t scare me. I’ve seen a LOT of not nice stuff in the last sixty years and I don’t mind playing it or feeling it or showing it. This is very helpful if you’re going to be these “unpleasant” people.
You recently returned to play Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd with the legendary Ruta Lee who played in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a show you appeared with Ann Margaret in over four decades ago. That must have been a real kick.
I played the governor in Whorehouse with Ann-Margret and Eric Schaeffer ten years ago. I got my Equity card at Casa Mañana forty years ago in a show called Hello Sucker with Ruta Lee. I returned to Casa after forty years to play opposite her as Ed Earl Dodd. It was a marvelous experience. I hadn’t seen Ruta or Casa in all those years.
I have always wanted to see you play Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd and recently you appeared as the infamous judge at The Barrington Theatre with Jeff McCarthy, who played Sweeney Todd and who appeared in Signature’s A Fox in the Fairway, and the very funny Harriet Harris, who played Mrs. Lovett. Why did you want to play Judge Turpin?
As soon as I heard that Jeff and Harriet were doing Sweeney I wanted to be a part of it. I’m very good friends with both of them and love them dearly. Turpin is one of the few Sondheim roles that I’m right for, and Sweeney is one of the greatest compositions in the history of the world, so I always want to be a part of it.
I must admit that Turpin is the most disturbing part I’ve ever played. Even for someone who has played a lot of rotten people and who enjoys playing rotten people… Turpin is a hard pill to swallow. Normally you find things to like in every character, but with the Judge, it’s a real challenge. It feels literally DIRTY to be him. You always want a shower. Sondheim came to see me do it at Barrington and was very complementary. Very. I cannot tell you how rewarding that is. Getting to work closely with him in Sunday in the Park with George is one of my most cherished memories. I attended a party in his home and thought I had died and gone to heaven.
You’ve appeared on Broadway, toured with shows, and performed regionally in some hits and some shows that didn’t make it. Which show that didn’t make it should have made it?
The 1985 flop, The Three Musketeers was a marvelous experience with a marvelous cast and the most marvelous costumes by Freddy Whittop. It was written by my dear friend Mark Bramble who is still my dear friend today. I loved that show and that whole experience.
You’ll be back at Signature Theatre playing Burnett in Wheatley’s Folly. Tell us about Burnett and what this musical is about.
Burnett is a “grand old man of the theater.” Ha Ha Ha Ha! Not much of a stretch there. He’s the elder statesman in an acting company. The musical is about the making of The Black Crook, regarded as the first musical comedy ever. It’s not completely cast at this time.
What advice would you give students who are considering making theatre their career?
Don’t let anyone or anything dissuade you from your dream. Listen to everyone, but keep your own council. Stay away from negative people and for Gawd’s sake don’t drink or do drugs. The times I have not taken my own advice on those points were very unhappy times. Love what you do and keep doing it. Show up for work and when you show up… SHOW UP!
Here is a musical montage of Ed’s career
Sunset Boulevard plays though February 13th, 2011 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA.