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GOODBYE, GARY

Gary Beach, the long time Broadway stalwart and Tony Award winner, died on Tuesday at the age of seventy. Having retired from acting a few years ago, Gary had memorably appeared in some of most popular musicals of the last fifty years: 1776, Annie, Beauty and the Beast, La Cage Aux Folles, Les Misérables and of course, The Producers. He had no regrets over saying goodbye to the theatre, even after it had been so good to him (and he to it). Even if his friends and fans were saddened by the reality of never seeing his one-of-a-kind energy on stage again, who could blame him for wanting to sit back and smell the roses? He's on a short list of actors who played major roles in long-running musicals for considerably longer than the standard one-year contract. Once Gary got a part, if it ran long enough, he was happy to put in the time. And man, did he give it his all! He was simply incapable of walking through a performance. Gary positively scampered through a show. He loved performing and treated every night like opening night. But that's only a small part of what made him so special.

June 3, 2001, the night Gary Beach received his well deserved Tony for The Producers.

He was a true triple threat, which is one of the reasons he was always in constant demand. Number one: he was outrageously funny, with an ability to discover comedic bits that no director could ever come up with. Number two: he moved on stage with not only supreme agility, but with the grace and high-powered energy that was the envy of his peers. And number three: he had a voice that was as good as anyone who's ever brightened a Broadway musical. To top off all of that—he was also one of the most genuinely nice guys you could ever want to work with. Just ask anyone who had the privilege as I once did, when we first met twenty-five years ago, performing in the Los Angeles premiere of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor.

Lend Me a Tenor (Bottom row: Ron Fassler, Anne De Salvo, Peggy Pope, Jean De Baer,

Laura Hughes; Top row: Gary Beach, Paul Dooley, Robert Picardo).

Born in Alexandria, Virginia on October 10, 1947, Gary had no intention at first of becoming an actor. With his dad a paint contractor and his mom a housewife, there wasn't much guidance there. But at age 11, Beach saw the original road tour of The Music Man, starring Forrest Tucker, at Washington's National Theatre and it stirred him, though not enough to declare it as a chosen vocation. Instead, he dutifully attended Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va. as a political science major, only to be transfixed one day while reading a magazine article about the North Carolina School of the Arts. Recognizing that what he should really be studying was acting, he transferred there, where he immediately made his mark on stage. He even managed during a summer between semesters to get his Equity card in an Atlanta Theatre Under the Stars production of Showboat, that featured the former Hollywood movie star, Pat O'Brien.

Then in 1970, and again while still a student, Gary got an offer to go out on the first National Tour of 1776. "I thought I was auditioning for the part of Edward Rutledge," he told me in a phone interview in 2015. "Of course I was two years old, so I was cast as the understudy, and would play Dr. Josiah Bartlett, who had about two lines. Then three months into that, the fellow playing Rutledge took ill and left the show. Luck smiled on me, because after that, every review was about me for awhile."

"One night, I'm doing the show, and a guy comes running down the aisle, waving his arms. I thought I was going to be assassinated! But it turned out to be Sherman Edwards [the show's composer], and he was so excited by what I was doing that he had leaped out of his seat. Afterwards, the company manager came back and said, 'They want you to do this for real and play Rutledge for the rest of the tour. The money is terrible, but if you're smart, you'll take it.' Which is what I did."

Gary Beach, near the time of his Broadway debut in 1971.

In 1971, Gary joined the Broadway company of 1776, taking over Bartlett and understudying Rutledge, about midway through its three-year run. This was when I first saw him on stage, and like a junkie who needed a fix, I saw 1776 a dozen times. I loved it so much, I used to hang in the wings and watch the finale, since the show had a longer running time than any other that played Broadway in the early '70s, and the stage doorman took a liking to me. As Gary would come off for his curtain call, he'd wave at me, which I never knew would one day grow into a friendship many years later.

I never got to see him go on as Rutledge (which I'm sure he sang magnificently), nor did I see him play Richard Henry Lee (can you just imagine him doing that showstopper?), a role he played at the MUNY in St. Louis a short time after 1776 finally closed on Broadway. This time he got to play alongside William Daniels, who was recreating his John Adams for that production. And because Gary loved revisiting some of his most beloved roles in musicals over the years, he again put on the Richard Henry Lee costume some twenty-five years later for another MUNY 1776 in the '90s.

It's impossible to calculate the number of different musicals Gary appeared in over the years regionally and in stock. He played everything from Pseudolus in Forum to Captain Andy in Showboat (in the role Pat O'Brien had once played). I once asked him if he could pick a favorite, and he told me that it was George in She Loves Me. I have a feeling that was because it was one of the rare occasions where he got to be the leading man, because even though he had a comedian's heart, he certainly had the looks and romantic nature to land the girl in his arms as the curtain fell.

This column has already gone beyond a thousand words and it's barely scratched the surface of the shows Gary did on Broadway that put him in the record books. He wound up performing in Annie, Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast and The Producers (between Broadway and touring companies) more than 1,000 times each. And over eight hundred in 1776. To quote Hamlet "I shall not look upon his like again."

An iconic pose if there ever was one: Gary Beach performing "Springtime for Hitler"

If you need to know anything about Gary, it's all here in this 1980 clip of him as Rooster in Annie. Take the time to watch it all the way to the end. It is glorious evidence of the rare intuition he had for the stage and the unbridled energy he always brought to every single role he played.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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