Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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FROM A-Z WITH LAURENCE GUITTAR, PART 1

Having appeared in A Little Night Music, the Tony winning Best Musical of 1973, as well as the Vernon Duke musical Zenda, which closed in 1963 in Pasadena prior to its scheduled Broadway opening, actor Laurence Guittard has graced the stage in numerous musicals from A-Z. He’s also done the classics (two seasons of Shakespeare at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre) and has spent the last twenty years composing opera. In a wide-ranging two-hour conversation this past weekend, we discussed the highs and lows of his broad career, all of which comprise this installment of “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”


First, a confession: A Little Night Music may be my favorite Original Broadway Cast Recording. Perfection personified from the opening warm-up “la la la’s” of its Liebeslieders, to the solo violin which climbs the chromatic scale at the album’s end, finished off by the final note of a piano chord, beautifully completes this most romantically comic of musicals. Laurence Guittard, Tony nominated for his performance as the dragoon Count Carl-Magnus, appears in only three songs in Night Music: a solo, a duet and a company number — that’s it. But what an impression he makes (if you’ve never heard his “In Praise of Women,” remedy that situation immediately). Having seen the show a number of times in subsequent productions, Guittard’s singing and acting in the role have never been topped for me. There’s little doubt in my mind he easily could have gone go toe-to-toe (or note-to-note) with some of Broadway’s finest leading men over the past mid-to-late 20th century.


In a career which spans from being in the chorus of the 1965 Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street (alongside fellow chorus members Tommy Tune and Christopher Walken), to playing Don Quixote in the 1992 revival of Man of La Mancha (his final Broadway appearance), Laurence Guittard managed to utilize his considerable skills as an actor and singer in productions all over the U.S. and in London’s West End. Having retired from the stage twenty-one years ago, he splits his time now between New York and Los Angeles, and somehow manages to sound as young as he does on the Night Music album when I spoke with him recently. Covering as much ground as our two-hour conversation could take us, spending time with this still vital and charming octogenarian was more than a pleasure.


A Little Night Music (1973) with William Daniels (l) and Laurence Guittard (r).


Born Horace Guittard in 1939, he is the eldest son of a fourth-generation San Francisco family, founders of the Guittard Chocolate Company in 1868, the oldest continuously family-owned chocolate company in the United States. If you fancy See’s Candies or enjoy Baskin-Robbins ice cream, you’ve tasted Guittard Chocolate. Educated at Stanford University, young Horace (or Hoddie, as he was called) was a singing prodigy, winning a prestigious competition while matriculating there (the female co-winner that year was Grace Bumbry, one of the major mezzo-sopranos of her time and the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009). In spite of his family’s objections, he never considered anything other than an actor’s life, utilizing musical gifts that go beyond singing (composing was the only other profession he seriously considered). Cast out of San Francisco for the aforementioned Zenda — which never made it to Broadway — Guittard, brave soul, went east anyway.


He arrived in New York City on November 23, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Hard not to look at that as a formidable omen, but Guittard persevered.


With no agent and no friendships to trade on, his only recourse for auditioning was to read the casting notices in Variety and attend open calls. The first of which was for a new musical called Anyone Can Whistle (the infamous Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents nine-performance “succes d’estime” — which in George S. Kaufman’s witty translation is “a success that ran out of steam”). And although he wasn’t cast in it, Guittard managed a short while later to land in the chorus of Baker Street, directed by Harold Prince (who would later play prominently in his career). “Although my big problem with Hal was that it took some time for him to see me as anything other than a chorus guy,” Guittard told me. During the Baker Street run, it was his fellow cast member Christopher Walken (who became his roommate) that convinced him that Horace was too stodgy for a young and handsome guy like Hoddy. He himself had changed his name from Ronnie Walken, feeling it sounded immature, so, they came up with Laurence, thinking it would work nicely. It was Walken’s suggestion to use the “u” in the spelling like Olivier and it took, as did the nickname Larry, which he goes by to this day among his friends and fellow professionals.

He spent time in another chorus — the short-lived Anya — the final musical to play the now demolished Ziegfeld Theatre, and got to work with legends like director George Abbott and choreographer Hanya Holm. From there, thanks to a fluke of good luck, he was hired at the age of twenty-six to understudy Richard Kiley in the original production of Man of La Mancha, as well as perform the title role at the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.


Guittard as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha in a 1974 production.


The story of that fluke requires a warp in the timeline, and here’s Guittard on just how that came about:


“Prior to getting Baker Street, I returned to the West Coast for a production of Kiss Me, Kate as Gremio. In the course of that (life is very peculiar) I ended up going on for Petruchio. And I wasn’t the understudy and I wasn’t the standby. But as things worked out, I found myself in the odd position of having stayed late in the theatre one night, and the Stage Manager said, ‘if you’re smart,’ handing me the script, ‘you’ll learn this tonight.’ And so, I ran across the street where Elizabeth Allen, who was playing Bianca and Lenny Weinrib, who was playing one of the Gangsters were at the bar, and I said, ‘they just told me I have to learn this tonight.’ And she said, ‘come with me, we’ll work with you.’ And they sat up with me until the sun came up, drilling me on the show, and I ended up playing that night. And weirdly (I discovered thirty years later) that the main reason I got La Mancha at the age of twenty-six was because Albie Marre [that show’s original director] was in the audience at that one and only performance I gave as Petruchio in Kiss Me, Kate.”

Serendipity like that plays a major role in every actor’s career, and Guittard has had his share of them. A piece of advice from Richard Kiley, who he became friendly with when they were doing La Mancha (he played Dr. Carrasco in the evenings opposite Kiley’s Quixote), served him well in the next stage of his theatrical life. “For the next five years, don’t let anyone know you can sing,” Kiley told him. Which is how Guittard got to play major roles in the Shakespeare cannon at the Old Globe in San Diego and later star in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class at the Goodman in Chicago, all of which he describes as a time of diverseness and fulfillment.


But as for that voice… here’s a clip from 1978 of Guittard singing “Lonely Town” from On the Town, in honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 60th birthday in a concert that was recorded live at Wolf Trap. Tune in at the 1:08 mark… thrilling:



By the time he returned to Broadway it was 1973, when Guittard was offered to standby for the role of Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music.


Standby? Didn’t he create the role?


For that, please return tomorrow for the second part of my interview with Laurence Guittard.

Caught with his pants down, Laurence Guittard with Glynis Johns

in A Little Night Music (1973).


If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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