A ‘Sound Of Music’ Gay Infusion

Edward Hibbert is the impresario Max Detweiler in the Papermill production of “The Sound of Music,” running through December 30. | EDWARDHIBBERT.COM

Paper Mill Playhouse is reviving that most wholesome of musicals, “The Sound of Music” (Millburn, NJ, through Dec. 30; papermill.org), and our tribe is being gloriously represented in it by two out and proud actors, Edward Hibbert and Joy Franz.

Hibbert is playing impresario Max Detweiler and, at the press preview held at the New 42nd Street Studios on November 14, he told me, “I had never done this show before, so when I got the chance I thought, ‘It’s Christmas. I can live at home and commute to the Paper Mill, which I’m very fond of. What’s not to love?’ And it’s something of a reunion for me because I did ‘Me and My Girl’ on Broadway and met our director Jimmy Brennan and music director Tom Helm, so it’s nice to be back in business with them.

“I love this part of Uncle Max. I have these two songs [both cut from the film version], both duets with Donna English [as Elsa]. As the show unfolds, you have all these beautiful songs we know so well and suddenly we veer almost into Cole Porter Land with ‘How Does Love Survive?’ — witty lyrics, interesting melody, very catchy — and our second act song, ‘No Way to Stop It,’ also kind of fun. It’s a little respite from all that sweetness — champagne after the candy.”

Hibbert was born in America of English parents: “My father, God rest his soul, was an actor and I have to thank him and the success of ‘The Boyfriend’ he did on Broadway with a then unknown 19-year-old Julie Andrews, which gave me my American birthright. I was taken back to England, grew up there, and trained at RADA, and was happily working and doing all the things you do afterwards, and suddenly thought, ‘I should take a look at the town where I was born.’ I came over and had a look-see, then decided to give it a go and live here.

“For a while, I was doing stuff in London and New York and then in the late ‘80s, I did ‘Jeffrey’ [a breakout role for him]. I had never thought about Los Angeles, but we were invited to open it in LA. I thought, ‘Help!’ but it was fortunate as it opened up a lot of doors, including what was written as a guest shot as this food critic on the first season of ‘Frasier,’ which suddenly and very happily became a heavily recurring character for 11 seasons.

“It was one of those blessed experiences, working with the likes of Kelsey [Grammer], David [Hyde Pierce], who remains a very close friend, John Mahoney, Peri [Gilpin], Jane [Leeves], all fantastic people. And the scripts were like doing a Kaufman-Hart comedy every week, superb, and I think the end of an era, sadly.”

Asked if the show has caused him to be recognized on the street, Hibbert replied, “Yes, and what’s interesting is I get it a lot in England. Everyone adores that show over there. It has a kind of very English comedic sensibility, and I get people shouting out, ‘Hi, Gil!’ in the West End and it’s very gratifying.”

Hibbert has a surprising other career, as a literary agent.

“I manage to juggle the two. I had a very dear friend who sadly died, Eric Ashworth, who was one of the most successful young agents in New York and was in partnership with an extraordinary woman, Candida Donadio, who basically discovered Thomas Pynchon, Mario Puzo.

“I had gotten back from doing ‘Irma Vep’ in London, which was exhausting, as you might know. I thought I wanted to take a little time off, and Eric said, ‘I am desperately in need of someone who’s smart to come in and work in the office.’ I was and remain an inveterate bookworm, so I went in to work with him and it was a pleasure. Then Candida was seeking to take more time at home and Eric’s health sadly diminished, so, suddenly, rather like throwing a child into a lake, I was asked to take on more and more responsibility.

“There’s no training to be an agent as there is for an actor, so I basically absorbed all their brilliance and have kept it going partly as an homage to Eric and partly because I’m in such awe of writers. As an actor, I’m told where to go, what to wear, and what to say, but no one says, ‘Get up in the morning and write the great American novel or a biography.’ I keep my list very small. I represent Chuck Palahniuk, author of ‘Fight Club,’ who’s gone on to some extraordinary novels. He writes with great regularity. Ed Sikov, a wonderful biographer, and Christopher Bram, a New York-based wonderful gay writer who’s probably most known for ‘The Father of Frankenstein,’ which went on to become the movie ‘Gods and Monsters.’

“Occasionally, my two worlds bleed over. Kelsey Grammer purchased the rights to ‘Uncle Mame’ by Eric Myers, about the man who wrote ‘Auntie Mame.’ Eric’s also now an agent, so, you see, everyone’s doing it.”

I asked Hibbert if he’d always been out as a gay man: “I hope so, otherwise we’re all in a lot of trouble! Very funny story going back a few years: Someone asked, ‘How long has Edward Hibbert been straight?’ What it was, there was an article in the Advocate about the gay sensibility of ‘Frasier,’ a very gay-friendly show. It said that one of the ironies is that the macho Bulldog is played by out gay actor Dan Butler, while the effete restaurant critic is played by straight Edward Hibbert. I said, ‘Get your facts straight, Mary!’ They then sorted it out, so there was another article about coming out on prime time, and they wrote, ‘Edward Hibbert, who officially comes out in this article.’ I thought, ‘Well, it’s taken a very long time!’

“No, absolutely, it was never a question of hiding for me. There are people who say things like, ‘I have a private life and that’s why it’s called private,’ and I don’t particularly relish talking about the highs and lows of my relationships. I am in one at the moment and am quite happy, it’s quite new, but I think to just be able to talk articulately about one’s sexuality is good.

“To be honest with you, David, they talk about there being no homophobia in Hollywood. There is. We’ve come a long way with ‘Will & Grace,’ and I just did an episode of a new show called ‘Partners,’ about two best friends, one gay, one straight. It’s more and more in the mainstream, but still think there is this small, unspoken homophobia that percolates.

“And all those gay casting directors, who are ironically homophobic toward gay actors — they’re totally the worst! They’ll say, ‘Well, you know this character’s got a wife.’ and you wanna go, ‘Yeah, well, that’s why we’re actors.’ I’m sure there are some very good hetero actors who can play gay believably, and, likewise, vice versa.”

 

Joy Franz comes to “The Sound of Music” with strong experience working with Stephen Sondheim. | DIRTY SUGAR PHOTOGRAPHY

Joy Franz plays Frau Schmidt in “The Sound of Music,” and comes to the role after doing several Sondheim shows. She told me, “I was Cinderella’s mother in the original ‘Into the Woods.’ Steve said he had me in mind for it when he wrote it and I didn’t have to audition. He always liked the way I enunciated — you could hear all his words. I was in ‘A Little Night Music’ as part of the quintet — with the high E flat — and, for a time, was Glynis Johns’ secretary. She loved how organized I was and how I dressed and made a dinner, so for a month I cleaned her shoes and answered her phone. But she got angry with me when I quit because I didn’t have the time between auditions. I would also massage Hermione Gingold’s neck but I never saw her without her wig and didn’t know she was bald.”

Born in California, but raised in Kansas City, Franz got her Equity card there and moved to New York in the 1960s, where, at the suggestion of a girlfriend, her first job was at the Gaslight Club.

“It was a private key club, just like being a Playboy bunny, but no ears and tail. I wore something like a swimsuit with mesh tights but never exposed myself in push-up bras because I was very naïve and a virgin. I sang in the main bar and served drinks, and it was great. My first Broadway show was as replacement for one of the ‘Big Spender’ girls in ‘Sweet Charity,’ and then I replaced Ruth Buzzi. I left New York to play summer stock leads, and ironically my first one was Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’ in Roanoke.

“I never married. I could have been and been rich by now — and divorced. I just never… men are different. I never found them to be really thinking about you or care how your day had gone. There were some wonderful men but it just didn’t feel right. I thought maybe I should try women, but, at first, it was, ‘How can you tell?” [Laughs.] Those who look like they are, aren’t.

“I was in my late 20s, so I’ve been gay for a while now. I’d switch back and forth, but finally said, ‘No. I’m sticking with women.’ And that’s not always a picnic, you still have complications, but I’m now with this beautiful younger woman, a brilliant actress, Carolyn Kozlowski. I was so closeted and she wasn’t, and that made it able for me to be more accepting of myself. We’re together 13 years, domestic partners.

“Being out hasn’t hurt me professionally. I don’t go around advocating it, but a lot of people know and a lot of people don’t, and if somebody says something, I say, ‘Yeah, I am.’ I’m proud of who I am and it’s taken a long road to get here, but Carrie is the one who really helped show me that love does not know sex, male or female, color, race, or nationality. Pure true love does not have conditions.”

 

A CD release party was thrown for mezzo soprano Susan Graham (November 13) at Chelsea’s Norwood Club, which was the perfect intimate setting for the diva to talk humorously about its title “Virgins, Vixens & Viragos,” the last word of which many mistake for Viagra. The Victorian townhouse space provided ideal salon acoustics when she beautifully sang selections from Berlioz, Schubert, a moving “None But the Lonely Heart” in Russian, and, surprisingly, Sondheim’s “The Boy From.”

 

At 54 Below, Leslie Uggams made collective jaws drop with the ferocity of her talent. | JOSEPH MORAN/ LESLIEUGGAMS.COM

From there, we sped uptown to 54 Below, and I’ve said it before, but now reiterate: There is no living performer greater than Leslie Uggams, who again made collective jaws drop with the sheer, ever-blooming ferocity of her talent. “Classic Uggams” was the name of her show and classics were what she sang, taking hold of hoary standards and making each one definitively her own through her matchless sense of rhythm, phrasing, and perfect pitch. Her near-a capella “Hello Young Lovers,” with a mere drum accompaniment, remains the most soulfully astounding thing one can see on any stage. Do not miss her next time around.

 

 

 

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

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