This interview copyright © Larry Murray, 2011. Reproduction without permission strictly forbidden. If you wish to share this article, please link to it, do not steal it. Photo above by Jaime Davidson, courtesy Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Actor Randy Harrison’s yearly sojourns to the bucolic hills of Western Massachusetts are major events not only for his many fans, but also for the residents of the Berkshires. The spectacular offerings of the region’s four major producing theatres attract legions of live theatre patrons from around the nation each year.
This summer, the Berkshire Theatre Groups superb rendition of the rock opera Tommy had everyone talking. Randy Harrison played the title role with true star power. (Link to my review)
While some poor souls are still fixated on his role as Justin in the Showtime series Queer as Folk, and some even imagine that Brian (Gale Harold) is still in his life, Harrison has moved far beyond that series. He continues to pursue his one and only great love, live theatre. Those who share his passion for it are perhaps the luckiest people around.
We were lucky too, since this year we were once again able to catch up with him, to ask if he thought the role of a rock star was a good “fit”. This dialogue focuses on the preparation and performances of that role.
In part two (to appear later), we will explore where he plans to go from here.
Larry Murray: It’s early morning, what are you drinking?
Randy Harrison: I have my coffee. I need my coffee.
LM: Your time in the Berkshires this year is pretty limited. And I imagine the role of Tommy was a lot of work.
RH: Yes, it’s a pretty short run, and yes it was.
LM: So let’s talk about how Tommy came to be.
RH: As usual, Kate (Maguire, artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival) picked up the phone and just asked me to do it.
LM: So where were you and what was your reaction?
RH: I was preparing for Margaret, A Tyger’s Heart at the Red Bull Theatre. As I recall it was in the middle of rehearsal at the theatre at St. Clements when she called, so I was still there when I returned her call, and said yes.
LM: And now you can add “rock star” to your resume. So how did you find your voice for Tommy..
RH: …for the show. You know I have been classically trained, and I went to school for muusical theatre early on, but I have fallen off that map to a huge extent. In the past ten years I have only done two musicals, (Wicked on Broadway and Pop the story of Andy Warhol at the Yale Theater) and have been listening exclusively to rock music.
In New York I have been performing more modern and indie rock music so it feels like it has become more natural to me. It is what my ear is used to at this point. So that has helped me a lot in being comfortable singing rock music, it is what I am really interested in now. I just have more of an affinity for it.
It was interesting to work on and figure out the music of The Who. For one thing, it’s much higher than anything I’ve done before – ever! – in my life. The key thing is that I always feel safe to try new things like this here in the Berkshires, so I decided that if I was going to try to belt a D flat, this is the place. Let’s see if I have it in me.
And you know it worked, that note came out. The band really helped me sing, in a way that was amazing. Nobody in the company sang better than when those six guys were in the room playing. That band just wailed. The energy of the music just gave us the sorts of tools we needed to just sing it.
LM: Here’s something that is intriguing, the album came out in ’69 but you weren’t born until…
RH: ’77….I first became aware of it because my family had the soundtrack from the film when I was growing up, so I was very familiar with the music when I was a child. After that I didn’t listen to it much, until the theatrical version of the show came out in ’93. In 1994 I saw the first national tour of it when I was in high school, mainly because my dad was such a huge fan of it from the movie days.
So I guess you could say I was very familiar with it in all its forms. As the show approached I became even more familiar with the original album and listened to it a lot.
What I find interesting is the ways the theatrical show differs from the original. The Who’s Peter Townshend only wrote one new song for it – “I Believe My Own Eyes.”
LM: So when did you start preparing?
RH: While I was still in New York City. I began studying the score and learning a few things. Of course I also began to listen to every incarnation of the show a lot.
LM: There sure have been quite a few. Is this how one becomes a rock star?
RH: I am not a rock star. But it is a lot of fun to pretend to be.
LM: The response from the audience? I honestly have never seen an audience get so into a show as they did opening night.
RH: Just crazy…and beautiful. And amazing. I have never been part of such a reaction before.
LM: I also think that Tommy and its audience represented a transitional moment in theatre, a generational shift. As the last ten minutes unfolded, people were up and out of their seats, waving their cell phones, taking pictures and grabbing photos and video.
RH: Oh really?
LM: With stage lights you probably can’t see it, but it seems to me that the traditional rules of theatre-going continue to evolve just as they did back in the 60′s when a jacket and tie for men was discarded as old fashioned.
RH: It was a remarkable response, I did see the people up and out of their seats. It was great.
LM: So how did you go about creating your character Tommy?
RH: I took a lot of my cues from the music, since there really isn’t much of a script. And even that is sometimes a bit opaque. But the music, there is something very specific about it, especially in the opening scenes where I am the narrator. There I let the music dictate the kind of energy the character was bringing into the space. When you hear the chords of “Amazing Journey” and the drums come in, there is a shift, it is different from the music you have heard so far. It provides an introduction for Tommy’s entrance into the show. So the music was the key for me, huge, more than anything I have done before.
It was very different from the experience of doing a musical which is more book based, and done more or less like you would do a play. In Tommy the clues all come from the music, not the script.
LM: Still, you added so many small details that people have been remarking on. One for example is what I call the “flipper twitch” when you were quietly sitting on the floor in one scene and ever so subtly we could see a couple of your fingers moving, as if you were at a pinball machine.
Your attention to detail has always been a hallmark of your acting, and even here you found ways to make it more than just a good performance, but an inspired one. Do you think this unusual show will have a beneficial effect on your future work?
RH: I don’t know…
(To be continued)