BWW Interviews: CACTUS FLOWER's Maxwell Caufield
Walking along Ninth Avenue on an early Saturday evening after enjoying a light meal at one of the neighborhood sandwich shops, Maxwell Caulfield looks up at the Minskoff Building in the distance and sighs. He remarks, "What a lovely view you have from the rehearsal space up there! There's a beautiful view of the setting sun as it goes down over the Hudson River! It's gorgeous. That rehearsal space will always be one of my favorite spots in New York." There's good reason for that because it was in that rehearsal studio that he met his wife, actress Juliet Mills. They were preparing for the touring company of Bernard Pomerance's play THE ELEPHANT MAN in which Caulfield played the title role and Ms. Mills was Mrs. Kendall. The electricity between the two actors was evident to everyone in the room and it blossomed into a full romance and a marriage that has lasted 31 years. In these times of throw-away marriages and quickie divorces, it's refreshing to observe that Maxwell Caulfield is still very much in love with his wife. In fact, the two of them recently toured England together in a production of Alan Ayckbourn's BEDROOM FARCE.
Settling into a quiet corner of the Westside Theatre where he has been starring in Abe Burrows' comedy CACTUS FLOWER, Caulfield is in a very reflective mood. It's been a while since he's been on stage in New York and six years since he's chatted with BroadwayWorld.Com. He's still a remarkably good looking man and the twinkle in his blue eyes can be positively devilish at times. It seems like only a few weeks ago that he was giving audiences more than just an eyeful when he was in ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE in1981 and singing and dancing on screen in 1982's GREASE 2-a movie that seems to be more popular on DVD than it ever was in theatrical release.
In 2006, Caulfield won some very good reviews for his performance in Off Broadway's two character melodrama TRYST, yet the show closed prematurely. "Oh man, we took down the Promenade with that one!" he sighs. "I don't mean Amelia Campbell and myself, but it was a lovely little piece and obviously the Promenade was a glorious theater but the building was taking on water-literally. We did one performance where the pipes burst backstage and it became monsoonal. The theater was not happy about us going. Nowadays I walk pass that Sephora and I want to wretch knowing what an amazing acting space was lost. Acoustically it was dreamy. It was a fine venue
to play in. I guess the fact that the theater never had a full marquee and the entrance to it was a bit confusing. We gave TRYST a good go but maybe it was a play that should have been done in even a smaller venue; maybe down in the West Village. I feel privileged to have played the Promenade. I'm sorry that ours was the last show there."
One of the Promenade's longest-running tenants was Stephen Schwartz's GODSPELL and that was a show that was significant in Caulfield's decision to become an actor. "I saw a production at the Wyndham Theatre in London starring David Essex and it was just thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. It made me realize that this was something I not only could do, but could possibly be good at," he says.
London was the city where Caulfield experienced what he considers the highlight of his professional career: starring in the West End edition of the long-running CHICAGO. "The Weisslers gave me a nice run in London. It was an absolutely blessed experience. The entire brain trust, for some extraordinary reason, all came on separate occasions during my gig there to check in on the production. It was their annual look-see of how the West End company was faring. Walter Bobbie came, Rob Fisher, the music director came, so did Ken Billington, the lighting designer. Barry Weissler himself even dropped in and I was blessed with the two best girls known to have played the roles in London-Josefina Gabriele and Amra Faye Wright. I was sandwiched between two absolutely knockout dames in the pivotal female roles and every night I was getting the best lap dance in the West End! My own personal hero, Steven Berkoff came to opening night because he knew the gal who was coming in to play Matron Mama Morton and was opening simultaneously with me that week," he fondly recalls.
"To cap the experience, " Caulfield continues, "the West End had their annual summer open air concert called ‘West End Presents' and they just take over Leicester Square where they put up a band shell and various West End shows give live impromptu highlights from their productions. During my stint there I got to go in and sing to 4,000 people on a beautiful Saturday morning. It was an absolute rush. I felt like a rock star!
CHICAGO is a marvelous piece. It's a sexy night in the theatre. It's a great date night show andvery sensual, with the Fosse-esque choreography and that fantastic jazz score. There's also some great excitement in having the band right there on stage--along with these wonderfully sinewy gypsies gyrating all over the place. I think it's a very sensual experience. Any hit show has to have people who want to see it repeatedly and that was the case with CHICAGO."
The flip side of Caulfield's CHICAGO experience was his Broadway appearance in that same show some time later. "It was unbelievable," he says. "It was so bizarre. It was jinxed!"
His engagement in the New York version of the Kander and Ebb musical was to be shorter, "It's amazing how they mix and match over here," he muses. "I came on at the same time that two of the actors from ‘The Sopranos' were joining the cast. When the stage hands unions struck, it basically ate up nine tenths of my engagement. You know with this show the Billy Flynn's line up like jet planes. The show was-even then- moving away from stunt casting. If you've noticed, they go months and months at a time without anyone of repute above the title. Once in a while they'll spice things up by throwing in someone who has an added marquee value like Christie Brinkley."
Reflecting on his abbreviated Broadway run in the show, Caulfield says, "This is a business that will help keep your ego in check."
Another very happy experience Caulfield has had on stage was his engagement as Georges in Jerry Herman's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at Maine's Oqunquit Playhouse in the summer of 2007. "It's a lovely, lovely space." The actor happily recalls. "So often it depends on who you're cast opposite. It's about chemistry. There's a young man called James Beaman who is a brilliant female impersonator-he does Marlene and all the rest of them, and he was playing Albin. He's quite small but he's got an almost Adonis-like physique, which makes him all the more extraordinary. It gives him an added sort of appeal. The two of us together worked physically. We were a younger Georges and Albin instead of the customary long-in-tooth gay couple approach that is used in casting those roles. These were two guys who still seemed to have a vital sex life. I don't mean to cast aspersions, but there was a vitality about the two of us that I feel the audience liked and found appealing."
"Of course, it's a wonderfully a fail-safe show," he continues. "We had guys playing the Cagelles who were so exotic that you couldn't take your eyes off them! The men were so thin and so sculpted in their faces and limbs that many had legs Betty Grable would have been proud of! The whole show was very well put together. It featured beautiful costumes, too. I played the emcee and got to show off in my sparkling red coat and then just turn the stage over to this guy Beaman who literally lit up the place. It was a good experience. It's good to be in a show where the audience is so elated. Additionally, my wife thinks it's one of the best things I've ever done."
Audiences are also elated about Maxwell Caulfield's latest project: the Off Broadway revival of CACTUS FLOWER, which is presently finishing up its run at the Westside Playhouse. At a recent matinee performance, there were audible sighs of approval when the leading couple, Julian and Stephanie realized (as the saying goes) that they "were meant for each other. It was actually touching to experience a crowd who was so involved in the play that they unknowingly sighed collectively. Perhaps it was a throw-back to another time before people became passive observers of huge flat screen TV's in their living rooms and became active participants in fully their involvement of a theatrical experience. Whatever the reason, CACTUS FLOWER has been captivating the people who come to see it.
"I think the show's bedded in nicely," Caulfield comments. "I think any comic ensemble takes time to find the rhythms of a show. I think we're there now and we're in wonderful shape. We're finding that the audience smiles a lot in the first act. In the second act, where the farce becomes more zany-then the joy ride takes over. It buoys our spirits and it makes us know that they've been with us all along. They settle into the style of the show and the comic sensibilities of the 60's. It borders on ‘I Dream of Genie' in some ways."
In CACTUS FLOWER, Caulfield plays dentist Julian Winston, a character he describes as a "dubious operator" and it takes the crowds a while to warm up to the male lead. "It represents a challenge," the actor says. "He has to be played as one of those guys who has a certain charisma so that the audience will forgive him of anything." In Caulfield's hands, Winston is a rapscallion who charms the ladies in the crowd but doesn't pose a threat to the men who are sitting beside them. In fact, both genders seem to be very much engrossed the plot's madcap machinations.
What attracted Maxwell Caulfield to such a role? "Actually, I started off the year by saying that I wasn't going to go Off Broadway and get in a hole without having anything to show for it again. Remember, in our case, we're West Coast based and have to lease an apartment, committing to a certain number of months and then, basically roll the dice.
The words had barely gotten out of my mouth when the phone rang. I felt that if CACTUS FLOWER was good enough for Daryl Roth to produce, it was certainly good enough for Max Caulfield to consider. I read it and LA television pilot season was just about to get under way and I thought Winston was a choice role. Frankly I'm a bit disappointed when people say they didn't think it fit me. Honestly, I think the role fits me to a T. As I read the role I realized it was the kind of part I heretofore specialized in; sort of the neurotic peacock. I thought it was something I could maybe have a hit with it. Also, the whole project promised to be a top drawer situation. I had come off of six months of playing that guy who was stuck in a bed with a bad back in BEDROOM FARCE. That was a very inactive role on stage. This role was sort of like getting the strait jacket off. Little did I know how many quick changes I'd have!"
As mentioned before, Caulfield considers his opening in London's CHICAGO to be one of the greatest moments of his career. However, he also has a very special place in his heart for the production of THE ELEPHANT MAN that opened in Palm Beach before beginning its tour. He was opposite Juliet Mills and he says, "It was just an amazing moment for me. Working with an actor you really admire is special or when you're playing an enormously challenging part that you've made your own is very, very special." It's even nicer when that actor becomes, and remains, the love of your life.
Actually, Maxwell Caulfield is a very special actor, and audiences have until April 24th to experience how he captivates the audience in CACTUS FLOWER. It's a walk down Broadway's Memory Lane and you might even find yourself sighing with the rest of the crowd at the play's denouement. Enjoy it!
Tickets for Cactus Flower are now on sale and available on Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or in person at The Westside Theatre box office (407 West 43 Street). Cactus Flower plays the following performance schedule: Tuesday at 7:00 PM, Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 PM and Sunday at 3:00 PM.
Photos: Max Caufield; Max Caufield and Juliet Mills, credit Sean Alquist.