Interview: Rachel York and Graham Rowat Duel in 'The Game'
Eight years after presenting the world premiere of The Game, Barrington Stage Company has brought it back by popular demand to downtown Pittsfield. Based on the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuse by Choderlos de Laclos, the musical is directed by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, with Book and Lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchik, and Music by Megan Cavallari. Starring as the Marquise de Merteuil and her sparring partner Vicomte de Valmont are Broadway veterans Rachel York and Graham Rowat. They spoke with BroadwayWorld during the rehearsal period for the show which runs through August 28 on the Mainstage.
BWW: Have the two of you ever worked together before?
GR: No. I know of Rachel and have heard of her. I was just working at Lincoln Center and there's a Dessa Rose poster on the wall that I walked by every day. She's kind of a legend, but I've never crossed paths with her before. She's so sweet and so unexpected - the comic, self-deprecating side to her.
BWW: She has great comic skills.
GR: And so humble, not having that giant ego.
BWW: What made you want to play this role?
RY: First of all, the character is so juicy and multi-layered. I played a big villain when I played Cruella DeVille (101 Dalmatians). The difference between Cruella and this role is Cruella is one-dimensional, not much more than an animated character, although I loved playing that character. This is a villain that is so complex and multi-layered. There's a lot of meat there and a lot of detective work. Another big reason is because I was really impressed with the music. I had heard a few songs from the show and I said, "Wow, this is great music!"
GR: It's kind of a dream role. I'm thrilled to be doing it. When I saw the Glenn Close and John Malkovich movie, I always wanted to play Valmont. He's not just a villain. A real villain isn't just evil, there are reasons.
BWW: Have you longed to play a "snake?" How do you make him more than just that?
GR: I think it has to go deeper than these people being wealthy and bored. I look to the definition of a sociopath. I also thought about one of my favorite TV shows, "Dexter." The sociopath is unable to feel empathy, they have feelings of superiority. Even though Valmont is very charming and he ultimately is moved by feelings...something is happening to him and to Rachel's character. Something happened to them when they were young. Their own innocence was stolen. Now that they're adults, when they see innocence in others, they need to destroy it. They tell themselves that they're glad that they lost it, but deep down they aren't and they hate it and feel they have to break it. And that goes into the games they play. Combined with the fact that they are wealthy and bored, but there's something else there. There's a desire to break things that are pretty.
BWW: How much input do you have into defining your character vs. the director's vision?
RY: I think the director and I are definitely on the same page. I agree with everything she tells me. She's lived with this musical several years longer than I have. I really do like her direction, the ideas that she's come up with. They make perfect sense, but obviously I have to bring the life to the character.
GR: We definitely sat down and sort of pitched our ideas. Julie was very receptive. We were coming at the character from different angles and they all kind of merged. I guess I would say about fifty-fifty.
BWW: I suppose some of it you sort of make up as you go along.
GR: Sure, and also discovering what bubbles up, working opposite Rachel and feeling that energy. We start off as a team almost, setting our sights on our victim, and by the end we're at each other's throats.
BWW: How do you make your characterization somehow different from Malkovich, or try to mirror him?
GR: Malkovich is such a neat actor. His performance was so, geez, almost like an alien in that movie. What I did was I watched the Milos Forman film that came out a year after called "Valmont" which features Colin Firth as Valmont, and that was very helpful because Colin Firth played the character much more playfully and joyfully. I'm a big, tall actor. I look at Colin Firth and...if you see actors who are like you, it gives me courage when I saw that he had done the role because he's a tall man. (Note: Rowat is 6'4")
BWW: You're not intimidated by that aspect of it..."Oh, God, everybody's going to remember Glenn Close and John Malkovich?"
GR: No, I'm not, but what I am intimidated by is I think there are pitfalls in playing a villain because you want to beware of pulling your mustache. You don't want to come across as smug the whole time. That's why I think the best ones are the ones who have the friendliest smile.
BWW: How do you see your choices differing from the iconic performance in the movie?
RY: Glenn Close played for the screen and was able to be incredibly subtle. She used a lot of covert behavior. You'd see just a little small expression here and there. It was always very subtle. Obviously, this is for the stage. If I did that, it would be very bland. I have to find different ways to express that on stage. She's (the Marquise) a very controlled character and very graceful. At the same time, she is very popular with everyone and she is vibrant and draws people to her. She can be very charismatic. But at the same time, no matter what is going on, she's always very much in control of the situation. Whether she's having fun and laughing while everybody's getting drunk, or whether she's talking to a young lady and trying to give her advice, to where she's seducing somebody, it's always very controlled. The object is to show all these different colors and different sides of the character, and yet always remain in control. So, therefore, to answer that question, Glenn Close was always in control and I have to show a lot more colors on the stage.
BWW: Do you think that the costumes help to better inhabit the role?
GR: I can't wait for the costumes because that is the final element of the time machine. When you put on the shoes, the clothes, your spine instantly straightens. I know that one of my jackets has an incredibly high collar, so I know I'll be standing as tall as I can just to move my head around.
RY: As with any show, I find that's absolutely true. What's very interesting about this role, it's not only wearing these strange clothes, but we use fans as well and there's a whole language with fans. They used fans to express certain things in society - whether it's "I like you," or "Get away from me," or "Follow me" - so there's a whole language with that. I have noticed, of course, these big huge hoop skirts - you know, we're not used to them - they are very cumbersome. You want to make a point and what's this big thing around me? So it does take a little bit of getting used to. Jen (costume designer Jennifer Moeller) is quite talented and I think she's done a really wonderful job. My costumes are really gorgeous, I mean really gorgeous. The fabrics she uses for me are some very expensive silks.
BWW: Are you wearing your own hair as Valmont, or do you have a wig?
GR: I wear my own hair - I grow it out. It's almost back to Les Mis levels. Big and fluffy and, of course, I imagine by the end of this show, I'm gonna be a great, big sweaty mess because I do probably everything a performer could want to do and probably regret they asked to do it later.
There's a swordfight and I get slapped, I throw myself around, tantrums, I get to seduce...
BWW: How is this production different from the 2003 world premiere?
RY: As far as I know, the book is pretty much the same. They cut one song and they added a few more; they cut a scene here and they've rearranged this scene or that scene. They've apparently made it better.
GR: They added a song. Valmont didn't have a dilemma song, so they gave Valmont an 11 o'clock number.
BWW: How would you describe the style of the music?
RY: It reminds me personally a little bit of the music in Evita - and I don't mean Andrew Lloyd Webber in general, I mean just the music from Evita - and a little bit of A Little Night Music (Stephen Sondheim); some kind of meshing of those two sounds. It's very "tour de force" and so I really wanted to be a part of it.
GR: I thought that was pretty apt.
BWW: What makes this say MUSICAL?
GR: I think there's always a huge question whenever a piece existed without music - does music make it better? I don't think there's anything more difficult than writing a new musical because there are so many elements that you have to get right and there are so many elements open to criticism. Any show in which people are experiencing incredibly intense emotions, the music becomes such a natural statement that you wonder how it could exist without that. Anytime you turn something into a musical, the first thing you have to overcome is that critical eye of, well, why should this be a musical? I think within the first couple of songs, that person won't be asking that question anymore and will be on board for the ride.
RY: I thought the movie was fine and was considered a pretty good movie. I decided the music tells the story even better. Beautiful music really brings out the character of Mme. de Tourvel (played by Amy Decker) and her innate beauty. That goes for many of the characters in the show. I find watching the movie you watch the characters from a distance and the music actually makes you identify more strongly with the characters.
BWW: Tell me a little about the songs you sing.
RY: She's the belle of the ball, the crème de la crème of society, very well respected in the society. So she's pulling this ruse over everybody. So many of the songs have a gentile quality and other ones expose her for what she is - which is quite twisted, maniacal, and vengeful. Most importantly, she enjoys using real people as chess pieces. At the time, society was so decadent and lavish and luxurious, people had a lot of time on their hands. So she's able to just sit back and say, "Hmmm, what mischief shall I create today?" Yes, she's very mischievous and much darker than that as the show continues.
BWW: Is there choreography or more stage movement?
RY: A little bit of choreography - a lot of staging, but there is one piece where we do a little bit of the court waltz, dancing. There's not a lot of tap dancing, no.
GR: The choreographer (Daniel Pelzig) was wonderful. I wouldn't say there's a lot of choreography. There's one number off the top of the show. The great thing is when you set up the stately waltz of the period, it's incredibly good for setting the tone and taking people to the era that they're in. And he (Pelzig) also helped a lot with physicality because it's all about the posture and the fans. Omigosh, there were fanning classes. I didn't have to participate, but these women can wield and whip out fans like ninjas!
RY: I don't get involved (in the swordplay). It's really well done, really powerful. The swordfight and some of these performances already in the show are powerful. Graham is quite a gifted actor. (At the time of the interview) We still have almost a week before our first preview. We still have a lot to grow, but I think we're already at a very good place so it's very exciting to see where people are taking their performances.
BWW: Are there any people in the cast you've worked with before?
RY: No, no one. And I'm really delighted to work with all of them. They're all very, very talented.
GR: It's a big climb; the show's a big climb. If it doesn't kill me, I think it's going to be fantastic.
BWW: What else should we know about The Game?
RY: It actually flows pretty nicely, I'm rather impressed. It's a two and a half hour musical with an intermission. It's right on.
GR: It's sexy, because apparently sex sells. I just love this story and I am thrilled to be playing this character. All you need to know is that I am having a...you know, this is the role I've always wanted to play, so I will be giving everything I can to make this a good evening. Let's just say the great thing about The Game is nobody wins.
"The Game" performs at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass., from August 11-28. It stars Rachel York as Marquise de Merteuil, Graham Rowat as Vicomte de Valmont, Amy Decker as Madame de Tourvel, Joy Franz as Madame de Rosemonde, Stephen Horst as Opera Singer, Analisa Leaming as Emilie, Chris Peluso as Danceny, Amanda Salvatore as Opera Singer, Sarah Stevens as Cecile, and Christianne Tisdale as Madame de Volanges. Book and lyrics are by Amy Powers and David Topchik, music is by Megan Cavallari, director is Julianne Boyd, choreographer is Daniel Pelzig, and musical director is Darren Cohen. Tickets are priced from $15 to $60 and can be purchased online at www.barringtonstageco.org or by calling the Box Office at 413-236-8888.
Photo credit: Kevin Sprague (Rachel York and Graham Rowat)