BWW INTERVIEWS: Lewis Cleale: THE FANTASTICKS' 'Man In Black'
Color symbolism is a literary device that is hammered home by high school English teachers around the country. Students are encouraged to ponder why Jay Gatsby reaches out to the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock and what Robert Frost meant when he wrote about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Why did these authors choose the colors green and yellow? What did they mean?
This same device applies to the theater. Tennessee Williams mentions the color blue numerous times in both the text and stage directions for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and in Carol Channing's memoir "Just Lucky I Guess", the star recalls how director Gower Champion and costume designer Freddy Wittop deliberately chose the color red for Dolly's famous descent down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. Color symbolism is very much a part of both our literary and theatrical traditions.
Currently on stage at the Jerry Orbach Theater on 50th Street and Broadway, Lewis Cleale is playing El Gallo in Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's beloved musical THE FANTASTICKS and he is garbed in the customary black outfit required for the role. What is the specific reason for that color? "I would think that black would be a good costume color for a bandit to wear," the actor comments. "There's also the suggestion that he's going to hurt someone, but I think it has more to do with the traditional bandit costume. Tom Jones [the musical's lyricist and director] has suggested that none of the ideas in this show are ‘fixed'. If an actor comes into the production thinking this or that, Tom'll go ‘maybe', so none of it is ‘what we meant'."
Matt, the young man in THE FANTASTICKS, customarily is costumed in white. Is it possible that El Gallo is the younger man's alter ego and that's reflected in their colors? Cleale ponders for a moment and responds, "There's a lot of Matt in El Gallo. In some ways El Gallo sees himself as the young man. If you go too far within the play-within-the-play-within-the play you turn back on yourself in terms that if this company has been around-this traveling troupe of players represent in the musical--at one point El Gallo must have been Matt and then graduated to his present role. It's probable that the actor playing Matt will graduate to the role of El Gallo one he matures and knows more about life."
As El Gallo, Cleale wears a wide brimmed hat known as a ranchero. "I think it's a Texan adaptation of a Mexican thing. The guy who was playing El Gallo before me [Dennis Parlato] had a ranchero and I thought it looked really good, so they found me the same hat. They're handmade in Texas. I was wearing it wrong at first. I had it tipped up a little bit and Tom explained, ‘It's a ranchero, you wear it flat. It has to be flat all the time." So the actor wears correctly wears his ranchero flat and it lends his performance a proper sense of authenticity.
Speaking in the dimly lighted theater after a recent Saturday matinee, Cleale was a relaxed and thoughtful conversationalist. Using the time to do some physical stretching between performances, he spoke freely about his recent appearance in the musical version of GIANT at the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA as well as his delight to be back on stage singing the melodious score of this long-running show. He smiles frequently while he's speaking and his piercing blue eyes often add a visual counterpoint to what he's saying. The show's pianist Robert Felstein dawdles at the keyboard on the other side of the theater, providing a charming soundtrack to the chat.
Born in Maine, Cleale claims that he owes his career to the likes of Burt Reynolds, Charles Nelson Reilly and a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera. "I come from a big family," the actor explains, "and everyone grew up playing an instrument. My grandfather, who was also named Lewis, was this big, huge guy and in the 20's he came down from Maine to live in New Jersey. The story goes that he would save up his money and take vocal lessons with some opera singer at Ansonia to become a Broadway singer. Each lesson cost him $70. At some point his adoptive father died and my Grandfather Lewis moved back to Maine and became a successful businessman. He sang in church and in the minstrel shows or whatever they did in those days. As the grandkids came along he was waiting for one of us to have an interest in music and I did. I played the piano, French horn and trumpet. Then I discovered I could sing. He was the one who paid for my lessons."