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."
Cleale continues: "I was from Maine and I was thinking that singing wasn't something I'd do in the outside world. So I went to the University of Miami to major in finance. While I was there I learned of a really great music school, so I sang with the Miami Singers and then picked up a double major. I was taking all my business classes but I also took music. In my senior year I was going to go to law school, when my voice teacher met this New York actor-guy who was teaching a scene program. The accompanist was Julian Stein; the original musical director of THE FANTASTICKS. He and his wife had retired to Miami. The teacher was named Phil Polito and Phil was the original Samuel Chase in 1776, had done seven Broadway shows and was now teaching. I wandered into the class just to get the one credit and sang "On The Street Where You Live". He came to me after class and said, ‘I don't know who you are and I don't know where you're from, but I think you should do this with your life. I think you'll have a career.' I was all of twenty years old but I sang well. There was something about the way he said that which made me think he knew what he was talking about. Something was very right about it."
At the time, Burt Reynolds had a training program with his theater in Florida and, Cleale remembers, "In six months time my teacher prepared me and I auditioned with about 300 kids-all of whom had come from theater programs. I had never done a play in college but I sang well and was tall. I was an easily cast-able person so Burt Reynolds, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dom DeLuise and Lorna Luft let me in." As a result, Cleale went to Jupiter and didn't go to law school. "I got my EQUITY card and my Screen Actor's Guild card and I got to work with Ossie Davis and Dana Ivey in our scene classes. This was bizarre! I found myself doing Tennessee Williams in front of Paul Newman and all these great old TV actors that Burt had in his stables. It was incredible, but a meant-to-be thing. After that year finished, I wound up getting cast in the European tour of OKLAHOMA! playing Curley." While touring in OKLAHOMA!, Mary Rodgers, William Hammerstein and Ted Chapin dropped in to see the show.
The OKLAHOMA! tour finished and Cleale returned to Miami where when Hurricane Andrew struck. "Three days after that there was no electricity but the phone was working and my parents called. They told me that people from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization were looking for me. They said they had seen me in OKLAHOMA! and wanted me to do something called STATE FAIR, which was in LA. Michael Hayden had done it in North Carolina but he had left it to do CAROUSEL in London. They were replacing him and Mary Rodgers remembered me from Germany. I flew up and auditioned and the next thing I knew I was in LA. I got an agent and he said, ‘Move to New York. I'll represent you.' So I moved to New York with Peter Strain as my agent. He's a great guy. That was in 1993."
The actor pauses and stretches out one of his legs before adopting a rather pensive tone. "You know, you have little to do with it in the end. That's what I always think. Those things kept happening. There was no question but that I was heading in the right direction."
In New York the handsome actor picked up a Drama Desk nomination for his work in the short-lived SWINGING ON A STAR and was cast as Sir Harry in the revival of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Once again Mary Rodgers figured into his being cast in that show. "Isn't it a small world?" he muses. "She had remembered me from OKLAHOMA! and STATE FAIR and suggested me for the role of Sir Harry." However, the over-all experience wasn't a happy one for Creale. "It was just wrong-headed."
On tour, Cleale has played such plum roles as Joe Gillis opposite Petula Clark in SUNSET BOULEVARD and Joe Cable in SOUTH PACIFIC with Robert Goulet. New York audiences enjoyed his work in TIME AND AGAIN for MTC and A NEW BRAIN at Lincoln Center. However, it is his appearance in CALL ME MADAM with Tyne Daly that sparks his greatest recollection:
"I was doing SWINGING ON A STAR at the George Street Playhouse and we had yet to move to Goodspeed, obviously. Friends of friends came down and had a car and were going to drive a bunch of us back to the city. It was a very large Mercedes. My best friend Michael McGrath was in the car. The two guys, Tony and Jim, were talking. They had seen that Michael had done FORBIDDEN BROADWAY and remarked, ‘Remember when we went to see that? We took Ethel that night.' Everyone in the car went ‘Ethel Merman?' We asked whether they knew her and Jim said, ‘Oh yes, I grew up with her and I was kinda like her son. Oh by the way, this is Tony Cointreau...of the booze.' They continued to explain that they had seen Michael and his wife do the FORBIDDEN BROADWAY. So I got to know them a little bit and after that show finished they said, ‘Well, why don't you take a vacation and come up to Vermont? We have a nice place there. So I did and stayed in the garage apartment, which was very well done. They were down in the main house."
Cleale was a houseguest in Vermont for maybe three or four days. Getting settled in his living space, he opened a closet door. "There were boxes of headshots and things falling out, along with clippings and it all seemed to be Ethel Merman stuff. Then there were a bunch of urns; marble urns and a little tin hexagonal shaped can on the bottom. I looked at the names and there was Robert Six, various names, ex husbands, dead children and Mom and Pop. Next to the hexagonal can was an empty urn but on it was the notation: ‘These are The Remains of Ethel Merman'. It was so odd that she should be resting in a closet in Vermont over a garage."
Cleale admits his interest was piqued. He went down to dinner and asked what the deal was. "I learned that her son was not well and couldn't deal with this. I think his name was Bob and he lived in California. It all fell to Tony and Jim to take care of everything after she passed. A lot of stuff went to museums, but there was a lot of stuff that no one wanted-including the Christmas tree she kept in her apartment. I didn't know much about Ethel Merman at the time and they filled me in. Someone suggested that we should watch one of her movies. I went upstairs and brought down CALL ME MADAM after dinner. I didn't know the show and as I was taking the videotape down I though, ‘Heck, Ethel should come with me if I'm gonna watch it, so I took her in the can and she sat on my lap while we watched the film."
The following night they were visited by friends who lived in California but had a house in Vermont. They were named Glynnis and Mark Snow. They were a very lovely couple. Mark writes music for TV and at the time was writing for a show that no one had heard about yet called "The X Files". His sister, Glynnis kept referring to ‘Tyne and Timmy and me' and I asked if she meant Tyne Daly. She said, ‘Yes. She's my sister'. We had dinner together and about six months later I they called me from City Center to audition for CALL ME MADAM with Tyne Daly. When I got the call I knew that was my part. There was no way that I could not not get that part. Tyne and I became great friends and we're still friends. In fact, she's seen THE FANTASTICKS and we're getting together this week."
Cleale remembers the Saturday evening performance of CALL ME MADAM because he and Ms Daly did three or four encores of "You're Just In Love" and his parents were in the audience "It was a great experience."
However, Cleale's most recent success was at the Signature Theater near Washington, DC, when he essayed the leading role in the musical GIANT. Based on Edna Ferber's massive novel about a Texas landowner and his Virginia-born wife, the musical received exceptionally good notices, with enormous praise for Michael John La Chiusa's score. Cleale, also, received impressive reviews. "It became the biggest and most rewarding experience of my life. In some instances, it may have actually have been life-changing.
"The production staff put together a group of twenty one people who were all ringers," comments Creale, "They were just amazing. Even the ones who just moved a chair were like diva opera singers. Everybody there had amazing souls and the director, Jonathan Butterell was like the puppeteer. No one ever raised their voices and no one ever got angry. The music was ravishing and I thought the story was beautiful. It has some of the most incredibly written scenes that I've ever been part of. It was a blessed experience. It was beautiful. Really beautiful."
There was one criticism of the musical, though, and that was its lengthy playing time. Although the theater's website indicated that the show would run 3 hours and 20 minutes, the playing time was actually four hours. That didn't deter people from seeing the matinee and then heading directly to the box office to purchase tickets for that evening's performance as well. Cleale laughs in amazement when he learns this. "It was hard playing matinee and evening performances in a show like that, but it was such a limited run that I never felt that I couldn't do it. In actuality, we only had two weekends where we played shows back-to-back. "
Is there any chance that theater-goers will have the opportunity to see GIANT again? Cleale says, "I expect so. There is a theater here in New York that would love to do it but thinks it should be extended; made longer and then divided into two pieces. There's another major theater here that thinks it should be three hours long because its audiences won't stay for anything longer than three hours or something. Those are the two camps," says the actor. I don't know who'll win."
In Cleale's mind, the score should be recorded now. " I've never heard anything like it. The fact is that La Chiusa has written such variety and he doesn't just write songs: he writes scenes-in-song.
Many of my sections were ten or twelve minutes long. There was a song, a little bit of dialogue, a different song and then it would come back to the first song. I think the score is stunning, whether it needs tightening or shaping or whatever form it needs to go into, I hope that they're able to figure it out. I think it's just a matter of how to package it and how to sell it."
After originating such a striking role as Bick Shen, Cleale now finds himself once again juggling and dueling while singing the melodies of Jones and Schmidt in a long-running show. What's it like to step into previously worn shoes? "THE FANTASTICKS is a special example. It's a show that's 50 years old and Jerry Orbach [the originator of El Gallo] is long gone. I never feel like I'm filling his shoes or anyone else's. Much of the stuff in this show is set, but a lot of it isn't. Tom Jones is very much present and encouraging the cast to try new things. There's plenty of freedom in this musical it shows because the production retains its freshness."
Without a doubt, THE FANTASTICKS is as fresh and as sweet as it was years ago. The score hasn't lost any of its charm and becomes inter-generational in its appeal. Older audience members may be found shedding a tender tear at certain spots, but at recent performances, it was obvious that pre-teens were completely captivated by what they were seeing on stage. It's a show that a family or a church group can see without anyone becoming uncomfortable, and that's increasingly rare in the entertainment field in our current permissive climate.
Audiences could banter about whatever color symbolism is found in THE FANTASTICKS, but there's one thing about the color black that seems to be quite universal. It's a color that often makes its wearer slimmer, trimmer and considerably more sexy. That is especially true in the case of Lewis Cleale. There's no doubt that this is a performer of considerable sexual appeal. His speaking voice is sexy, his singing voice is even more so, but when his blue eyes peer out from under his black ranchero, there's no mistaking that this is a sexually charge performance being given by one of the most gifted musical actos on the stage today.
THE FANTASTICKS is playing at the Jerry Orbach Theater in the Snapple Center for the Performing Arts, located on Broadway and 50th Street. For the performance schedule or to purchase tickets, please visit www.FantasticksOnBroadway.com
Photos of Lewis Cleale by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.
Photo of Lewis Cleale and Tyne Daly by Peter James Zielinski