From 'Mamma Mia!' to Mozart: David Beach Tackles an 'Opus'
You may have seen David Beach as John Cullum's assistant McQueen in the Tony-nominated musical Urinetown or the Tony-nominated musical Mamma Mia! as Harry Bright. Now, he's traded in his spandex outfit for a tuxedo as a member of the Lazaro String Quartet in Michael Hollinger's smart, moving and funny drama Opus presented by Primary Stages at the intimate 59E59 Theater Complex. The play has received rave reviews from its premiere at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia (winning the 2006 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play), at the Everyman Theatre's presentation in Baltimore last year. Opus will return to the Washington Stage Guild in DC (where it played last April) for an "encore presentation" from Sept 6 - 30.
Having seen the production in Baltimore, I am happy to report I wasn't disappointed in the New York premiere, directed by Barrymore Award Winning director, Terrence J. Nolan. I interviewed David Beach who plays the First Violinist in the Quartet like football quarterback...
CS: Can you give some background of your early years?
DB: I hail from Columbus, Ohio. All my siblings took music lessons at an early age. I started piano at age 6, took organ lessons in the 4th grade and three years later I was playing to three different churches: Christian Science, Methodist, and Catholic. I went to music camp at Interlochen in Michigan as a piano composition major but found that I really enjoyed watching theater. The following year I returned as a theater major and was in Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, and some operettas like H.M.S. Pinafore.
CS: Where did you go to school?
DB: I majored in English literature at Dartmouth. Because it was so small, it was easy to whatever you wanted to do. I did Shakespeare, wrote a play, directed an operetta and was in the musical The Boys from Syracuse.
CS: How did you spend your summers in college?
DB: I did Circle in the Square in New York and summer stock in Cape Cod. Then I was able to get a grant from Dartmouth and did an apprenticeship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
CS: What direction did you go after graduation from Dartmouth?
DB: Once again, Dartmouth helped me. I got a Fellowship from the school to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for one year. I did a whole lot of Shakespeare.
CS: After London, what was your next stop?
DB: I came back to NYC, did a lot of auditioning and finally got my Equity Card thanks to Theatreworks USA. We drove around the country in a van. I did Young Sherlock Holmes. What a great experience. Then it was regional theater like the Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Virginia Stage Co. in Norfolk, and the Alabama Shakespeare Co.
CS: When did you make your Broadway debut?
DB: It was Moon Over Buffalo with Phil Bosco and Carol Burnett. I understudied Dennis Ryan. I was the first understudy to go on.
CS: What was it like to work with such a superstar like Carol Burnett?
DB: She was great…so easy to act with her. No doubt she was one of the most generous actors I've ever worked with. To her, it was all about the "company". She is so great at what she does.
CS: How did you get involved in Urinetown, the Musical?
DB: I had been working both coasts. I did a pilot for PBS, movies for HBO and Disney, and an episode of "Dharma and Gregg". A friend from my Theaterworks USA experience, Laura Stanczyk (she was Ma Lincoln and I was Pa Lincoln) had become a casting director. She called me about Urinetown. (She's the reason to do children's shows.) It was off-Broadway and my agent told me not to do it, but I loved the script. It was a huge decision. I played McQueen, John Cullum's assistant so all my scenes were with him. Off-Broadway we were ALL in one dressing room with a sheet down the middle and one bathroom. When we moved to Broadway, Cullum felt lonely in his own dressing room.
CS: Did you perform on the Tony Awards telecast?
DB: They chose to do "Run Freedom Run" featuring Hunter Foster. Normally, I would not be in that number, but they included everyone. I was a little nervous standing on a platform.
CS: Another nominee for Best Musical that year happened to be Mamma Mia!...
DB: I did not know much about Mamma Mia! at that time. I do remember when Urinetown closed, I wrote the skit for the Easter Bonnet Competition (which raises money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids). Officer Lockstock was asked by Little Sally: "What did the cast do when the show closed"? He replied, "Some went on unemployment, some would try TV and some would try joining the cast of Mamma Mia!. Little Sally replied: "You mean get out of acting all together?" That quote would follow me.
CS: So, how did you get involved with Mamma Mia!?
DB: I was in Paris, celebrating my 40th birthday, when my agent called me. I had worked with the resident director Martha Banta several times and she needed a replacement for six months to understudy the role of Harry Bright played by Michael Winther. I had not seen it when I accepted the role. Everyone knew about the line I wrote for the Easter Bonnet. Jesse Nager among others joked with me about it.
CS: Tell me about the experience?
DB: It was a huge change of pace. It was difficult understudying the role of Bright but it was a good period for me to learn the show. I was a little terrified. It was much easier playing the part than understudying the role. I began in October of '04 and did it for two years.
CS: What followed?
DB: I did a pilot for NBC and enjoyed a trip down the Nile River in Egypt.
CS: How did Opus come about?
DB: The casting director Stephanie Klapper is a friend and supporter and told both the director and playwright they need to see me. They finally called me in and I had the part an hour after my audition. I had read the play before my audition. I was so moved by it. It is so well-written. Since I was classically trained, I believed I could handle it. I really wanted to do an actor-driven play after Mamma Mia!. I was extremely happy when I was offered the part.
CS: When I saw the play in Baltimore, the woman violist was played by an African-American actress. Here, in this production, the part of Grace is played by Mahira Kakkar, a native of Kolkata, India. Is there any reference in the script to the ethnicity of Grace?
DB: No, there is no mention of ethnicity. But the part lends itself to a first generation American. It adds an interest, she is more of an outsider, a newcomer.
CS: Can you discuss working with the playwright, Michael Hollinger, and his involvement with Terrence J. Nolen, who also directed the world premiere in Philadelphia?
DB: It was terrific working with both. They have such a close relationship. Michael is most exacting, there is no sloppiness. Terry was incredibly demanding in honoring his work. He basically was conducting Michael's score. He knows it so well. It was clear that Michael is a classically trained string player.
CS: Was there any special preparation for the play?
DB: Yes. We went to sit in on a small chamber group rehearsal. It was very much like the play in that it is an honest portrayal of musicians relating to each other throughout the music…no false notes. I was fascinated how clear his play could be.
CS: I noticed while none of the actors actually play, the bowing is pretty accurate but the left hands of all of the musicians are quiet? Why was this done?
DB: About the bowing, we had two coaches. We actually spent one week of rehearsal working on music stuff. They were wonderful teachers. Regarding the left hand fingering, there is none. The theatrical illusion is that we're world class musicians but we did not want to get into a game of "Gotcha". The music you hear is from the Vertigo Quartet (formerly the Addison Quartet from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. We also watched a lot of documentaries about the Guarneri String Quartet and the Audubon String Quartet. I do admit that some nights after the show I do say to myself, "I sounded really good tonight?"
CS: What has your experience been like working with Primary Stages?
DB: Just wonderful. This is my first experience with Primary Stages. It's a wonderful group. At the first rehearsal I was impressed almost half of the Board of Directors was there as well as the entire staff. It's great to have a theater that nurtures new work by playwrights.
CS: Opus ends Saturday, Sept. 1. Any hope for an extension?
DB: Well, the reception we've had from audiences has been terrific. The reviews have been terrific. I would love for more people to see it and I hope this cast has another life in New York.
Opus also stars Michael Laurence, Douglas Rees, and Richard Topol. Performances through September 1 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th St. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com. For information of the rest of the season at Primary Stages visit www.primarystages.com.
Photos by James Leynse & Linda Lenzi: David Beach, Richard Topol, Douglas Rees and Michael Laurence;David Beach with Opus' Michael Laurence, Mahira Kakkar, Douglas Rees and Richard Topol;Michael Laurence and David Beach