BWW Interviews: THE ADDAMS FAMILY Star Douglas Sills on Reinventing Gomez and Percy
Tony-nominated Douglas Sills, the original Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway, is currently starring as Gomez in the national tour of The Addams Family at the Capitol Theatre. He was gracious enough to take the time to speak with BroadwayWorld about his experiences reinventing these roles for the rewritten versions of the two musicals.
When Sills received a call from a producer friend asking if he would be interested in playing Gomez on The Addams Family tour (a role originated by Nathan Lane on Broadway), his first reaction was negative. Earlier in his career, he had played supporting roles in the first national tours of Into the Woods and The Secret Garden, so he knew firsthand the difficulties of touring life.
He also had reservations about the show, which had mixed reviews on Broadway, and the role. “Why would I want to do a play that people more experienced than I in writing couldn’t fix?” he said. “Why would I want to follow Nathan Lane? He’s one of our greatest performers, and if he couldn’t make it work, how could I? We’re not even the same type.”
However, because Sills knew many members of the creative team well, he felt obligated to speak with them. Production supervisor Jerry Zaks had directed him in Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway, choreographer Sergio Trujillo was currently directing him in White Noise in Chicago, producer Stuart Oken had worked with him on a four-week workshop for Disney, and he had grown up with composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa in the same area of Michigan at around the same time.
Upon learning that the team was committed to rewriting the show and reimagining the character, many of Sills’ worries were assuaged. There was just the question of whether or not he wanted to be away from home to tour. Upon urging from his partner, he agreed to do it. “At some point you make a leap across unfounded territory based on your belief,” he said. “In this case it paid off quite nicely for everyone.”
Sills said that the creators’ main change from Broadway to tour was centering the story on the relationship of the parents, Gomez and Morticia, rather than on that of their daughter, Wednesday, and her fiancé, Lucas. “Before, they didn’t have strong circumstances to engage them,” he said. “As a result, they didn’t have a lot to do—they were a spinning wheel. They were the sun of the family’s solar system and it was important that they be the center. Once that decision had been made, other things fell into place nicely. The comedy tended to become more situational rather than added on.” This shift in the plot led to many new songs and scenes for Gomez.
When asked the difference between creating a new character from scratch and reinventing one that has already been originated by another actor, Sills said that the fundamentals are the same. He applies the same techniques to every role he plays, whether it’s Mamet or My Fair Lady. “Someone probably comes to Douglas Sills because he tends to think of things from the ground up,” he said. “What does the character want? What does he need? How likely is he to get it? How badly does he want it? What’s he willing to do to get it? What’s in the way?”
In the rehearsal process for The Addams Family, some elements were shorthanded by the creators simply because they had been through them before and knew how they wanted them to go. One example is the dinner sequence, which was kept similar to the Broadway original.
Sills was given the freedom to explore the character of Gomez, but not as much as he had, for example, when he first created the role of Percy in The Scarlet Pimpernel. “The difference is in the way rehearsals are conducted,” he said. “How open is staff to ideas? There is a shorter rehearsal period. Still, the kernel of the chore is the same—creating a living, breathing thing that is as three-dimensional as possible.”
Sills was initially contracted for a nine-month run with The Addams Family tour, and when his contract was nearly up, he was faced with the question of whether or not he wanted to renegotiate. “My thought was basically, was I enjoying myself? Was it fun? Was I tired? Was there a sense of routine?” He learned that there would be two extended breaks in the performance schedule in future months, which would allow for more rest. He also relished the thought of continuing to work with the people associated with the production. “I had felt very cherished,” he said. “The producers and director were very good to me.” He realized he wanted to stay on through the end of the tour, for a total of 15 months.
More than a decade before, Sills had a similar experience revamping an existing Broadway show, but in that instance it was a show he was already starring in. In 1998, when The Scarlet Pimpernel was struggling financially, new producers took over the production and decided to reshape the show. “It was exciting,” Sills said. “I was pleased that another producer came along that believed in it and wanted to invest in it. I was pleased they saw potential in a show critically received in such a mixed fashion.”
He said he was grateful to be asked to continue with the production, but it was difficult performing the first version with the original cast at night while rehearsing the new version with the replacement cast during the day. “I’m not sure that Mr. Mann and Ms. Andreas would have wanted to stay on,” he said, “but there was a little bit of polygamy if you will. I was married to both casts at the same time.”
In addition to major changes in the plot, there were more nuanced differences, such as lyric changes, that Sills had to keep straight between the two versions in performance and rehearsal. Although the experience was challenging and even exhausting, he had performed Shakespeare in repertory in the past, so the concept wasn’t entirely foreign to him. He found the process exciting and enjoyable, even though he wasn’t given as much room to explore as he had in the first iteration. “Setting something from scratch is different because you don’t have a template,” he said. “I had more freedom to play in the first edition.”
When asked which version he liked better, he said he didn’t have a preference. “I was told the narrative was easier to follow in the second edition,” he said. “I had things I loved about both. You have to be a cheerleader and be behind your current project 100%. I never watched the show—certainly not with me in it.”
After Sills had played Percy for a year on Broadway, the new version of The Scarlet Pimpernel opened and ran for another seven months. He toured with the show the following year.
Sills said that when he hears about the great success the show has had in regional and community theatres, especially in Utah, he feels incredibly lucky to have been a part of it. “It was a random intersection of readiness and opportunity,” he said. “I’m always pleased when so many people find something to love in it. So many musicals—like Spamalot, The Book of Mormon, and even Wicked—are cynical and satirical. Pimpernel asks you to believe in this love story that’s told earnestly. I’m very proud of it.”
Since The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sills has had limited opportunities to perform on Broadway due to a variety of professional and personal concerns. Leading roles in Kiss Me Kate, Spamalot, and Assassins, among others, have fallen through for reasons as varied as personal differences and the September 11 terrorist attacks. “I do try to stay open to experiences that come my way, “ he said. “I think it’s no secret to suspect that someone who had the turn I had would have a bigger presence on Broadway. I never would have thought that Pimpernel could have happened for me. After it did, I would have thought I’d have more abundant, interesting roles. That’s why I can be so dynamically grateful for the gift that Gomez and my friends at The Addams Family have given me.”
Douglas Sills stars in The Addams Family, playing the Capitol Theatre for a limited engagement through Sunday, November 18, 2012. For tickets, call ArtTix at 801-355-ARTS (2787) or visit www.arttix.org.