BWW Interview: MSMT Intern Returns to Star in TREASURE ISLAND
"I had been looking for a reason to come back, and do another show here, so I was pleased when my managers sent me to audition for TREASURE ISLAND [A MUSICAL ADVENTURE]. Doing new work is always great; I love that process where I get to be more involved in the actual creation."
Broadway star Aaron Ramey is explaining how he has come to find himself back in Maine to play the plum role of Long John Silver in MSMT's East Coast premiere of Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark's new epic musical which plays at the Pickard Theater from June 26 - July 13, 2019. Ramey had been an intern in 1997 while he was still a student at Otterbein University. "Ironically," he notes, "that was the summer of renovation and MSMT performed at Crooker Auditorium, so this production will actually be my first time on the Pickard stage." He recalls the shows from that season: "I was in SWEENEY TODD, CAROUSEL, and TOMMY. I wasn't a good enough dancer to be in THE MUSIC MAN, but I did get to carry the pool table across stage, and in A CHORUS LINE, I played trombone in the pit," he laughs. "And then, too, I knew Michael Nigro [who plays Jim Hawkins] from a workshop we had both been in in New York, and he had urged me to audition."
Ramey recounts how he came to his theatrical vocation as a junior in high school. "That year was the 50th anniversary of OKLAHOMA, and each day GOOD MORNING AMERICA would have a different cast sing 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,' and I got to do that with my school. And I got to play Jud Fry. I thought to myself, 'This is really fun! It's better than homework!' So I started taking private voice lessons after that."
Ramey went on to Otterbein University and then enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music's Professional Musical Theatre Workshop. "I worked with some amazing people like Paul Gemignani, Victor Garber, Paul Ford, Craig Carnelia, Carolann Page."
Having graduated, Ramey came to New York and built a robust resume in stage, film, and television that is notable for its breadth and variety. "Knock wood, I have been able to run the gamut of musical styles," he says. I do have a lot of classics on my resume, and there was definitely a period [in my career] when I was mostly doing "legit" shows, but then I did NEXT TO NORMAL and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and proved that I do feel comfortable in all styles."
Ramey made his Broadway debut in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE in 2002 and returned in 2007 for CURTAINS. "MILLIE was my first everything," he remembers. "Not only was it my Broadway debut, but also my first original cast, first cast recording, first Tony Awards - all wrapped up into one experience. And then in CURTAINS I got to work with a wonderful group of people. [Director] David Hyde Pierce is one of the kindest above-the-title stars I have ever worked with."
Among his other Broadway favorites are YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, and his most recent appearance in THE VISIT, which he calls a "very dark piece" but a "delight to work with Chita Rivera." He did the national tours of JEKYLL AND HYDE, SOUTH PACIFIC, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and he has been seen at major regional theatres across the country playing leading roles in shows such as WHITE CHRISTMAS, OKLAHOMA, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, MISS SAIGON, and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Ramey has also been active on the big and small screens and says he enjoys the "different process. In the theatre you put the whole piece together and do it from beginning to end each night. But in television, it's all about setup and camera angles and lighting."
At MSMT Ramey will make his role debut as Long John Silver in what is the show's second-ever production. He says he has prepared by focusing on the script. "I have not read Robert Louis Stevenson's book nor gone back to any of the movies. I believe that sometimes if you dig too deeply into the source material for adapted pieces, it can color your experience of the character. I probably will read the book after the show, but I like to be able to work with what is on the page. I don't want someone else's interpretation."
So what has Ramey discovered about the pirate's character in this version? He acknowledges that he has quite a bit of experience playing darker roles, but that Long John Silver is not entirely a dark character. "It is always more interesting if a character has a third dimension. Long John has a sense of humor; he cares for the boy and has a genuine affection for him. I think the story would have played out very differently if Jim were not on that boat. We get to see Long John Silver be the cunning opportunist he is, but we also get a sense of how he came to be that way. [We learn] that he came from money, but clearly things went awry. Parentless at a young age, he had to fend for himself. There were lots of missed opportunities and a lack of love in his life."
"TREASURE ISLAND is Jim's coming of age story, but Long John Silver is also changed by the experience," Ramey continues. "I love seeing the effect Jim and Long John have on each other. Jim shows Long John an innocence he had lost. Theirs is a fun relationship to play on stage, and it is wonderful to have a great scene partner," he adds, referring to his co-star, Michael William Nigro.
Ramey, who is known as a compelling singer, enjoys the vocal demands of the role as well. Among his favorite songs for Long John Silver are "Joys of Cooking" and the finale with "Someday (the Reasons Will Be Clear)/Miracles." Of the first he says, "When [ Director] Mark [Martino] and I were putting this number together, we were very careful to make sure that it tells a story and not let it become a song about props. We wanted it to be entertaining and not get lost in all the activity," he explains. "I see it as a performance piece - a show within the show - a kind of 'let's do the number for the kid' song. Long John is demonstrating to Jim that 'we have a good time around here.'" On the other hand, Ramey feels that the two poignant ballads that return and are interchanged in the show's closing moments - "Someday" and "Miracles" - are "examples of great writing because the work has established some themes for its characters. And then I get to sing verses of Jim's song "Miracles," and Jim gets to sing some of my ballad."
Ramey acknowledges that the physicality of the role is challenging. Long John Silver, of course, must limp around on one leg. "It hurts," he admits. If we stop [in rehearsal] and I have to stand on one leg wearing that contraption, it is painful. And now that we are getting ready to run the show through, I will have to get used to being in the harness for longer periods of time." But, he adds, "So far I have been doing pretty well."
All in all, Ramey is relishing the demanding role. He enjoys having the writers around. "If we have a creative idea or a question, we can knock on Curt's [Artistic Director and co-creator of TREASURE ISLAND] door and bounce it off him, and it has been great to have him drop in at rehearsals." And he also feels excited to be working with Mark Martino, who brings a new perspective to the work.
So what is it in this dramatically dense story, told in a grand, sweeping, monumental style, that impresses Ramey the most? "I always find it particularly thrilling to be on a stage full of men singing in beautiful harmony. There is that wall of sound that just wows you!"
And what does he hope the audience will take away from TREASURE ISLAND besides the epic adventure? Without hesitation Aaron Ramey replies, "One big point in the story is that nobody's path is determined; everybody can make a different choice. Jim teaches Long John that one can be an honorable person and can think that life is precious and that he does not have to swash and buckle his way across the high seas. The experience is informative for both of them. And by the end of the musical we see that even if a person's outer shell is rough and tumble, everyone has something redeeming within."
Photos courtesy of MSMT , Broadway World