Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was a mega hit on Broadway. The recipient of four Tony’s, including the coveted Best Musical award in 2014, the show was a huge success. It closed on Broadway almost a year ago, but the show lives on with the National Touring Cast, which is on its way to Music City for a week-long stint at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC)’s Jackson Hall.
It’s a show some people are not as familiar with, so here’s a brief synopsis:
Monty Navarro, who has been poor his entire life, finds out he’s ninth in line to inherit the earldom of D'Ysquith. They are an aristocratic, wealthy family at the end of the Victorian days of England. His mother was disinherited by the family, but Monty hopes that this new-found information will lead him out of poverty and into the arms of his beloved Sibella, a beautiful, somewhat silly, woman who wants to marry for status. He attempts to get a job with the family, but after he’s turned down he decides to take a more proactive approach. What it leads to is a whimsical story of Monty’s attempted ascension to power. Staging, costuming, and one of the wittiest books ever written made it a smash on Broadway.
Chuck Ragsdale, a swing on the cast who also plays the D'Ysquith family (yes, all 8 members of the family are played by one person) took the chance to talk with Out & About Nashville recently to talk about the show. I caught him on his way home from dropping his husband off at the airport. He was with family in North Carolina for Christmas, but was leaving for Baltimore the next day to start the show again. We began with his background.
“I am originally from half an hour south of Raleigh, I was born and raised here. Then I left for college and went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. And, whereupon graduation, I moved to New York and I’ve been there for many years now. I actually just celebrated my twentieth year there.”
Traveling shows can be a tall order. Actors are rarely home and are in a different city every week. But this life is nothing new for Ragsdale.
“In 2008, I did a national tour that played many of the markets A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (GGLAM) has played. Also, I did that play with one of my castmates from GGLAM. She and I were in that previous tour together. That show was 101 Dalmatians. Not nearly as fancy as my current Tony award winning national tour.
“Having previously toured, I was very familiar with the lifestyle and what it meant, and what the demand was, but also, what the benefits are. But I’ll tell you what attracted me most was: the title. The show itself. This show is one of those pieces that, as an actor, you go and you see on Broadway and you are immediately touched. It immediately resonates with you as an actor. It’s one of those shows you just can’t wait to get your hands on in whatever aspect fate allows. I remember sitting in the Walter Kerr Theater, watching GGLAM beside my husband, and about five minutes into the show I’m killing him with my elbow. I’m responding to everything and making sure he knows I’m responding. At intermission, he says ‘You’re dying, aren’t you?’ and I was. I was absolutely dying. I could not watch the show fast enough. I could not absorb the show any more quickly. It was one of those shows that I loved SO MUCH. It was a vocabulary I spoke and I understood. The style of the show just really resonated with me. I was fortunate enough to land a position in the national tour. That’s why I was attracted to touring. Being able to do this show.
“And that’s no disrespect to our other workhorses in the musical theater industry. The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Grease… Those shows are hits for their own reasons. But we’re A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Nobody’s ever done this. And that is absolutely thrilling! To bring a show this new and this fresh to a touring audience in every major market across the United States? That’s thrilling. That makes you want to pack a bag and jump on a plane.”
He’s right. This show isn’t your typical show. He explains why:
“It’s honestly one of the most beautifully written shows, and I say beautiful in the respect that there’s not one ounce of fat on this show. There’s nothing that doesn’t belong in the show. It has been so expertly crafted with such a keen and loving eye by our amazing creative team that it’s just an absolute treat to actors, to theatre lovers, and really, to people who want something just a little refreshing and different than what they’re used to seeing. It’s very witty. It’s, at times, laugh out loud funny. It’s quickly paced. It’s always a thrill to watch the audience grab on and come with us on this crazy ride. Because, there are only 11 performers in the regular cast, and 15 including myself and the other 3 swings. So we’re a relatively small show. But we all play so many different characters and wear so many different hats. It’s such an absurdly delicious plot that you can’t help but jump in, grab hold, and see where this crazy show takes you.”
His role is very unique. He is a swing, which means he plays several different roles throughout the show, but in a show like this, where the principle roles are so intensive, the principle roles must have something more significant than an understudy. The swings cover these roles to give the principles a break from the demands of these monster roles.
“I cover the D’Ysquith family. Yes. Myself and the incredibly talented David Scott Purdy. There are two male swings and two female swings. And between the four of us, we split the male and female ensemble, then, respectively, we have our own principle covers. The D’Ysquith family is my principle cover, which plays no less than eight family members. It’s a lot!
“It’s one of the most joyous and exhausting experiences I’ve ever had in my career, but I could not be more proud of it. It is so much fun, but it’s the type of fun, that if you keep at it with too much intensity, it’s going to kill you.”
The original actor who portrayed the D’Ysquith family on Broadway, Jefferson Mays, is a very big name on Broadway. This show earned him, as well as Bryce Pinkham (the original Monty Navarro), a nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. These roles are very taxing on an actor. Ragsdale speaks to what it takes to hold these roles:
“You have to have a musical theater athlete to jump into a role like this because it doesn’t stop. Once the show starts, there’s very little rest for either of our two male principles. Monty is almost completely on stage the entire show. And when the D’Ysquith family is not on stage, he’s changing. It is truly a musical theatre marathon, and it’s so thrilling to be a part of it. But it takes a village! It can’t be done without our amazing crew that we travel with. We have our principle dresser, Nadine, and our makeup supervisor, Suzanne, who are part of the family that makes the D’Ysquith family happen. It’s just an incredible team of people who love doing what they do and do it better than anyone else.
When you play 8 characters, some might think you grow fonder of one of them more than the other. Perhaps that isn’t the case with Ragsdale, though. When asked who his favorite D’Ysquith family member is, he responds:
“I get asked this a lot and it changes. It’s like picking your favorite child. And since I only have cats, I can’t really comment on the kid thing. It would be a toss-up between Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith, and, probably Henry. I love Henry. But I also love Ezekiel, I love the priest! And now, I’m just starting to name all of them and that’s not fair.
“Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith has my favorite scene though. Monty sends her abroad in search of a proper charitable angle. The production level is so high, by our standards anyway, of ‘Lady Hyacinth Abroad.’ Which is also a very fun little play on words.”
He then talked about how supportive the original creators of the show were, making this unlike national tours that don’t have the same backing from their creators.
“We were lucky. We had our entire original creative team was with us, putting up the tour, we were very fortunate to have them, certainly after GGLAM hit it so big on Broadway. They were very popular and very much in demand. But we had them through the entire rehearsal and tech process, and they do occasionally visit us on the road, which is such a treat because they are adored by our company. But we also had our book writer, Robert Freedman, who spent almost every day in the rehearsal room with us, just sitting behind the table watching our work develop and flourish. He is just a peach, and such a kind and generous man. It was just such a pleasure having him in the room. But even more of a pleasure it was to have the creator of this incredible book and these incredible lyrics be there and share that process with us. And he occasionally visits us on the road as well. I say that to make the point that it’s a show that’s very near and dear to everyone’s heart who has been involved with it at some point in its gestation. And it’s such an honor and privilege to be a tiny part of that.”
The Gay Community in Nashville, and especially those of us who love theater, need to make it out to this show, Ragsdale said.
“[The LGBTQ community] like(s) nice things, we are a very cultured community, we’re a very savvy community, and we’re not above being impressed by pedigree. And our show has four Tony’s behind it. You’re not going to get to see another show like this anywhere. This is a breath of refreshing fresh air… It’s just so damned smart.”
GGLAM is playing January 24-January 29 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. Tickets can be purchased online at https://patron.tpac.org/events/detail/gentlemans-guide-2017-tpac, by calling the box office at 615-782-4040, or by visiting the box office during regular business hours.