Sunday, September 5, 1999
As David Hyde Pierce begins his seventh season on 'Frasier,' he is also attempting a real stretch: singing before a live audience.
By: SEAN MITCHELL
TIMES STAFF WRITER
I'm still in love with Daphne," David Hyde Pierce says during his first day back on the set of "Frasier" after the summer hiatus. "But I realize I have to let that go because she's engaged to be married, so I'm trying to date other people."
How sensible, and to anyone who watches the show, probably not news, but this informal character update does carry some added authority coming, of course, from Dr. Niles Crane himself. Standing, as we are, on Stage 25 at Paramount, next to the Seattle high-rise apartment set where "Frasier" is filmed every Tuesday night, it seems entirely natural for Hyde Pierce to be speaking of Niles in the first person--Niles, the fastidiously neurotic psychiatrist brother of the compulsively bumbling radio psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer.
But oddly enough, we are talking about the ways in which Hyde Pierce, despite his two Emmys in this fame-making role after six seasons on NBC, will not always, and only, be Niles. Opening Sept. 22, for a two-week run, for instance, he will be onstage at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA performing in his first musical comedy, a Reprise! Best of Broadway production of "The Boys From Syracuse." In January he will be seen in the much anticipated Andrew Bergman film "Isn't She Great" starring Bette Midler as "Valley of the Dolls" author Jacqueline Susann. Hyde Pierce plays her editor.
"I don't want to get out of this show, ever," he says about "Frasier," leading his visitor across the stage, past the Cafe Nervosa and the Seattle night skyline. "I love this show. It's great writing, and it's also great people. None of us really want to do this just to do it. We really believe in the show as a quality thing. But I'm also very mindful that someday it will end, and I don't want to wait until then and have people only see me as Niles on 'Frasier.' I'm trying to seed in some other work during these years."
Hyde Pierce turned 40 in April and hasn't been in a musical since high school, when he shared a role with another student in "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" back in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In order to do "The Boys From Syracuse," a 1938 Rodgers & Hart adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors," Hyde Pierce will have to make some daily clock-watching commutes from the "Frasier" set to UCLA and back for about a month.
"He's leaving the studio at 12, and I need him at 12:30, so let's hope there's no traffic," says "Boys" director Arthur Allan Seidelman about the daunting scheduling logistics facing the "Frasier" co-star.
"I think the show has reached a point where it has to fly by the seat of its pants," Hyde Pierce says, meaning "Frasier," as he leads a visitor up the aisle and past the empty bleacher seats, heading to the conference room where an hour earlier he read through the new season's first episode with Grammer and John Mahoney, their stage father, and the rest of the cast.
Now, the room is deserted except for Hyde Pierce and his guest. A young woman who trains the dogs used on the show passes through the room with a new animal, and Hyde Pierce stops her to ask about her summer. They converse in French.
Casually dressed, wearing gold wire-rims and showing a few days' growth of amber whiskers on his elegantly cleft chin, he seems in a bright mood, back on campus with the prospect of renewed friendships and a familiar high-level comedy looming before him.
When he was first doing "Frasier" seven years ago, he found television an adjustment from live theater, whence he came. "The idea that you got a different script every week," he says, threw him. "Because you'd have an episode where you'd have this great part and then the next week you'd have just one scene, and I'd go into a profound depression over having the one scene. Because when you're used to doing a play, you can do it for six months and know it's going to be the same part each night. You may have a good night or a bad night, but you know you've got this great scene, this great laugh waiting for you."
In other ways, he found doing a sitcom more like doing theater than film, which it is technically, since it is performed and filmed before an audience. "'Frasier' is completely like theater," he says. "Our goal and the writer's goal is to make this work as a play for a live audience. And have the cameras capture that. As opposed to, 'We don't really care about the live audience and we want to get this for the camera, and we'll put it all together so it works for the people at home.' "
* * *
Like a lot of actors, Hyde Pierce started on the stage. (He made a notable debut in Christopher Durang's "Beyond Therapy" off-Broadway.) Working in New York, he appeared in the hit "The Heidi Chronicles" on Broadway and was cast by the estimable Peter Brook in a production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" that toured Russia.
But since coming west in 1992 to TV land to join the cast of the short-lived Norman Lear political sitcom "The Powers That Be," playing a suicidal congressman, and then, fatefully, "Frasier," he has been on the stage only once, here in Los Angeles at the Doolittle, in Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play," in 1992.
So how did he get cast in a musical without anyone knowing if he could sing?
Hyde Pierce is humble about this, mentioning that he is training hard with an eminent vocal coach and that he took some encouragement from an evening a few years ago at the STAGE benefit for AIDS funding when he was asked to sing. "They had a night of Cole Porter and asked me to do something, and I said, 'Look, I don't really sing.' But they found this great little song called 'Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby' which is not frequently done. . . .
"I had such a good time doing it. And also, I sang and wasn't booed."
Marcia Seligson, the producer of the Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert series (in which Grammer also moonlighted in "Sweeney Todd" last spring) says she met Hyde Pierce at the opening night party for "Sweeney Todd" and asked him to think about doing a show with her. "I knew he wanted to sing because he was studying with Calvin Remsberg," she says.
Indeed, he has a musical background, having studied to be a concert pianist before learning at Yale that he wasn't cut out for it.
Going to Yale was almost a form of rebellion for him. His father, brother, sister, brother-in-law and grandfather all had gone to Williams College in Massachusetts.
He remembers growing up in Saratoga Springs, north of Albany, as "a safe place with good public schools and a strong cultural influence." It was the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet.
His home life was cultural, as well. "It wasn't string quartets in the living room," he says, "but Mom and Dad were just funny, creative people." His father had wanted to be an actor before settling into the family insurance business. (His sister is now a producer for the "CBS Evening News," his brother a banker.)
"The reason I went to Yale was for its music program; I was going to be a professional musician." But his ambition was dented by the reality he encountered.
"I came from a small town, and I was one of the best pianists in the small town. But I discovered that, aside from the talent that I may have been lacking--it went up to a point but no further--my interest went up to a point and no further. I didn't want to be sitting in a practice room two hours a day, let alone 10 hours a day."
"It was the performing that I loved; it wasn't really the music making. Although I love playing music and my favorite thing is to accompany people, singers, instrumentalists."
At Yale, he moved into acting and went from there, yet until now he never found his way into a musical, which, he says, is one of the reasons he accepted the offer for "The Boys From Syracuse."
"I'm woefully ignorant about musical theater. I had just read Michael Feinstein's autobiography--Gershwin expert--and along with being a good autobiography, it's also a great textbook on the history of the American musical. I was discovering all this stuff I hadn't known about the early musicals, and then this call comes about 'The Boys From Syracuse,' which is an early musical."
The show, which includes the songs "Falling in Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love" and "Sing for Your Supper," retained the toga dress and period setting in Roman antiquity of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors."
If it's not as well known as "Guys and Dolls," that's part of the point of the Reprise! series, to revive shows that have been neglected through the years and deserve another hearing, if only in a concert (i.e. not a full staging) setting.
Hyde Pierce will play Dromio, one of two twins (Jason Graae plays the other) whose identities keep getting mixed up as they match romantic wits with another pair of twins (played by Karen Culliver and Lea DeLaria).
Says Hyde Pierce: "It's basically a comedy of mistaken identity, and I end up having to service the woman who is insatiable and she's married to my twin, and she thinks I'm him and so I become exhausted."
"He's perfect for this role," Seidelman says. "He's got the kind of spirit and bounce and humor and warmth that we need. The big ballads in the show are sung by other people with big voices. We're not asking him to be Ezio Pinza."
* * *
If he has not done a lot of theater in L.A., Hyde Pierce has seen a lot and is, in fact, notable among his Hollywood peers for the number of opening nights he manages to attend in the city where theater is forever obscured by the brighter lights of "the industry."
"I go to a fair amount," he admits. "I just saw the Peter Hall Shakespeare plays. I don't go to movies a lot. I probably should. But if I find the time I'm more likely to go to something live.
"My perspective, which should count for nothing, is that if there's a problem with theater in L.A., the problem is not the productions. I've seen some fantastic productions here. It's that L.A. as a community doesn't seem to need theater as much as some other communities, like New York or Chicago. In some cities, if you said, 'You know what? We're going to close all the theaters,' people would say, 'Fine, we're out of here.' But in L.A. I think it would be less of a cataclysm than in other cities.
In talking about his pairing with Grammer on "Frasier" he brings the discussion back to the different demands and techniques of theater versus film.
"We're a little bit psychic about how each other works," he says, remarking on the oft-made observation that the two seem, on camera, as closely attuned to one another as real brothers. "I think whenever good acting happens, there's some kind of connection on that level. It's one of the things I find a little bit frustrating about film work. Which is that when film captures something amazing and spontaneous happening between people, that's great, but it's so often [he mimics a director] 'Now it's on your face and now it's on her face and we're going to use the take we shot yesterday of you,' and someone is actually sort of creating a spontaneous moment that didn't really happen. I understand that as a creative act, but it's not as much fun creatively for the actor."
Yet his life is full of movies at the moment, having just completed "Isn't She Great" (scenes with John Cleese, cast as a publisher) and also a dark comedy called "Shiny New Enemies" in which he manages to bed Claudia Schiffer. And he's lending his voice to two animated features: Disney's "Treasure Planet" and Warner Bros.' "Osmosis Jones," a buddy cop movie he's doing with Chris Rock.
On top of his triumph in "Frasier" it's enough to make the actor think twice about going out in public without taking precautions. Recently he attended the premiere of Steve Martin's "Bowfinger" at Universal and after parking the car realized that he had to pass through the crowd on CityWalk to get to the place where he was to pick up the tickets.
"People were taking pictures, coming up to me, crowding around and suddenly there was almost a feeling of panic, like what if this gets out of hand? But at the same time I'd be lying if I didn't say that the thought of walking through that crowd and having no one notice me would be profoundly depressing."
* * *
"The Boys From Syracuse," Freud Playhouse, UCLA (parking lot 3), Westwood, (310) 825-2101; (213) 365-3500. Opens Sept. 22. Regular schedule: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 3. $45-$50.
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