One of the Good Guys
BRIAN KELLOW talks to George Dvorsky, one of the stars of the York Theater revival of Maltby and Shire's Closer Than Ever.
George Dvorsky has one of the best baritone voices in the musical-theater world now. His Broadway career has been spotty, including Stephen Sondheim's Passion and an unsuccessful revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with K.T. Sullivan. But he has become one of the busiest and most highly regarded singer-actors on the regional theater scene. Just two examples: in a 2005 production of On the Twentieth Century, opposite Alice Ripley at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theater, he was an ideal vain, cutthroat Oscar Jaffe; in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 2006, he made a sexy, charismatic Adam and brought the score thrillingly to life. With his innate charm and remarkable ability to inhabit a song, he has also become a great favorite with symphony orchestras around the country. In June, he returned to New York, earning excellent reviews in the York Theater's revival of Closer Than Ever, Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire's classic 1989 revue about real, grown-up life.
ON: When you were growing up in Pittsburgh, did you perform a great deal?
GD: No. I played football. I broke my arm in my ninth-grade year. And I needed something else to do to occupy my time so I joined a choir. I didn't want to rehearse. I didn't want to practice at home, because I didn't want my family to hear. My father was the singer in the family. And the night of the Christmas concert he went from work right into the hospital because his blood pressure shot up. So my sister came to the concert and taped my solo, and the next morning as we were taking it down for him to hear, he died before we got there. I was fourteen. He was forty-eight. So my dad never got to hear me sing, so I do "If I Sing" in Closer Than Ever for him.
ON: Was it strange when you turned forty-eight?
GD: Awful. My dad was the youngest of five kids. His father was the youngest of five, and he died early. I'm the youngest of five. I was doing It's a Wonderful Life in Houston at Christmas, and we buried my Dad Christmas Eve, and I thought, this is really weird — something is going to happen in my forty-eighth year at Christmas. The New Year's Eve of 2010, I thought, I made it — I made it past that deadline.
ON: How did your voice assemble itself?
GD: I've always had a natural voice. I didn't study until I came to New York in 1979. The teacher I found was named Twil Leipzig. I was with her for almost twenty years. She passed away about ten years ago, and I went to a couple of different people.
I wanted to be a pop singer. I always had that top. When I got with Twil, she said, "You're a baritone," so I developed this baritone sound, and those notes to do stuff on Broadway, because back then they wanted baritones, not tenors.
ON: But you still have your top.
GD: It's not real legit-sounding up there. It's not covered.
ON: You landed on Broadway right in the middle of the Age of Sondheim. Did you envision yourself being a Sondheim singer?
GD: No. For the longest time I felt that Sondheim was too sophisticated for my ear. I thought he was brilliant, and I loved the lyrics, and I didn't get the music. Then I did a concert of his music and came to appreciate what he does. I was a Rodgers and Hammerstein baby.
ON: I saw you as Prince Charming in Cinderella at New York City Opera. Is that a tough role to do when you're up there with so many scene-stealing character performers? I saw you in the version with Ana Gasteyer, Eartha Kitt, Lea DeLaria.
GD: No, because I couldn't wait to do it. I had grown up with the Lesley Anne Warren TV version. I was thrilled to be the first person in New York to play it onstage. The first year I did it [at NYCO in 1993], Sally Ann Howes was the Godmother, Nancy Marchand was the Stepmother and George S. Irving and Maria Karnilova were the King and Queen. I was thrilled to work with them, and thrilled to be the first Prince in New York.
ON: Practically every singer I've ever talked to has a story about someone early on — a teacher or a director or competition judge — who says, "You'll never do it. You haven't got it."
GD: Albert Hague [composer of Plain and Fancy and teacher of a famous song-interpretation class]. I went in to audition for his class, and he said, "Do you think you have an indoor theater voice or an outdoor theater voice? I didn't know what the question meant. I thought, I'm going to saying, "Indoors." He said, "No. You have to go outdoors. A musical of Tobacco Road would be for you. You cannot sing. You don't have a voice. You will never carry." I went home and called my mother and said, "I'm coming back home." But by the end of my scheduled time with him, I was one of his prize pupils, because he broke me down and built me back up. I didn't realize that the first time I was in there, because I was a twenty-one-year-old kid, and he ripped me a new one. I was devastated. Because I knew I could sing. It took me a while to get over it. I would audition for things and think I was just horrible.
ON: Do you still have trouble auditioning?
GD: Yeah. I don't audition well. I'm lucky that I work as much as I do because of my reputation. Auditions don't get me many jobs. I get nervous. And being from Pittsburgh, I rush [my words]. With singing, you have to sing in a meter, and when you're speaking, you don't always have to do that, and I've learned to do that. It was hard for me, because of the way I grew up speaking in Pittsburgh, and the fact that I stuttered as a child. But singing was always easier because of the structure. Maureen Moore coached me for The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was standby for Douglas Sills. They hired me a month into rehearsal, so there was no time for me to rehearse. I hired Maureen to coach me. The day we finished the script, I had to go on for him the next day. One thing I still have is a swallowed "l," and that gets you in trouble because if you swallow your "l" your next few words are stuck back there and you have to spit them out and trip over them.
ON: When you were in the Broadway cast of Sondheim's Passion, could you feel, from the stage, that it was a rather difficult show for much of the audience?
GD: In rehearsal, it was so revered, and we would all get there and do our job. We could invite one person to the gypsy run-through, and my friend Susan came and said, "Oh, my God — it's such an emotional piece." We got to the theater, and we had our invited dress, and people were laughing at it. And in the Christmas scene near the end, when Fosca faints, people laughed out loud, and you could see everyone onstage tense up. These are our friends — so what's the paying public going to do? At the next night's performance, the first preview, they laughed even harder. There was one night when Fosca's on the hill and Giorgio comes up and they have the big fight and it starts to rain, and Giorgio starts walking down the ramp. The audience starts to applaud. He turned around to go back and get her, and the other part of the audience started to applaud. The audience members became hostile to each other, because some were rooting for him and some for her. I've never seen that happen. People either loved it or hated it.
ON: You've always been able to dance well, too.
GD: My first Broadway show was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I did the national company for a year and came back to the Broadway company and closed the show. Alexis Smith was Miss Mona in the tour. I learned something from her. When she came to the theater, there would be people standing there for Playbills and memorabilia, and she would say, "Come back after the show," and she would wait until the last person was finished. I said, "I can't believe you do this," and she said, "George, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for those people." If she was invited to a party or an event and the rest of us weren't, she wouldn't go. She was a real team player.
ON: So many careers in show business, however gratifying they are, have a certain two-steps-forward, one-step back rhythm. How much resemblance does your career have to what you thought it would be like?
GD: It's funny, because I always said I didn't want to be famous. I wanted to be respected and work. I should have set my sights a little higher! (Laughs) I got my wish. People invite me back a lot to the theaters, so I have a good reputation. I reached that goal. But I should have aimed for something much higher. I'm thrilled to be back in New York working. That has been a little more elusive than I thought it would be. I used to think, once you work in the city, you stay in the city. When I audition for things, they always say to my agent that I'm old musical theater. I don't get seen for contemporary stuff, because they think I sound too "legit." Their word is "legit." But they don't know that I grew up singing pop music, and I can sing that if I want to.
ON: Has anyone tried to press you to be more "legit" — like toward being an operetta star?
GD: Michael Tilson Thomas, when I auditioned for Let 'Em Cake in 1987. At my audition, he said, "You're not related to Peter Dvorsky, are you? If so, I hope you haven't inherited his tardiness." But then he said, "You're wasting your time in musical theater. You should be a Mozart tenor." At that time, I didn't know much about a Mozart tenor. I had not grown up with classical music. I grew up with show music. I didn't know what he was talking about until I worked with Twil and she let me do a few arias, and I thought, "Okay, now I get it."
ON: You worked with John McGlinn. You must have stories about his exacting nature.
GD: Of course. Rebecca Luker and I did an NPR show about Jerome Kern, and John had me sing "The Way You Look Tonight" his way. I said, "Can I please do it my way just for a second?" So he let me sing it with some back-phrasing in it, and Teri Gross asked, "How do you correct that?" He said, "Nothing that a rolled-up paper and a sharp blow to the snout couldn't fix." But he was good training for Sondheim, where you have to sing so you can get everything in. I think John helped me to be a clean singer.
ON: Some people think that when it comes to a Broadway career, a wild, individual talent isn't as important as being able to show up on time and do the work.
GD: This may not answer your question, but I have done so much regional work that when I am working in New York, it's surprising to me the lack of professionalism and work ethic in a lot of people in New York. When you're working regionally, your only purpose is to be at that theater and do that show. In New York, there's so much going on with people's families and other things that sometimes the focus is dissipated and the performances not as great as I think they should be. When I see Broadway stars walk through something because they have other things on their mind, it baffles me.
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