(March 9, 2007)

David Hyde Pierce is Back on Broadway

This is the sixth installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

David Hyde Pierce phoned the morning after the first preview performance of "Curtains," the Kander & Ebb murder-mystery musical comedy set to open March 22 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

A four-time Emmy winner for "Frasier," Hyde Pierce plays Boston police Lt. Frank Cioffi in "Curtains."

How'd it go?

Really well. They went nuts.

(Director) Scott (Ellis) said he had no idea how the audience would respond to the show in L.A. until a minute into the show, when they laughed, and he knew the show was going to be fine.

That's the same way it was with "Spamalot" out of town in Chicago. You don't know, until you put it in front of an audience. Because ... you have no perspective. Sometimes, it's not just the audience's reaction. It's you yourself, as a director, say, being in the context of an audience. Suddenly, you instantly see it through their eyes.

Like when you have company coming and you didn't notice that your house is a mess?

(Deadpans.) I have no idea what you're talking about. (Pause.) Yes, it's exactly like that.

Will there be changes already?

Absolutely. We have a luxurious problem, which is we need to cut stuff. But we don't have to cut anything because it's bad. We just have to cut it because we want the show to come in at a good, short, brisk time.

Otherwise the band leaves?

Not that so much. It has to do with cutting out the stuff that's only great.

As opposed to?

As opposed to beyond belief. We want it all to be beyond belief.

You're just about to open. And ("Frasier" co-star) John Mahoney is coming in in "Prelude to a Kiss."

Yes, I've heard this.

And Kelsey Grammer plays Henry Higgins at the New York Philharmonic.

How about that?

When does Peri Gilpin start in "Mary Poppins"?

I think she's going to go straight to the Met. And Jane Leeves is going to take over "The View." We're just sort of gradually moving into Manhattan.

How does it feel to be back on Broadway?

It's great to be back. Monday night, a bunch of people from the ensemble of "Spamalot" and some of the crew people saw an invited (unofficial) preview. I got great, insane phone messages from them afterwards. It's such a close-knit bunch, this whole Broadway theater thing.

What's it like to have people writing a part just for you?

I guess it's like having played Niles - that nobody else did it before. But it's not something, honestly, that you feel as you're doing it.

(Book writer) Rupert Holmes said that when you give him notes or suggestions, they are always right on the money.

Rupert is extremely brilliant and funny and smart and a terrific writer. He's not egoless, but he has no ego when it comes to making a moment work. ... And he'll spend as much time on a word, whether something should be a "but" or an "and." As an actor, those things make a world of difference.

When you read "Curtains" the first time, did you know whodunnit?

Let me think. ... I was probably just reading my lines. ... No. I didn't. But I'm also terrible at mysteries. I never get it. So I'm not a good judge.

Even with your background in law enforcement? Weren't you a security guard at one point?

Yeah, you would think that would have helped. There wasn't a lot of mystery there. I was a guard at a performing arts center.

Tell me about Frank Cioffi. What's he like to play?

I can't say it's the best character I've ever gotten to play, because that seems unfair to the other characters. But I cannot imagine having a better time. I feel like the character fits me like a glove, but it's also not the sort of thing I usually play. Which is great. They've given the leading-man part to someone who is, essentially, a character actor.

The whole dynamic of the character, that he's a Boston police lieutenant who has this secret love of musical theater — whenever I say that much to someone, they usually laugh, immediately. There's something so great about that mixture.

What, besides whodunit, have you learned from Frank?

Mainly you learn about yourself.

He looks a lot like you.

So much so, it's scary sometimes, like a younger version of me.

What he gets to do is he comes from the outside into this world that he's always loved and admired and been in awe of and gets to — through the magic of circumstance — be a part of and be included and embraced by it. Which is exactly how I feel coming into a Broadway musical.

You're in good hands here.

Fortunately, the people writing this piece have been around. So when they portray the theater and the people of the theater, they are portraying it with a great deal of affection and love. But it's not "Hey kids! Let's put on a show!" kind of naïve cutesy theater. These (characters) are people for whom getting a show right is as important or perhaps more important as the fact that someone happened to have died.

Which is possibly an exaggeration of what it's really like in the theater, but possibly not. It's sort of the dark side of "the show must go on."

Kind of Kander & Ebb take on it.

Exactly.

(Choreographer) Rob (Ashford) is convinced you're going to surprise people with your dancing. He said, "I've never known anyone who you can describe something to ... with words and he can process it and then do it physically. His brain is so geared toward the brain of a dancer that it makes it so easy to create for him."

Wow! All he ever says to me is "point your foot." ... Between him and his assistants, JoAnn and David, and also you have to credit people like David Chase, who's the dance arranger, and Bill Brohn the orchestrator, all of those elements conspire to make you feel like a dancer. Because I'm doing this backwards."

How so?

"I'm learning the choreography first and then learning how to dance, as opposed to the people who learned to dance at age 3 and then a choreographer works with them. And Rob is a great choreographer who knows what works with what kind of dancer."

Are there times you wish you were still a mover, not a dancer?

"Never. As long as I live, I will never be as happy as when I'm dancing that dance. And he gave me Jill Paice to dance with. She's amazing."

She's a real dancer.

"Not only is she a real dancer, she's a real sport. In the course of these rehearsals, she's been stepped on, groped and flung in ways that no human being should put up with. But she always came back."