The actor/singer Howard McGillin opened this season at the George Street Playhouse in the musical “It Shoulda Been You” and now stars in the season closer, “The 39 Steps,” playing through May 20. As the central character Richard Hanay, he spends the entire play running from the police who think he committed a gruesome murder and the Nazis who think he has secret documents. As McGillin describes the play, “It’s a sunny send up of the old Hitchcock film.”
During a rehearsal break at George Street, I talked by phone with McGillin, who describes his goal as an actor in this play as “to have fun, make the audiences laugh, yet make the character so believable that the audience roots for him as the stakes are incredibly high. It’s life and death. I play it as real as I can, and the audiences go along for the ride. It’s fun and thrilling.”
The 1935 movie “The 39 Steps” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early film successes, a story of intrigue and mystery. It became the jumping off point for a stage version that follows the general story line of the film but adds a lot of humor and general mayhem as three actors play multiple roles with little help “except for a few props and lots of ingenuity.” McGillin is the only actor in the play who plays only one character, who is, as he describes him, “the through-line of the play.”
And this is the hardest part of his job, the physical action. After all, the character is running —- and in a winter overcoat. He played the role a few years ago at a summer theater in Cape Cod and reports that he lost 10 pounds doing the show. Since it was early in rehearsals when we talked, he looks forward to the luxury of having a “proper rehearsal time” and to revisiting the play.
The stamina to do this should not be a problem for McGillin as he has done numerous leading roles. Most famously, he has played more Broadway performances as the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” than any other actor. Over a period of 10 years he appeared in 2,544 performances. “It was quite exhausting but extremely rewarding,” he reports. “It was a great paycheck and so satisfying to play that part. People love that show so much. It was great to be a part of it.”
Though McGillin lives in New York City with his partner and their dog, Noah, he has spent of lot of the past year in New Jersey. In addition to the two George Street shows, he played the devil Applegate in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Damn Yankees.”
He tends to “bookend” things. He made his stage debut in a high school production of “Damn Yankees,” then as young Joe Hardy. That was in Santa Barbara, California, where he grew up, the youngest of four boys. His introduction to theater had been while he was playing clarinet in the pit for his high school’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
“My oldest brother played the lead, Captain Von Trapp. I sat there during rehearsal, looking up at the stage and thinking ‘that looks like a lot of fun.’” The next year, he was the one on stage. “My brother’s an attorney now, but sometimes I think he wishes he’d given it another go. I got the acting bug and have been at it ever since.”
He began his career in California but came to New York in the 1980s. He soon had his first role and has been consistently busy ever since. I saw his first two New York performances, first opposite Linda Ronstadt in the Public Theatre’s production of “La Boheme,” then as John Jasper in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” at the New York Shakespeare Festival. It then moved to Broadway, where it won four 1986 Tony Awards. McGillin got his first Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. His other Tony nomination was for the 1987-’89 revival of “Anything Goes” as Best Actor in a Musical. His other Broadway shows include: “The Secret Garden,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” and revivals of “She Loves Me” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”
I surprised him when I said that I also saw his performance in the Stephen Sonheim/John Weidman musical of several names and incarnations. First it was workshopped in New York under one title, “Wise Guys,” finally debuting Off Broadway as “Road Show.” When I saw it in Chicago, it was called “Bounce” —-and went on to Washington, DC, under that title.
With a glorious voice that we won’t hear in “The 39 Steps” (though he does whistle) he has also done a lot of voice work for animated feature films. Many will remember his rendition of “La Resistance” as performed by the kid who gets up on a soap box to sing in the movie “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” “It’s a take off of ‘Les Miz,’” he tells me. “More theater goers are impressed with that credit.”
His parents eventually were impressed with his theater work but had been adamantly against it when he started out. His mother was in nursing administration and taught at a junior college; his father, an accountant. They insisted that he go to college, so he went to the University of California in Santa Barbara where he majored in history. Not a bad choice, considering all the historical musicals in which he’s appeared. While in college, he took singing and acting lessons as well as performing in shows. “The degree was a nod to my mom. ‘OK I’ll get this degree,’ but I knew I really wanted to be an actor.” McGillin has two grown sons in “more acceptable fields.” One is in computer software, the other working on a degree in accounting.
With perhaps some time off this summer, he would like to go to the beach and travel a bit, but come September, he will be back to work in the Broadway production of the musical “Rebecca.” Another bookend: movie buffs remember the 1940 Hitchcock version of the Du Maurier romantic, mystery thriller novel. The musical was first produced in Vienna in 2006. Other international productions followed, and now after a rocky road to put the financing in place, which, according to a New York Times article, will be another big extravaganza with a major investment. The original book was written and adapted by Michael Kunze and was translated by the Academy Award-winning Christopher Hampton. They have both collaborated on the English lyrics, and with a score by Sylvester Levay.
When McGillin was young, one of his favorite sports was long-distance swimming. He credits it with the beginning of his development of stamina. “It builds up your lungs. I’ve been so lucky to have these many shows, and the long runs.” Fortunately, another favorite pastime is very portable: doing crossword puzzles. “I won’t let it go until I solve it or am absolutely stumped.” Both have come in handy as he goes from one show to the next.
‘The 39 Steps,’ George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tuesday, April 24, through Sunday, May 20. $25 to $62. www.gsponline.org or 732-246-7717.