Interview with Nan Knighton
This is the part two of the interview with Nan Knighton. If you haven't already, read the first part.
In this section, Nan told me about her tireless efforts to keep the show alive. Believe me, she is someone you want fighting on your side!
NR: In the CD liner notes, you talked about Douglas' (Sills) audition. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
NK: We were really beginning to get a little nervous because we weren't finding Percy. It's a very hard role to play. To ask somebody to be hysterically funny, which was always my number one thing that I would look for, and a hero who you believe can have the utter loyalty and devotion of all these men, AND romantic, and have some edge, and be able to sing Frank Wildhorn songs - it's a daunting thing. Over and over again, we'd seen someone who was a great hero and sang well but he wasn't funny, or somebody who was really funny but he couldn't sing. That's why we went out to L.A. Originally, we weren't even going to go to L.A. to cast. We went out there for two days and we were given a list of all the people who were going to come in. His name was on the list and none of us had ever heard of him. We didn't know who he was. He walks into the room in this blue shirt, this gorgeous blue shirt, and came right over to us, smiling, and stuck his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Douglas" and shook hands with all of us. Right away, he lit up the room immediately, just being "him." He was just charming and handsome. I know I've mentioned that before and he's TOTALLY obnoxious about it, but he knows that I think he's handsome.
He had come in prepared to do both Chauvelin and Percy. Actually, part of my notes that I have from him that day are that I'd like to hear him do Chauvelin, because Douglas does have an "edgy, dark side" to him that I felt like I saw that day, but he was so wonderful as Percy that we never got to the stage of having him do Chauvelin. I can't remember what song he sang first. I think he sang a Wildhorn ballad.
NR: I think he said he sang "Someone Like You." He didn't know it was written for a woman.
NK: Yeah, and Frank had never heard a man sing it before, but Frank was quite taken with that. So, we knew from that, "OK, guy can sing, sings really nicely." Then he sang, "Into the Fire" and then we started to get excited because he really sang the hell out of it. So, then it was like, "OK, now let's hear you read." At each stage, we would all take a deep breath - Peter (Hunt) and Frank and I, as well as Douglas on his side, because all of us knew as we went from one stage to another to another that this was looking good.
NR: Really? Douglas knew that too?
NK: Yes, I'm sure he could tell. Somebody who auditions that much, you get to know the feel of an audition. If you're auditioning for a lead role and you're in and out of there in 15 minutes you know that you're being considered but that nobody was blown away. By this point Douglas had been in the room 15 minutes and we were asking him to go on, so he knew, as well as we knew, that we were really interested. So, then he did a comic scene and we all were hysterical, and that's when I became really excited because that to me was always the toughest thing, to find somebody who could be funny too. I knew that the show I had written would not work unless we had a really funny person. So, he was incredibly funny and then we had him do one more scene. I think we had him read three scenes, and I think he ended up singing three songs and we were all a little breathless at the end of it, because we all, including Douglas, were getting excited about this. I think he was in the room over half an hour, maybe 35 minutes, which is very unusual. When he left, he said, "I just want to tell you that when I was a kid..." - you know that story he's probably told you about his childhood thing.
NR: Oh, yes, he's told me. (Nan was referring to Douglas' famous "Leslie Howard" story. If you're not familiar with it, you can read it in my interview with him on Talkin' Broadway.)
NK: So, he said, "I would really love to do this, but even if I don't get it, I'm going to be there opening night because I want to see it." We were all charmed by him. We loved him. He walked out of the room and we all looked at each other and said, "I think we just found the Scarlet Pimpernel." And then of course you second guess yourself because none of us had ever heard of him before. We thought, "Well, if he really is the star we think he is, why has he never done anything before?" And so, we kept calling him back. We called him into New York. He walked into the Houseman Theater and I was standing outside having a cigarette with Julie Hughes and he walked in and I said, "Oh, good, you're wearing the same blue shirt!" because I wanted him to be exactly like he'd been in L.A. And I said, "Just do everything EXACTLY the way you did it in L.A." and he said, "Oh, thank you. Thank you so much." (pretty much indicating how much pressure THAT statement had put on him.) Altogether I think we flew him in three times because we kept second guessing ourselves. We'd see him and we'd say, "He's perfect" and then we would say, "Are we crazy?" Then, finally, Bill Haber flew him in as a surprise for one last time. He didn't tell us and it was a really smart thing to do because it was the moment when we all decided that this was the guy and did it. It was just so clear from the very first day of rehearsal, from the very first time the whole cast sat around and read the play and everyone was hysterical at Douglas. It was just so clear that we'd made the right decision.
NR: James Judy told me you were all rewriting scenes from the very beginning.
NK: I have rewritten this show so much, you have no idea. I am one of these people who believes it can always get better. I don't care what it is. I don't care if it's The Iceman Cometh, it can always get better. What you need with somebody like me is you need somebody to come along and say, "All right, now you CANNOT rewrite it anymore" because otherwise I'll just keep rewriting till the cows come home.
NR: James told me that the cast would come offstage and you would all come up with a few more lines and then they'd run back out.
NK: I was just always rewriting. I would say through both productions, particularly the first one I remember, I was so exhausted. I had no idea what it would be like to be in rehearsal all day and then I would go home every night and do rewrites. You do a lot of adjusting around your actors. Like, in Douglas' case, it was obvious that he was so funny, that I would give him even more that was funny. I would often test out laugh lines on him. Sometimes he would come up with a laugh line.
NK: Exactly. Right.
NR: Now, how did you feel about that?
NK: Douglas tends to, on occasion, ad lib. He of course has been reined in now, but in the first production...My attitude was always, with Douglas, and only with Douglas, (I don't think I would feel this way about another actor because he is so quick on his feet and he is so naturally funny) that I always would listen to what the ad lib was, and then I would make a decision as to whether I wanted it in or not. Often I didn't. Often it just wasn't right, but sometimes I did. What I usually did was take what he had ad libbed and refine it. For example, the thing where he now says, "Please give warning before you heave about like that" - that stemmed from an ad lib of his but the initial ad lib was something like, "Please don't do that." Then I said, "No, I want it to be, `Please give warning before you heave about' and he said, `Why do you want that?' and I said, `If you're going to do it, let's do it right.'" and in fact that did get more laughs than just "Please don't do that." Then I took the "all that black" stuff and I listened to what he was ad libbing and then I refined that. So, every time he would do an ad lib that I knew I wanted, I would take it off and fiddle with it. But, there's at least one line that he suggested to me and it's one of my favorite lines in the show. I don't know if anybody ever even hears it because he's so out of breath when he says it and the mike isn't up high enough, but it's at the very end when he goes onto the boat and he stands behind her and he says, "Lady Blakeney, your husband would not have left you had he known about your past." Douglas suggested that line. I was in his dressing room one day in rehearsal and I was saying, "I want him to stand behind her as the Pimpernel." I wanted to recall to the audience that moment when he stood behind her on the footbridge and I want him to say, "Lady Blakeney, something" so that we go back to that moment, and he started just reeling off things and he said, "Lady Blakeney, your husband would not have left you..." and I just said, "That's it." That line was "pure him."
What I ended up doing with the ad libs for the second production was to go through very carefully and decide once and for all what ad libs were in and what were out, because Bobby (Longbottom) is a very different director and the whole production was becoming much more structured and it just wasn't going to work anymore to never know what Douglas was going to do. So, it was really a case of deciding once and for all what was in and what was out.
Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.
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