Douglas Sills Stars as Gomez
by Anthony Chase
Some people may find it peculiar to hear that Douglas Sills, the actor currently playing Gomez Addams in The Addams Family at Shea’s, is a Broadway star—but he is. He was Broadway’s Scarlet Pimpernel; his face, hiding behind his leather-gloved and bejeweled hand graced billboards and the sides of busses all over Manhattan. He even has a Tony nomination and a base of fans who devotedly follow him around the country. And trust me, he has no difficulty getting a good table at Sardi’s, even on a busy night—probably right near his caricature.
If he’s such a star, why haven’t you heard of him?
You would have if, like the stars of yesteryear, he’d been able to strut his stuff on The Ed Sullivan Show, entering millions of American living rooms on a Sunday night, or if Buffalo’s Erlanger’s Theatre still hosted national tours of every major star of the stage from Katharine Cornell to Basil Rathbone, from Ethel Barrymore to Tallulah Bankhead.
The world has changed. Ed Sullivan went off the air in 1971, and Rosie O’Donnell just hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. Like many a touring theater from coast to coast, the Erlanger has been torn down and the new court house stands in its place. (Significantly, the very first Ed Sullivan broadcast in 1948 featured Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II giving America a sneak preview of their brand new score to a show called South Pacific that would open on Broadway the following year.)
But this week, for one week only, Shea’s is host to some of Broadway’s very best—Douglas Sills among them—in a revamped version of the delightfully silly musical, The Addams Family.
To be honest, Sills himself is a bit surprised to be coming to Buffalo. When he was approached to play Gomez on tour, the dashing blond leading man was notably nonplussed.
“I am not typically considered to replace Nathan Lane,” quips Sills dryly, referring to the portly and comical character actor and star of stage and screen who originated the role on Broadway.
It turns out, however, that the producers were looking to take the show in a markedly different direction for the tour. The creators had based Gomez on cartoonist Charles Addams’s original depiction of the character in The New Yorker magazine, with bits of the Gomez made famous on television in the 1960s by John Astin. Focus groups, however, revealed that the version of Gomez most familiar to potential audiences was actually Raul Julia’s portrayal in the movies.
“They concluded from that,” explains Sills, “that there was a great deal of elasticity in terms of different ways to play the character.”
In addition, the producers knew that they wanted to make major changes to the show, which had received a tepid critical reception in New York. They needed an experienced stage actor who could collaborate with director Jerry Zaks. Despite a resume that features Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and a bevy of musicals, Sills is actually a classically trained actor who studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“We would have three shows in the repertoire at one time,” says Sills. “I actually enjoy refining a role and shifting gears that way. My idols are Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and those guys. So when we began to rehearse The Addams Family and we were getting new pages every day and sometimes twice a day, I was delighted. That’s fun for me.”
So it was back to the drawing board for Gomez, and the producers knew they had their man in Sills. In addition, the actor had worked with Zaks before, when Little Shop of Horrors was revamped for Broadway.
For the tour, The Addams Family has some new songs and a new ending. A preposterous climax involving a giant squid puppet is out. The evening’s rousing show-stopper no longer goes to a minor character. The focus is much more firmly on Gomez and Morticia, and their legendarily strong bond.
The revamped show opened at Shea’s on Tuesday and was embraced by a voraciously enthusiastic audience.
Indeed, the show has been transformed. A chorus of nondescript, 19th-century ghouls who formerly boogied in the background is now more fully integrated into the plot. The script has been enlivened with more of the acerbic wit famous from Charles Addams’s cartoons and the equally urbane television version of the Addams clan. Wednesday’s advancement into adulthood is fully motivated. Most importantly, the grand passion of Gomez and Morticia is center stage.
As played by Sills, Gomez is not merely taller, more handsome, sexier, and more Spanish than before, he is also as dashing and romantic and deranged as the love child of Antonio Banderas and Jerry Lewis—if that were possible—with a touch of Errol Flynn tossed in. He is decidedly the anchor of this show, scrumptiously complemented by the wit and charm of lovely Sara Gettelfinger as Morticia, an actress who also has an armload of important roles to her credit, including the original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway, and Little Edie Beale in the world premiere of Grey Gardens.
In fact, the Addams Family house has been so totally and so satisfyingly remodeled that you’ve got to wonder why this version doesn’t replace the Broadway production, set to close on New Year’s Eve.
“That actually was the original plan,” says Sills. “But they determined that the Broadway production has played out its lifespan.”
Pity. Seeing another Broadway show through from ordinary to cult favorite would have been a distinction for Sills, who did the same kind of work on The Scarlet Pimpernel.
“That’s true,” says Sills. “When Pimpernel opened, I got good reviews but the show didn’t fare as well. Fans loved the show, so we did revisions and kept it going.”
In fact, new producers were brought on. They changed directors and there were cast changes. The show switched theaters. Sills remained as the star.
“I was in Pimpernel 1.0 and 2.0. Then when we moved, I took a break. I came back for the national tour, through Los Angeles, so I also did 4.0.”
The fans of Pimpernel, known as “The League,” were famous. They saw the show repeatedly, assembled as the stage door daily, and followed the show on tour. Among them was Mary Oshei, now Shea’s corporate and group sales specialist.
“I was staying in New York,” recalls Oshei, “because my uncle had recently died. I wanted to see The Scarlet Pimpernel, but the friend who was supposed to go with me backed out. I went alone. From the first horn section of the score, I was enthralled. And I was mesmerized by Douglas Sills’s performance. When I got home to Buffalo, I told my mother about the show and I just kept talking about it and talking about it. Finally, she asked me, ‘Why don’t you go see it again?’”
Oshei was startled by the suggestion.
“It had never occurred to me to see any show more than once! Of course I could see it again!”
Oshei did see Douglas Sills in The Scarlet Pimpernel again. And again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. And so did numerous other fans. In time, these fans came to recognize each other and to know each other.
“Nineteen-ninety-seven was at the beginning of the internet and social networking,” observes Oshei. “It was the first time that fans realized we could circumvent the critics if we believed in a show and supported it.”
Indeed, The Scarlett Pimpernel inspired a reevaluation of the very role of critics. The shifting landscape of criticism today can, in part, be traced back to the Pimpernel phenomenon.
“I wasn’t on the internet yet,” says Oshei, “but other people were. I remember walking into the breezeway at the Minskoff Theatre and seeing what looked like a large theater party of people with name tags. I asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ and someone said, ‘Those are the Pimpernel fans,’ and I said, ‘But I know the Pimpernel fans,’ and they said, ‘Those are the internet fans.’”
The world was changing again.
The Scarlett Pimpernel taught Oshei a great deal about Broadway and actually gave her a career. (Interestingly, when Sills himself got the role, he was thinking about leaving acting to go to law school, so the show changed his life too). She would fly to New York on a Friday and see every weekend show. One weekend she flew in, only to learn that Sills was not performing. His standby, Brian Batt was going on. Oshei was hugely disappointed, but dejectedly resigned herself to seeing the performance anyway with an actor she viewed as an impostor.
“I learned a valuable lesson,” says Oshei. “Brian Batt was wonderful, and brought his own personality to the role. I’m still a Douglas Sills fan, but I had to admit, Brian Batt is pretty special, and now he’s gone on to be in Mad Men and is a star too. I will never underestimate a replacement again.”
Oshei moved to New York and actually got a job doing group sales with the Shubert Organization. When she decided to return to Buffalo, she was an obvious choice for a similar position at Shea’s.
She has many entertaining anecdotes about following The Scarlett Pimpernel on tour. On one stop, enough members of the league of fans were present to fill every front row seat. At the final performance each held up a sign with a letter on it so they spelled out: S-E-E Y-O-U I-N P-H-I-L-L-Y.
“The cast went crazy,” recalls Oshei. “They got cameras and were taking pictures of us!”
Where was Mary Oshei on the opening night of The Addams Family at Shea’s? Just where you’d expect: in the front row! Yes, Douglas Sills noticed that she was there.
The Addams Family continues at Shea’s through Sunday.
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