26 March 2013

Interview: Ed Dixon on His Memoir of a (Secret) Life in Theater

Ed Dixon has done so many things in show business — from acting on Broadway (15 shows so far) to composing opera — that it’s futile to try to invent some hyphenated descriptive phrase for him. So let us say simply that he is a Man of the Theater, in a way that very few others ever have been.

Meeting him a couple of months ago, I could hardly believe that our paths never crossed before — though I did once review a Kurt Weill show in which he appeared with his friend Bebe Neuwirth. Ed made his Broadway debut with my beloved Jack Gilford in No, No, Nanette; he opened the Kennedy Center in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, alongside two of Madeline Kahn’s favorite colleagues, Walter Willison (Two by Two) and Alan Titus (La Bohème), conducted by Maurice Peress, who led Madeline in Candide and Bohème.*

He got an important early break at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana, just down the road from Bass Hall, where I’ll make my debut with Fort Worth Opera in May. He starred in the most famous of all Weill revues, Berlin to Broadway; and he knows every corner of the 890 Studios, where we rehearsed Rags.

His colleagues include Terrence Mann and Joanna Glushak, who worked on Rags; my sometime workout buddy Hugh Panaro; and Christine Baranski, Madeline Gilford’s beloved neighbor — I could go on. Even some of Ed’s opera connections nearly intersect with mine, I realized as I read his recollections of the Oklahoma-born soprano Roberta Knie — my first Isolde — and his accounts of performing with Santa Fe Opera, where several of my friends have sung. Now I feel as if I’ve known Ed forever.

Les Miz Mister and Missus:
Ed and Jennifer Butt as the Thénardiers.

He’s written a memoir, Secrets of a Life on Stage … and Off, crammed with anecdote and incident, from his repressively religious Oklahoma childhood to success in New York. And there’s a stunning detour through substance addiction that found Ed living in his dressing room, then on a rock in Central Park — dodging bill collectors and drug thieves all the while — even as he played the juiciest role in Les Misérables, the hottest show in town.

That’s just one of the so-unbelievable-it-must-be-true stories that Ed shares. Take the onstage flameout of K.C. Townsend, a blonde bombshell in Nanette, which reads like the scenario of some melodramatic theatrical potboiler. And Ed’s got insights into everybody from Ann-Margret to Ben Vereen, from Birgit Nilsson to John Crosby. His portrait of his dear friend George Rose stands as the best monument I can imagine to the late, great character actor.

It’s clear to me that theater not only has defined but also has saved Ed Dixon’s life. First, by getting him out of his stifling boyhood environment, and most certainly later, by making him master of his own house.

The book is just one indication that Ed has bounced back, better than ever. The Signature Theater Company in Arlington, VA, has just announced a production of Ed’s musical, Cloak & Dagger, for next season. And when Ed spoke with me, he was in Denver, rehearsing a role for the world premiere of a musical adaptation of Sense & Sensibility at the city’s Center for the Performing Arts, with book and lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow and music by Neal Hampton.

Man of the Theater.

Q: What compelled you to write the book?

ED: I actually was compelled. It’s an idea that I’d had for a long time about writing about show business. My early days when I was with Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley and Bobby Van and Patsy Kelly — those stories were so amazing, and I told those stories over decades. Then opening the Kennedy Center and working with Leonard Bernstein. Those people are gone. And working with K.C. Townsend, I’ve never heard a story like that. And if I don’t tell the story, there’s no one else who can do it.

Then the amazing thing of me recovering from the worst situation imaginable and then having a better life than I had before. People don’t even know that’s possible. Things that happened are so unbelievable to me, even though I was there. It feels like a novella, and so there’s a part of me that wanted to do that.

Then I was having a sort of giant renaissance where everything was going full tilt in my life. Some friends met a well-known publishing person and she encouraged me, so that got me fired up. She turned out to be a complete flake. Another company got interested, but they wanted to take the rights. At this point it was a giant sprawling manuscript, it was hardly a book.

Recording Nanette: In the background, Jack Gilford, Ed, and Patsy Kelly. In the foreground, Ruby Keeler.

A writer and blogger named Nick Cavarra told me, “You have to write these stories down. I’m going to announce on my blog that you’re going to write this book, you’ll write a chapter every week, and I’ll publish it on my blog.”

My biggest concern was how to get through the early horrors of my life and get to the Broadway part. I’d hardly submit a big chapter before he’d say, “Where’s the next one?”

I knew the book wasn’t done, and I knew I needed an editor and I needed to interact with somebody about it. At one point, I hired two different editors. Both of them did things that didn’t help with the book. They changed the meaning or altered the intention of a particular line. I ended up having to go back and do it all over again, twice. Still it wasn’t a book.

North Texans know how awesome it is that Ed has worked at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana with the great Ruta Lee. He got his Equity card there in a show with Ruta in 1969, and years later returned with her in Best Little Whorehouse.

Then a woman offered — she had been at the helm of like forty large books. She said, “This is going to be a huge hit,” and she talked to me for about an hour and half about what it needed to be a book. She said, “Just give me $40 thousand.” I said, “Can’t you take it on the back end?” She said, “No, I need it up front.” That was the end of that conversation – and I paid for dinner! But I realized she’d just talked to me for an hour and a half and said some useful things. I sat down and started writing.

Around this time, I heard a famous writer on TV say that, from now on, he’s going to do nothing but self-publish. I started shopping around for the best self-publishing deal I could find. Dog Ear was the best deal I could find; it looked superior to everybody else. In the end, I got exactly the book I wanted. Still when I was ready to push the button and release the thing, I was in Mexico City with Mary Poppins, and I thought, “Are you really gonna do this?” I thought, “I’m 64 years old, why not?” And I just did it.

Such a cutie. Photo by George Rose himself.

Q: You’ve worked with dozens, even hundreds, of truly fascinating people.

ED: I’ve worked with everybody. I’ve done 15 Broadway shows, and two times I was in two different Broadway shows at the same time! The last time was last year. At this age, you’d think it wouldn’t be possible. At the same time, the Signature Theater is launching my most recent work: all their other writers are 24 years old, and they’re launching my new musical. It’s like a fairy tale, it’s fantastic.

Ed looked a little different as Max in Sunset Boulevard.

Q: There’s such a contrast in your story, because at the time you had a great part [Thénardier] in a hit musical that ran for years [Les Misérables], you were also going through the worst of your addiction.

ED: If it had been any other part, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but because of the nature of that devious destroyed Machiavellian character, I was able to bring my life experience to it. I was able to keep functioning.

Q: Do you think that was a blessing or a curse?

ED: Who knows? It’s done. This is the life I had. This was the hand I played, the hand I got. It’s what I did. It has made me who I am. Honestly, I do not regret. Within a year after it was over, I thought that was the greatest blessing of my life. My life had been assembled incorrectly. I blew up the whole thing, took every brick and rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up. If it had been any less serious situation, I would have continued as I had been put together. My life now is fantastic, it’s such a blessing. I’m surrounded by people who support me and care about me and offer me jobs and offer me situations. I’m in such a gracious place in my life. And it wouldn’t have been this way, otherwise.

With Kevin Spacey in the acclaimed revival of The Iceman Cometh.

Q: Much as Proust says the past has made him who he is.

ED: Besides, you know, there really isn’t an option this is the way it went, so that’s the way it was supposed to go.

Q: Tell me about Cloak & Dagger.

ED: When I saw The 39 Steps on Broadway, I thought, “Someone needs to take this concept of an extremely theatrical concept with no scenery, a man and a woman and two character men, and make it a musical.” I thought I would take The Maltese Falcon and treat it that way, in about a 90-minute musical. Then I found out it was almost impossible to get the rights, but I thought, “What the hell, I only need the bullet points.”

I came up with a down-and-out detective, a blonde bombshell, and then the two character men. We go uptown, downtown, Chinatown, every possible locale in New York City. It moves at a breakneck pace. The leading character, the detective, is narrating in a 1950s noir style, and then all it takes is a sign that says “Chinatown” and we can move so swiftly. The two character guys play all the other characters, many of whom are in drag, so it’s really fun.

It practically wrote it self. The entire time I wrote it, I was in Mary Poppins, and I had a long break between my scene in Act I and my scene in Act II. I wrote the entire book between scenes in my dressing room, with the Disney Company paying me. That was a very nice turn of events. Next door to me was Ruth Gottschall playing Miss Andrew, and now she’s with me in Sense & Sensibility, and we’re laughing because that piece that I wrote next door is now being done.

Coming soon to a theater near you.
(Or near me, anyway.)

Q: What makes a colleague memorable to you? So memorable that you wind up writing about her?

ED: Ones that really stand out for me are the ones that are loving. I’ve met so many loving people. There are people in the book that that’s not why I chose them – I chose them because they were so unbelievably theatrical, like that business with K.C. Townsend. That whole demise of hers. Was she a loving person? No. She wasn’t a mean person, but that’s not what drew me to her. It was the unbelievable way she ran her life so theatrically.

But somebody like Ann-Margret is such a loving, genuine person. Perhaps “genuine” is an even better word than “loving.” Or Charles Durning: he wasn’t cuddly, but he was so fucking genuine. The way he was, was the way he was. When you were with him, you knew you were with him.

Q: There’s always something so sly about Durning, something going on that we can’t see — except possibly when he dances the “Side Step” in Best Little Whorehouse.

ED: He told me he was so shocked that it took so long for [professional recognition] to happen to him. He had done all of the works of Shakespeare, and nobody knew who he was. When I told him about my drug addiction, I thought, “Oh, gee, I probably shouldn’t have said so much.” He paused and said, “Well, I went crazy!” It was the war!

In rehearsal, ready for his next entrance.

*NOTE: Ed didn’t know Madeline Kahn, but he’s been heroically helpful in tracking down interview subjects for the biography I’m writing.

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