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An Interview With...Gene Vitale
STARTING OUT

How did you get started in theater?
My high school had just done "Bye Bye Birdie" and the cast was asked to perform "The Telephone Hour" in the upcoming Spring Concert.  I had never been onstage before yet two of my friends (who were in the show) taught me the song and actually sneaked me onto the stage for the performance.  The feeling of being up there looking into the audience was amazing and I don't have to tell any of you what the applause did to me!  I was hooked and have been performing ever since (that was 1980 by the way!)

What was the first play you ever saw?
In 1978, I saw a Community theater production of GODSPELL, my High School production of THE WIZARD OF OZ and my first Broadway show, THE WIZ.  I remember the year - can't remember which was actually my first.

Ever performed in?
My very first role was in high school: Lun Tha in "The King & I", 1981.

Did you study acting?
I have no formal training.  Just experience!


GETTING IN

How do you choose what play you will audition for?  The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
Yes to all the above!

Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
EEEK!  Did someone say pre-casting?  Actually, I have been both pre-cast and the "victim" of pre-casting.  A prior interviewee (I forget who) said "its a necessary evil" which is kind of true.  (Having directed and stage managed as well, I can say it does help in certain situations).  What really irks me is when auditioners are far better suited for a certain role
than the "pre-cast" performer.

What types of parts do you normally play?  Do you feel typecast?
Until recently, I had always played the good guy: husbands, boyfriends, a prince, a baseball player, a track coach, cowboys, "every man", the troubled guy, the best friend, etc.  In the summer of 2001 I appeared in the L.I. premier of PARADE at CAP center and got the chance to play the bad guy: a southern son-of-a-bitch tough-talking prosecuting attorney.  It was
one of my most enjoyable roles and I would love to play another bad guy.


CHARACTERIZATION

What is your approach to developing your character?
OH boy!  Well it took me years to realize that the spoken word is not the most important thing!  Characterization is all about intention, body language, and conveying to the audience your character's wants and needs in the 2-3 hours you are allotted.  All for now - this is a HUGE subject.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
I have been extremely fortunate to have played most (not all) of my dream roles so this is a hard one.

I guess Bobby in COMPANY is my favorite.  He is very much like me, confused and unsure about his future yet all his friends admire him and look to him for guidance when he is no better off than they are.  He's a good guy who just wants to be happy!  And WHAT a role for an actor!  Six songs (we did the revival book which included the previously cut "Marry Me A Little" at the end of Act I), and virtually NEVER offstage for the entire show, moving
seamlessly from scene to scene.  Yes, definitely high on my list.

What do you think were your best roles?  your worst?
BEST: Joe in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, Nick in BABY, Rapunzel's Prince in INTO
THE WOODS,  Hugh Dorsey in PARADE, Bobby in COMPANY, Lun Tha in my 2nd KING
& I (not the High School one!), Harry Binion in ROOM SERVICE and Peron in EVITA.
WORST: Curly in OKLAHOMA! (I was in high school!), and Paul in CARNIVAL (at 27 I was too young for such a complex character!)

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why?  How well do you think you met the challenge?
Paul in CARNIVAL,  Firstly, had to limp through the entire show.  Then, had some of the most difficult "dirges" ever written for the stage.  Then, had to develop cute character voices for those darn puppets.  Did I mention conveying to the audience that your character is so screwed up that he really loves the girl he has just slapped?  Anyway, the show does have its
charm and now I would like another chance at it.

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
See above.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
ATTENTION LONG ISLAND DIRECTORS!:  My remaining dream roles are:  The Baker
in INTO THE WOODS, Guido in NINE (why doesn't anyone do that show?), Josh
in BIG.  I would love to repeat: Nick in BABY (I LOVE that show), Bobby in
COMPANY and Joe in MOST HAPPY FELLA.  Would also be interested in El Gallo
and Pilate.


MOTIVATION

How do you feel when you perform?
ALIVE, PROUD, ELECTRIC, IN CONTROL and CONTROLLING (of the audience).

What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
Love the creation process and the amazing evolution from rehearsal to opening and from opening to closing.  Love to "make it look easy" to an unsuspecting audience.  Have made wonderful friends over the years doing this.  I guess we all do it for praise and self gratification as well.  Having the audience in the palm of your hand, hanging on your every word or move is an incredibly powerful feeling.  The satisfaction of getting laughs (where they belong) is also pretty neat!

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?"  Why do you do it?
I haven't said that in years!!!  I love the excitement of opening night.


SHARING

What is your favorite theater story?
Some personal background first: 1986 - My father was never happy with my being gay.  I hid it and lied for a long time and were so worried about what it would do to my parents if they knew.  After I came out we never talked about it - it was don't ask, don't tell.  Our relationship, as a result, was very superficial.

Fast forward to 1991- I am cast as Paul in CARNIVAL.  Paul has a very moving monologue at the end of the show.  He confesses and exposes things about himself to the girl and it is very touching.  My director, the late Jegana Martin, and I worked on the monologue for a long time and she said she would like some tears there.  Well, try as I might, I just couldn't
muster the tears up.  I just didn't feel it, even as late as final dress.

OPENING NIGHT - both parents were in the audience and it was a typical opening night complete with bumps & all.  I got to the monologue which said things like (paraphrasing here):  "This is who I really am"  "I am not a monster" "I hide from you because you won't like who I really am" and so forth.  As soon as I began saying these things I pictured my father sitting in the audience listening and I began to cry!  I cried so hard I had to hold back for the sake of the piece!  I'll never forget the look of surprise on my leading lady's face.  But, for just a few seconds, I was talking to my father, hoping he was digesting all I had to say.  I was saying the things I didn't have the nerve to offstage!  After the show I remember he hugged me and for the first time said "I am very proud of you!"  Maybe it was the speech or maybe it wasn't, I like to think it was.  By the way, I held onto that feeling and cried EVERY performance.

11 years later and I STILL get choked up telling that story.

Indulge me with another story please.  It's short and very charming:  1997 I directed a production of "Steel Magnolias".  The actress playing M'Lynn had brought her 7 year-old daughter to a rehearsal.  We were doing the famous scene where M'Lynn has the big breakdown at the end of the show.  When she began her monologue, complete with yelling, screaming and crying, her little daughter ran to foot of the stage put her hands on the edge and, with her eyes glued on her mother, looked as if she was going to cry.  I ran to her, kneeled down and whispered "Honey, this is all make believe."  She looked at me and with all the wisdom of a 50 year-old put her hand on my shoulder and said confidently: "I know, it's just SO sad!."  I almost laughed my head off.

Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
Anyone who knows how anal I am knows that I am NOT guilty of any of the above.

What was your worst theater experience?
Not worth mentioning - we have all done dogs!!!!

What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
EVITA at CAP center:  We had a pretty intricate set including a turntable on which the famous balcony stood.  Our stage manager who manipulated the turntable manually was out for one performance.  His one-show replacement (you know who you are Brad!), did not practice turning the table which weighed a TON (well, it was heavy).  This turntable was used frequently (kudos to director Ed Huether's clever artistry) and we soon realized what
a tough time Brad was having in making it work effectively.  SO, there I am with Eva on the balcony (I played Peron).  She finishes "Don't Cry For Me Argentina"  and we begin revolving around as planned.  Suddenly, about 1/2 way around, the turntable with the balcony and US on it comes to a halt and we were physically jolted forward.  Me in tails and Eva (Debbie Gecewicz) in the infamous white gown clutching the railing for dear life!  It wasn't SO bad until the audience started to laugh and even worse when we realized we had no escape route because both ends of the balcony were in mid air not meeting the stage left/right escape platforms so we were stuck.  I reached over to the first thing I could for support in
an attempt to leap over but before I could the table suddenly began to move again (obviously, others came to Brad's aid) and we safely exited.  The scene was kind of ruined, In fact, the whole cast and the audience were nervous and distracted by the uneven turning all night.  OH yeah, I had two friends in the audience that night who were seeing me perform for the first time after years of my nagging them - that's Murphy's Law for ya!


OTHERS

Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with? Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
Most admired: Carol Carota, John Ferry, Ed Huether, Joe Morris, Susan Agin, Gene Forman, Staci Cobb, Roger Butterly, Bill Kahn, Stacy Ursta-Petricha, Debbie Surdi, George Ghossn, Matt Gallagher, Christian DiBennardo, Kimberly Demarse, Carlos Martinez, Heather Jewels, James Martinelli, Scott Earle, Paul Wiley, Joe Danbusky, Mark Weeks, Jason Klein, Mike Bogart, Mike Rosenblum, Lillian Langford, Corinne Obadia.

The best performer that I have done a show with is Carol Carota.  We played opposite each other in BABY and THE KING & I (2nd production - not the high school one!)   P.S.  We met in 1993 doing a DREADFUL original musical entitled LOVE, TORMENT and LOLLIPOPS (yes, you read that right!)

Who is your favorite L.I. performer?
Carol Carota hands down!  Besides being one of my very best friends she is a brilliant performer and can handle an amazingly wide range of roles.  (Are we EVER gonna do another show together?)


LIFE ISSUES

How do you maintain your career and do theater?
Not easily!  I am on the management staff of an Upper East Side hotel in Manhattan and am almost always late for rehearsal (I put that on my conflict sheet!) I am averaging only one show a year lately :-(

Why do you spend so much time toiling in theater?
Can't you tell by now?

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
Not until I physically get them to the theater!  Then they are proud as peacocks.

How has performing enriched your life?
I was the shyest, nerdiest, quietest kid until I discovered performing at 7 years old.  It took me completely out of my shell.  There was a time I wouldn't even ask a person for change of a dollar and suddenly I was singing in front of hundreds of people.  Better than therapy!   Also, there is so much value, reward and satisfaction in using/developing your talents.  I remember, early on, someone saying to me "I never knew you could sing."   My reply was "Neither did I!"


FUN

What brings you the greatest joy?
Performing.  Laughing until it hurts with my friends, my brother and my sister.

What really irks you?
Theater snobs who criticize all levels of theater by the same standards.   These people nit-pick and often walk into a show ready to hate something about it.  We who do not get paid for what we do are called "amateurs".   The word "amateur" comes from the Latin root "ama" meaning "to love".  We do it because we LOVE it!  We are not up for Tony Awards.  We are not looking to take Broadway by storm.  It is our hobby - a very unique and
distinguished one that we should all be proud of!  So, who cares who hit a flat note?  Who cares if that line wasn't delivered exactly as it was on Broadway?  Who cares if the director had a different take on things?  We are creating, loving, laughing and discovering.  For 15 bucks you should love every second of it!!  So, unless you have a Tony on your mantle, get
over yourself and your opinions (you all know who you are!).

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
QUIT MY JOB.  Get out of debt.  See every show on Broadway multiple times.  Open a theater and run it MY way.  Give lots of money to my family and friends.  Travel.  Sleep late.

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
Who said I can't be BOTH?

What's your favorite word?
Don't have one.

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
"Your family and friends who are already here wanna say Hi!"


FUTURE PLANS

I am back to playing the "romantic leading man" and have just been cast as King Marchan in "Victor/Victoria" at the CAP center.  (For VV fans, this was James Garner in the film and Michael Nouri on Broadway). 


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I'd like to wrap up by acknowledging my friend of 20 years, the late Jegana Martin.  She had a great love for the theater, the creation process, all living things and gave me many opportunities to grow in the theater.  In the words of Stephen Sondheim: "Sometimes people leave you half way through the wood.  Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good."
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