Shakespeare’s immortal “The play’s the thing” are words to live by for Jacqueline Hubbard, long-time executive and artistic director, of the acclaimed Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut. The theater is where Katharine Hepburn first played leading parts in 1930 and Marlon Brando made his last stage appearance in 1953.
In preparing this year’s season, Ms. Hubbard scheduled Brent Hazelton’s new play with music LIBERACE! It reveals for the first time many touching and humorous highs and lows of a flamboyant musical star who at the height of his fame was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. His many awards included two Emmy Awards, six gold albums and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hazelton’s play has a rollicking piano score of classical and popular music from Chopin to “Chopsticks,” and Rachmaninoff to Ragtime, including Liberace favorites “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Three Little Fishies,” and “The Boogie Woogie.”
Ms. Hubbard’s challenge was to find her Liberace. She knew it required an actor with many exceptional skills, talents and charisma to play Liberace. After widely posting a casting notice, followed by many unproductive auditions in New York an agent sent her a video that saved the day.
As fate would have it, Ms. Hubbard’s Liberace, Daryl Wagner*, has an impressive career as Liberace, playing him for over 20 years across the world in the renowned Legends in Concert show. The show only honored performers who had passed on. Mr. Wagner had a decided edge in being cast in Legends. He had professionally known and worked for Liberace in the great showman’s heyday. (*A member of Actors Equity.)
During a break in the Liberace! rehearsals at the Ivoryton Playhouse Mr. Wagner candidly – and amusingly – chatted with us about his career, Liberace, and the show.
Examiner: It takes an exceptionally talented and charismatic headliner to play Liberace. You’ve been successfully doing it in concert around the world for two decades. Where did you study piano, singing, dancing and comedy and where did you hone your craft before landing in Vegas?
Daryl Wagner: My mom was a church musician – organ and piano – so when I was four or five she became my first piano teacher. I had the talent, so I took more lessons at school and independently. Mostly pop music, and later in Chicago I took classical training from a gifted Russian lady named Lolita.
I played piano for vocal teachers and that way I studied voice indirectly. Listening to the coaches gave me an insight into the “Bella Voce” technique and I used that to open up my voice. I learned to use the chest voice, mid voice and head voice.
I was always in musical theater as a kid. I took tap and gymnastics – quite an unusual combination! [Laughs] And I had all those summer stock kid roles in shows like The Sound of Music with Dorothy Collins and The Music Man. I must have been 15 or 16 in a little theater in South Illinois playing Rolf in Sound of Music when the piano player for the show just disappeared! No one could find him. The producer came to me and immediately put me in the orchestra to replace the piano player!
I went to Chicago and did dinner theater, regional theater, and worked the circuit. Ken Meyers hired me, and for 2 1/2 years I was conductor for the Goodwin Theater. I did Pal Joey and The Boys from Syracuse. I toured with a children’s show – in one show the juvenile lead was Bruce Boxleitner [TV’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King] who has gone on to have quite an acting career.
Examiner: What are the most important things you’ve learned about performance and dealing with the business of show biz?
DW: The most successful things that happen usually fall out of nowhere like a ripe plum. I loved to learn all the music from every decade. I was crazy about the music of the ‘30s and all of a sudden Dames at Sea was coming to Chicago with Bernadette Peters and they needed a conductor/pianist. There’s a song in the show called “Raining in My Heart” and during the entire run of the show at one point in the song, Bernadette managed to have one single tear slide down her cheek! How she managed that I’ll never know!
Even though I was a successful musician I always wanted to be on stage. I was always most comfortable onstage performing – even more comfortable than in private life. I did Kiss Me Kate with Patricia Morrison and got the chance to do the role that Bob Fosse played [Hortensio in the 1953 film.] We had a naughty song “Tom, Dick or Harry.” Lots of fun.
In the ‘70s there was a recession and theaters just stopped doing musicals. But again, Donn Arden – who was the Ziegfeld of his time- put on a big spectacular show in Reno, called Hello Hollywood on the biggest indoor stage in the world. I stayed with that show for 3 years, and then went to Las Vegas, where I got a job working for Liberace in his Tivoli Gardens restaurant.
Examiner: Do you have a favorite story about your encounters with Liberace the performer and the private man?
DW: I never really saw the private man. Very few people did. I only saw the public side of him. It was not a good time for him. Scott [Liberace’s live-in partner] was on drugs and would come into the restaurant and be unpleasant to be around. Liberace liked my playing and would compliment me. He had a litany of public stories that he would tell everyone over and over again. Privately, he’d lean over and say things to me like “I had a couple of clunkers tonight” referring to his missed notes in his show.
He was a great pianist, he was classically trained and if he hadn’t done the showy Vegas thing he would have gone on to be a concert pianist. He would do 12 shows a week. There was a dinner show first, then an intermission, and then a cocktail show later. He would have a few drinks between shows, so the cocktail show was a little more loosey-goosey.
I saw him innumerable times in concert in the 50’s and 60’s. His Vegas show took on a life of its own.
Examiner: You have said this original play about Liberace at the Ivoryton Playhouse is a pre-Broadway run. Can you give our readers more information about that project?
DW: [Smiling broadly] It’s what I call ‘putting it out there.’ I project the next chapter of my career and my next chapter is Broadway. I see a small intimate theater. I see myself getting a Tony Award. When I heard about this show being cast for Ivoryton, I said “I want this.” I couldn’t get to New York, so I made an audition video. (At this point, executive and artistic director Jacqui Hubbard commented: “I had been auditioning people for the part for two days in New York. I couldn’t find the right fit. An agent showed me Daryl’s video and I knew I’d found my Liberace!”)
Examiner: What are your impressions of the historic Ivoryton Playhouse where Katharine Hepburn and the other greatest stars of the past hundred years have trod the stage?
DW: This theater is unique, wonderful, charming. It has textbook charm. You see this kind of a place in the movies, but it’s real! It’s one of the great stages of the world…like the Metropolitan Opera House….a place where the greats have performed. I look around this theater, and I see my photograph joining the legends on the walls here.
‘LIBERACE!’ is at the Ivoryton Playhouse October 28 through November 15, 2015. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.
Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors and $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, CT.