If you were one of the many thousands who attended Phantom of the Opera during its first run in Los Angeles (at the Ahmanson Theatre), chances are good you saw Davis Gaines in the title role. After all, he played the part for two-and-a-half years. But you also may have seen him in Man of La Mancha or perhaps singing the National Anthem before a Kings, Dodgers or Lakers game. Most recently he was one of the soloists at a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth at The Soraya (formerly The Valley Performing Arts Center.)
Either way, diversity and unpredictability are the hallmarks of the career Davis Gaines has had so far. It’s a career for which he’s enormously grateful and surprised. I had the chance to speak to Gaines last week in advance of his Monday concert at the Geffen Playhouse and his Friday night concert at The La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts.
What is unique about these two concerts you are doing? How are they different than Davis Gaines: Broadway and Beyond, the show you regularly tour around the country?
This evening what we are attempting to do is going back to my beginning. It’s a chronological look at how did I end up on stage at the Geffen or La Mirada. We start from childhood and what influenced me and who influenced me. “Music of the Night” [from Phantom of the Opera] will be in the middle as opposed to the end where it would normally be for an encore.
What surprises you most about the career you’ve had?
It’s almost like a pinball machine and bumps off a bumper and I don’t know where it’s going to lead. Things in my life have been almost unbelievable. Things happened I never would have thought would happen growing up in Orlando. How I go to do Phantom through [writer/director/producer] George Abbott. I did Damn Yankees when Mr. Abbott was 99 years old. Through him I met Hal Prince [director of Phantom.] Through that I got Phantom. I just went with the flow of my life.
It’s hard going with the flow, especially as an actor. I think you have to keep options open. It’s crazy to think as a kid, I didn’t know how to do this, but I was open to wherever it took me. I’d listen to Rosemary Clooney and John Raitt and all these people. I’d listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim and they ended up in my life. I worked with John Raitt. I met Rosemary Clooney and I worked with Andrew and Sondheim. As a kid I never thought that would happen. It’s just crazy.
What expectations did you have for your career once you were cast in Phantom?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just said “yes” to Hal Prince. I played Raoul for a few months when the opening came out here. Michael Crawford [the original “Phantom”] was leaving and it was between me and David Cassidy. It was for a 9-month contract and I thought, “that’s too long.” It was a huge deal out here. And the show kept getting extended and then we closed. I thought I’d stay in Hollywood and thought I’d get movies and television. The show went to San Francisco and Hal called and so I went there. Then I went to New York for two-and-a-half years and they pulled me out of Phantom to do Whistle Down the Wind. [Whistle Down the Wind never made it to Broadway. it was a rare Andrew Lloyd Webber failure.] It changed my life in many ways. And eventually I got to thank Andrew.
What freedom does doing these concerts offer you and will they be the same shows in both venues?
It’s much more freeing and I have much more say in how the arrangements come about and the story I’m trying to tell through each song. This show is piano and bass only. It’s fun to put a show together that has an arc to it. I get to be me, but also in each song somehow become a character. So as opposed to playing one character in a play, I get to play 15. Each song is a different kind of character.
The Geffen show is going to be shorter than the La Mirada one. It’s only 70 minutes. La Mirada will be 90 minutes and we’ll add more visuals. I’ll sing with a video in La Mirada that we can’t do at the Geffen.
You’ve made Los Angeles your home, but have said in previous interviews that you’d love to return to Broadway by originating a role in a new show. Is that still your goal?
Not really. I thought Whistle would be my chance. Now I’d be thrilled to go back with any show. My impossible dream now is maybe to revive Man of La Mancha. That would be thrilling. I could do that role until I die. I just love that role. A new role would be nice. I am open to going back to work in New York, but I love living in Los Angeles.
Earlier you referred to your career as being like a pinball machine. What’s been the biggest lesson for you in learning how to go with the flow of you career?
What took a while to realize is that everybody brings something different to the table. Everyone has a special gift. As much as you have confidence in what makes you different and special, be yourself. Don’t think what they might want. The more you bring yourself to a role, the more of your own feelings and sense of humor, then you become more relatable to an audience. I found as an actor ways of conveying the emotion of a character and the feelings, it’s almost like being a mime. The slightest tilt of a head or with your voice. Even with a mask on you can make people feel something. Just be real and tell the truth. That’s how the audience will be sucked in.