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Herbie's Love Boyd Gaines' wry, tender turn in "Gypsy" shines a fresh light on the show's glories--and his co-star's.
Boyd Gaines may not be the first actor you'd think of to play the part of Herbie, the vaudeville talent agent and put-upon romantic doormat for Mama Rose, in the backstage-musical classic Gypsy, currently at the St. James Theatre in an open run.

"I certainly wasn't the first person I would think of," admits Gaines, a three-time Tony winner who'll undoubtedly nab another award nomination for his wry, tender take on Herbie. "In fact, when the possibility was brought up, I didn't think I was a good choice."

What convinced him? A chat with the show's original book writer, Arthur Laurents, who's also directing the current revival.

"He told me what he had in mind, and I said it sounded like something I'd like to do," Gaines recalls. "He described a man who desperately wants a family, and who falls in love with this woman; they have a great sexual chemistry, but he longs for it to be more than that. Along the way, he develops a great love for her daughters, until the writing on the wall is so clear that he has to go."

Indeed, the way the tall, slender Gaines plays him, Herbie puts one in mind of a younger, quieter Willy Loman.

"It's interesting, Arthur's stage direction on Herbie's entrance is not something I took into consideration until I just noticed it recently," Gaines says. "When Herbie enters, it says something like, 'A nice-looking guy who has a sweet but tired quality about him.' He's beat up a little; he's a been around the block. He desperately wants to help Rose have her dreams, and hopefully bring him his greatest wish by marrying him."

As much as he wants to help Rose and her daughters, though, Herbie can't help it that the vaudeville circuit is drying up and that he lacks the temperament to persevere against the odds.

"I think he's an OK agent; he's not a great agent," Gaines says sympathetically. "He has a hard time with confrontation, which unfortunately is something an agent has to be good at. I think he's happiest as a candy salesman; that doesn't give him the pain in his stomach he gets with Rose."

Gaines first played Herbie in last summer's Encores! rendition of the show, before it moved to its current full Broadway run. He remembers his first day as Herbie quite well, in fact--or rather, he remembers the "emotional roller coaster" of the days leading up to it.

"We closed Journey's End the day of the Tonys," Gaines recounts of the acclaimed WWI drama, in which he played a stoic British Army lieutenant. "We knew we were going to close that day, but it was nonetheless quite an experience. Our closing coincided with the Puerto Rican Day Parade, so the final performance was accompanied by some loud salsa music. We had to pretend as if maybe the Germans were practicing an odd form of psychological warfare."

He remembers that Vanessa Redgrave came and was very gracious--and that the cast, and Ms. Redgrave herself, had to excuse themselves to change, lightning-fast, into their formal duds for the Tony Awards telecast. Journey's End proceeded to win a posthumous Tony Award for best revival.

Gaines had the night to celebrate, but at 10 a.m. the next morning, like Cinderella after the ball, he reported for duty as Herbie.

"That was a quick gnashing of gears," he says.

He did get a three-week break between Gypsy and the Broadway run of Pygmalion, starring Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. Still, this has been a particularly busy year-plus for the never-fallow-for-long actor.

"I've been so lucky to be asked to do so many different productions, and they've all been so good," Gaines marvels. To wit: The Juilliard-trained actor, who estimates that the plays-to-musicals ratio on his resume is roughly five to one, has nabbed Tonys for a straight play (The Heidi Chronicles), for a dizzy musical (She Loves Me), and for a genre-breaking "dance-ical" (Contact).

"It's funny, although there are a lot of people who think of me as an actor who does musicals," Gaines says, "I've always felt like a lucky visitor to musical theatre."

That might partly be because he doesn't approach musicals much differently than any other acting challenge.

"There's such a different way of thinking about musical theatre than there was than when these shows were created," Gaines says, speaking not only about Gypsy but with a nod to the town's other major Broadway musical revival, South Pacific. "The way people are trained now, a musical is thought of as a play like any other play. Yes, you have to be able to sing and maybe dance, but the acting that's required for a song or a dance number isn't any different than a monologue or a scene."

Performing opposite a triple threat like Patti LuPone makes it even more of an acting holiday, Gaines avers.

"When the call came about the possibility of doing this with Patti, that was one of the most appealing factors," says Gaines, who had previously appeared opposite LuPone in a one-night-only benefit performance of Anything Goes at Lincoln Center. "She's so playful and inventive, and so high-spirited in the very best way, that when the possibility of working again came up, I jumped at it."

His instinct paid off from the start: "We had an immediate kind of actor chemistry."

Beyond their palpable rapport, though, Gaines has especially come to appreciate his co-star's take on Gypsy's quintessential "stage mother" archetype.

"There are so many things I admire about Patti's performance, but high on the list is that she's a human being," Gaines explains. "She loves her children--despite her horrible manipulation of them, and her living through them, you still sense that she loves them. She's not this sort of monster by rote that some people think of Rose as being."

At least part of why LuPone's Rose comes off so well is that Gaines helps us see her through Herbie's sympathetic gaze.

"I think Herbie loves her and sees what few others see," Gaines says.

For helping audiences see fresh aspects and shades of a classic role, Gaines deserves a fair helping of applause, too.

Click here for more information about Gypsy.