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The Tony nominee returns to Broadway in War Paint
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
How does the old saying go? "Behind every great man there's a great woman." Well invert that for War Paint -- the new Broadway musical about the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein -- and change the adjective from "great" to "complicated." Since the legendary cosmetics titans are portrayed by two-time Tony Award-winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, they get the diva's share of the spotlight, both onstage and off. But as the complex guys in their lives, Tony nominees John Dossett (as Arden's husband) and Douglas Sills (as Rubinstein's business manager) add insight into the psychology of these fiercely accomplished women while also creating their own compelling portraits of men fighting to emerge from the shadows.
While the others are all based on actual people, Sills' character, Harry Fleming, is actually a composite of two real-life figures: Patrick O'Higgins, Rubinstein's longtime confidante and eventual marketing director, and Harry Johnson, who started out working for Rubinstein before defecting to Arden's company. "All that stuff about my character switching roles and going to the other camp in the show, that's real," Sills says. "Johnson left her and he took 10 to 12 of her staff to the other side. But I think the writers felt the story was best served by conflating these two guys. As for the name change, I think they thought, we can't call the gay character Harry Johnson!"
Like his two bosses, Fleming is stylish, successful, and incredibly lonely. But while their isolation stems from the challenges of finding romantic partners who won't be intimidated by their wearing the pants, Fleming's comes from being a gay man in the mid-20th century, an era when being out could derail his career and even land him in prison. But Sills -- who's best known for his comical, over-the-top Broadway turns as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors and the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel, for which he earned a Tony nod -- wasn't interested in playing Fleming as "the beleaguered gay." As he says, "We've all seen that character. I was interested in doing something new and sensitive, but not traditional. I tried playing it different ways: where you wouldn't be able to tell whether he's gay at all, or so flamboyant he wouldn’t be able to hide it. I decided to do something simpler, with less things layered on top of it. I made choices that were more about assimilating. As a Jewish guy in a world primarily not Jewish and as a gay man in a world that isn’t predominantly gay, I can relate to passing. At a point in my life when I was more concerned about fitting in, I remember being careful of pronouns, about what to say and what not to. It's something we can all relate to. That's how I approached his gayness. Everybody's got their own mishegas they walk around with."
Although Sills admits he "has a history of really getting nerdy" about doing research to develop a character, he says he purposefully eschewed overdosing on information about Arden, Rubinstein, et al. "I have felt, at times, perhaps some of that energy would have been better spent on the dynamics of a scene," he says. "I did read the book War Paint [upon which the musical is based], and I saw the documentary. But it was more important to me to create a living, breathing person who was not only giving you a sense of honesty and truth, but who was also entertaining. That was my philosophy about it. Oftentimes learning a person's biography can lead you astray, you get distracted. Although everything is basically true, we're not making a documentary; we're making the greatest dramatic piece we can with the given elements. We need scenes with blood pumping through them."
As witty as Sills is onstage, he's just as much of a card in life, sharing hilarious stories about prepping for a Sunset Boulevard audition in LA ("They were holding them in a church, so I broke into it the night before so I could feel familiar with the space. Here I was, this Jewish kid, breaking into this church…to sing!"); playing Gomez in The Addams Family tour ("I may think of myself as Woody Allen on the inside, but few people go, 'Oh, Nathan Lane isn't available. Let's call Doug Sills"); and hanging with his childhood pals, movie director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell ("We had these long weekend games of Risk. They would be from Friday after school to Monday morning, and if you were weak enough to sleep or eat you'd be thrown out!"). His drollery is on excellent display in a particularly kooky War Paint scene, when he duets on "Dinosaurs" with Dossett, as these two enemies bond over being dumped by their employers. The actors actually imitate the prehistoric creatures, both physically and vocally. "When I saw the libretto and it had the dinosaur sound, 'rawr' or whatever, I was like, 'They don't really want me to be a dinosaur right?'" he remembers. "But we started doing the song and I thought, 'OK, let it go Douglas. You're just afraid of looking stupid.' John went right for a pterodactyl, and when somebody's doing something onstage, I just go to the opposite. I start looking for something to do that's different in rhythm and style. So when John went with his arms all out, I suddenly saw a T. rex. They are so ridiculous looking and they have these tiny little baby arms in front. That was the first thing that came to mind."
Another aspect of War Paint Sills is relishing is being a supporting player instead of the lead. "I've been lucky enough to do a lot of wonderful and important main roles, and I knew here I was a different piece of steel in this structure," he says. "It allowed me to do a more contained character. Often I'm hired to take up a lot of space and air onstage. Here I can do something a little quieter, I can explore simpler choices. And I get a chance to work with Patti and Christine, who both bring star power and followings. That's all a great relief for me, and I've been enjoying setting them up and watching them. I get to be a figure of testosterone in their characters' lives."
Top image: Patti LuPone and Douglas Sills in War Paint; photos by Joan Marcus.