David Hyde Pierce and Victor Garber met a great many years ago, when they were just two actors working their way up through the ranks of theater, long before millions came to know them as Dr. Niles Crane from Frasier and Jack Bristow on Alias.
But the question "How far do the two of you go back?" trips them up. "You might as well say the 1900s," Garber says with a laugh. "It's in the mists of time," Pierce replies.
They actually did work together on Frasier, in a 2000 episode where Garber guest-stars as the Crane family's new butler. Going even further back, Garber points out, he guest-starred in an episode of The Powers That Be, the short-lived 1992 sitcom that essentially gave Pierce his start. "I forgot that," Pierce says with awe. "We knew each other then." But in short, Garber adds, "we've been friends who've seen each other not nearly enough."
On January 14, Pierce will end his Tony-nominated turn as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! (His leading lady, Bette Midler, departs the same day.) On the 20th, Garber will take the reins, starring opposite the show's new Dolly Levi, Bernadette Peters. As Pierce prepared to say "so long, dearie," and Garber got ready to find the penny in his pocket, TheaterMania offered them a rare opportunity to share some quality time together as they discussed the emotion and anticipation that comes with finishing — and starting — a theatrical journey.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David, when did you hear that Victor was the new Horace, and how did you feel about it?
David Hyde Pierce: They didn't tell me until it was a done deal. I was deeply thrilled. I love Bernadette and, obviously, I know and love Victor. I thought it was a very elegant, wonderful, funny pairing, and such a classy choice. It made me happy for them, and it made me happy for the production.
Victor Garber: I'm excited. I didn't really know the show very well at all.
David: That's funny. Neither did I.
Victor: When I saw this production, I couldn't get over what a brilliant piece of work it is. It is the quintessential Broadway musical. I didn't realize it until I saw these guys, who are sublime.
David: One of the greatest compliments the show and I have gotten was the look on Victor's face when he came into my dressing room after having seen it. He looked like a kid on Christmas because he knew he was about to step into this. Without words, you could see how much it hit him and what a great time you were going to have.
Victor: Honestly, that feeling hasn't subsided. Every day in rehearsal, I keep thinking, "Am I having too much fun?"
Is it as fun as it looks?
David: Yes, and there are a couple of reasons. Jerry Zaks and Warren Carlyle have put the show together as such a joyous explosion, but they've also done it with such high standards. On the one hand, we were all given such freedom, but on the other hand, we all had a sense of what our role was, in all departments. To have that kind of confidence in the production, and the freedom to play, is joyous.
Tell me about your relationships with your leading ladies. Had you worked with them before?
Victor: I've known Bernadette for years. We worked together on a TV movie of Cinderella, where she was the stepmother and I was the king, but we only crossed [paths] in the palace once. I do feel like we are well matched here. Everything Horace does is a result of what Dolly does, because she is manipulating everything. Horace thinks he's in charge, and the rug gets pulled out every step of the way, which is the most fun for me. Watching Bernadette discover that and finding these things...I have to say, I haven't enjoyed anything as much in a long time.
David: A little bit like Victor and Bernadette, Bette and I had worked together years ago on the Paul Rudnick film Isn't She Great, about Jacqueline Susann. I played her novice editor on Valley of the Dolls. There's debate about what the end product turned out to be, but we had a really good time shooting. In a weird way, I think it was a parallel relationship. Even though Horace is diametrically opposed to that character, the constant shock of what he's being handed is very similar. In a way, it was a great setup, but this is the place where we reconnected and had an incredible journey together.
What was your rehearsal process like? David, were there things that tripped you up? Victor, are similar things affecting you?
David: It wasn't what tripped me up. The roles I tend to play and where most people know me from, that's far away from where Horace needs to be. Jerry is very good at happening to drop the right word at the right moment. When we're in the hat shop and Horace gets angry, we were working on a bit where he smacks a cane on the table. The first time I did it, I broke the cane in half. And Jerry said, "That's him."
Later in the process, Jerry said to me, " Horace is like a Molière character." That was the thing where I went, "Oh, got it now." I know how that functions, and in order for everyone else, especially Dolly, to do what they have to do, I had to be that guy. To get to inhabit that was so much fun when I made the leap.
Victor: You just gave me some ideas. Today, I had an hour on my own with Jerry to go over the first scene. I've done three plays with him, so I know and trust him implicitly. I thought I had found something. What I realized was, there's that thing where an actor falls in love with an idea that isn't working. I pride myself in thinking I'm not one of those actors, but I totally am. It was a revelation to be conscious of that. And we found it today for the first time. It was a combination of what I thought I was doing and what he wanted. So it was pretty exciting.
David, are you sad to leave?
David: Yes. There's no qualifier. I will be happy to lie down afterwards, but I had to give myself constant talkings-to about the end of the show, not letting the emotion takeover, and not letting it become a farewell, because then I'll have ruined the show for myself and for everyone. But it is overwhelmingly emotional because I love these people.
Victor: I stand in awe of the cast. They can do anything. When they came to work through the big numbers with us, I couldn't believe their enthusiasm, their energy, and their support. It's just palpable. To be welcomed into that is like, "How did this happen?"
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