by Patrick Page
December 5, 2006
view article on Broadway.com
About the author:
Before stepping into the furry form of the title character in the holiday musical Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Patrick Page had logged more than 1,000 performances as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast and spent three years playing Scar in The Lion King. But Page’s range extends far beyond roles in costumes that render him unrecognizable: Over the course of a 20-year career, he has managed to play virtually all of Shakespeare’s leading men, directed five Shakespearean productions, taught classical acting at NYU’s Graduate Actor Training Program and written a play, Swansong, that was nominated for best new play by the American Theatre Critics’ Association. Now writing a musical called Grand Illusion, the versatile performer has given a lot of thought to the similarities between his two specialties: Shakespeare and musical theater. In the midst of a 12-show-a-week schedule playing The Grinch at the Hilton Theatre, Page paused to share his observations with Broadway.com.
Shakespeare invented everything. At least, that’s how it seems. In addition to adding more than 3,000 words to the English language, he created most of the narrative devices and archetypes we use in modern storytelling. He invented the word “storytelling,” by the way.
Until 1993, when I moved to New York, my career consisted primarily of work in Shakespeare’s plays. I worked regionally and was a company member at the Utah and Oregon Shakespeare Festivals. During this time, I had the good fortune to play Hamlet, Richard II, Mercutio, Macbeth, Antony, Brutus, Richard III, Henry V and many others. So when I fell by accident into the world of musical theater, I felt a bit out of place. I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered that Shakespeare invented the musical theater too.
My first musical role in New York was Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. It didn’t take me long to recognize that Lumiere was a lot like Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a role I had played some years before so I used Caius as a model for my Lumiere. People often compare Lumiere to Pepe Le Pew. No doubt, Le Pew was based on Caius too.
When I came to play Scar in The Lion King the connection was even stronger. The Lion King is based on Hamlet, and Scar is modeled on Hamlet’s usurping uncle Claudius. I had not yet played Claudius, but I had portrayed many of Shakespeare’s other wayward souls—Macbeth, Richard III and Iago—which helped me fill out the character of Scar enormously.
Before Shakespeare, evil characters had no true motivation. Perhaps because he was an actor himself, Shakespeare stepped into the villain’s shoes. For him, it was not enough to say that Richard III was evil. He asked why. And the answer, frequently, placed some of the responsibility back on his audience. Shakespeare’s Jew, Shylock, is reacting to the bigotry of society, and to the loss of his daughter to Christian culture. Richard III, deformed since birth, has been excluded from the arena of human affection by his looks:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair, well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
In portraying Scar, I used these resentments to deepen the character. Scar is physically inferior to his brother, Mufasa, but sees himself as intellectually superior. He is marginalized in a society he thinks he should rule. All actions, including infanticide and fratricide, are justifiable in his quest to right this injustice.
Which brings me to The Grinch. At the beginning of the story, The Grinch lays out what he believes Whoville and Christmas are all about: toys, noise, and gluttony. In response to this idiocy and excess, The Grinch has ostracized himself. Of course, he’s absolutely right. If that’s what Christmas is, it should be abolished. But when he learns that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store,” The Grinch joins the Whos in their celebration.
People often say that Shakespearean characters are “larger than life.” But as you can see, in the case of Scar and The Grinch, the “Shakespearean” size of the character is a result of the size of the injury to the ego and sense of justice. As Stella Adler once said, “Darling, nothing is larger than life!” In playing Shakespeare’s villains, I had learned that, although they may delight in their machinations, they always begin by feeling slighted by society. It’s not necessarily true that a villain never sees himself as a villain. But he always feels his villainy is justified by the situation.
Finally, musicals share another similarity with Shakespeare’s plays that has helped me enormously: Both forms sing. When a character in Shakespeare reaches the point where normal expression will no longer suffice, he soars into more heightened verse, rich in imagery, rhythm and onomatopoeia. Often, he breaks into the action of the play to speak directly to the audience in a soliloquy. In a musical, it’s helpful to keep the same thing in mind—the character sings only when the spoken word is inadequate.
I must confess I still feel a little out of place sometimes in a musical. I look around and see the breathtaking grace of the dancers and hear the incredible voices that float so effortlessly out of the singers. They have spent their lives training, and it shows. It can be intimidating. But it helps me to remember that I have some training myself. My training is in Shakespeare, and he invented everything.