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A Conversation with Actor David Girolmo | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine - March 2017  www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

“There are no wrong choices, and the journey is far more important than the goal because it is in the journey that you live your life.” Actor David Girolmo is crystallizing his professional and personal philosophy, beliefs he has tried to adhere to and to impart to young artists over the course of his more than three-decade career in the theatre.  “I really believe that no matter the choice you make, you life will continue, and you will live it. Wherever we are today is the result of where we were yesterday, so we need to take a deep breath, get up each day, and do our work.  I like to tell young actors that they should see auditions as opportunities to enjoy performing.  They have no power over whether or not they will be cast, so they should just do what they do - sing those sixteen bars or whatever it is and revel in the experience.”

This month Girolmo’s journey takes him back to Broadway, after an almost twenty-year hiatus, in the cast of the highly anticipated new musical War Paint, starring Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole. The play, which finished as the most successful musical ever at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in its out-of-town tryout this past summer, is the work of composers Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and playwright Doug Wright.  It traces the personal lives of two titans of the cosmetic industry, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden as they build their empires across more than thirty years of American history. Directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, the play also features John Dossett and Douglas Sills and a sixteen-member ensemble. Girolmo plays “eight different men who interacted with Rubenstein and Arden over the thirty years, (among them Senator Royal Copeland), each of whom provides a sounding board for the two women. It’s a joy for me to play all these different people, and it’s fun to keep busy.  I come off from a scene and immediately change costume and go back on.”

Asked what he believes to be the strengths of War Paint, Girolmo replies, “When you combine two Tony winners in one show, it is an event! It is a rare and wonderful thing to have these two incredible women on the same stage, and then there are the amazing Broadway veterans John Dossett (Arden’s husband) and Doug Sills (Rubenstein’s confidant) and an incredible list of other actors, plus the writers of Grey Gardens, and you have a beautiful perfect storm. The dramatic situation is a strong one;  Arden and Rubenstein were two very different and colorful characters.  Rubenstein was of Jewish, Eastern European background, while Arden was a Canadian-American socialite who raised Derby horses and moved in elite circles. These differences translate beautifully into the score. Scott [Frankel] tailors the music to the individual strengths of these actresses and their characters, and he lets the musical style change over the course of the thirty years of the story. What is truly remarkable is that he is able not only to differentiate the musical styles for each woman, but then to merge them in duets. The music starts with the Big Band era, travels through World War II and ends in the 1960s when, in our play, the two women meet each other.”

Girolmo, who is based in Chicago, recalls the audition process for the Goodman production. “I got a call from my agent to go to the initial Goodman auditions, and they sent me some show material in advance.  When I walked in there was Scott Frankel with whom I had done Doll at Ravinia years ago. He bounced over a chair and gave me a big hug, and I felt great!  Everyone was kind and we had a lovely audition.  I received a callback to put the audition on tape the next day, and when I went, there was a blackout, so I had to go perform in a tiny corner of the room where there was a little light from a window. Somehow it worked out, because I got called for a third audition in New York, and got the job.” Girolmo says, though there are never any guarantees that the out-out-town cast will be asked to come to Broadway, War Paint has brought virtually all of the Chicago actors with it to New York. “I feel incredibly lucky to have been asked, and of course I hope for a long run and perhaps a cast album, but none of us has a crystal ball to predict what will come, so I am just going to enjoy the experience.” For Girolmo, who had just begun rehearsals when we spoke from his sublet in Astoria, Queens, in late January, the return to work in New York after nearly twenty years is inevitably exciting. “I joke that I like to come to Broadway every twenty years whether I need it or not,” he says referring to his last appearances in 1997 in Hal Prince’s Candide.

Raised in Rochester, New York, in a “Kodak family,” Girolmo says he first articulated his vocation in seventh grade. “I was playing Mr. McAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, and I said out loud that I wanted to be an actor. I’m sure I didn’t even know what that meant.”  After high school graduation, he worked for a few years at Kodak and then enrolled in the theatre program at SUNY Geneseo.  “It was a small university of some six thousand students, and I studied straight theatre and musical theatre, did a great deal of acting, directing, and production work.  And then in the summers I did summer stock.  You learn so much working side by side with Equity actors, having to put on a show in two weeks, and getting up there in front of people who have paid money to see you perform.”

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After college, Girolmo headed to New York, where he lived and worked for a few years before being invited by director Frank Galati in 1989 to join the Chicago cast of Anything Can Happen on the Way to the Forum. Girolmo did, playing Milos Glorioso, followed that with performances of Shear Madness, and ended up spending the year. “I happily discovered Chicago was not the cultural wasteland many New Yorkers believed it to be.  It is a gorgeous city filled with amazing arts institutions and very welcoming people. From my arrival everyone was so nice and urged me to stay.  I fell more and more in love and at the end of the year, I decided to relocate. It is a decision I have never regretted.”

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Asked if he has seen change in the theatrical landscape of Chicago over the years, he replies, “There are not as many subscription houses and dinner theatres now as there used to be. When I first went there, an actor could pretty well figure out from their programmed schedules what roles he might be asked to play. Today there are only the Marriott and Drury Lane among the subscription companies, and producers have more of a tendency to look to New York for casting than they did in the past.  Even if you are perfect for a role, they are often looking for a new face or someone from outside Chicago.  So in order to work regularly, you have to develop relationships with other theatres outside of Chicago as well.”

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And so, Girolmo has done just that, adding to his list of companies in the Chicago area such as the Drury Lane Oakbrook and Evergreen Park, Theatre at the Center, Marriott Lincolnshire, Skylight Music Theatre (Milwaukee), Goodman Theatre, Mercury Theatre, Porchlight Music Theatre, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, such regional houses as the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, Florida, the Lyceum in Arrow Rock, Missouri, and Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick. One man to whom he says he owes “a great deal” is director/choreographer and currently Executive Artistic Producer of the Fulton, Marc Robin. “Without Marc Robin’s influence, my life would have been vastly different. At so many different times in my career, in moments when I most needed it, he would call me and give me an opportunity.” Girolmo recalls Robin, who has also worked extensively in Chicago, calling him from the Fulton in 2008 and inviting the actor to come play Mr.Lundy in Brigadoon.  “He said, “ I was thinking I want someone with David Girolmo’s qualities, and then I said to myself, why not ask David himself?’ I jumped at the chance and we have done more than ten shows together since that time.  God bless Marc that he likes what I do, and with each show, our bond grows stronger.  Marc Robin is one of the great directors in America, and I put him in a class with people like Hal Prince. He is kind, smart, funny, prepared like nobody else in the world – in short, among the most amazing artists I’ve ever been involved with. I can’t adequately express how hugely grateful I am to my friend Marc Robin, and I am very lucky to have been able to spend so much of my career coming in and out of his life and work.” Girolmo goes on to add that working over and over with people he loves and respects is a pure joy.  “When you walk into a rehearsal with Curt Dale Clark at Maine State Music Theatre or Quin Gresham at the Lyceum and they open their arms to welcome you, you inevitably are moved to do your very best work.

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Girolmo’s resume is an extensive and varied one, and the actor enjoys moving between musical theatre and straight drama. Possessed of a majestic bass voice, he has scored big successes in roles like Sweeney Todd, Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof), Max (Sunset Boulevard), Oliver Warbucks (Annie), Fred Graham (Kiss Me Kate), and  Gerard Carierre (Phantom-Yeston/Kopick) – winning a Joseph Jefferson Award for the last of these. An engaging character actor with a fine sense of comic timing, he took on the Pangloss roles in Porchlight’s Candide, and he lists many of these parts among his favorites along with dramas such as Witness for the Prosecution and And Then There Were None.  In the past eighteen months, among his many appearances, he completed a fifth season playing four different roles at MSMT in the summer of 2015, went on to the Fulton Theatre in the fall to play Fester in The Addams Family and Elf at the Fulton, The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes at the Mercury in Chicago before spending summer 2016 at the Goodman doing War Paint and then the fall with Oliver Warbucks in Annie at Theatre at the Center. In between he found time to make television appearances on series such as Chicago Fire.

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Asked about the rewards of his profession for him personally, Girolmo cites “getting to be somebody else for a while” and “getting to stay young by working with all the energetic beautiful men and women with whom I share the stage.  I may get to be a year older, but my mind remains young and I learn from them.”

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But it is not only acting which fills David Girolmo’s life with passion.  He talks about being blessed with a supportive, loving family – “my brother, sister, and widowed father-in-law, who has become a Catholic priest in Louisiana” – and most of all about his wife actress Heidi Kettenring with whom he makes a home in Evanston, Illinois. Girolmo waxes eloquent about their eleven-year marriage: “Heidi is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. We met doing Follies together. It was 1989 right after my Broadway Candide, and I went to Toronto to do The Return of Martin Guerre, and then came back to Chicago.  I was playing Ben Stone and she the young Phyllis.  Here was this young girl – because she is seventeen years younger than I – who was simply the best, most interesting person I had ever met.  I fell in love almost immediately, but it took her a little longer.  Thank goodness she is smarter than I am, because she advised us to take our time, relax, learn more about each other.  So we have been together eighteen years now.  We have done about ten shows together in Chicago, the Fulton, and MSMT.” Asked if there are more works he would like to do with his wife, he replies, “I always thought South Pacific would have been a nice fit, though that may have passed us by now, and we were cast in Sound of Music together, but then each of us had conflicts. I probably should pitch ideas more, but I don’t do much of that,” he adds ruefully.

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And perhaps that is because both David Girolmo and Heidi Kettenring are very much in demand and fortunate to have work come to them.  And then, too, for Girolmo, in addition to his acting career, he devotes thousands of hours to Actors Equity Association, on whose national council he has served for ten years and ten years before that as a Board member. “I come up for re-election this spring, and if I am elected to serve another term, I am going to devote myself to helping AEA find some young people to continue the work.  The world is aging and we Baby Boomers have to engage younger colleagues to carry some of the weight.”

Girolmo believes fervently not only in all that AEA has accomplished since its founding, but in the organization’s future. “Without Francis Wilson in 1913, acting would still be in the dark ages.  We would be buying our own costumes, stranded in Philadelphia…the list goes on. AEA has given the profession fair wages, fair business pracices, health and pension benefits, not to mention legally defining the professional status of an actor.  AEA offers us protection and support in our contract negotiations and the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with 51,000 other members in insuring that professional actors can make a living and live a dignified life.  Perhaps the image of a labor union isn’t all that sexy, but if you think of it as a coalition of all the guys standing next to you, if you put a human face on the organization, then it becomes inspiring.  The elected volunteers devote huge chunks of time to this work, and I believe it is a brave, courageous thing to do.”

He utters these words with such heartfelt conviction that I feel obligated to ask the obvious question on this January 20 inauguration day.  What struggles might face the theatre community in the coming days and what must artists do to protect the arts?  He immediately cites the imperiled National Endowment for the Arts.  “Even though funding for the NEA has been slowly eroded, abolishing the agency entirely would be a symbolic disaster.”  He continues articulating his own belief in the value of theatre and art to a society.  “We are immersed in the arts, though we don’t often think about it. We read; we watch television; we listen to music. I find it ironic that we often politically deny the importance of the arts, while being buried in them!  The arts teach and soothe the soul; they create a world with magic – a kind of magic that changes lives.  I don’t usually call myself an ‘artist.’ Perhaps that disingenuous, but I see myself as a craftsman, trained to do what I do.  If you look at what I create and consider it art, if it resonates with you…..”

David Girolmo trails off as if considering the larger implications of the question within not only his career, but in the present context.  When he speaks again, it is with soft, but firm conviction.  “Artists are sometimes the only buffer zone between intolerance and acceptance and inclusiveness. Arts can pull people together. We have to lead the way in that fight – in reaching across the divide. By working together we can stand up against darkness in the world and create our own light.”

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Coarousel and Other Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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March 2017

Volume 17 Issue 10

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