BY CARY GINELL
Gary Saxer is one of Ventura County’s local treasures. A performer in various VC venues for the past thirty-five years, Saxer not only has played multiple roles in musicals, but is the pater familias of a brood of other performers and crew personnel, including his wife Shelley, daughters Jennifer, Robyn, Randi, and Jonalyn, son-in-law Erik Sorensen, and Randi’s fiancé Tanner Redman. Gary is a stalwart member of the Ventura County Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company, which recently concluded presenting the entire canon of G&S operettas, something that few companies nationwide has attempted. With this season, they are starting over again with “Ruddigore,” a comic operetta that is quite appropriate for the Halloween season. I spoke with Gary recently about the show and his career in community theater. This is the first in a two-part series on Gary’s unique methodology.
VCOS: You’ve played in a variety of musicals and plays over the years – why do you keep coming back to Gilbert & Sullivan?
GARY: I have indeed had a great time in my life doing a wide variety of roles in many different kinds of musicals. I continue to find many of the (especially modern) musicals to be filled with both entertainment and life commentary. One of the reasons I enjoy doing any show is to learn more about it. While going to see any kind of show is a great way to find out about the show, you generally learn a lot more about the subject, the characters, and often the history and background a lot better when you are in the show. You spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for it and going over it in the identical way multiple times, so you understand a lot more about what’s happening.
I enjoy the G&S shows especially for the history lesson I often get. When you think about it, other than Shakespeare and opera, there are not very many shows more than 100 years old that are still performed today. Things change in the world, people’s likes and dislikes change, and the general public’s willingness to see shows change. Yet I continue to find it amazing that G&S shows still have a lot of relevance today.
Here’s an example: in the current show I’m doing, “Ruddigore,” I go through a litany of the “crimes” committed over my character’s previous week. One of the “crimes” is something that was certainly a crime at the time this was written (over 120 years ago) and is still a crime today, but is ridiculed as “everyone does that, it’s expected of you” and therefore not really acceptable as a bad crime. (I won’t give it away right now, let’s just say you should concentrate on “Tuesday” during the scene.) I find G&S shows seem to continually have funny things like this. I often think to myself “will the jokes Jay Leno does still be funny 100 years from now?” Amazingly, many of the jokes Gilbert put into the shows are still funny and many of the problems, especially the kind of personal relationship issues in the shows, still exist between people today.
The other part of doing G&S shows is that it’s fun to find out “the way things used to be” and sometimes, rather nostalgically, think how interesting it would be to live in that world we now think of as “old-fashioned” for things like politeness, class conflicts, and beautiful music.
Finally, I am the first to admit that I am not a fantastic actor. However, I have been blessed with a pretty good voice, and singing is an essential ingredient in all G&S shows. Therefore, I often have a good chance of getting a good part in such shows. So I will keep auditioning for them.
VCOS: What was the first G&S role you played?
GARY: The first time I was ever in a G&S show was as Capt. Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” at Moorpark College. The director was amazed I had not ever done a G&S show before. I remember being a little skeptical about getting a photocopy of the script because, as somebody who works in the software business, this kind of “piracy” is always a concern to me. She pointed out to me how old the show was and that the copyright had long since expired so having a copy of the script was OK. I have done this part several more times since then.
VCOS: When did you realize you had a knack for learning the patter songs?
GARY: I don’t think I have a knack for learning patter songs at all! Getting patter songs right is simply a lot of hard work. Then again, I have had plenty of people say I normally speak very quickly (and loudly) so perhaps that helps. I also enjoy creating parodies of the patter songs. I had to learn Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” [editor’s note: it’s based on “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from “The Pirates of Penzance”] for another show (“Tomfoolery”) and find it a lot of fun to be able to use the same kind of music with different words.
VCOS: When you’re singing one of those songs, are you actually thinking about the words, or do they just come pouring out of you?
GARY: My particular methodology is to find “patterns” in the words and use those to help me keep going. This causes problems when I forget the pattern, usually due to some action on stage distracting my concentration, and then erroneously use one of the sets of words from a different verse in the current verse. It happens. Eventually though, the words do essentially simply flow out of your brain into your mouth. I also often have specific hand gestures or locations on the stage which help me remember what verse I’m working on.
I found it interesting that, for me, it is easier to re-learn one of the songs than it is to learn it the first time. I trust anyone reading something like this would not be surprised to find out that everybody essentially forgets the lines from a show once you are finished with it, however, I have been able to do several of the shows multiple times and I’m amazed how the lines and the verses are “in there” someplace and just need to be dusted off a little bit. It takes me a lot less time to re-learn one of these songs if I have done the role before or maybe even if I have been in the show before and heard them done many times from a previous performance. However, some songs which I have done a large number of times (“Modern Major General” or “It Really Doesn’t Matter,” for example) seem to always be available in my head at a moment’s notice.
Our interview with Gary Saxer will conclude tomorrow. You can see Gary in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore” beginning tomorrow. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.