David Hyde Pierce is everything you'd expect him to be: charming, affable, witty—exactly the sort of person you'd want to be seated next to at a dinner party. The actor, who became a household name thanks to 11 years and four Emmy Awards playing the snooty but lovable Niles Crane on the award-winning sitcom Frasier, is also something you might not expect him to be: very passionate. He's utterly devoted to the new musical Curtains, in which he stars as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a homicide detective with a secret longing to be in musical theater. Of course, Pierce himself is no stranger to musicals; he made a splashy return to Broadway in 2005 as the cowardly Sir Robin in the smash hit Spamalot. Now the actor is back on the boards and nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in a show that is clearly dear to his heart. Pierce took time out from a crazy awards season schedule to chat with Broadway.com about the appeal of Curtains, how his late father informs his performance and how he keeps Tony madness in perspective.
I was reading through some older interviews with you and realized that you went to college with the reporter from The New York Times and summer camp with the reporter from Time Out New York. I apologize for not knowing you in advance.
[Laughs.] That's funny. It does make it seem like I only speak to friends. But they're the only two, as far as I know, that I'm connected to. I promise!
What appealed to you most about Curtains?
Kander and Ebb. Before I had ever seen a script, Scott Ellis, our director, was directing Frasier episodes. We were in our last season, and he came to me and said, "I have this Kander and Ebb show that's never been done, and I think there's a part you'd be right for." Just the chance to work with them—Freddy [Ebb] was alive at the time—was the thing that grabbed me.
What was it like when you first met them?
Well, I never got to meet Fred. When Scott came to me with Curtains, I had already agreed to do Spamalot, so I wasn't available. Then, because of Freddy's death, the whole project was postponed, so it turned out I was able to get involved. The summer I was in Spamalot, we did a couple of workshops. I had met Kander through friends and family and social circles. I knew that he was a very big-hearted, gentle sort of man. But then to actually get to work with him was a whole different thing.
Oh, yes. When we were first doing the backers' auditions, one of the producers, who didn't end up backing the show, said to me, "Are your shoulders big enough? You gotta have big shoulders for this show!" As it turns out, even though my face is very big on the poster, it doesn't really rest on me. It really is an ensemble show that hinges on Rupert [Holmes] and Peter's [Stone] storytelling and character development and, of course, on Kander and Freddy's incredible music and the choreography and everything else. It's not like I'm Vanessa Redgrave doing a one-woman show. I think if it was bombing with my face on the poster, that would make me sad. In a weird way, the responsibility I feel is more paternal. As the nominal lead and the most high-profile actor in the show, I take everything that happens to the show and the people in it, good or bad, very personally.
Did you have musical theater aspirations growing up?
It never occurred to me to go into musical theater.
But you were obviously musical.
I was a classical musician, but the closest I ever got to musicals was Gilbert and Sullivan. I used to go to a summer camp in New Hampshire that's been around since something like 1910, and I think it's a holdover from that time. Every summer they would do a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. They did all of them—even really obscure ones. That kind of stuff is the forerunner of the American musical theater, but I didn't know that at the time. The music was interesting, it was funny and I liked it. But I was on a completely different path of being a classic pianist by the time I went to college [at Yale]. When I started acting in college, it wasn't musicals at all; it was Shakespeare and Shaw and new plays and comedies and things like that.
So you never imagined that you'd be in a Fred-and-Ginger type of number on Broadway, as you are in Curtains?
Never, never, ever, ever. The irony is that my dad, who was an insurance agent, always dreamed of being an actor. My dad really is this character. He did a lot of community theater and was an incredible dancer in our hometown upstate. He and my mom would be the last ones on the floor, but I never got to see him because he had stopped doing that by the time I was born. I've had contemporaries of his come backstage after seeing Curtains and say, "Oh my God! You're your father."
How wonderful! It's as if you are recapturing some of that family dance floor magic.
Something like that, yes! Even though I never got to see him do it, it's in the feet or in the genes or something.
You share the stage with some of Broadway's greatest dancers. Was it intimidating to dance in front of them?
Totally! And I worked really hard. Even before Spamalot, I started working with a great dance coach, Cate Caplin, in Los Angeles. I took it very seriously. I didn't want to look like a butthead in front of all all these dancers. I mean, these are people who have devoted their lives to this, so it's not like I could dance on their level. Mainly, I didn't want to embarrass myself, but I also didn't want to hinder [Curtains choreographer] Rob Ashford or Casey Nicholaw in Spamalot. I didn't want them to think, "Oh God, we're stuck with him. Maybe we can have him, you know, skip around the stage or something."
You really prepared yourself.
The great thing about both shows—but especially Curtains because I have much more sophisticated dancing to do—is that the company and the dancers are so supportive and helpful. Rob's associate JoAnn Hunter and David Eggers, our dance captain, are really great and patient with me. So were the folks from the ensemble. Karen Ziemba would find me practicing on my own in a room and give me helpful hints. I was learning everything backwards; I learned the choreography and then had to learn how to dance.
That sounds daunting—learning the complicated vocabulary of dance backwards.
Exactly. Most people had spent their lives learning what it feels like to dance, and I had to learn that after the fact. Of course, the person who was most patient and most amazing was Jill Paice, who I actually dance with, because I have abused her in the learning process in ways that can't be described.
I love your number "Coffee Shop Nights." It evokes an Edward Hopper painting to me.
I'm so glad to hear you say that. First of all, it's the first song Kander ever wrote without Freddy. I think it's such a gem because it does several things at once: You get a complete picture of who this character is and what his life is like. You've got three verses where he sings about how he's got these lunch counter mornings and coffee shop nights, which allows the actor to find a way to make each story different. And it also [represents] this coming together of two characters. Even though I'm the only one who sings it, it's really a conversation between me and this girl I've just met and immediately fallen for.
Well, I was born in 1959, so that's part of it. I think that the whole period of the piece is so fascinating. That was one of Rupert's many amazing contributions. The original show, as it was written 20 years ago, was contemporary. They changed the lyrics for some of the songs, like "It's a Business," Deb's [Debra Monk] song. There was one line, "I do the karma sutra with a Jerry Herman score," that became, "I do the karma sutra with a Richard Rodgers score." Little things like that. Rupert's insight was also in this whole area of a murder mystery. It taps into so many cultural references when you're dealing with a mystery.
Are you a fan of mysteries?
No. I had read some, and I certainly started reading a bunch once I got this part, but I wouldn't say if I walked into a bookstore, I'd think, "Oooh, the mystery section!" No.
Have you had any memorable responses from audience members?
Yes, on a lot of different levels. There are, of course, the wonderful comments from people who love the show, or are coming back a second time or a third time. I love that there are young kids or teenagers on spring break or older people who have come; it has a broad appeal that's very nice. But there's also this other group at almost at every show who are going through terrible times in their lives. They're people who've just gotten a cancer diagnosis or just gotten over it, or lost a child—the worst things that could happen to you in the world. Those people who come up—and sometimes they can barely talk, they're so emotional—and just say, "Thank you for taking us away for two and a half hours."
You also have all the Frasier fans who are seeing another side of you.
Yes, Frasier fans are very loyal, and for them to see me as other than Niles is a nice thing. That's what was great about the sequence of Spamalot followed by Curtains. Spamalot was a silly comedy, very different visually, and the characters were different. It kind of took me out of that framework of Niles and made the transition to this, which is essentially playing the romantic lead in a musical, more acceptable—not only to an audience but even to me.
Do you get sick of being identified as Niles?
No, no, no. We're in the golden age of Frasier now. It's being rerun so much that there's this whole new generation of people who are seeing it and coming up to me. I love it, and it's not like I've been trapped in the part in any way. I did it, and it was great. I will be grateful for it forever, not just because it was a good income, but because I was working with the best writers and the most wonderful actors for 11 years. And I've been able to go on and do other things in other forms. So, no, it never bothers me.
Would you consider doing another TV series after that enormous success? Or would you worry about the Seinfeld effect?
I don't worry about anything. When the material strikes me, and when the people I'm going to work with are people I want to work with, that's all I think about. Right now, I'm in the midst of Curtains, and I couldn't be happier. The idea of a television show is not even yes or no, it's outside my frame of reference right now. But at some point, sure, if the material and the people were right, I'd do it.
How did your early experience on Broadway with Beyond Therapy shape how you feel about the New York theater community?
Beyond Therapy was my first professional job, and it could not have been a more complete experience. I had a small part, which made it easy to handle. I was working with John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest—all these amazing people—Peter Michael Goetz and Kate McGregor-Stewart and Jack Gilpin. So I was sitting a lot in rehearsals just watching and absorbing and seeing these people put the thing together. And going into the Brooks Atkinson and seeing my dressing room, which I now know is just a pit—but at the time I thought I'd gone to heaven. The magic of the tech and the preview audiences going nuts and elderly women in the matinees banging their heads on the seats ahead of them, they were laughing so hard. And opening night with my mom and dad in the audience and going to Sardi's with them for dinner afterward… Then The New York Times review came out and [former Times critic] Frank Rich hated it, and we closed in two weeks.
Wow, that really was a complete experience!
It was. I saw how great it could be and also what a difficult, treacherous business it is and how it is a business. I think it was the best thing possible because even though it had such a sad ending, I just thought, "Wow, this is what it's like when it fails. How incredible!" For me, it was the perfect prep for coming to New York and learning about what can and can't happen.
And of course, at the other end of the spectrum we have Spamalot, which played like a rock concert from the first preview.
It felt like one.
Oh God, let me think. They were rowdy on stage. It was great! What was cool about that, and we have it in Curtains too, is a very loving, extremely talented and deeply anarchical group who respect each other and the material. No one's screwing around to the point that the show gets hurt, but everyone has the same kind of maniacal gleam in their eye. You know that at any minute, something could go horribly wrong or someone could just get the giggles. One thing I remember from Spamalot is Hank Azaria and Christian Borle, who had the scene where Christian as Prince Herbert and Hank as Sir Lancelot essentially fall in love up on the balcony. We couldn't get through it watching them because they're both so funny. Chris Sieber, too. Oh my God, there were a lot of tense moments there with me and Michael McGrath, who played the guards that were dead at this point. We had the luxury of just laying downstage and shaking with laughter—supposedly dead. I think most of the craziness actually happened in front of the live audience.
Are there are any roles you're dying to do?
I'm always interested in doing new stuff. I think after Curtains, it would probably be good to do a play and not another musical so that my body has some chance of recovering. Also because, my gosh, with Spamalot and Curtains, it would be pushing my luck to try for a third because those two were and are so successful and such incredible experiences. So my instinct is a new play, or maybe Shakespeare or Chekhov. I don't have specific role in mind. There are so many options.
Now I'm going to ask you this question, and I'm not really expecting an honest answer.
OK, good! [Laughs.]
Do you care about winning the Tony?
It's actually a good question. I've been through awards before. I know what they are and aren't. You can remind yourself of all the great shows like West Side Story that didn't get the Tony because The Music Man got it. There are a million things like that. Do I want the recognition? Yes. Do I want it for the show? Yes. Do I want it for everyone in the show? Yes. That's the downside, that there's only so many awards to go around, and I know there are going to be people or parts of my show, including myself, that may not end up with anything. The thing about awards is, when you don't get one, you feel terrible, and when you do get one, you realize how little it actually had to do with you. The whole thing is a nightmare.
You really have thought a lot about this!
Well, exactly. Every other minute, I'm thinking about it, and every other other minute, I'm saying, "Stop that!"
See David Hyde Pierce in Curtains at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.