In August, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is staging Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon. The production is being done in collaboration with Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and features a new book by Jon Marans which delves deeper into the circumstances these men and women experienced while heading west in search of gold.
Earlier this summer Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre presented this newly staged production, where Jared Michael Brown played Angus, understudied the lead Jake Rutland and served as fight captain. For the Ordway’s production, Jared will lead the show as Jake Rutland. While deep in rehearsal, Jared took the time to sit down with me and discuss his career, Paint Your Wagon and what audiences can expect from this ‘revisal’ production.
Paint Your Wagon opens at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul on August 9 and runs through August 21. For more information on the show or to purchase tickets, visit the Ordway’s website.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
You know, oddly enough, most of my early memories of being on stage were colored with very unique ‘live’ experiences that should have turned me off from the whole enterprise, but in the end kind of solidified my love of live theatre.
For instance, my lovely mother signed me up for a traveling singing group called The Sunshine Generation when I was about 5 years old. We traveled all over the Northwest, singing at random charity functions and parades. Oh, the parades… Just about every weekend we donned our bright yellow, orange, and white tuxes and were affixed atop a slow-moving trailer that was beautifully decorated with foam and glitter. And just about every weekend I would spend the whole parade rubbing my eyes trying to get the flecks of metallic death out of my eyes, or stand up too soon and nearly topple off the slow-moving trailer of cheery doom.
Freshman year of high school, I was in a production of Fiddler on the Roof as a crew member. We had this incredible turntable and this beautiful rotating house unit, and it was my job to rotate the unit for the first act, and then track the obscene amount of steins, stools, and crates in the second act. Second weekend of the production comes and we lose a couple of guys due to… unforeseen circumstances (sports). Consequently, the tavern sequence, ‘To Life,’ is looking a bit thin on the first night and the next day our director calls some of the tech guys in early to add us into the scene. We’re fitted with Russian costumes and told to stand in the back and “swing a stein.” (A phrase that will follow me throughout my career, and very accurately describe my level of coordination in High School). Then, we wait for the curtain to close, emerge, and play drunken idiots while exiting down the stairs and out the back of the auditorium. Easy.
I wore glasses in high school. That night, I make the house unit shift, change my clothes and am nervously poised to enter, stein in my hand, ready to go. One of the other actors turns to me and yell-whispers, “They didn’t have GLASSES like THAT back then, take them OFF!” And he grabbed them from me, and shoved them in his stein as we entered. The rest of the scene was a blur, literally. I have no idea what the hell was going on, but I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else. Until…
Curtain closes at the end of the scene, and I begin furiously checking steins all over the stage trying to find my glasses. Of course, the song is about drinking, and steins fly to and fro throughout the scene, and nobody ends up with their original stein – a dramaturgically cruel and unhygienic feature in this particular moment in my predicament. My cue comes, I abandon my search and I emerge through the curtain with another guy and we’re doing our drunken idiot dance. I cling onto him for dear life, and he suddenly starts pulling away. I improvise, “Heyyy, where are you goinnnng?” (in a drunken Russian accent, of course), he responds, “I’m going back inside! Meet meeee down in the village! I’ll be right there!” Another guy shoves me toward the end of the stage and I suddenly remember that I have to negotiate stairs and a darkened aisle in order to leave. I panic and grab on to the dude who shoved me and we both hit the stairs… hard.
He nearly broke his leg, and I bruised a number of odds and ends. Our director gave me permission to wear my anachronistic glasses that next night, and once I saw what was going on… I kind of enjoyed myself.
Every performer has that moment where it just “clicks” and they know performing is what they want to do for a living. What was that moment for you?
I think every show I’ve ever done has this moment. Sometimes it’s an opening night laugh, others it’s finishing a number and watching the audience just sit there in shock. Most of the time, it has to do with the unscripted and unexpected moments that blossom into a really incredible moment.
In January I did a show, Ring of Fire, with one of my best friends playing June Carter alongside my Johnny Cash. Our production allowed for more than its fair share of interaction with the audience, and during one of our last shows a guy got up in between numbers and exited in the middle of the first act. I stop mid-dialogue and crack, “Where you goin’? We’ve still got another 25 songs!” “Oh, I’ll be right back.” “Oh yeah? Good. Hey, if you pass by the bar grab a beer for me, I’ll pay ya back.” Audience erupts in laughter. Guy heads out, and a few minutes later tries to sneak back in without being noticed. “Oh, no. No, no. This guy came back and he didn’t bring me a beer!” He’s about as red as a barn and he says, “Can’t bring ‘em in here, but you’ve got one at the bar waiting for ya.” Stunned, I just shake my head in disbelief and start clapping.
My job is awesome.
This production of Paint Your Wagon is a ‘revisal’. How would you describe what audiences can expect from this version that differs from the original 1951 musical or 1969 movie they may be expecting?
I can tell you exactly what they can expect when they see this version: something different. And, more to the point, something closer to the real circumstances that many of these men and women went through in trying to repurpose their lives and become something greater than themselves. These individuals went through hell to find gold, and did whatever it took to make whatever dreams they had come true. Our director, David Armstrong, instilled a sense of urgency in every moment of this show, in every character, removing any hesitancy from our action on stage. This was an environment ripe with socio-economic tension, racial inequality, and violence. There just wasn’t time to think. Ever. If you missed a day’s work out in the fields, you were behind, and that meant you would be sprinting to catch up for the rest of your time there. These men and women were already the big fish in their respective little ponds, and these settlements were full of these larger-than-life human beings who wanted to strike it rich and would stop at nothing to make their fortune and have a better life.
And wait till you hear this music. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me after this show and gush about these wonderfully rich orchestrations. This music encapsulates such size and grandeur and unending horizon that this story tells. The drive and desolation in ‘They Call the Wind Maria,’ combined with the dark, rich performance of Robert Cuccioli, backed by this ominous chorus of miners … You’ll discover that you haven’t breathed for a full three and a half minutes. I just don’t think it compares to either of those releases of the movie, on the big screen or on your computer.
You play Jake Rutland. How would you describe your character?
He’s a rough-and-tumble Southern gent. Kind of an ass. Out to make a buck in whatever time he has, with whatever resources he can scrounge up. One of the most impressive things about this character is that Jon Marans (our book writer) has installed these moments where Jake is constantly snubbed or pushed around, and every single solitary time he gets up like the Southern gentleman he is and dusts himself off before moving on, trying some other way of getting what he thinks he deserves. It’s kind of a beautiful archetype. The bad guys are always the most fun to play on stage.
You are also serving as the fight caption for this production. What does that entail during the process of staging the show versus once the show has opened?
My job as fight captain during the run is simply to preserve the danger and detail of each moment of physical conflict in the show. We run through every moment just before our half-hour call and we take each move step-by-step, running through at half-speed (kind of like moving through molasses), and then bringing it up to performance speed and intensity (the actual speed you see on stage every night).
During our staging and rehearsals my job is basically to be another set of eyes on the fight. I try to set myself at a different angle than the choreographer, in this case the incredible Geoffrey Alm, and give feedback when needed. I transcribe each fight and keep it in my script in case there’s ever a moment where we need to reference the step-by-step action of the fight.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Paint Your Wagon?
Well, they’ll have no choice but to be singing ‘They Called the Wind Maria’ when they leave the theatre… Sorry, folks. It just happens. WE even sing it, bounding our way back to our dressing rooms to get out of our costumes after curtain call.
But beyond the music that will be stuck in their heads for weeks following the performance, the feelings this show ignites will spur conversations. Conversations that relate so potently to our current political climate and the current issues that we’re facing as a nation and world. This show begins tough dialogue about the foundation of human nature: what we want, how we get what we want, and whether or not we’re willing compromise our integrity and our core beliefs to get it. We can’t be afraid to have these difficult conversations about how we treat each other. It’s about race. It’s about gender. It’s about how much money is in the bank. It’s about politics. This show creatively expounds upon one single slice of human history and if we’re having those conversations on stage, the audience deserves to have space to have those conversations out in the lobby and once they leave the theatre.