News Column

Veteran Actor Stars in His First Musical in Eight Roles

November 17, 2013


Jefferson Mays began his Broadway career with a role that was hard to top.

What does an actor do for an encore after portraying an eccentric German man who lived his life as a woman, and doing it so well that he wins a Tony Award?

That performance was 10 years ago, in the solo play "I Am My Own Wife."

And when the show closed ...

"I think they were confused about what to do with me," the 48- year-old Mays said in a phone interview last week. "There was no 'type' for me yet. I was offered jobs impersonating everyone from Cher to Madonna."

He managed, though, to adroitly navigate the next decade, establishing a career as a distinctive, chameleon-like character actor who emerged freshly in each role.

He played leads (a cleverly different Henry Higgins - opposite Claire Danes -- in a revival of "Pygmalion") and also supporting parts (an amusing cook in "Journey's End").

And now Mays has gone on to something he's never done before: starring in a Broadway musical, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

"It's my first time singing and dancing," he said, "and it's very different than doing a play. A musical sweeps you along, like you're on a magic carpet ride of sorts. But you have to keep up. If you forget your lines - which, thankfully, hasn't happened to me yet - you can get left behind."

In "A Gentleman's Guide," which opens today at the Walter Kerr Theatre, he whips through eight roles - two of them female -- playing the members of the noble British D'Ysquith family.

All of them are targets of a distant, black-sheep relative, who intends to dispose of them one by one to put himself first in line for an earldom.

"Sometimes I think it's more athletic than artistic," said Mays. "There's a hell of a lot of running around for a middle-aged man [switching characters]. I'm losing weight." The quick changes don't allow for much alteration through makeup. So, Mays' characterizations, which include a prissy beekeeper, a studly rascal and a dreadful actress, largely depend on variations of voice and posture.

"It was important for me to imagine what each of the characters looked like," said Mays, who, offstage, is a slender, agreeable- looking man with a receding hairline and piercing blue eyes. "I put a great deal of thought into that."

(This isn't Mays' first go at doing multiple characters. In "I Am My Own Wife," he impersonated about 30 different individuals who played roles in the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the main character.)

"A Gentleman's Guide" is based on the Edwardian novel "Israel Rank," by Roy Horniman.

The story became famous, though, from the 1949 British film adaptation "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which Alec Guinness played the eight heirs.

"I had a tangential connection," said Mays. "Guinness is a particular hero of mine, and that's one of my favorite movies. I vividly recall it."

One of the things he admired most about Guinness, he said, is the way the brilliant British actor would disappear into his roles, totally becoming the character he was playing.

"I completely aspire to that."

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