An almost palpable air of excitement has hung over the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault ever since July 20, opening night of “Into the Woods,” a Collaborative Theatrical Production with the Northfield Arts Guild. With music and lyrics by the inimitable Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, “Into the Woods” is one of those musicals where the songs ring in the head for days (“Into the woods, then out of the woods and happy ever after!”).
This production was awarded a grant for $10,000 from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council through the heritage funds from the 2008 state-wide vote. Gary Briggle, an experienced director and performer, was brought in to direct the musical. His selection was a natural because of his talent and Minnesota ties. Last month I met with Briggle prior to a rehearsal in Faribault to talk about his career and current directorial stint.
Briggle’s parents were North Dakota natives and although he was born in Moorhead in 1953, while his father was teaching at NDSU, his family soon moved to Silver Spring, Md., where his father was a research agronomist with the Department of Agriculture. Briggle had been singing and acting since elementary school days but, Briggle told me, “My parents never encouraged it as a career choice, believing you couldn’t make a decent living out of it.” They did encourage him to go to a Lutheran college and after he saw St. Olaf College, “It was sort of a hands-down slam dunk.”
Briggle auditioned for everything at St. Olaf in the fall of 1971, including the St. Olaf Choir which, although he did not realize it, normally did not accept freshmen. An exception was made for the talented tenor and Briggle said that it was “truly life-changing to work with Dr. [Ken] Jennings and sing in the St. Olaf Choir,” as they performed at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and (in June of 1972) opened the Strasbourg Festival in France by performing Bach’s Mass in B-Minor with the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Another life-changing moment came when Briggle’s voice teacher, Don Hoiness, told him, “You have everything it takes to be a very successful professional singer. I really think you should be in the Bachelor of Music program.” Briggle said Hoiness “couldn’t have imagined that he was touching the heart of my secret hope. But I knew I could trust him. I believed that his artistry was authentic, he certainly was the most inspiring of teachers and so I put myself in his hands and declared Bachelor of Music going into second semester freshman year.”
Briggle left the St. Olaf Choir to concentrate on his Bachelor of Music work. With the guidance of his advisor Hoiness, Ralph Haugen and Pat Quade from theater and Ann Wagner from dance, Briggle attained both Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and Speech/Theatre degrees at St. Olaf. Briggle said, “They just put the most extraordinary opportunities in my path.” In his sophomore year, Briggle performed with full orchestra as the Pirate apprentice Frederick in “Pirates of Penzance.” During Interim of his junior year, Briggle portrayed James Tyrone Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
Quade e-mailed me from his new home in Texas: “In his undergraduate years Gary was an amazing individual. Multi-talented, full of creativity and bursting with enthusiasm. He could sing, act and dance…all at high level performance levels. A quick learner and an astute performer, it was not at all surprising that his career would be in theatre.” Quade said Briggle’s mastery of his challenging role in the O’Neill play “convinced me (and the audiences) that this young man was an actor capable of great things. And he never has disappointed!”
In the fall of 1974, Quade directed Briggle in the role of Jesus in “Godspell,” a musical adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Briggle told me that Quade’s auditions for “Godspell” were “as stringent and difficult” for those who had performed before as for newcomers. One of these newcomers chosen for “Godspell” was sophomore Nancy Ringham, who added a theater major to her music major as a result. (Ringham made her Broadway debut in 1981, as Eliza Doolittle opposite Rex Harrison in a revival of “My Fair Lady,” a saga recounted in my column of August 2008. She is currently working with the Lark Play Development Center in New York, led by famed playwright Arthur Kopit.) Ringham told me by telephone that last year she went to a revival of “Godspell” and thought that, in the role of Jesus, no one could touch Gary Briggle. “He made me cry every night. He is one of the most gifted singer/actors I have known,” as well as being “an incredibly nice guy, extremely supportive of those of us who were green.”
The review of “Godspell” in the Nov. 1, 1974, Manitou Messenger said that the “familiar and new faces in the cast” resulted in a “freshness and vitality that brings your spirits soaring out of the dungeon of Ytterboe” (the play was in the Cellar Stage of old Ytterboe Hall). “The love that exists in the script and the cast of ‘Godspell’ is very much a result of Gary’s own characterization. To make that love come across to the audience is the responsibility of Gary and the rest of the cast. Those who have seen ‘Godspell’ know the magic of that love and will cherish the memory for a long time to come.”
Briggle said that being in “Godspell” helped him understand that, although he was not called to the ministry, he could share his faith through the theater: “Any time you take on the life of another human being and bring it to the stage and breathe new life and understanding into that, hopefully with compassion and honesty, that’s a kind of ministry as well. It can heal, it can enlighten, it can raise consciousness.”
St. Olaf’s “Godspell” won in regional competition of the American College Theatre Association and was one of ten national finalists selected by regional committees from more than 330 entrants that year (with no further judging taking place). Briggle also won a Best Actor award in regional competition and, as an acting finalist for the Irene Ryan Award, traveled to Washington, D.C., where his work was critiqued at the Kennedy Center by Jason Robards, Zoe Caldwell and Roger Stevens. Briggle won a $2,000 scholarship for his ongoing education after graduation in 1975. (The estate of Irene Ryan, best known as “Granny” in the TV Series “Beverly Hillbillies,” funded this award in her name.)
So popular was this production of “Godspell” that it was taken on tour, starting with the St. Mark’s Cathedral Fine Arts Festival on May 24, 1975, in Minneapolis, followed by performances throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin for three weeks. H. Wesley Balk, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera, had seen Briggle at the St. Mark’s Festival. And, “much to my amazement,” said Briggle, Balk “invited me to join the Minnesota Opera Studio which was his apprenticeship program. I look back at it now and opera wasn’t really on my agenda but he swore that it would change my life and that I had what it took to sing opera.” Briggle became a member of the Opera’s ensemble, participating in premieres of such works as Argento’s “The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe,” Susa’s “Black River” and Mayer’s “A Death of the Family” and classics including Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel” and Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.”
In the fall of 1977, the old “Women’s Gym” was renovated into the Speech-Theatre Building at St. Olaf and Briggle was invited to play Don Quixote in “Man of la Mancha” since the “Impossible Dream” of having a true theater venue had become a reality. The following year Briggle participated in a Homecoming concert at Skoglund called “Collage” with the St. Olaf Band and St. Olaf Dance Company. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Briggle said his “beloved guardian angel” Myrna Johnson gave him “wonderful opportunities” to direct and perform in plays with the Northfield Arts Guild. He started with directing “Dear World” in the summer of 1978.
In 1979, John Clark Donahue of the famed Children’s Theater asked Briggle to become a member of the resident adult acting company and for several years Briggle performed in the fall with the Minnesota Opera Company, then January through May with the Children’s Theater. Briggle said, “I flourished because I was being taught and challenged in the most rigorous way. Wesley Balk and John Clark Donahue, for all of their differences, were relentless, artistic visionaries.” It was at the Children’s Theater that Briggle met his companion, Wendy Lehr, one of the founders of the theater. (In 2010 Lehr received an Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement and also had the Lowry Theater in St. Paul renamed the Lehr Theater in her honor.)
In 1982, Briggle embarked upon a freelance career that took him to regional theaters and opera companies throughout the United States and even to Hungary (see box). After his start with the Minnesota Opera and Children’s Theater, Briggle performed and/or directed in many other musical venues in the Twin Cities, including the Jungle Theater, Ordway Center, Nautilus Music Theater (where he continued his association with his mentor Balk), Skylark Opera, Frank Theater and the Theatrical Music Company. Briggle told me he has learned the most from “sharing in the creation of new works,” particularly with La Theatre de La Jeune Lune and the Nautilus Music Theater. He also appreciated the “two glorious roles” written for him in “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Barnum’s Bird” by Minnesota composer Libby Larsen, which Briggle called “thrilling challenges, richly rewarding.” His Minnesota credits also include performing and directing extensively for the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.
Director Briggle with members of “Into the Woods” cast in Faribault: Debra Bjornard, Stephanie Roberts, Dave Flynn, Christina Schwietz, Jason Meyer and (foreground) Emily Rhoades and Annabelle Strickland.
In April of 2000 Briggle directed “The Mother of Us All” at St. Olaf‘s Kelsey Theater, based on the life of Susan B. Anthony, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. Briggle told me, “What a thrilling privilege to have Dan Dressen, Janis Hardy and Jimmy McKeel, all dear friends and colleagues from the Minnesota Opera, invite me down to direct an opera at St. Olaf!” The work called for a multitude of soloists and, Briggle said with a laugh, “I wanted subtly to make my point that it is possible for musical theater and opera to thrive at St. Olaf and for people to sing as soloists without being in choirs.”
And now Briggle has come to our vicinity from his home in South Minneapolis to direct the Tony award-winning musical from 1987, “Into the Woods.” The show features an intertwining of plots of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, with an exploration of the consequences of wishes and quests of the characters. Briggle said that he is not a director who is a dictator. Instead, he encourages the actors “to use their imaginations, to use their instincts, to use their talents and not to wait to be told what to do.” Then, “once I’ve got them taking risks, making choices, working with what they understand and what they imagine, then I start to shape that.” It is exciting for him to see the cast members make the roles their own.
“I believe in that way the show then is a reflection of the community…The show for me is really about the importance of connectedness to one another, the importance of compassion and generosity, of mindfulness of one another,” said Briggle. At the heart of the finale is the theme that no one is alone, that “there are many communities, there are many families and these bonds are intrinsic and must be nourished and sustained.”
Briggle is being aided by colleagues who have worked with him in the past, music director Joey Bates and associate Sean Flowers, both of Auburn University. Briggle had nothing but praise for the cast: “I’m not spoon-feeding them. They are working incredibly hard” and will give a gift of their efforts to the community “with all their heart.”
What is next? Briggle is playing the “Fool” in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Park Square Theater in St. Paul this fall and will be teaching acting again at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. (He has taught at many colleges, including St. Olaf, throughout his career.) This month he is taking part in presenting a new chamber opera, “Winesburg, Ohio,” with composer Robert Elhai and librettist Jim Payne under the guidance of Ben Krywosz for the Fringe Festival.
Briggle concluded his interview with me with a tribute to Wendy Lehr, who has choreographed the finale for this production of “Into the Woods”: “When you live your life with the artist you most love and respect, then you have this extraordinary learning experience every moment of every single day. It’s a profound blessing to share a life with this great artist. Her gifts are only exceeded by her humility. She has taught me about hard work and patience and discipline and gratitude, on the stage and off the stage, and we just feel so blessed to have a life that is filled with art at the center of our lives. It’s an amazing wholeness.”
Gary Briggle – A National Star
Among the many outside-of-Minnesota credits of Gary Briggle:
– Stage Company of the Palm Beaches (Florida): Stop the World!, Patience, Godspell, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Crucifer of Blood, Chekhov in Yalta
– Skylight Music Theater (Milwaukee): Mikado (taped for PBS-TV), A Talent to Amuse (one-man show as Noel Coward), Let’s Misbehave (Cole Porter), An Evening with Gilbert & Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, Hansel and Gretel, Patience, Iolanthe, Threepenny Opera, Sweeney Todd
– Arizona Theatre Co.: (resident ensemble member in the late 1980s) Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Great Expectations, Amadeus, Arms and the Man
– Dayton Opera: The Tragedy of Carmen, Porgy and Bess, Il barbiere di siviglia, H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance
– Sacramento Opera: Pirates of Penzance, Turandot, Romeo et Juliette, Faust, Carmen, Falstaff
– Seaside Music Theater (Daytona Beach, Florida): artistic associate. Many leading roles, starting with The Mikado, Music Man and Oh, Coward! in 1979 and directing and playing the “modern Major-General” in Pirates of Penzance in 1980. Others include Amadeus, Follies, The Gondoliers, La Perichole, Ragtime, Jeckyl and Hyde, Beauty and the Beast.
– Lyric Opera (Cleveland): principal tenor 1983-98, artistic director 1995-98. Credits: The Britten Chamber Operas, Daughter of the Regiment (debut), Candide, La Belle Helene, Mrs. Dalloway (premiere), “Into the Woods.”
– Florida Repertory Theater (W. Palm Beach, founding member, performer and director). Credits: A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Tintypes, 1776, Oh Coward!
– National Theatre of Hungary/Miskolc: directed Hungarian premiere of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1999)
Also: Virginia Opera, Opera Omaha, Nevada Opera, Opera Carolina…..Need we say more?