Williamsburg resident Lora Lee Gayer shines in Roundabout’s Broadway production of ‘Holiday Inn,’ the new Irving Berlin musical
On a recent gray, chilly, autumn morning (more San Francisco in late July than New York in early October), I was seated at a cozy, postage stamp-size Williamsburg coffee shop on Metropolitan Avenue. Called The Sweatshop, and owned by a wryly affable group of Aussies, it appeared to be the perfect spot for me to interview Lora Lee Gayer, who lives in Williamsburg and is one of the stars of the Roundabout’s rapturous new production of Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn” at Studio 54. The only fly in the ointment was the noise: the jackhammer across the street at a construction site; the constant drone of lurching, lumbering semis going east and west on Metropolitan; and the shop’s background soundtrack of alt-rock. Would my iPhone be up to clearly recording the interview?
The night before, I had seen Gayer’s lovely performance as Linda Mason in “Holiday Inn.” This “New Irving Berlin Musical” is based on the 1942 Paramount film of the same name directed by Mark Sandrich (director of some of the most indelible Astaire and Rogers movies.) That film starred Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds. Halfway through the filming, which took place in Hollywood and Sonoma County (subbing for Connecticut), the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. The film premiered in February of 1942 at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. It went on to become the highest grossing musical to that time.
“Holiday Inn” also introduced to worldwide audiences what is indisputably the most popular Christmas song ever written: “White Christmas.” Crosby’s version of the song is the bestselling single of all time, and other versions of the song have sold 150 million copies. Berlin, who was Jewish, had been worried that the song was second-rate and, in fact, initially “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” had been the hit song from the film. But by November of 1942, “White Christmas” was Number 1 on Billboard’s charts — and would stay there for 12 weeks running. Berlin needn’t have had any tsuris.
Nor need I — my iPhone captured every word (thanks, Apple) and the affable Aussies turned down the music (thanks, Australia.) Not only that, but within five minutes, Gayer’s warmth and enthusiasm muted any auditory distractions.
Gayer grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Both her mother and father were in the fabrics and fashion business. At the age of 12, she began spending summers at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. By 15, she transitioned to the Interlochen Academy prep school. Upon graduation, she entered another fabled arts program, the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she majored in Music Theatre. After Carnegie Mellon, she came directly to New York. “As soon as I stepped off the plane, I started auditioning…I had even started before I graduated,” she told the Eagle.
She also shared that some of her favorite Brooklyn activities include going to the movies at Nitehawk in Williamsburg, brunch at Juliet or House of Small Wonders, theater at BAM, St. Ann’s and Irondale and shopping for clothing at Meg on North Sixth in Williamsburg.
Dressed breezily in a black silk pleated skirt, a tan, waist-length leather Zara jacket and an H&M “L’Amour” tee, Gayer ordered a café latte with soy. I did the same. Plus a green tea donut.
I began by asking her about the original 1942 film. Had she seen it before she was cast?
Lora Lee Gayer: No, I hadn’t. My mom and I would watch “White Christmas” every holiday season, but I didn’t know “Holiday Inn” was, in some ways, the precursor to “White Christmas.” Only after I got the audition did I watch it.
Eagle: Alejo [Vietti, the show’s costume designer] must have really loved you, because you have the best outfits of anyone in the show. That blue blouse and skirt in the second act, with the matching beret, made me feel like doing a Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” asking Jessica Lange, “Can I borrow that sometime?”
LLG [Laughs]: I know, I know. He did such a brilliant job. Plus, I feel like 1940s clothing goes well with my body type. I feel very relaxed and comfortable in the costumes. Sometimes I joke with my friends that I don’t always wear modern clothing well, but put me in a 1940s dress, and I look and feel like Carole Lombard.
Eagle: The film version was set in 1942, months after America entered World War II. The Roundabout’s “Holiday Inn” is set in 1946 and ’47. Todd [Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company] writes in the Playbill: “In a year  that has been plagued by hardship and contention both at home and abroad, the show’s virtues of warmth and optimism feel more necessary than ever.” I gather this was the reason for the time period revision.
LLG: Yes, the producers want the audience to sit back, relax and enjoy Berlin’s classic songs and the dancing and the banter. As a friend of mine who saw the show recently said, “For two hours I was able to forget about Donald Trump!”
Eagle: Your friend makes a good point: I saw the show the night after the debate, and it was the perfect antidote to all the mud-slinging. Let’s switch subjects to something lighter: You’re such an effortless performer, so at ease with yourself on stage. Were you a ham as a kid? Did you put on shows in the family living room?
LLG: Actually, I wasn’t and I didn’t. My parents are still surprised that it’s the career I chose. I was much more involved with the visual arts, painting, drawing. The only time I ever performed would be on the occasions when my parents had dinner parties. They would let my brother and I stay up late, and after the dinner guests had left, I would stand up and do impersonations of them.
Eagle: How did that go down?
LLG: I was 5 years old and everyone thought it was hysterical. But even with that, my parents always thought I would become a visual artist. Or a doctor! The joke’s on them.
Eagle: I’m assuming by the time you went to Interlochen they knew you were more interested in the performing arts.
LLG: Oh, yes. By the time I was 10 they knew — and I knew — I wanted to be a performer.
Eagle: Did your parents play a lot of original Broadway cast albums?
LLG: My mother was a huge Barbra Streisand fan.
At this point, two whippets have entered the coffee shop accompanied by their owner. They start barking, loudly. We stop our conversation and look toward the dogs, who now begin to howl.
Eagle: They recognized you! Next they’re going to ask for a selfie.
LLG [deadpan]: I’m big with whippets. Anyway, getting back to Barbra: My mom would be playing these Streisand albums all the time, so, of course, I also became a huge Streisand fan, and by 10, I had every single song on every single album memorized — and choreographed!
Eagle: Is there video of that on YouTube?
LLG: No, thank God! But to give you an idea of how much I loved Streisand: there was a lip sync contest when I was in fourth grade on the Upper West Side. Most of the kids chose Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. I sat on a stool and lip-synched to “People.”
Eagle: Did you take a piece of gum out of your mouth and put it under the stool first?
LLG: No, at 10 I didn’t have the moxie to do that!
Eagle: Shifting gears, I gather from reading several of your interviews, where you artfully, and humorously, dodge questions about your age, that you support the recently passed law in California that will prevent IMDB from listing birthdates.
LLG: Yes, I am in favor of that. Because for actresses — not so much for actors — having casting directors, producers, directors know your age is a distraction. There are enough obstacles already, again, especially for actresses. In fact, I think the law should also apply to Wikipedia.
Eagle: Do you know Goldie Hawn’s response when people ask her age?
Eagle: “Age is a number; mine’s unlisted.”
LLG: She’s right!
Eagle: In a 2015 interview with Broadway.com, you said you can’t dance at all. What are you talking about?! Having seen the show last night, I can personally attest to what a terrific dancer you are.
LLG: Well, what I meant was that I was trained as an actor first, then a singer, then a dancer. However, in “Holiday Inn,” I do dance a lot, and all credit goes to our choreographer Denis Jones and his assistants Barry Busby and Amy van Norstrand. You know, I’m not Ann Miller, my leg doesn’t go up and hit my ear. But I do have “pretty lines.” And I have the right feet for dancing. I don’t have the flexibility or suppleness of a Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, but I hold my own. As for my tap dancing, again, I must give a shout-out to Amy van Norstrand. About six weeks before rehearsals began, Amy worked with me on my tapping three times a week. And Amy’s an incredible tap dancer.
Eagle: Is there anything left in your tank by the end of a performance?
LLG: Dancing in heels is demanding. And it’s not actually the dancing that tires you out, it’s the standing in heels. During the first few performances I would be a bit unsteady by the final number. But I’ve mastered it. And now I can say I’m tap dancing in a huge number in a musical on Broadway!
Eagle: And, of course, singing as well. Is there any special regimen for keeping your voice fresh and vibrant doing eight performances a week?
LLG: I had very rigorous, classical voice training, which keeps my vocal foundation always healthy, so there isn’t a lot of “maintenance.” Sleep, hydration and everything in moderation. I don’t live like a nun, but screaming at a bar at 3 in the morning is probably not the smartest thing.
Eagle: Apropos classical training, at Interlochen and then at Carnegie Mellon, did you study Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neill, Miller, Tennessee Williams? In other words, the canon?
LLG: Interlochen’s foundation is classic theater training, which includes all the playwrights you mentioned. We only did one musical a year, and it was very much an afterthought. At Carnegie Mellon, at the School of Drama Acting and Music Theater, both drama and musical training are offered. We would do five to six dramas a year and only one musical, but the musical theater majors also took voice and dance classes. I’m very proud of having gone to Carnegie Mellon. You can look at Broadway and off Broadway marquees and probably 80 percent of the shows have Carnegie Mellon graduates involved as either cast or creatives.
Eagle: From your very active Twitter account, I know how proud you are: you recently posted a shout-out to CMU’s production of “Playboy of the Western World.”
LLG: Yes, I’m a proud Scottie. [Note: the official mascot for Carnegie Mellon’s athletic teams is a Scottish terrier.]
Eagle: Well, if you can manage to get a Sunday matinee off, you have a standing (no, sitting — let’s give your legs a break) invitation to the Jan. 15 NYU-Carnegie Mellon basketball game. My alma mater vs. yours. But you have to promise to wear your tartan Christmas dress from the show.
LLG: That’s a deal!
Opening Night for “Holiday Inn” is Thursday, Oct. 6. For more information, go to www.roundabouttheatre.org.
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