Shades of Hugh:  Martin Guerre’s Panaro Reflects on a Spectrum of Roles

In 1560, the court of Toulouse in southern France actually conducted a trial to determine the identity of the villager known as Martin Guerre.  After uncounted scholarly dissertations, novels, plays, movies, operas, and musicals later, the latest sleuth trying to fathom “Who is Martin Guerre?” is Hugh Panaro.  He has the title role in the latest wersion of the Schonberg/Boublil musical based on the French legend.

Schonberg and Boublil took this concept of a musical to Cameron Mackintosh, who produced their mega-hits, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.  After nearly a decade, with three different versions in three major productions, they put the latest version in the hands of Panaro as Guerre, Stephen Buntrock as Arnaud du Thil (who claims to be Guerre) and Erin Dilly as the woman who marries one but comes to love the other.  But it wasn’t supposed to be that way.  When they first put Panaro and Buntrock together, Buntrock had already been cast as Martin Guerre and Panaro was auditioning for Arnaud du Thil.

Panaro recalls the audition with a sense of excitement approaching wonder.  He says that as soon as he and Buntrock began to sing together, “the blend was instantaneous and marvelous.”  Sounding for all the world like one who just took a final exam and knows he “aced it,” Panaro says, “we could feel it the second we started to sing.  Stephen’s voice does something to mine and my voice does something to his and it is indescribable.”  He says he couldn’t believe it when “they came up to me afterwards and started saying something about no being right for the part and how they had made a mistake.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Then it penetrated.  They weren’t saying ‘no.’  They were saying that maybe I should be Martin and Stephen should switch over to Arnaud.  We came back the next day and I sang all the Martin parts.  Again there was that blend and they hired me that day!”

And so began a search for the identity of the subject of a musical about identity.  How did Panaro go about finding out who this Martin Guerre was?  He hadn’t seen the movies or read the books.  In fact, he says he knew very little about the project.  But he didn’t start any independent research.  Instead, he read the script.  “I’ve always believed that we have to look to the text.  After all, we serve the author here.  That is our job.  So I sat down with [co-lyricist] Stephen Clark and we discussed any questions I had.  Sometimes he’d tell me what they [Clark, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg] felt was behind a particular detail, but sometimes he’d simply say, ‘I don’t know – fill it in with what makes sense to you.’”

As an example, he cites the lyric “Look, I’m Martin Guerre/Father I’m brave/And from your grave/You’ll keep me strong.  Yes I’m Martin Guerre/For they will learn/When I return/That I belong.”  “All the script tells us is that I’m a 14-year-old kid being raised by my uncle.  The audience never needs to know what happened to my folks but I needed to on order to make that lyric work for me.  So, for me, I filled it in with having been loved and secure in the earlier years.  I don’t know how my father died but I am sure I don’t feel abandoned or rejected.  That’s enough.”

All this is for Hugh Panaro to answer the question, “Who is Martin Guerre?”  Now we wanted to ask the corollary question: “Who is Hugh Panaro?”

Philadelphia born and bred, Panaro is a man of many roles who has an infectious enthusiasm for what he does.  On Broadway, Panaro has been Marius in Les Miserables, Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Julian in Jule Styne’s ill-fated musical The Red Shoes, both Raoul and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, and Buddy in Side Show.  When he talks of any of these, it is with an obvious delight over what the process of bringing a character to life can be.  But his recollections are not a sanitized version of history.  He remembers the pain of projects and approaches that didn’t work out as well as he hoped.  It just doesn’t seem to diminish his relish for each effort.

There is a sense of excitement in his voice when he talks of the process of making a part his own, even if it is a part originated by another actor.  “You just can’t go out there in front of all those people if you haven’t figured out how to make it yours,” he says, adding, “it doesn’t have to be in the big stuff and it doesn’t have to be new blocking.  But it has to feel like you – not a pretend version of whoever name first.”

In the 15 years since his mom and dad helped him pack the trunk of his car the day after he graduated from Temple University, he has been almost continuously employed at the task of creating characters on stage.

When Panaro drove into New York, he didn’t know how hard it was supposed to be to find work in the field he wanted to pursue.  After all, he’s been almost constantly employed since he turned 13 on the dinner theatre circuit.  With plays as well as such stalwarts like The Sound of Music, Bye Bye Birdie, and My Fair Lady, he had worked eight shows and four masses a week; he was the organist at his family church from the fifth grade until he graduated college with a degree in music.  Liturgical music blended with Rodgers, Strouse, and Loewe, but he found it easy, since from the age of five or six he could sit down at a piano and play any music he heard.  He must have been a very industrious young man as well – he held down a job walking the neighbor’s dog “Blackie” all those years.

Maybe his naiveté protected him: on the first business day in New York, Panaro had a job.  It wasn’t exactly Broadway.  It wasn’t even Equity.  It was a half-scripted, half-improvisational role in an interactive musical about immigrants, performed on a boat running back and forth to the Statue of Liberty.  “Half of it was doing the script, but the other half was interacting with the passengers, in costume, and keeping in character.  I became Jacob Elsir from Germany.  The hardest part was dealing with passengers who broke into German.  I’d put on my thickest possible accent and say ‘Here it is important we speak in English.’  Most of the time I got away with it.”

Panaro continued to benefit from not knowing how impossible it was to break into show business in New York and what aspiring actors were supposed to do.  He saw that a dinner theatre in Connecticut was going to do Chicago.  Have performed the role of Mary Sunshine in Philadelphia more than once, he wanted a chance at the part.  He found the casting director’s name in the phone book and called him at home over the weekend.  The casting director tried to brush him off when he found out he didn’t have an agent or belong to Actors’ Equity.  Panaro remembers, “I said something incredibly dumb like ‘if you don’t see me, it will be the biggest mistake you ever made’ and, I don’t know, he must have been intrigued because he penciled me in.  I got the part and that’s how I got my Equity card.”

Job followed job, and he eventually got an agent.  That agent got him an audition for the first national tour of Les Miserables, which was then being formed.  He got the job and opened the tour in Boston, and continuing the run in Washington and his home town of Philadelphia.  Then he was transferred into the Broadway company.  But was it just a process of replicating a role created by another, or was it creating his own Marius?  “I was a different stage presence than the Broadway Marius.  It was the youth thing, I think.  I was 10 years younger and [projected] a totally different artistic temperament.  I felt I was creating the role.  Some of the things I did were natural for me and have come to be a part of the show even when they might not fit others.  [For example,] I just naturally fell over the revolving trellis to get into Cosette’s yard.  That piece of business has been kept in and I’m sure future Marius’ wonder just why they are doing that.  Some probably hind having to do it breaks whatever it is they are trying to do at that point.  But it’s what Hugh did.”

Later, he auditioned for director Harold Prince as a replacement Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.  Panaro had been told that Prince had seen him in Les Miserables and was unimpressed with his singing.  “After all, Les Mis has a more ‘pop’ sound than Phantom.  I guess he didn’t think that my voice was right for it.  When I got a chance to audition, I asked everyone how to do it.  Everyone said ‘just sing loud.’  So I didn’t try to do any acting, and performance stuff – I just sang as loud as I could.  I was hired that day.”

He performed by night while rehearsing by day with the stage manager and dance captain.  “I wasn’t Steve Barton [the original Broadway Raoul], but they were trying to get me to do all the stuff Steve did.  When Hal came in he hated what he saw.  He called me over and said, ‘Do you remember what you did at you audition?  Well, that’s why I hired you and that’s what I want you to do!’  From that moment on, I was free to make it mine, not just do what Steve had done.”

In 1993, Panaro had his first opportunity to create a role from scratch for a Broadway musical.  Jule Styne was working with Marsha Norman on a musical based on the 1948 ballet-protégé-becomes-a-star movie The Red Shoes and Panaro was cast as Julian Crastor, the ballerina’s composer/lover.  Panaro had seen the movie but, again, says he looked to the text and to what the author and the director were trying to do to form his role.  “The movie was the source but it wasn’t the substance of what they were trying to do,” he says.  He remembers the work with the original director, Susan Schulman, as amazingly focused, but she was replaced by Stanley Donen.  Panaro says it became a nightmare.  He don’t go into details because, “well, as Mom always says, ‘If you can’t say anything nice…’  I stayed with it because I wanted an opening night, I wanted a cast album, I wanted all that is supposed to come with it.  But by opening night we already knew we were closing and there wasn’t an album and …oh well.”  The Red Shoes closed after a three-day run preceded by six weeks of previews at the Gershwin Theatre.

Not all his memories of that first original role are difficult, however.  “The best part of the entire thing was being appreciated by Jule Styne!  I wouldn’t trade that for anything.  To sing for Jules Styne and have him kvelling like a proud grandfather was just the most amazing thing.  Some of the others didn’t seem to know how very special this is.  ‘Hello! This is the guy who wrote Gypsy for crying out loud!  He wrote Funny Girl!  Hello!’  Now, here he is putting things in a key that’s comfortable for me!”

Hal Prince shows were to dominate Panaro’s musical career for the next few years.  He had the role of Gaylord Ravenal in Prince’s revival of Show Boat on Broadway, in London and in Toronto.  Again, his emphasis was to be true to the text and the intentions of its authors and director.  “I did Ravenal with Cloris Leachman and she would ask ‘Did you read the book?’  Sure, I read the book and it is a wonderful book.  But it has nothing to do with the musical that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote or the show that Hal Prince created.”

Panaro got a chance to work on another Kern/Hammerstein part when he sang the role of Tom Martin in the Encores! Concert presentation of Sweet Adeline at City Center in New York in 1997.  In this version, he was working from an abridged script by Norman Allen under the direction of Eric D. Schaeffer.  He remembers the best advice was simply to hold the book still at low chest level and keep his face up so he could be both heard and seen.  “That version of ‘Some Girl Is on Your Mind’ [which he sang with Stephen Bogardus, Steven Goldstein and Patti Cohenour rocked!” he says.  “I wanted it recorded!”

He did record some of Kern’s music.  His participation in John McGlinn’s Jerome Kern Treasury album came after the collapse of plans for McGlinn to record the score of Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life.  “Rebecca Luker and I were doing Phantom of the Opera and she got me involved in the Love Life project.  We were all crushed when it didn’t happen.  Treasury was kind of a consolation prize.”

For Panaro, 1997 was the year of Side Show, the Bill Russell/Henry Kreiger musical about Siamese twin performers Daisy and Violet Hilton, that became something of a cult following for its short run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.  With Side Show, Panaro finally got his first cast album.  He remembers the incredible chemistry and teamwork.  Norm Lewis, who sang the role of Jake, was a friend of long-standing, and Alice Ripley, who played the twin his character loved, “had something that just blended so well with my own on-stage persona that it was really special.”  They worked under director Robert Longbottom.  “Bobby has got to be the most organized, most together director I’ve ever known,” he says.  “There wasn’t a wasted moment and yet I never had the feeling I was working under a time constraint.  We just always seemed to get to the end of what we were working on at the time he was scheduled to go on to something else.”

A factor in the show’s cult status was the network of fans on the Internet who shared news, comments and rumors throughout its development.  Panaro says he isn’t “a big computer geek” but that the cast became aware of something out of the ordinary with the fans and their intense interest in the show.  “I don’t know if it was the subject matter, the fascination for the twins, the computer connection or what, but there was an intensity of interest all the way through.  When they announced the closing, you should have heard the reaction!”

But he has moved on, now spending his days and nights in the search for Martin Guerre’s identity.  The soaring melodies of Schonberg and the lyrics of Boublil and Clark occupy much of Panaro’s attention; it is a challenging piece for him.  But, he says, “This is the first score I’ve ever had where I’ve liked everything I get to sing.”  About the character he’s building, he says, “Martin Guerre rocks!  He just blows me away emotionally.  There’s been absolutely no pressure to be anyone but me in this role…there’s been a carte blanche to create.  But, then, I believe so strongly in the text.  Oh, sure there were Martins before, but it’s the text we’re working from that we’re working on.  You can’t re-create that.  You have to interpret it.  It just feels so right when it’s right – and this is right.”

(ShowMusic Magazine, Spring 2000)

By:  Brad Hathaway

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