Updating Oscar Wilde and ‘Being Earnest’ in the Swinging Sixties

In today’s world of Facebook, dating apps, and rampant catfishing, it’s hardly a surprise when someone creates a fake profile online.
What may be surprising is that the practice isn’t all that new. In Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the Irish playwright detailed the sticky Victorian situation experienced when a pillar of the community creates a fictional persona as an excuse to live a double life and circumvent tiresome social obligations.

Over the course of the story, gentlemen from the country mix with gentlemen from the city, crossing paths with love interests, a society matron, a young ward, a dutiful governess, a priest, a manservant, and more.

Greater Boston Stage Company explores all of this in the East Coast premiere of “Being Earnest,” a musical adaptation of Wilde’s witty comedy of mistaken identities, now re-set during London’s Swinging Sixties.

Directed and choreographed by Elliot Norton- and IRNE Award-winner Ilyse Robbins, performances run through Oct. 7 in Stoneham. Music and lyrics are by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska.

The cast includes actor, singer, and pianist Will McGarrahan, fresh from receiving an Elliot Norton Award as Best Actor in a Musical for “Souvenir” at Lyric Stage Company. In “Earnest,” he takes on the three roles of Reverend Chasuble, Lane, and Merriman.

A new musical can be exhilarating for actors and audiences alike. During a recent interview, McGarrahan mentioned a production of “Being Earnest” had been staged a few years ago on the West Coast, “but I literally hadn’t heard any of (the material) until we started rehearsals. And honestly, the way I, and I think a lot of the company, work, we try to approach even established musicals as if they were new.” The difference, he said, is “you have to figure out the phrasing of a song because you don’t have anything in the back of your head.”

The authors have remained faithful to Wilde’s original text and ideas. As they worked, they found remarkable similarities between Victorian social mores and those of the ‘60s, right before the “Summer of Love” counter-culture emerged.

In projecting a Swinging Sixties authenticity, McGarrahan said, “I think a lot of that plays out in the music, in the musical staging, and in the design. I think it’s actually what will really make the show pop. It’s sort of the machine running it.”

The designers have also taken on the task of creating visuals that speak to the bright, colorful, Mod, Mod World of Twiggy and London’s Carnaby Street. “The set is very much like that,” McGarrahan said, “Golds and reds and Union Jack sort of images. And costume-wise, it’s all those great looks of the sixties.”

Originally from upstate New York, McGarrahan attended Boston College and got his first union job as an actor in “Biloxi Blues” at a theater in Lake George, New York.

Broadway beckoned, and, he remembered, “I looked like every other 20-year-old going to New York, but I couldn’t dance. I looked like a chorus boy, but I didn’t have particularly the skills of a chorus boy.”

He soon grew disillusioned with New York and bartending at Broadway theaters. “It was right around New Year’s . . . New York was frustrating in that I wasn’t quite sure . . . ‘I don’t really have a life here.’ It was sublets, sublets. And this is after having had a good summer doing ‘Biloxi Blues.’ But I was like, I need to have some sort of life.”

So he picked up and moved to Seattle, lived at the Y for a couple of weeks, began auditioning, and slowly started building a successful career.
His return to New England came via his friendship with Paul Daigneault, the soon-to-be-founder of SpeakEasy Stage, whom he had known at BC. While McGarrahan was in Seattle, Daigneault invited him to come to Boston and appear in William Finn’s “A New Brain.” He later asked him to return to direct Sondheim’s “Saturday Night.” During tech rehearsals, McGarrahan said, “You know what, I’m moving here . . . I was mid-30s. I just packed everything up in a U-Haul and moved to Boston.”

Over the last 20 years, he has become an audience favorite from Lyric to SpeakEasy, the Huntington and beyond. With exceptional diversity, he shifts between musicals, comedy, and drama.

A short list of his impressive credits include “Next Fall,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Grey Gardens,” “Mame,” “Moon For The Misbegotten,” “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Company,” and “Five By Tenn.”

Playing three roles in a tight farce like “Being Earnest” presents a challenge, but McGarrahan enjoys the rehearsal process of creating three unique characters.

“With all these small parts, my feeling is you need to make one big choice and play it out because there’s not a lot of time for subtlety . . . I usually start out with either the energy of the character or just sort of how they carry themselves, where their center of gravity is . . . That’s all experimentation in the rehearsal room . . . And that’s fun.”

A new musical is also a work in progress. When McGarrahan and I spoke, the composers were due to attend rehearsals. Prior to that, Gordon and Gruska had been very open to ideas from Ilyse Robbins and musical director Steve Bass.

Said McGarrahan: “There’s been a lot of ‘Can we add this in? Can we add background singers to this? Can we move around some incidental music?’ That sort of thing.”

He also noted that his audition song – originally the Act Two opener – doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been replaced by a new piece, although the theme from the cut song is now used an incidental music else where in the production.

Knowingly, McGarrahan said, “And that’s the way musicals get made.”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboton.com.
“Being Earnest,” through Oct. 7, Greater Boston Stage Company. 395 Main St., Stoneham. Info: 781-279-2200 or greaterbostonstage.org.