By R.J. Donovan
Special to the BIR
Actor, singer, pianist and director Will McGarrahan has been part of Boston's theater community for more than a decade. During that time, he has established himself as one of the city's most reliable and diverse talents. He's an accomplished musician, gifted at comedy, and he can just about stop your heart with a dramatic moment.
A graduate of Boston College, he has appeared at Lyric Stage Company, Gloucester Stage, Publick Theatre, and Nora Theatre, among others, in everything from "A Moon For The Misbegotten" to "Grey Gardens," "Some Men," "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "9 Circles," "The Last Sunday in June" and "A Class Act."
On Sept. 16, he returns to SpeakEasy Stage Company to open the season in "Next Fall." Written by Geoffrey Nauffts and nominated for a Tony Award in 2010, the play looks at the ups and downs of an unlikely gay couple's four-year relationship with humor and honesty.
In the play, Luke (played by Dan Roach) is devoutly religious. Adam, (played by Will) does not believe in God at all. A crisis changes everything in their lives while giving new insight into what and how we believe.
The New York Times called the play "an intellectual stealth bomb" with the "stinging breeziness of a cosmopolitan comedy." When Will read the play, he not only found it funny, but could see himself in the role of Adam.
"He certainly has my rhythms," he said. "What's interesting about the play is that we all end up [dealing] with the prejudices of people who are very religious . . . It's not only between two people, it's really how you exist in the bigger community and the smaller community. How people label, and people get judgy, and all that."
Performing first beckoned while Will was still in middle school just outside of Albany, New York. "I was always doing theater since I knew what theater was," he said.
Music entered the picture around the same time, first with the violin. "That was a total disaster," he said. Next came the flute. "I still wasn't very good at it." And finally, the piano. "We had a piano in the house which my folks bought for my sisters . . . I started taking lessons. And then I was like, 'Oh, I get how music works. This goes up and this goes down' and it all made sense."
He made his professional acting debut at the Four Seasons Dinner Theater in Albany playing Yonkers in "Gypsy." "I think I was 16 at the time. I don't know what they paid us. $20 a week? Something like that." His first union job followed with a summer production of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues" at Lake George.
He then tried his luck in New York City. Calling the experience frustrating and tiring of sublet after sublet, he headed to Seattle. "I’d never been there, I didn't know anyone there," he said. In his mind, he saw the city as gray and cloudy. Having spent a couple of months in Ireland one summer, he imagined, "Oh, it'll be like Dublin. It's nothing like Dublin," he deadpanned.
"I needed to try something new. Looking back on it, it was [something)]really important for me to do. It was about being a grown up and paying the rent and paying for food and checking out how to make your life work and all that." A solid career followed.
Thirteen years later, Boston would resurface in his life. Paul Daigneault, whom he'd known when they were both students at BC, had subsequently founded SpeakEasy Stage. In 1999, he invited Will to take a role in the William Finn musical "A New Brain." Daigneault would later ask him to direct Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night" in 2001.
He's been here ever since, building a loyal following whether he's center stage, behind the piano, or both, as he was when he won critical acclaim in "Souvenir" at Lyric Stage with Leigh Barrett.
Of the range of shows he's appeared in, he said, "There's some material that's more crowd pleasing than others. And there are shows that you hear people talking about years later. And you kind of go, 'Oh, you still remember that? ' "
One show that really clicked with audiences and critics alike was "Five By Tenn," an evening of five intense one act plays by Tennessee Williams, which SpeakEasy presented in 2006. Another was last spring's "The Drowsy Chaperone," also at SpeakEasy. Billed as a musical within a comedy, "Chaperone" is filled with sharp humor and lots of quirky show business references. Will played a musical theater-loving character called Man In Chair who serves as a sort of narrator for the show, speaking directly to the audience throughout.
Of the strong response, he said "I'm still getting it. People are stopping me on the street, on the sidewalk. And not just in the South End. Anywhere in Boston. And it's not just 'I saw you in 'Drowsy Chaperone' and it was good.' They make a big deal about it. It’s interesting. Certainly 'Drowsy Chaperone' wants to be liked. Something like 'Five by Tenn' or 'Moon For The Misbegotten' is not something that says 'Love Me.'"
While some actors tend to carve out a niche for themselves in one area -- comedy, drama, musicals -- Will's career has really been an interesting blend of everything. "I really do try and make an effort to keep swapping it up," he said. "Some of that you can't really control, but I do try . . . I always say, I think I do several things really mediocre. And that's a talent," he said with a hearty laugh.
For someone who's spent his life in a business that, while rewarding, can be fraught with emotional highs and lows, McGaharran is very focused and low key. When I told him he had a refreshingly pragmatic attitude toward his work, he gave a throaty laugh and affirmed, "Yes I do."
"I'm kind of practical," he said. "You learn after a while. You go to an audition. This is what I’m selling. This is who I am. These are my skills . . . If that's what you want, you will hire me. And if not, you won't. And that's okay . . . I certainly have had a nice variety of things to do in the theater, which I love."
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
“Next Fall,” from SpeakEasy Stage Company, Sept. 16 - October 15 at The Calderwood Pavilion at The Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street. Tickets: 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.