The Confession of Howard McGillin

It's not just actor-playwright Charles Busch offering a revelatory exercise in camp along Off-Broadway right now. Watch his co-star.

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Howard McGillin and Charles Busch in "The Confession of Lily Dare." Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There is never a moment in The Confession of Lily Dare, the new Charles Busch romp at the Cherry Lane Theatre through March 5, when actor Howard McGillin twirls, like Snidely Whiplash, his mustache. In fact, there’s nary as whisker upon the veteran actor’s still-handsome face. Yet the character McGillin plays, Blackie Lambert, is so very much the villain — he all but ties the title character (played by Busch, of course) to the railroad tracks and cackles.

So visibly delighted is McGillin to wear devil horns that it makes a nifty complement to Busch, whose character evolves from a simple convent girl to a cabaret chanteuse to a brothel madam, courtesy of the beloved actor-playwright‘s legendary espirit de camp. Blackie is so low that for an actor generally known for musical theater work (he played the Phantom on Broadway over 2,500 times), McGillin gives the role a revelatory sheen. Watch McGillin in the scene when Blackie, that bastard, forces Lily Dare to abandon her child, thus setting into motion the rest of the plot. How refreshing to encounter a caricature that turns into a wonderful character.

Directed by Busch’s longtime colleague Carl Andress, The Confession of Lily Dare is a comic melodrama that celebrates the gauzy “confession film” tearjerkers of early ’30s cinema. For tickets, click here.

The following interview with McGillin has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Leonard Jacobs: How did Lily Dare come into your life?

Howard McGillin: It came as a bolt out of the blue with an email from Charles. I know him from kind of around the “theater campus” of the New York; years ago, we did a one-night concert presentation of Bell, Book and Candle. I love his work. And in this email, he wrote, “Would you read this script — I’d love for you to be a part of this.” I was delighted because, first of all, it’s so funny just on the page.

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LJ: It’s interesting that he thought of you as a villainous type.

HM: Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve never played a villain — I have a feeling that perhaps Charles was also thinking of my John Jasper in Drood. I’m also a fan of old melodramas from the ’30s as well. This play is such a love letter to those movies, the sentiment at the heart of them. Whereas most people shy away from that, Charles leans into them with great affection.

LJ: Tell me about the deliciously nasty Blackie Lambert.

HM: Such a good name, right? He’s such a snake in the grass; he’d sell his mother for a song. He gets Lily going as a chanteuse, then sells her up the river and she’s literally sent to prison. Charles patterned Blackie on a George Sanders type — fast-talking, slick.

LJ: I tend to think of this kind of role as new for you, but maybe it’s better to ask you if you think it’s new for you.

HM: I guess you could say that it’s new for me in the sense that I haven’t delved into any melodramatic style before. But I was raised on the movies of the era — where the dialogue is rapid and arch. I went back and immersed myself via YouTube. It’s so deliciously written and I want to get it right. It’s a departure in terms of the style.

LJ: And it’s still a play.

HM: Absolutely. At the end of the day, you’re still telling the story; you’re finding a way to inhabit this character who has his own needs and wants. Carl’s direction has been pivotal in that he wants the play to move like a bullet train — and it does. it’s amazing how fast this play moves. Everybody gets their due — and Blackie certainly gets his in the end. Which Lily delivers.

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LJ: Are you relieved not to have to learn a score?

HM: I don’t know, over the years, how many people have said “You should do more plays.” But to get that email from Charles saying “Would you do my play?” — that was a huge gift. There’s definitely people in the business who — in their minds, without being conscious of it — make a distinction between those who do musicals and those who do plays. Earlier in my career I did plays, and I loved every experience. Then I came to NYC and started doing musicals.

So it is different, doing a play. The musicality of Charles’ writing is crucial to what makes the play work so beautifully. The script sounds like a song; it builds and it builds and the dialogue is cleverly written, and with such wit. The build-up to the jokes is there for you. It sounds corny, but I approach everything I do with trying to find the truth in each moment. If there’s a song involved, you have to find the heightened reason to sing the song. I think the relief for me may be not having to wake up in the morning, hoping I can hit that A-flat. I don’t know an actor who doesn’t quake a doing eight shows a week on Broadway. You’re always worried.

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LJ: Is it daunting to adjust to Charles’ heightened style, which lean into camp but not so much that it topples over?

HM: It’s somewhat daunting, sure. This is a dialogue-heavy play and my character speaks in paragraph form — this witty, urbane villain who has words to spew out. My concentration isn’t on saying the words but, in a way, staying on the beam as I go through the show. For example, I think one of the challenges has been — how many laughs do I wait for before I go forward? As Blackie, I want to pounce on something that someone just said. But I have to let the laughs happen. In a funny way, I’m the straight man.

LJ: Ultimately, why do you think Charles thought of you for this role? Something about you made him think of you. Do you ever want to ask about things like that when you get cast?

HM: Put it to you this way. When I first got to NYC, I was lucky to work with Wilford Leach — a wonderful, wonderful director, artist and man. My first show was La Bohème, at the Public Theater. One night, Wilford and I were out after the how and he said “I have this project written by the guy who wrote the piña colada song, and there’s this part — he’s a demented choirmaster who lusts after the young girl and tastes opium.” I thought, You’re talking to me?” When you’re being cast, there’s always this sense of “What, me?” I guess I’ve always thought that you have to trust that people know more than you know — and why not take the ride?