By Mark Kennedy | Associated Press
They met for the first time across a crowded room. Murder was on their mind.
One was a respected Tony Award winner who dies eight times a night on Broadway. The other was an up-and-coming actor who can’t wait to do it on the road.
Jefferson Mays, the star of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” was holding a gin and tonic. Coincidentally, so was John Rapson, who will play all of Mays’ roles in the upcoming national tour.
‘A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER’
When: Sept. 29-Oct. 11
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Tickets: $34 – $183
“The first time that I heard Jefferson Mays say my name, my heart stopped,” says Rapson of the party held on the eve of the first tour rehearsal. “The man has been a hero to me for a very long time.”
Mays, ever gracious, said he remembered thinking the younger man was not only perfectly cast but even an improvement over him. “You’re going to take it to a different realm,” he tells Rapson during a recent joint interview.
The show — the 2014 Tony-winning best musical — is about an impoverished man who discovers he’s ninth in line to inherit a fortune. So he decides to eliminate the eight heirs of the D’Ysquith family standing in his way.
Mays, 50, and now Rapson play all eight victims — two women and six men — some more than once, from a fop in a top hat to a silly reverend with awful teeth to a grand madam in a frilly frock.
“It passes, unlike any other show I’ve done, in such a delirious blur, which is exhilarating. You’re slaloming down this ski slope with these characters popping up. Every now and then, one will slap you in the face,” says Mays, who won a Tony Award for “I Am My Own Wife.”
While Mays is now lamenting the show’s upcoming Broadway closing on Jan. 17, the national tour has kicked off and comes to Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre on Sept. 29. Later stops include Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, Arizona, Tennessee, California, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Washington, Nevada and Washington, D.C.
One of the show’s biggest fans was none other than Rapson, 28, a graduate of the University of Michigan, who remembers being blown away by Mays’ performance on Broadway in 2007 in “Journey’s End.”
Last year, Rapson was about to go into the latest revival of “Les Miserables,” yet found time to watch “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” three Sundays in a row, long before he’d be invited to lead the tour.
“The truth of the matter is that I came back so often because I adored the show but also just to catch every detail,” says Rapson, who called Mays “the most extraordinary of stage presences.”
“You don’t often get to be in the theater with a performance you know people are going to be talking about for years and years and years, and you’re going to get lucky enough to say you were there,” he says.
For their second meeting, this time at the show’s Broadway home in the Walter Kerr Theatre, the younger actor brought Mays a gift, a 12-year-old Scotch. (“It’s the perfect thing for after a show,” says Mays)
The two shared strategies on how to navigate the physical demands of a show that has 12 costume changes in the first act alone. One quick change must be done in just 14 seconds.
Even though he’s still in rehearsal, Rapson has already realized he needs to remain as economical with his movements and calm as possible. And, above all, Rapson notes that he must stay out of the way of the dressers, who descend on each actor like a NASCAR pit crew.
“Oh, you’re a far wiser man than I am, Mr. Rapson,” Mays responds. “That’s the big lesson I had to learn: For god’s sake, whatever you do, don’t help them. Just become sort of inert. They just want a mannequin.”
While some actors might be wary of a potential rival changing their role on tour, Mays opens his arms. “No, we D’Ysquith have to stick together.”
“Everyone else is after us,” Rapson points out.
“I will watch your back if you will kindly watch mine,” Mays says.
“I most certainly will, sir,” replies Rapson.