Jim Dale, His One Man Show, from 15th May 2014
Ted Sod, sat down with Jim Dale to talk about his career and the formation of his solo show
Ted Sod: You've been an actor, a singer, a songwriter and a comic for over 60 years. To what do you attribute that longevity?
Jim Dale: Our show business tree has many branches as well as many roots to it. As a young man they looked as if they would be fun to explore. The experience gained climbing one particular branch could help one's career later while exploring another. Years ago, one of those branches was a disc jockey job working for the BBC. I told myself that one day I might be asked to play such a part in a play and a little previous experience would be invaluable in creating a more colorful character-I'm still waiting.
TS: Is there anything that you wouldn't like to do?
JD: I would never try Hamlet on ice.
TS: Tell me a bit about the genesis of this show. What made you decide that it was time to do a solo show?
JD: Most people can only write down their memoirs and leave those memoirs to their grandchildren to read. In this instance I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to put those memoirs into a show, some sort of stage production which could be videotaped? My grandchildren could at least play a DVD of their grandfather's work and perhaps play that DVD for their grandchildren." That was really the genesis of the idea behind it-to leave something more than the written word.
TS: What made you decide to work with Richard Maltby, Jr. as director?
JD: There have been three or four things in my career that I always ask for: a great script, followed by a great director, followed by a great cast, and then followed by, hopefully, a good review. Having a top director looking after me during any production is vital and I think Richard Maltby has been a perfect collaborator. He's experienced as a songwriter, as a lyricist, and as a director. I was very honored when he saw the show early on and said, "You know, I would love to help you polish this and put it into shape" which he did. When we work together, we hardly need to talk-we just look at each other. One of us shakes his head, and the other agrees. We've managed to cut, edit, and polish this down from a two-hour show to about 90 minutes, no intermission.
TS: Tell us about your working process.
JD: I have an apartment with a piano here, so for the first time in my career I was able to use my home as a rehearsal room. Richard turned up here regularly with my great pianist, Mark York, and my favorite musical director, Aaron Gandy. The four of us would sit and go over the script word for word. We tried the show out of town at a few theatres and it received the kind of reception an actor can only dream of.
TS: Because it's a solo show, do you feel as if the audience is your acting partner?
JD: Oh, absolutely! It's a double act between you and the audience. They are such an integral part of the show. It's not only laughter that one needs to judge an audience by, it is also the silences you feel and hear when an audience is truly listening. We talk a lot about the sound of laughter, but there are magical moments when you hear no laughter but sense a theatre full of huge smiles. Some old timer once said, "If there is anything better than laughter let me know." How very true.
TS: How difficult was it to choose what stories you are going to tell?
JD: It was terribly difficult. Don't forget, it's 60 years of stories. We had to pick and choose, but there are enough memories for three or four, Just Jim Dales. So much great material. This is just 90 minutes of it. I've no time to even mention anything to do with the British, "Carry On" film series. These were 33 films that were made for British cinemas over thirty five years, and I was involved in 14 of them. They are still so popular on English television that the whole "Carry On" team is now comedy icons, and the whole series has been accepted into the British Museum archives as the best of British 20th century humor. If Just Jim Dale ever goes on to England, then I will have to edit something out to include a section of "Carry On" stories. They are probably the most hilarious of all.
TS: How many songs do you actually perform?
JD: We've got music for twelve songs. Some of them are my own compositions; others are songs that I've been connected to over the years.
TS: I was astounded to realize that you wrote one of my favorite songs, "Georgy Girl." How did that happen?
JD: Well, that's one of the moments in the show. There are instances, instead of just crooning "Georgy Girl," we choose to tell the true story as to how that song came to be written.
TS: Do you sense that the audience will see this as a piece about show business self-invention? You changed your name and came from very humble beginnings.
JD: No, I really don't. I've never considered myself a star or anything like that, never. I have a reason why I do theatre. I love the stage-that's one reason. The second reason is, I would hate to be a big, super movie star or television star, recognized by everybody in the street-no matter where you went on this earth, somebody would be there to point you out and leave you with no private life whatsoever. This happened in England when I became a pop singer in the '60s. I experienced a couple of years of that and I didn't like it. I hated it in fact, so I decided to back out of pop singing and go back to comedy. When I came to America, I decided to live in New York, which is the home of theatre, rather than in Los Angeles. The idea was to do the best possible work in my chosen medium and still have my private life.
TS: You've also recorded all of the "Harry Potter" audio books here in America.
JD: Well, that came about by accident. They were looking for an English actor to do the narration, and someone said, "Jim Dale is in a play off-Broadway called Travels with My Aunt in which three actors play 33 different characters on stage." And everybody said, "Wow, let's sign up Jim Dale!" So they signed me up for the "Harry Potter" series and it was only then that someone casually asked, "How many characters did you play on stage in Travels with My Aunt?" I remember saying, "Just two: the aunt and a nephew. The other two guys played 30 characters between them." So I really got the part of the narrator of the "Harry Potter" books under false pretenses.
TS: That has become a way for the younger generation to recognize you-correct?
JD: It's nice to have been part of the younger generation's life for the last eight to ten years. That was the joy of it. The children, who were eight or nine when they started to listen to "Harry Potter", spent the next eight or nine years listening to Jim Dale's voice. The great thing there, and this relates to not wanting to be recognized, is that I could still go anywhere and not be recognized, but as soon as I opened my mouth to say anything in the company of children, you bet your life that somebody recognizes the sound and asked with goggle eyes, "Are you the guy from the "Harry Potter" books?"
TS: I would imagine your grandchildren listened to them too.
JD: Only because I sent them the audio books. But I can't blame my grandchildren for not listening to the "Harry Potter" audio books, because their grandfather hasn't even heard one of them. I've done 50 audio books now, since "Harry Potter", but I've never listened to one of them, and I really don't want to.
TS: Is that because you don't like sound of hearing yourself or because you sense that you could have done something better?
JD: In television and film you are allowed take two, three, four, five, take 50 if need be. In the audiobook world, you start recording and it's take one. When you're reading a book, you just keep talking until you have to stop to turn the page. I would love to have repeated certain lines again, but with Harry Potter there was no time. I first glanced through the book to find the characters and give them a voice. Later in the studio I found I would be literally reading the book for the very first time. I decided then that I would be in agony listening to something and knowing I could have done better given more 'takes.'
Message from the Artistic Director about Just Jim Dale
Never have I presented a more aptly-titled show than Just Jim Dale, beginning previews this week at the Laura Pels Theatre. Yes, it's just Jim up there on stage, alone but for a pianist and a stool. But if you think that "just" signifies something small, then you don't know Jim Dale at all.
Jim was born to be a performer, and as you'll learn from this incredible show, he is as natural a storyteller as there has ever been. I'll let Jim tell you himself about his upbringing in the glory days of the British Music Hall, his triumphs as a pop star, his transformation into a musical comedy man, and his unforgettable creation of hundreds of voices for the Harry Potteraudiobooks.
What I want to share with you is my personal experience with Jim, a man whom I can tell you without exaggeration basically saved Roundabout thirty years ago. Hugely popular after his successful turn in the musical Barnum, Jim could have done anything he wanted. But in 1984 he agreed to do Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg off-Broadway with Roundabout, just as we had been kicked out of our old theatre and were moving into a new one, losing plenty of money along the way. The theatre's finances were so bad that making payroll each week was an ongoing struggle, and we were only kept afloat by the generosity of one dedicated board member, Chris Yegen. What we needed was a hit show, and Jim Dale gave us one. He and Stockard Channing came together to such stunning effect in Joe Egg that the production became one of the season's must-see events, quickly moving to Broadway, where it would win this company's very first Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. That success put us on solid enough ground that we were able to turn things around for the theatre. It was only my second year with Roundabout, and I will never forget my feeling of gratitude towards Jim for taking a chance on us.
Since that time, Jim has truly become part of the Roundabout family. He would return for another great Peter Nichols piece, Privates on Parade, and later to play the iconic Mr. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, before gracing Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca with his beautiful work just two years ago. I've had the privilege of hearing Jim tell jokes and stories many times over his years with Roundabout, and it is a pleasure like no other. They really just don't make 'em like Jim anymore, with wide-ranging talent and such utter affection for his audience. I'm thrilled to be able to share this singular experience with you.