by Ray Sikorski
SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Paul Gilger knows his way around theaters. He’s acted in a few, stage managed in a lot, directed, produced, composed music, written scripts, designed sets, even designed theaters. His experience spans from junior high in a small-city Ohio, to productions in New York, London, and Tokyo. He knows how to walk into a theater to find work – and it’s not likely to happen with a script in your hand.
Everyone wants to try out for the big part. Walk in with a script, Gilger says, and that elicits suspicious questions from the troupe. Who are you? Can we use you?
“But if you walk into a theater and pick up a hammer to build a set, it’s, ‘Welcome! We have a job for you here!’”
That’s the way theater is, says Gilger, 54, and that’s the way it’s always worked for him. Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, Gilger’s junior high art teacher noticed his talent with drawing, and sent him up to the high school to help design sets. Before long he was stage managing every high school production, and soon found his way into the Mansfield Playhouse, the local community theater troupe.
“I was pretty much an outcast in high school, so when I did go to the community theater, it was the first time in my life I was accepted for who I was,” Gilger says. “What got me into theater and what kept me in theater, I think, originally, was that.”
Gilger majored in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, but his minor in technical theater kept him coming back to Mansfield. Along with garnering rave reviews for his acting in comedies, Gilger designed the sets for the Miss Ohio pageant that came to Mansfield, and that led to similar work with the Miss America pageants in Atlantic City. But the turning point in his theatrical career came in 1979, when the Mansfield cast of the musical revue Rogers and Hart – which Gilger was stage managing – ended up snowbound in his apartment.
A musical theater troupe snowbound in an apartment for a weekend? If nothing else, it was a great excuse for a party. Out came the booze, and Gilger played the piano while everyone sang for hours on end.
‘“I just kind of made a comment, kind of off-hand: ‘I could write a better show than Rogers and Hart,’ and somebody said ‘Well, Why don’t you do it?’ It started really as simple as that.”
What “it” is is a musical revue of songs by composer Jerry Herman, known for such legendary shows as Hello, Dolly, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. Gilger, a huge Herman fan, found he could juxtapose Herman’s songs in such a way that they could respond to each other, and tell a story. The result was Tune the Grand Up, which opened to rave reviews at San Francisco’s 1177 Club in 1985. The show changed its name to The Best of Times and then to Showtune, and has since played in dozens of locations around the world – including a Japanese-language production performed by members of the Takarazuka Revue Company in Japan.
But to Gilger, the greatest accolade comes from Jerry Herman himself, who has become a close friend of Gilger’s.
“He feels that Showtune is the show that best represents his life’s work,” Gilger says, adding that Herman is so proud of it that he doesn’t pay heed to pitches for new revues of his work. “He says, ‘A musical revue has been done, and if you want to do a revue of my work, just do Showtune.”
Of course, Gilger’s main line of work is architecture, which he practices professionally in Santa Rosa, California, where he’s lived for over 20 years. He doesn’t let being an architect get in the way of his theatrical work, though – in fact, he designed George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic film studio, and transformed an old cannery into Santa Rosa’s Sixth Street Playhouse. He’s currently working on a similar project in Cloverdale, California.
“It all kind of goes together for me,” he says. “There’s a real connectivity for me as far as art and theater and music and architecture and design and beauty and helping people. Just doing things to help people – it goes around.”
Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.