Paul DeBoy | Mamma Mia’s Pappa

I see female fans after the show when I’m in the lobby after the show, collecting for Broadway Fights AIDS in all my spandex glory; these women are decked out in their boas and sequined shirts.

 

Mamma Mia returns to St. Louis for a short engagement Nov. 22-27, 2011. The beloved musical is an international phenomenon, now in its 10th year and seen by an estimated 17,000 people a night around the globe. It is the story of Donna, the former lead singer of girl group Donna and the Dynamos, and her soon-to-be married daughter. Donna has retired happily to Greece, and the only fly in the ointment is that her daughter could have been fathered by one of three men, and she doesn’t know which. So she sends them all invitations to her wedding. They show up, as do Donna’s old singing partners. Merriment and mayhem and many ABBA songs ensue in this sunny show.

Paul DeBoy plays one of the “dads” on the national tour and is a St. Louis favorite from his many appearances at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep), most recently in The 39 Steps the season before last. He was kind enough to take a few moments out of his hectic schedule to talk to PLAYBACK:stl.

How long have you been out on the road with Mamma Mia now?

Martha Banta directed me in The 39 Steps at The Rep, and she said while we were in rehearsals that she also directed [one of the companies of] Mamma Mia and she asked me to audition for it. When I got back to New York, I did and I was hired. I joined this leg of the tour in September 2010. The tour itself has been running for nine years, about a year after it opened on Broadway. I’m contracted to run through the middle of August [2012], so in all, I’ll be with it for two years. And it’s a big tour for me: It’s my first.

I guess it’s going OK or you wouldn’t have re-signed for the second year, right?

[Laughs.]It’s going great, yeah. I’m having a ball! It’s great bringing the music of ABBA to the country. I grew up with the music and knew it well, and taking it around here and Canada, too. It’s just a fun show and I get to be a rock star for a night.

Which part do you play?

I play Harry Bright. He’s an uptight banker, a Brit, and in the backstory I’ve created for him, he’s in a relationship now but it’s not going well. I think he’s going through a tough time and he decides to go to Greece to see if he can get some of his youth and spontaneity back.

I’ve never seen you in a musical so I didn’t know you had singing as part of your toolkit. Where did you train?

I did a lot of musicals in high school. After a semester at the University of Maryland [DeBoy was born and grew up in Baltimore], I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts [AADA] in New York for two years and graduated. I did Pangloss in Candide there, and I worked in summer theater in Pennsylvania, where I did a lot of musicals. Then I did a lot of straight plays and just recently got back into [musical theater] again, playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and I did try to sing more than Rex Harrison did. [Laughs.] My voice teacher at the American Academy advised me to go do plays for a while. She said, “Look, you’ve got a great voice, but you have to get the acting chops.” And she was right. I was able to have a career doing plays, and now coming back to musical theater has been a great deal of fun. Actually, our director thinks of [Mamma Mia] as a play with music, rather than “just” a musical.

It’s interesting how well the ABBA songs fit into a narrative, and how often the songs themselvesare narratives.

That’s true. [Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson] are great storytellers, and I know that Catherine [Johnson] and Judy Craymer, the creators of our show, want to make sure that the musical is completely loyal to Benny and Bjorn’s ideas about the music, so we sing [the songs] in their original key with the same orchestrations and tempos that they were recorded in. All the ensemble members are backstage on live mikes, singing background at every performance, too. It all honors the music, and it’s really good. Yes, ABBA did Swedish pop, but they’re real craftsman as to how they constructed the songs.

My all-time favorite song in the show is a tune called “One of Us.” It’s not very well-known at all, but it’s just haunting and beautiful and lyrical. It’s sung by Kaye Tuckerman [who plays Donna] with the ensemble performs it.

Have you always made your living as an actor?

Well, I’ve supplemented my work as an actor, but yeah. I got my Equity card in 1978 doing children’s theater. Then I went to a dinner theater contract, a form that sadly doesn’t exist in many cities anymore. From entertaining kids to well, basically, drunks. [Laughs.] I got a kick out of those. I went from that to summer theater, then started my regional theater career. In fact, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis was one of the first that I worked at. In 1989, I did Noises Off there.

More productions of Mamma Mia are playing around the world than any other show. What is it about the piece that strikes such a universal chord?

Yeah, there is an international tour. It’s playing in London, it’s still on Broadway, in Korea, a new production in Brazil… I think it’s a couple of things. First, like we’ve said, the music is really, really good and it is interlaced into the story so well that it doesn’t feel manipulative, because you actually get to know these people and care about them. And more than that, I think it’s the times we live in. Whenever times are bad, and we’re going through a depression or recession; the politics, the state of the world is horrible, you want to go to a show that lifts your spirits up. And the people are dancing in the aisles when the show is over. It’s a cliché, but it is a feel-good musical.

We’ve already alluded to the fact that, except for the songs, this is a show by, about, and with women, and yet men love it, too. Any idea why?

I can’t answer that, really. When I see female fans after the show when I’m in the lobby after collecting for Broadway Fights AIDS in all my spandex glory, these women are decked out in their boas and sequined shirts with their kids and grandkids, and they come up and just grab me and tell me how great the show is, how great it makes them feel. It’s so powerful, and I guess that’s it. One character refers to Donna as their “rock chick primo,” and she really is. In the story, Donna and the Dynamos were the first all-female girl power band. In the end, I think that appeals to everyone. Also, men probably like that there are a lot of pretty girls up there.

Maybe it flashes back to their youth, too, even though they’re often almost dragged there by women.

I have seen a lot of men who, at the beginning of the show, look like they would rather be any place than there, then are standing and waving their arms at the end. We do get ’em. [Laughs.]

After this amount of time, do you still get that rush when you do the show?

Oh, yeah! There’s huge number at the end—it’s our curtain call—when we do three songs, and the dads come out in these costumes, and it’s like, “Elvis has arrived!”

Is there anything you don’t like about touring?

When we have one-night stands, there’s no time really to see the places we go. One of the reasons I signed on in the first place was to see the country, and sometimes all there’s time for is a quick walk around the area before our 5:30 sound check. I’ve gotten to explore North America, including Canada and Alaska—the Canadian Rockies and the whole Pacific Northwest. Beautiful. But we’ll be in L.A., Chicago, and other big cities for a longer time, and I know those places, so it’ll be fun.

And you know St. Louis very well.

I do. And I’m really looking forward to being there for Thanksgiving and seeing my friends from the Rep. It’s a fantastic theater, and it represents the beginning of my career as an actor. I think I’ve done 16 shows there now, and I just love working with those fantastic people.

Anything to add about the show, about you, anything?

I’m excited to come to St. Louis and see my friends, like I said, and I hope the weather cooperates so I can play a little golf, too.

Late November in St. Louis? Iffy!

[Laughs.] Well, you never know, right? There might be a foot of snow or it might be 60 degrees. Also, St. Louis has the best audiences an actor can play for. They love to listen to plays. I’m looking forward to bringing this great show to them.

That’s about the best closer I could ask for! Thanks for taking the time to talk, and we look forward to seeing you back in St. Louis. | Andrea Braun

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