To Broadway and beyond

By William Dart

Pair to share favourites and fun with Aucklanders, writes William Dart

Mandy Patinkin and Nathan Gunn have a special dynamic. Photo / Darrell Hoemann
Mandy Patinkin and Nathan Gunn have a special dynamic. Photo / Darrell Hoemann

Four years ago Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone brought Broadway to Auckland for one magical evening. Next Sunday, Patinkin returns for seconds but, singing with baritone Nathan Gunn, it's more like a slice of The Great White Way with Lincoln Centre on the side.

I discovered Gunn 14 years ago through his debut EMI CD American Anthem: From Ragtime to Art Song. He is still fond of the recording and laughs when I remind him of how he characterised American music as needing a "dirt under the fingernails" approach.

Listing his all-time favourite concerts, a Wigmore Hall recital is there with a spectacular Christmas celebration in Utah. "It was with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to an audience of 22,000," he says. "It was surreal and so full of benevolence."

On the operatic side, he felt he had redisovered the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's Billy Budd last year. "It's very easy to play this character as beautiful and strong. But when you see him overcoming his fears in that soliloquy he's actually terrified.

And by catching the vulnerability of the man, you show where his strength comes from." There is a smattering of the opera house next Sunday, but it is a trip to Broadway and beyond. Gunn is comfortable with this repertoire "as long as it's classic Broadway written before microphones came in," he insists, making the expected exception for Sondheim.

As for moving between the worlds of opera and showbiz, Gunn was trained from the start. "My first teacher, who was 84 when I stared learning from him, had a career in opera and oratorio. But his main job was being top tenor in a quartet on the Carnation Breakfast Radio Show. He was used to adapting his vocal approach and that's how I was taught."

Gunn seems a little defensive when I bring up his adulation by the admirers of so-called "barihunks". "It's taken six or seven years to shed that image," he sighs, pointing out how it all started with a 1998 production of Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide.

"Francesa Zambello, the director, told the tenor William Burden and me that we were going to come in stripped, covered in water and chained together - if you have a problem with being half-naked on stage, she warned, then start going to the gym."

Bodily exposure was never a worry for the athletic baritone, but he chuckles as he says that "they sold out of opera glasses for that production - and this was not a big theatre".

He met Patinkin when they were sharing a dressing room for Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday concert in 2010. Gunn recreates the moment. "I just love your voice," he says, playing Mr P. "I don't know if my ego can stand being on stage with you but I think we should try to do something together." Gunn took up Patinkin's suggestion and the resulting set of songs and banter, accompanied by the two pianos of Paul Ford and Julie Gunn, was "planned like coming to someone's house for dinner".

"It's never the same from night to night," he points out. "The main dishes are there, but the talk around the dinner table can change. It becomes a living, breathing conversation that everyone in the audience gets to be part of."

Those who recall Patinkin having flirtatious fun with Patti LuPone four years ago will not be getting a repeat performance.

"It's hard doing a show with another man," Gunn admits. "But I think we have a special dynamic. We respect each other deeply and there are times when the one just sits back and appreciates what the other one is doing - with the same enjoyment that we hope the audience will be having out in the theatre."


Performance

What: An Evening with Mandy Patinkin and Nathan Gunn
Where and when: Aotea Centre, November 24 at 6pm

- NZ Herald

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