Something Wilde :: Will McGarrahan Talks 'Being Earnest'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 7, 2018

How's this for a fresh twist on a classic: Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska have updated Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," changing the time to the 1960s - and adding period-appropriate original songs. Swinging London, here we go.

EDGE reached out to actor Will McGarrahan, veteran of many Boston area musicals, to hear his thoughts on this new musical, which runs from Sept, 13 - Oct. 7 at the Greater Boston Stage Company. McGarrahan plays several roles in the production; as he notes to EDGE, this is hardly the first time "The Importance of Being Earnest" has been reimagined as a musical. But it might just be the most fun!

EDGE: The idea of turning "The Importance of Being Earnest" - a play that premiered in 1895 - into a Swinging London-era comedy is so bold and delicious! What did you think when you first heard about it?

Will McGarrahan: I agree. It's been turned into a musical many times. None that anyone would ever be aware of, but because of [the fact that the play is now in the] public domain people have been turning it into a musical for many years. But when I heard it was set in the '60s, it perked up my ears because I thought, "How's that going to work? What is that going to be like?" Honestly, I'm just learning what it's going to be like.

EDGE: What are your impressions so far?

Will McGarrahan: The songs are really fun; the songs are well placed, meaning. "Yeah, there should be a song there." For instance, the end of the first act has Algernon and John doing a song called "Brothers," which is not really a song idea directly from the play, but it's a good way to end [the first part] of a three-act show when you change it to a two-act show.

EDGE: Are the songs also of the "mod" period, in keeping with the '60s London setting? I have the impression that the songs are in the style of that "British invasion" period of pop music.

Will McGarrahan: That's exactly right, and it's something we discussed just yesterday: The text from the book is all from "The Importance of Being Earnest." It's been edited down, but it's not like they re-wrote the text. So the setting, the time frame, the feel of the show, comes from the music, which is pop music... no, that's an exaggeration. It's musical theater with much of it in the style of pop music. Half the focus of the show goes along the plot and the machinations of the original and the rest is the music, time period and style. I think it could keep everybody interested. If it were just a musicalization that was set in the original time period, a lot of times what you end up doing is asking, "Why are they turning this into a musical?" I think we'll change the tone of it, also, even though the dialogue hasn't changed, or the plot, or anything. Just adding music and a lot of these particular songs, it will change the tine a little.

EDGE: I can imagine that this new setting being the brink of the sexual revolution, text that Wilde wrote in the 1800s would take on a new vibrancy.

Will McGarrahan: Yes, and that was something we discussed yesterday, too. I've been trying to look at the script, all the lines that we know from "The Importance of Being Earnest," to try to look at them as if they were written in the '60s, or to try to take it out of the setting that we know and see if it can apply in some way, or [find] a new character choice that gives it straight from the original. And how that all plays out, I'm not quite sure, but it's interesting. Certainly, there's nothing in the script that you look at and think, "That doesn't work in the '60s," but you can't just do the dialogue like we're doing "The Importance of Being Earnest." There's got to be something else. We're figuring out what that is. We start staging today, actually.

EDGE: Wilde is now, of course, famous for having been gay; back then he was, by necessity, closeted, but you can certainly look at "The Importance of Being Earnest," with its themes of assumed identity and fictitious identity as being kind of a commentary or a metaphor for closeted gay life. Does that come through in this version, or does that "dawn of the sexual revolution" setting subsume that?

Will McGarrahan: I was thinking about that also. The whole Bunbury thing, where the men have their separate lives and their secret lives, that is an unusual idea that doesn't say, come from other farces. That is an idea specific to this play and as that is all there, I'm not sure if it will resonate particularly in the gay subtext, but I think you are right. You read "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," and you're like, "This is about contemporary gay culture." It was about gay culture back then, and it still applies.

EDGE: You've been in any number of musicals, and plays where music plays a vital role - for example, you and Leigh Barrett recently revisited your roles in "Souvenir" at the Lyric Stage ten years after first performing in that play together. Is it a karmic thing that you are involved in so many plays with musical elements? Or is music important to you as a performer, such that you seek it out in the plays you do?

Will McGarrahan: There are a couple things going there. I play the piano well enough to play it onstage; there are only a few guys in town that can do that. That beings music into several things I've been called into. Not a lot, but a few. And in terms of singing, I'm a good singer, but the kind of singing that is required of me as a middle-aged man is not the same that's required of a 20-year-old man in a musical. So, my singing skills are right where they need to be for the characters I've been playing in musicals.

I really think I do try to - not juggle because I don't really have tons of say about what shows, exactly, I'm doing, but I try to keep a balance. So this year I got this which is a new adaptation of a classic; I'm doing "Little Foxes," and then I'm doing a new musical at SpeakEasy, "The View Upstairs." And I would say with those three shows, I've got a good mix. And I like that, I prefer that.

I definitely wouldn't want to be doing only musicals. First of all, and I see this all the time, with people who say, "Oh, I don't do musicals." Sometimes people mean they don't want to do musicals; sometimes that means that they've never tried to; sometimes people put a limitation on themselves about what they might be considered for. I show up at those general auditions and read for plays that they might not call me in, but I'm putting myself in front of them in order to show a different perspective on what I can do. And it's not a one-on-one correlation, really; it's not like, "I went into a general audition of 'The Little Foxes,' and I got 'The Little Foxes.' " It's just sort of saying, "I'm interested in doing this."

EDGE: You play a couple of roles, one of them being Chasuble. In the original, Chasuble was a parson. What is he here, in the context of Swinging London? The writer hasn't changed the text, but does he reimagine Chasuble in any way - as a nightclub owner, or a record producer, maybe?

Will McGarrahan: No... he's a parson.


EDGE: And how about the other parts you play?

Will McGarrahan: Lane and Merriman are - you know, they're written as butlers. I said this Ilyse at the audition: "This is the '60s, and [Algernon] doesn't have any money; it's not like it's presumed that he would have a butler in the '60s. So why does he have a butler?" We read a few scenes, and we read them all different sorts of ways. One of the ways I brought in was, [Lane] was Cockney and, in my mind, he was an out of work factor worker or something. You know, he took a job. He doesn't have any animosity toward Algernon or anything, it's just a job. It's not that interesting to him.

And then Merriman - you know what happens when you play these little parts. It's not just dialects that you want to change or costumes, you want to have a different energy because you have to make your impression really quick and then get off the stage. So I was, like, "What happens if he's a groundskeeper or something?" It's the same kind of thing: It's a house in the country, and they don't necessarily have a whole staff. So, at this point, we're thinking of Merriman as a groundskeeper.

And I think Chasuble is pretty much Chasuble. We'll see how that plays out.

EDGE: It's a play with so many interesting layers and reversals, but the point of it, I guess - as is indicated in the original play's full title - is that things we may think of as trivial, like going to the theater, or entertainment, may actually be quite central to life, and to the things that are important to us. Is that how you would characterize this play, in any of its incarnations?

Will McGarrahan: I think you're absolutely right. I think that's the nub of the play. Half or a third of the lines basically have that sort of reversal in them. The thing that doesn't really quite make sense or doesn't make sense that way we would expect it make sense... I think that's a wonderful thing.

I was just talking to someone I work with, and I was saying I was at rehearsal, and he said, "What's 'rehearsal?' " And he just didn't know. I get that; I get that people don't know, but just going to the theater... theater is not a football game. We have not reached an iconic cultural status for Americans. Do you know what I mean? There are plenty of people in America who have never gone to the theater and never will, so the idea that we all don't have to be doing the same thing to fulfill our lives, that's a wild thing, too. Not living life as expected.

EDGE: It's certainly true that we could always use a good laugh. That's a universal that theater serves quite well.

Will McGarrahan: Yeah. The last time I saw "Earnest" was... I went down to the Gamm [Theatre, in Warwick, Rhode Island]. It was fantastic; the show works like clockwork in terms of the plotting and everything like that. There are not a lot of plays, especially comedies, where [you have that sense]. Comedies are so hard to have a lasting life because comedy is so often connected with contemporary things that don't always make sense as time goes on. But for some reason, this play continues to work - and you do laugh.

"Being Earnest" will play at the Greater Boston Stage Company September 13 - October 7. For tickets and more information, please go to

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.