Laurence Guittard and "The Desert Song" go back a long way.
"It's the first show I ever saw as a child," said the actor, 48. "I remember it as being the most wonderful, magical thing--which I'm sure it wasn't. But it really stayed with me."
Guittard opens Saturday at the Pasadena Civic in the California Music Theatre's staging of the 1926 Harbach/Hammerstein/Mandel/Romberg musical. The story he encapsulates as "sort of like Superman with supernatural overtones. It takes place in Morocco in the '20s, where a band of--to use the current vernacular--freedom fighters are battling the French. The French are being led by a masked person called the Red Shadow (Guittard's character), who's thought to be an Arab but is actually the son of the French governor. In everyday life, he's the wimp around the fort: wears glasses and stammers, everyone makes fun of him. But by night. . . .
"For better or worse," the actor said with a smile, "we are not sending this up. I am trying to play it for real, which involves believing in it--really believing. It is pretty far-fetched and silly, and the book does creak a little. Of course, it has nothing to do with reality. We don't necessarily hope people will take us seriously; they'll take it in the spirit they take it. And it is a wonderful score. I think the music will knock everyone's socks off."
Even a hip, urban '80s audience?
"I hope we can take people back, as though in a time machine, to something you don't have a chance to see anymore. This show is very appealing, has a real sensual side. It was written at the same time as those sheik movies: strait-laced girls being carried off by Arabs, the whole romance of the desert. And I'm a romantic actor, I guess--I'm very comfortable with this. Sure, intellectually I know (it's make-believe). But it doesn't stop me from getting into the spirit of it."
Theatrically, that is. Singing is a very different matter.
"I really do prefer not to sing," Guittard said. "It's very nerve-racking and 'crazymaking.' When you're singing, your whole life becomes about 'How do I sound?' You wake up in the morning: ' Hmmm, is it there?' And on stage, well, anything can go wrong. It's like dancing: Sometimes you're on, sometimes you fall off. To sustain that eight times a week really takes it out of you--at least, it does for me. This show is an operetta; there's no getting around it. The singing has to sound singer-y. It's about singing pretty."
Although his credits are equally divided between straight plays (locally: "Cloud Nine," "Absurd Person Singular" and "Another Part of the Forest" and musicals (on Broadway: "Man of La Mancha," "A Little Night Music" and "Oklahoma!"), Guittard finds the label "singing actor" chafing:
"What people think about singers is not particularly flattering. Basically, they think that's all they can do. So I've worked very hard not to be thought of as a singer who acts, but an actor who sings."
He regards his five-year sojourn in Los Angeles (following 20 years in New York) as both "very good--and sort of lousy. The theater work has been interesting and fun, and I enjoy the seductive living here: having a yard, being able to go outside and not be on public property. But the media end (pursuing film and television) has been extremely irritating and frustrating and humiliating."
He laughed weakly. "I'm sure it's partly my fault, but when you've been working more-or-less successfully for 25 years in this (theater) business, to suddenly be presented as this nonentity. . . . "
The actor shook his head. "This is a tough racket; it takes more than it gives. Sometimes you wonder if you've lost the thread; other times you know why you're here, what brought you into it. I guess that 'Once upon a time' has always appealed to me. If you talk about cops and robbers, I don't care so much. But if you say, 'Once upon a time,' you have my attention."