Peter Gallagher leads alums back to Byram Hills
(Peter Gallagher as Arthur Campbell in “Covert Affairs.” Photo by Steve Wilkie/USA Network.)
Before Peter Gallagher made a name for himself on TV’s “Covert Affairs” and “The O.C,” and on Broadway, he was a theater kid at Armonk’s Byram Hills High School.
“It just opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed,” he says of his first forays into theater, under high-school director Gene P. Bissell.
“Mr. Bissell was so passionate about it, and he had such strong ideas about how to do things, that you couldn’t help but learn a lot,” says the 57-year-old actor. “I still enter the stage, 99 percent of the time, on my upstage foot and I have no idea why, other than the fact that Mr. Bissell told me to 40 years ago. And I’m still calling him Mr. Bissell.”
Stories like that — the impact of theater on Byram Hills kids from 1968 to 2012 — will be in great supply on Monday night, when Stage alumni return to the school for a concert to raise money for this spring’s production of “Guys and Dolls,” a musical Gallagher knows something about, as he appeared with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in the 1992 revival of the show.
“I thought it was the least I could do for a place that had done so much for me,” Gallagher says. “This is a fund-raiser for Stage 2013 and the first production I ever did was Stage ‘71, ‘The Fantasticks.’”
Gallagher will sing something from “Guys and Dolls” and from “The Fantasticks,” accompanied by fellow Byram Hills alumnus Grant Sturiale, the musical director at Radio City Music Hall. It’s the first-ever Stage fund-raising reunion.
“What Mr. Bissell did was put on wonderful shows and he introduced us to that magic that can happen when a show works, a story is working and the audience is liking it. We experienced the privilege of that and the power of it and it was like nothing I had ever known. Up until that point, all I did was Dean Martin impressions, because I adored Dean Martin and I imagined there was a world out there that Dean Martin occupied that must be pretty cool. I hadn’t been exposed to theater at all.”
Bissell, who died last September, also took Gallagher to his first Broadway show, a field trip to see “Hello, Dolly!” starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. In the chorus of that show was a young Morgan Freeman, with whom Gallagher later worked on Broadway’s “The Country Girl.”
“Mr. Bissell set me on a journey that I’ve discovered is my journey,” Gallagher said. “But he also made it very clear that no one he knew had ever succeeded at it, so we didn’t leave Byram Hills with any expectations of making it a career.”
In addition to Gallagher and Sturiale, the school also counts among its alumni Tom Kitt (the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of “Next to Normal”) and David Harbour, now appearing in a starry revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Both appeared in the 1992 production of “Into the Woods,” Kitt as The Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince and Harbour as The Narrator.
Kitt won’t be at Monday’s benefit, but recalled a vivid memory from that production of Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical.
“The thing that I remember most, and that had the most effect on my life, was being in the wings and listening every night to ‘No One Is Alone,’ a song that occurs at the end of the show,” Kitt says.
“My character wasn’t in that song, but I remember listening to it every night and being so moved by it, by the music and the lyric, and I think that just being involved in that show had a profound effect on me. It was kind of growing-up-in-musical-theater event, to see the power of musical theater to move you and be thought-provoking, to make you feel pain and joy and I would just swim in that music. I had never heard something so beautiful and heartfelt. That was an experience that certainly was in the back of my mind when I would think about my own writing and trying to create something that I really cared about.”
Kitt will not be at Monday’s event, but Harbour, a 2005 Tony nominee for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (seen above, in a Carol Rosegg photo) will. At Byram Hills, he was in all the shows, from Blore in “Ten Little Indians” to Salieri in “Amadeus.”
“Salieri is still the one my mom remembers fondly as my best work, even through to this day,” Harbour says with a laugh. “I guess I peaked at 17.”
(Mrs. Harbour, who still lives in Armonk, was one of those drama moms who “sold Rice Krispie treats at intermissions of nearly every show I was in,” her son says proudly.)
Asked what he’ll perform Monday night, Harbour says “I may just do some Shakespeare, something I can do without singing. I’ll probably decide three minutes before I go up there, which will be exciting for me and for the audience.”
Thinking a moment, he adds dryly: “Maybe it’ll be miserable for the audience, but it’ll be exciting for me.”
When preparing to see old classmates, it’s good to be at the top of your game, with a big accomplishment to report. Arriving at Byram Hills while in a production alongside Al Pacino will likely boost Harbour’s stock among his classmates.
“It might make me look a little fancy, I guess,” the actor says, laughing.
Byram Hills Alumni Concert, 7:45 p.m., Jan. 14. Byram Hills High School, 12 Tripp Lane, Armonk. $20. 914-273-9200, ext. 4502.
Note: “Guys and Dolls” will run March 7-9.