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'Frasier' brother finds home on stage

Story Highlights

• David Hyde Pierce up for Tony for "Curtains"
• Pierce previously in "Monty Python's Spamalot"
• Actor best known as Niles Crane on "Frasier"
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NEW YORK (AP) -- Attention television watchers. Put down those remotes and salute. David Hyde Pierce is a genuine Broadway musical-comedy star.

OK, his 11-year run on "Frasier" was terrific. So were all the Emmy nominations -- not to mention the four wins. But now, following his success in "Monty Python's Spamalot," Pierce has cemented his song-and-dance reputation with an ingratiating, Tony-nominated performance in "Curtains," the John Kander-Fred Ebb valentine to the backstage world of putting on a show.

The still boyish actor (he's 48) sits in his dressing room -- the star quarters at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre -- and modestly chats about his return to theater after more than a decade as Dr. Niles Crane on one of TV's most esteemed sitcoms.

As Pierce obligingly makes coffee for a visitor during a morning interview, he talks about "Curtains," which he describes as a more warmhearted piece than Kander and Ebb's two best-known musicals, "Chicago" and "Cabaret."

"Yet 'Curtains' isn't exactly warm and fuzzy," he explains. "There's an innocence to it, but that innocence is colored by the fact that this has been written and created by people who are not naive."

The creators "lived through a lot of theater ... they know its ups and downs," says Pierce who, in the show, portrays a theater-loving detective -- complete with trench coat and fedora -- called in to investigate the murder of the leading lady during the troubled Boston tryout of a big Broadway musical.

And "Curtains," in its long gestation period, had its share of ups and downs. The show survived the deaths of two of its authors: book writer Peter Stone, who died in 2003, and lyricist Fred Ebb, who passed away the following year.

"The book (redone by Rupert Holmes) is completely different," Pierce says. And the lyrics have been ever so lightly tweaked by Holmes and composer Kander, who wrote with Ebb for more than four decades.

Pierce had been asked by Ellis, who directed episodes of "Frasier," to play the detective. "I suggested David in a meeting when Freddy was still alive," Ellis recalls. "I remember Freddy lighting up and saying, 'That's a great idea.' David has this ability to make comedy real and that's what I was looking for."

But first there was a little something called "Spamalot" to do. A big Python fan, Pierce jumped at the chance to work with director Mike Nichols, who had cast him years ago off-Broadway in a Jules Feiffer play, "Elliot Loves." The actor enjoyed his stint in "Spamalot" so much, he extended his yearlong contract for an additional four months.

While he was appearing in "Spamalot," Pierce did a reading of "Curtains." And then he starred last summer in a Los Angeles production of the show featuring such experienced Kander-and-Ebb performers as Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba.

"We didn't know what would happen in L.A. -- that was the big test," Pierce says. "But what did happen there was it worked. ... The only question in the back of my mind was, 'Is anybody going to be able to look at this objectively or is it just going to be a love fest?'

"Well, it became immediately clear that everyone was completely objective and ready to cut," the actor says. "People weren't precious about their own lines or their own songs. Kander would throw stuff out. Big numbers would go. And that was really exciting for me to see. I thought, 'I know we are now in completely good hands of people who may adore each other but who also say, "When we work, we work." ' "

'He brought heart to the piece'

And no one worked harder than Pierce.

"David really helped shape the role," Ellis says. "If something wasn't working, he'd be the first one to raise his hand and say, 'This doesn't really make sense to me.' And you would trust his instincts -- especially with comedy. He just has this truthful, honest way of working and that's what comes across. He brought heart to the piece."

Holmes, who wrote the musical version of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," agrees.

"David combines being unbelievably smart and being gorgeously sensitive. And that's a very powerful combination," Holmes says. "He's a great listener. He hears what people are saying and tries to see their point of view. And it's a great gift to bring to the process of acting."

Pierce immediately sings the praises of others, most poignantly the contributions of Kander and Ebb.

The score, according to the actor, presents the kind of music and lyrics for which the two men were best known. "There are some great dark, funny songs, one about critics and one about the business of show business -- the sort of darker, more cynical (songs) you associate with 'Chicago,' " he says. "But then there is also an extraordinarily beautiful number called 'I Miss the Music.' It's a great lyric and a heartbreakingly beautiful tune. It's why we all go to musicals."

Before appearing in "Spamalot" and "Curtains," his big-time, musical-theater experiences were limited to a concert version in Los Angeles of Rodgers and Hart's "The Boys From Syracuse." Yet before television, theater provided most of his work.

He recalls his first Broadway experience back in 1982, a short-lived Christopher Durang comedy called "Beyond Therapy" that starred John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. After 21 performances, the play was gone, but to the recent Yale University graduate, it was "a big teeth-cutter. We had so much fun, a great cast -- and got slammed by the critics. So I got the whole package all at once. There was no better introduction (to New York theater). And I loved it."

The 1980s in New York saw the flowering of such playwrights as Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Mark O'Donnell and Richard Greenberg, and Pierce was fortunate to appear in plays by all of them. He worked at Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park and a lot of regional theaters such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Chicago's Goodman and Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn. Pierce got to Los Angeles in the early 1990s when his partner, actor-writer-producer Brian Hargrove, wanted to write for television. A short-lived Norman Lear series, "The Powers That Be" led to "Frasier." And the rest is, well ...

The actor says he had no problem going from "Frasier" back into theater. " 'Frasier' was theater," he explains. "The show was written like it was a play, and we used a lot of theater actors on the show, people like Brian Bedford, Derek Jacobi, Marian Seldes.

"I loved playing Niles. People come up to me all the time because we are in reruns late night. But because we were on so long, people -- I'm not so sure why this is, maybe people are just more sophisticated now -- they get it. They know you are not really that person. They are just glad to see you.

" 'Frasier' was a good show. I can say when I watch it now, 'Oh, this lasts.' It was not specifically of its period. It's still funny. There are not a lot of cultural references of the moment that would make the show lose its impact. It's really about the characters and how they interact. And then, there's that great writing. It still holds up."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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David Hyde Pierce has been nominated for a Tony for "Curtains."

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