On October 23rd, Michigan native Eric Gutman brings his one-man show From Broadway to Obscurity to Kalamazoo’s Farmers Alley Theatre. In the play, Gutman tells the story of how he went from a Michigan theatre student to starring in the hit musical Jersey Boys -- and then, unexpectedly, leaving the stage. Gutman says it's a story that actually originated in Kalamazoo about six years ago.
Gutman says the story of From Broadway to Obscurity began when he was hired to perform at the season announcement show for Western Michigan University's Miller Auditorium.
“This kind of conception started as more of a cabaret series and just telling some stories. I had just a piano player, and some backup singers," Gutman explains. "And that was just kind of that.”
But after that performance, the managing director at the Berman Center in West Bloomfield gave Gutman a call. She heard Gutman’s songs and stories from his years and years of performing in places like New York and Chicago.
So she asked him -- could he turn this into a cohesive show, with a personal, narrative message?
“So she gave me the time, and I worked on it for almost a year," he says. "And premiered it two years ago in the version that it is now and forever shall be.”
But before going into all that, let’s go back to when Gutman had just graduated from Western Michigan University and was diving into the scary world of professional musical theatre.
For Gutman, it actually turned out to not be too scary, at least initially. A week after graduating, a friend found him an audition with Forbidden Broadway, a kind of musical parody company with shows across the country.
Gutman tried out – his first real audition. And he got it.
“Oh! I counted my blessings every morning!" Gutman says as he reflects on those years. "It was tremendous to do it that quickly, and end up in a show like ‘Forbidden Broadway,’ which I had known for years! It’s a staple of New York."
Things didn’t stay that rosy forever. Gutman says his years in New York weren't easy. There was disappointment -- failed auditions and a few broken promises from casting directors.
But through all that, Gutman ended up booking a huge gig – a role in Jersey Boys, the Tony-Award winning production about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. First it was a national tour, then Broadway came calling. In total, it added up to more than 1,200 performances that stretched from San Francisco to Chicago to New York City.
It's these stories -- from the backstage of Broadway and national productions -- that make up much of From Broadway to Obscurity. Juicy anecdotes about Broadway legends like composer Stephen Sondheim.
Gutman talks about his first meeting with Sondheim in the show. It was at a Jersey Boys performance, and it left Gutman star-struck.
“He’s in the audience?!" Gutman tells the audience in a scene from From Broadway to Obscurity. "And there he was. Fifth row on the aisle. And four numbers into the show, I stood on that stage, and in front of Stephen Sondheim, I had to impersonate Stephen Sondheim."
Gutman says it’s fun to share this kind of Broadway gossip. But he says there’s far more to From Broadway to Obscurity than that. He says the show is more personal – about fighting for your dreams and knowing when it’s time to walk away.
Gutman says after more than 1,200 performances of Jersey Boys across the country, he knew it was time when he and his wife found out they were having their first child.
“And we were in New York," he says. "And we were trying to make the decision, can we do this in New York all by ourselves? Or is time to refocus our attention on other things? So I decided, at that time, it was time to refocus. So ultimately, it was family that made the decision.”
Gutman says it's these personal stories that he wants to leave the biggest impression on an audience.
“At the end of the day, it’s just me talking about me. So who cares?" Gutman jokes. "But when I premiered [From Broadway to Obscurity] two years ago, it resonated in a way that I never thought it would! And after rereading the script, I kinda got it!"
"I just tried to be true to the story. And be honest, about my past and present," Gutman says. "And I think people just enjoyed that aspect of it.”