Ed Dixon finds joy on stage wherever that stage may be
by Donalevan Maines
In Houston, Ed Dixon gets the best lines in Curtains, the Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) show now playing at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. But recently in Arlington, Virginia, the versatile actor was practically mute as Max in the musical Sunset Boulevard, while in Fort Worth, he was the sexy, plain-spoken sheriff opposite Ruta Lee in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
City to city, wherever he goes, Dixon seems to be starring in his own production of The Most Happy Fella. At 62, he’s a joyful man, deserving of his hard-won good fortune, happy to share his talent wherever challenging roles take him. “I like to be wherever I am,” he says with contentment.
It hasn’t always been that way. Dixon was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and grew up “in one hateful little town after another.” His dad was an itinerant Church of Christ evangelist who preached hell so hot you could feel the heat. “You’re five years old, and it’s your father,” he recalls. So young Dixon jumped into the act by becoming a song leader at church.
“It’s like I was born into the theater. It’s all a performance,” he says. But by age 12, he looked around and said to himself, “These people are not happy. I found it all loathsome and despicable.”
He also took note of music that he listened to, such as The Three-Penny Opera—“In German!” he laughs—and decided, “This was clearly not a place for my sensibilities.”
By the age of 17, Dixon was “long gone” from Oklahoma. Like his older brother, who had fled west as soon as he saved up $100, Dixon escaped to New York and the Manhattan School of Music.
“At the beginning of my career, the late ’60s and early ’70s, you couldn’t be openly gay per se,” he explains, but the theater was a haven for gay artists. It also embraced his talents as an actor, singer, and composer.
Dixon won a talent show as a six-year-old singing “Over the Rainbow,” and wrote books, music, and lyrics for school musicals as a teenager. He says he was at a reading of a fledgling musical called (he swears) The Memphis Store-Bought Teeth when he decided “anybody could do better than that.”
Dixon proved he could do much better by penning Fanny Hill, the popular Whodunit . . . the Musical and Shylock, as well as collaborating with noted playwright A.R. Gurney on the musical Richard Cory, which won the Festival Prize and the Audience Award when it debuted at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005.
As a performer, Dixon says, his mentor became George Rose, whom he considers “the premier character actor of the 20th century.” He says, “Here was this middle-aged gay man from England who was powerful. He had such great political clout because he could run the energy of an entire show. He could write his own ticket.”
Unfortunately, Dixon says, he had no role model for growing up gay, even in adulthood. “I’ve never done anything the right way. When I came out to my family, I did it out of meanness. You think you’re going to drop this big bomb, and they just roll with it. You should have been truthful all along.”
Dixon “acted out,” he says, destructively consuming booze and drugs. “I took it quite far. I nearly died,” he explains. “My union, Actors’ Equity, paid for my treatment. I did the 12-step thing, but that was not what made the penny drop for me.”
Instead, Dixon found therapy in penning a journal “every day for 10 to 15 years.” More recently, he’s discovered a similar joy through Facebook, although sometimes he wishes he could take back comments he posts in response to something that gets his goat. “I try so hard to not do the ‘acting out’ thing,” he laughs.
On Broadway, Dixon played Master of the House in more than 1,700 performances of Les Misérables, and roles in numerous other shows, among them No, No Nanette, The Iceman Cometh, and Sunday in the Park with George.
The past decade, though, he says he’s found “a new way to work the business,” that involves appearing in short runs away from his home in New York. “I’ve started going to places I never would have gone before, and I’ve had marvelous experiences there,” he says.
In Cleveland, for example, he was Brady, the Bible-thumping crusader in Inherit the Wind (“Always wanted to play that fabulous part and it was a terrific production with a wonderful cast”). At Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, he did The Student Prince (“I was kindly old Doctor Engel singing ‘Golden Days’ and remembering my youth. No kidding!”). The Sound of Music cast him as Max in a mini-tour that swept through Atlanta.
“The market for me isn’t drying up,” he chuckles. “Sometimes, I look around—I’m working with such loving talent, and it’s almost too much.”
Dixon also recalls an episode from one of his most memorable roles as a soloist at the Kennedy Center’s premiere production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass that was conducted by the composer. “I had only one page of solo, but I loved it. I turned myself inside out because I wanted to relish every moment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This hippie, laid-back stage manager asked me why I put so much into just one page, and I answered him that when I’m on stage is when I come alive! He looked at me and said, ‘Well, that’s pitiful.’”
Dixon laughs. “As angry as that made me, I still remember it.”
TUTS’ Houston debut of the backstage murder mystery musical Curtains, featuring Dixon as a pompous British stage director, plays at the Hobby Center.
In 2008, the show with book by Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), lyrics by Fred Edd, and music by John Kander (the team behind Cabaret and Chicago), with additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes, debuted on Broadway, scoring eight Tony nominations. Out actor David Hyde Pierce won his Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical as Lt. Frank Cioffi.
The TUTS show stars The Guiding Light’s famed on-screen couple Robert Newman (who played Joshua Lewis) and Kim Zimmer (four-time Daytime Emmy Award winner as the character Reva Shayne). Rye Mullis, last seen here as the Monster in Young Frankenstein, is cast as stage manager Johnny Harmon.
When: through April 10
Where: Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street
Tickets: (starting at $24) available at TUTS.com, 713/558-TUTS (8887), or in person at the Hobby Center box office.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.