Rough Excerpts from a Talk With Jonathan Gillard Daly pt. 1
The Daly News, Jonathan Gillard Daly’s tribute to a family’s survival through wartime continues rolls into its second weekend in the days to come. Based on newsletters written by his grandfather over the course of World War II, it’s a thoroughly interesting musical chronicling a particularly rough time in the history of the US. A remarkably interesting man in his own right, the seasoned actor took some time out from rehearsals a couple of weeks from opening night to speak to me. What follows are rough transcripts taken from that first 15 minutes of that conversation:
BACKGROUND: GOING AWAY AND COMING BACK
Me: I’d always seen you in Rep shows where you’re a supporting character . . . y’know . . . the voice of reason, but it’s ice to have been able to see you in shows at the Broadway Theatre where you’re more central, like The Woman In Black. And of course, here now, you’re everything.
Jonathan Gillard Daly: Yeah, it’s different. It’s very different. It’s funny, ‘cause that’s kind of my Rep position is like . . . I’m a supporting player and I don’t often get a chance to do big stuff. So I often have to go to other places to get more substantial work. Plays where I’m really kind of drivin’ the bus. I just finished this play at the Indiana Rep. We had a champagne toast at the end of the run and one of the actors said ‘thanks for drivin’ the bus.’
Me: The press release for this show refer to you as a playwright, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything you’ve written.
Daly: Yeah, most of them have been adaptations. I was in a theatre company where I did a lot of outreach . . . I guess it started way back when I was working with a company called The Imaginary Theatre Company . . . associated with what is now called the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. And we’d do adaptations of stories for audiences. Y’know, our whole idea was that you could go to the library and read these stories . . . very literary-based and so we did a lot of adapting and we all took turns, so I did a lot of it over, like, four years. That’s kind of where I got my interest in adaptation. We’d done adaptations of various things for years. This [The Daly News] is actually kind of an adaptation, too. It’s taking my grandfather’s words and turning them either into monologues or turning them into songs.
Me: . . . and you grew-up here.
Daly: mm-hmm. Yep.
Me: What era was that? [In my defense, I’m a poor judge of age and I was willing to bet that Daly looked younger than he actually was.]
Daly: Well, I was born in the ‘50’s. And I grew-up here . . . went to grade school in the ‘60’s. Graduated from college in ‘72. (Went to Madison.) So I was a Milwaukee resident until 1972. So I was really a Wisconsin-based person.
Me: So [John] McGivern has his shows. Was that the same era?
Daly: Oh, well . . . McGivern and I . . . I realized after meeting McGivern and hearing some of his monologues that he was a grade school basketball bench warmer at St. Peter and Paul and the very same year, I was a grade school basketball bench warmer at St. Eugene’s. So I figured tat we probably spent a lot of time staring across the gym not having any idea . . . that we would meet years later. We’re the same vintage.
Me: [laughs] wow. And so you were out of town for 30 years and then you came back.
Daly: Yeah. Yeah, I left ‘cause I knew I had to in order to get training and ok and experience. And that took me all over the place, but I always wanted to get back here. Especially as I would be in these towns and I would hear what was going on back in Milwaukee with the Theatre Tessaract and . . . this whole undercurrent of theatre besides just the Rep. Of course I went to the Rep every chance that I could in high school and so I knew that company . . . and so I knew that Milwaukee as a great theatre town . . . for one thing, I wanted to get back because my whole family is here. I’m one of six and they all live here. My mom wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to get home to spend the last years of her life . . . she was approaching 70 when IW as still out in California and I had kids and they were all out in California, which . . . the public school system was only good until a certain point and I jus didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be back here.
Me: Sounds like a really tight-knit family.
Daly: Yeah, yeah. Very tight-knit.
Me: And as a kid, had you heard of this newsletter?
Daly: Yeah, yeah. My mom was one of the war brides. She kept every single one written over three years . . . about, maybe eight pages a week every week for three years. AND she had it in a notebook shoved under the coffee table and said, y’know, “you should really look at that some time, it’s fascinating. You’ll hear all kinds f things about Milwaukee . . . “ and so I just didn’t think about it that much.
Me: And he was writing this on a manual typewriter on . . . you said onionskin paper?
Daly: Yeah, yeah the real thin stuff. They had to use real thin stuff because of the postage . . . just to save money. And that was the paper that was available. And he used carbon paper. So the danger was poking through it really hard, ‘casue he was trying to get as many copies from one piece of carbon as he could. And the danger was poking right through the paper. It was really fragile stuff. And he had to do about eight copies of every page.
Me: How have the copies held-up over the years?
Daly: Well, there’s only one copy that I know of. And that’s with my uncle Chuck’s family somewhere. But what happened was: my mom had the whole thing and had copies made of those made. So she made . . . like . . . 30 copies of these three volumes. Must’ve cost her a mint. And then she handed it out to everybody in the family . . . all of her kids.
Me: And when did you get this?
Daly: . . . 1980 . . . the following Christmas. That’s when she decided to do it. And handed them out to us . . . that’s when I started reading
THE LONG JOURNEY TO THE STAGE
Me: at what point did you start thinking this would make good stage material?
Daly: About three years later, I was sitting in a bar in Chicago with somebody talkin’ about this. And he said, why don’t you turn this into a play? It sounds like a perfect one-man show. You’ve gotta play your grandfather . . . t tell the stories that he told. And I thought about it for about seven years.
Daly: Yeah, seven years. And then I ended up working with this theatre company out in California that did a lot of musicals. And it did pretty much equal parts of classic theatre, contemporary comedies and dramas . . . and musicals, so there were a lot of people on staff . . . ‘y’know . . . arrangers and composers. And there was this one actor—brilliant actor and composer named Gregg Coffin. And another wonderful composer named Larry Delinger, both of whom work all over the country now. At the time they were in this little ton of Santa Maria. And Gregg said you really need to make a musical out of this. Ad I hadn’t thought of it, but it just seemed to kind of develop from there. I love that period of time in music. With the 1940’s I was really drawn to Big Band and the popular music of the time. And some of the stuff that wasn’t quite so popular. But I love that stuff. I love the melodies of it and the harmonies of it. And so in 1990 I remember I was taking a long trip moving furniture . . . like . . . 1,000 miles in a U-Haul. And I had a tape recorder. Ad I’d just start to sing little snatches of tunes into the tape recorder. And eventually those things started turning into lyrics. And a lot of the stuff I sang into a tape recorder and gave to these guys. And they took it from there and turned it into music.
Me: So was that the compression and the stress that you needed in order to finally get this thing done?
Daly: Yeah. Yeah. ‘Cause I didn’t know when these guys were . . . we gelled so well. I didn’t know when this was going to happen again. Again, the clock was ticking and I really didn’t want to live in California all my life. Y’know . . . sooner or later there was going to be a change of some kind. And these guys were there. So once I got workin’ on it, We were ready . . . in about a year. So I worked pretty hard on it for about a year.
Me: Between acting gigs?
Daly: Yeah. Right. I Remember playing Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. And I had about 25 minutes off and going out under a tree to write lyrics.
Daly: And my kids were little then, so you spend years thinking about something and not really doing anything about it. And then when you need to do it—when the time comes to do it, you somehow just fit it into whatever your life is at the moment.
TOMORROW: Working With Milwaukee Chamber The Daly family performance and more.