Eric Michael Gillett

Movie Memories

Eric Michael Gillett will share great songs from great films at McCarter Theatre Monday, March 7, 2011

By Keith Loria

TO have his mother tell it, Eric Michael Gillett came out of the womb “kicking and singing” and the award-winning vocalist never wanted to do anything but.

”I don’t think there has been a day in my conscious life that I haven’t sang in one form or another,” Mr. Gillett says. “I started singing even before I was in school. I grew up in Los Angles and was in choirs in first and second grade and loved it.”

When his voice changed as a teen, Mr. Gillett was a little taken aback by how he went from a soprano to a tenor, and as he adjusted to the difference, he started to pursue acting as well.

”I started pretty early wanting to do this kind of work,” he says. “I connected with a tremendous teacher, Jan Ritschel, who is my teacher to this day, and she is the person I feel who has given me the career that I have had.”

That career includes staring roles on Broadway, the New York City Opera and countless other theater productions and cabaret shows.

On March 12, Mr. Gillett will be bringing his latest cabaret show — Widescreen: Songs From & About the Movies — to McCarter Theatre in Prineceton, joined on stage by musical director Jeff Cubeta.

”I don’t like to do a show unless I have something very personal to say,” Mr. Gillett says. “A collection of songs can be put together by anyone, but at the end of the evening, I want the audience to come with me and drive in the car and just sit back and know I know where we are going, and they can sit back and see the things that I want them to see as we drive by.”

In the show, Mr. Gillett uses the silver screen for a jumping off point, performing songs written specifically for motion pictures, as well as exploring music from theater and contemporary pop.

The inspiration for Widescreen musically is a Rupert Holmes song about people who live their life in the fantasy of film; the inspiration emotionally for Mr. Gillett stems from his childhood memories of watching movies in the big palace theaters near his California home.

”It’s kind of nice to know you can sit in the dark with your popcorn and just escape and be part of another world and other people’s lives and feel things deeply. I’ve always been fascinated by the romance of that and that’s what inspires and drives the show,” Mr. Gillett says. “When I began to build this piece, it was to take the audience on a journey of what we love about movies and why music takes us to a higher emotional level.”

Of course, it’s the stage, and not movies, that Mr. Gillett has excelled in over the years. He remembers seeing his first theater production as a youngster when his mother took him to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan.

”I fell in love with the idea of theater, but I don’t know if I had the desire to be an actor and performer; I just liked what it felt like to sing and perform,” he says. “My intention in school was to become a teacher and speech pathologist.”

Those career ambitions changed when he was in college and was being offered roles and jobs in the theater.

He earned his equity card doing Stephen Sondheim’s Side by Side with Peggy Lee and then went to Las Vegas to work in the show Bal du Moulin Rouge, the American premiere of the French classic.

Mr. Gillett took a circuitous route to Broadway, working on cruise lines, in Vegas and taking one big unexpected turn.

”I decided I was going to move to New York and pursue my dream to become a lead in a Broadway show and as I signed my lease, I was offered a job as ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus,” he says. “I thought I would do it for a year but I stayed for 11 years. I had a remarkable career there. The theater is more of a village where you know everyone and you’re all connected, but the circus is more of a family.”

Finally coming to New York in 1998, Mr. Gillett quickly picked up roles in Broadway productions of Kiss Me, Kate, Sweet Smell of Success and The Frogs.

A favorite role of his was playing “Papa” Denny Doherty in Dream a Little Dream at the Village Theatre. Coincidentally, Mr. Gillett was in a garage band when he was younger that played many of the songs in the musical.

”My big thing was that I could do spot-on vocal impressions, and I did Denny from the Mamas and the Papas,” he says. “To deliver his story on stage was one of the highlights of my career.”

Other big highlights include working in New York City Opera productions of Cinderella, The Pirates of Penzance and Candide.

”It was a dream come true,” he says. “To say that I was a principal soloist at the NYC Opera was very special to me.”

In addition to performing, Mr. Gillett also directs cabaret shows and has revisited his one-time career aspirations.

”Over the years I found I drifted back into teaching. As sort of a wise-old man of the theater, I have become a voice teacher and acting teacher on the side,” he says. “It’s given me great gratification to combine what I know as an artist with what I know as a teacher. I like to inspire others to find the best in themselves.”