“The beauty of the arts is
to take the best out of what has already been done, be inspired,
and bring your voice and vision to elevate that art to a new level.”
keep reading this quote.
been working on this project for some time now… and I owe Daryl
more appreciation than I can truly express for his consideration
and participation. As I put finishing touches on the effort, each
time I walk away from it for a bit I think about this thought
getting into a long rant, it seems like respect and responsibility
are rare themes in any efforts these days. There isn’t an overwhelming
appreciation for the history… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation
for the audience… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation for
preparing long term careers… there isn’t an overwhelming appreciation
for the hard work, dedication, and passion that adds depth and
character and so much more to a person’s efforts and accomplishments.
then, in asking him about such a concept in relation to professionalism,
Daryl Wagner offers this as part of his response: “The beauty
of the arts is to take the best out of what has already been done,
be inspired, and bring your voice and vision to elevate that art
to a new level.”
a great thought.
shouldn’t be surprised. For this is a man that has worked on productions
on tours and in major cities such as The Sound of Music,
The Music Man, and Pal Joey… this is a man that
has worked with, performed with, conducted for the likes of Dorothy
Collins, Rosemary Clooney, Patrice Munsel and Tom Poston.
a funny aside -- How much do you know about Dorothy Collins? In
the 1950s she sang “Unchained Melody” on Your Hit Parade…
almost a decade before the Righteous Brothers released their classic
version of the song. Around the same time, she took on the role
of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz… in a stage production
that featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Pretty great stuff there. Someday I hope to have notes like that
on my resume.
just so happens that Liberace also released a version of “Unchained
Melody” of his own, in 1955. And that little connection brings
us back around to this interview…
brings us back to Daryl. Before our interview though, let’s learn
a little bit about the man…
~ ~ ~
and raised in the Midwest… the great city of Chicago… entertainment
and music have been a part of Daryl Wagner’s life since the very
beginning. He has memories of multiple generations of his family
playing the piano and other instruments, and he began playing
the piano at the age of 5.
a child performer, he was involved in theater efforts of stock
and regional productions like The Sound of Music, Life
with Father and The Music Man. He was a teenager
when opportunity presented itself… an unforeseen set of events
led to him being placed in the conductor’s role, leading the orchestra
for Dorothy Collins performing with a tour of The Sound of
growing up, in addition to the piano, he studied singing and dancing.
His continued private education in Chicago included training with
Jerome LoMonaco, Paul Studebaker and Martha Larrimore at the Chicago
Conservatory of Music. And he brought his talents to audiences
in multiple ways, with the most notable being a string of impressive
conducting efforts such as the aforementioned work with Dorothy
Collins. He cites the Chicago national tour of Dames at Sea
with Bernadette Peters as a cherished part of his career.
the demands of life on the road led him to investigate professional
opportunities in a steady location. And for someone with a flair
for performing… experience not only conducting, composing and
arranging music and shows, along with an impressive resume of
accomplishments acting, singing, and being on stage… it likely
isn’t surprising that he would at some point find himself working
in Las Vegas.
might be surprising though is how life often provides unexpected
twists, connections and developments. In much the same way as
I previously noted that “Unchained Melody” brings Dorothy Collins
and Liberace together, we might at least attempt to say the same
for Daryl. For the man who would conduct for her actually got
his first job in Vegas working for him. Daryl was hired as a singer
and pianist in Liberace’s legendary restaurant and lounge, The
Showmanship will long be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers
of all time. He was an influential figure and a leader in the
industry for decades. Liberace died in 1987. Soon after his passing,
friends began encouraging Daryl to pursue performing a tribute
for him. At the time, a show featuring a cast of impersonators
was building itself and its reputation. It was called Legends
in Concert, which today is known throughout the industry
as the leader in tribute productions. John Stuart of Legends
hired Daryl to portray Liberace, and the pairing worked wonderfully
for both parties. Daryl has worked with Legends for more
than two decades. During that time, he has repeatedly been called
upon to be a part of casts opening Legends productions
across the country, including a run as part of the original cast
of Legends on Broadway.
Daryl continues taking to the stage as Liberace. His shows are
full performances as one of the true master craftsmen in the entertainment
world, featuring a cast of singers and dancers, and of course,
a piano and candelabra. You can find out more about him at his
web site -- Liberace
Tribute starring Daryl Wagner on Facebook.
got to speak with a terrific, engaging, and wonderfully polite
man a few years ago, and we continued that conversation over the
past few weeks. I am thrilled to bring the interview to In
~ ~ ~
are some of your first memories of music? And I mean all around…
perhaps singing to a song on the radio… perhaps lessons with musical
instruments. How did you get started in music? And what are some
of your first memories of singing, and then, of performing?
was exposed to music through my family.
grandfather (mother’s side) played violin and piano. I have no
memory of his violin per se, but I remember his sitting at the
spinet in their home and playing… for some reason I especially
recall him playing “Melody of Love”. Not very good, but he was
drawn to music and was into listening to the Grand Ole Opry on
mom played piano with much frequency, and also played organ for
the fundamentalist church we attended. She sang, but not a great
deal. It was because of her our family was given music lessons.
wanted to play the piano and that was an easy fit in the scheme
of things. As for singing, I always enjoyed singing and at a young
age I felt I could sing well. I sang and played piano in school
as well as church.
truly felt compelled to do these things from within, yet I also
consciously felt they made me stand out and receive attention,
which I was sorely in need of. Performing is something I always
craved to the point of distraction… I still remember watching
the original Mickey Mouse Club on our black and white
TV and was so jealous of the Mouseketeers. Anytime I was able
to be in front of people and perform, that was what I wanted to
do. Once again, a burning desire for acceptance and approval from
there a particular style of music, or group of entertainers, that
you consider particularly influential to you? Are there any performers
in particular that you miss… and current-day performers that you
is difficult to assess one group of performers or one performer
specifically as most influential, as I have enjoyed most of them
as I grew up for a variety of reasons.
a young man, I had no connection to the music of my own generation
and for that matter still don’t. I did love the work and the music
that came out of Motown and, years after the fact, I learned an
appreciation for the legacy of the Beatles music.
be told, I schooled myself by latching on to a specific decade
of American music, and learning and listening to all that I could
regarding where music was, who was writing it, what and who was
popular at the time, what were the hit music, and I did this for
the twenties, forties, thirties, 1900s and 1910s. This is the
music that I went after and loved from the get go. America’s golden
age of writing, performing and developing a national character
that was strictly American… all heavily influenced by our European
roots. I still live in the richness of the past, and love to reinvent
and keep alive all that was good regarding the arts during this
period of our growth.
are just too many names of performers I have loved and miss to
mention, but I can easily remember my sadness when Mel Tormé
died, when Ethel Merman passed, the death of Judy Garland, the
lovely Rosemary Clooney, Dick Haymes, Howard Keel, Vivian Blaine…
there are too many to go through and they all made profound impressions
I suppose I can cite Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé,
Michael Feinstein, Bernadette Peters and a good many of the great
singers who have graced that stage of many theaters on Broadway.
what point did pursuing music professionally enter your mind,
and how did you pursue making that a reality?
a career in entertainment was never something I chose, it chose
me. I can’t recall not wanting to be on a stage, on TV, in a movie…
whatever. That genie had to get out of the bottle. Anytime there
was an opportunity to perform anywhere, I was a nuisance until
I was allowed to do it or at least do the audition. I did many
kid roles in musicals and some plays and also did local theater…
anything that got me in front of people. That seemed the only
right thing for me to do.
lessons, messages or advice would you offer to someone just beginning
their journey along the road to being a professional musician?
can seem almost patronizing or perhaps a bit pandering when it
comes to one performer doling out some sage message to someone
in the nascent stage of their career path. However…
would tell anyone (and this would apply to any of the performing
arts) make sure this is something you HAVE TO DO – REGARDLESS
OF THE CONSEQUENCES OR COST AND LOSS OF PERSONAL COMFORT. Show
business can take so much and return so little, yet like a moth
to the flame, a real performer goes back over and over again in
spite of rejections, failures and dim prospects for a future.
It would be easy to describe show business as a truly cruel mistress.
And yet, when you make it on whatever level you are currently
at, there is nothing as sweet as the nectar from the show biz
think you’re piano-playing is brilliant. Did you… do you… play
any other musical instruments? How much do you rehearse? (And
for this, feel free to include anything from just playing for
fun all the way to rehearsing for a show.)
am truly flattered at your kind words regarding my musicianship.
I studied a lot and practiced even more. Live performing is the
most difficult of disciplines as you are not allowed the luxury
of relying on recordings you made, film or TV tapings that exist
or anything else that archives your accomplishments. You are required
to prove yourself all over again each and every time you set foot
on a stage. No one in the audience cares a fig about your wonderful
performance last night or the great show you will give three weeks
from now. This is a singular one show at a time job, and every
night you have to win over a new group of folks.
say all of this because it illuminates the reason I play piano
as much as I do every day. Most musicians have to keep their ‘chops’
up and that means regular work on their instrument of choice.
And besides, as a performer, there is no final moment of perfection
in your work. There is always a new way to play what you hear
in your head or to bring something new into your game. The performing
arts are living and therefor always a work in progress. Practice
is a must, and letting go and enjoying the ride is a necessity.
you find it difficult to play in the heavy costumes, or probably
more of a concern, how did you learn how to play the piano while
wearing the rings?
are lovely, aren’t they?
it’s a challenge. They’re big and they’re heavy. But the secret
isn’t as hard as you might think. Just about every time I practice
or rehearse on the piano, I play while wearing them. Practice
long enough, and it begins to feel natural.
you share a bit of how your tribute to Liberace began?
leaving the show Hello Hollywood, Hello at the MGM in
Reno, I toured a bit with a revue put together with two gentlemen
I had worked with. When that ended I was in San Francisco trying
to make a mark there.
was difficult establishing myself there, as the ‘crème’
jobs for a piano player were taken and jealously held on to and
guarded by the guys who had those positions for years and years.
Gigging around became my bill of fare, and that was not the easiest
way to make a buck. The city had just been through the Harvey
Milk debacle and was now in the nascent stages of what was to
become the AIDS epidemic. Not the best time to be in that or any
large urban area here in the states.
thought I could get away from it all and go to Vegas, where I
had some friends and get something going. I actually got a job
working for Liberace at his restaurant/club called The Tivoli
Gardens. I played and sang in the main lounge there, and in its
day it was THE late night spot for the rich and famous in and
passing through Las Vegas.
was also the period Liberace was losing a massive amount of weight,
and as was discovered down the road, was the virus working its
way through his system. He was contracted at that time by Caesars
and was playing the Circus Maximus. His shows were getting shorter,
and at one point the second show was taken off as well. When he
became too weak to perform, that was his last time on stage.
is all germane as I have such vivid memories of this time, and
the show Legends in Concert was still using its original concept…
meaning no star was represented on their stage until the star
had passed away.
Lee did die, of course Legends was now on the prowl for
a Liberace character. They hired a guy who bore a physical resemblance
to him but was neither a musician nor any kind of an established
performer of any sort with any background. In other words, not
good at all. A friend of mine in Vegas told me I should audition
for the Legends show as Liberace, and I thought he had
lost his mind. I believed the show was some ridiculous Elvis show
with a few acts before the “king” made his appearance. And I also
thought that impersonation work of this kind was just glorified
‘drag queens’ frolicking about pretending to be someone they were
not. Not how I envisioned my talent!
being said, we all have to make a living (as I was not to the
‘manor’ born) so I decided to give it a go. I did a great deal
of research and from all of this culled together an act that was
roughly in the 13/14 minute running time. When I felt ready, I
called the Legends office and made an audition time.
In those days at the Imperial Palace, I came to find out they
saw a lot of new acts between shows and I was given a date and
a time. I showed up, gave my music to the band, and did my little
act. That evening, John Stuart gave me a contract and I worked
for Legends well over twenty years non-stop… opening
new venues for them all around the country and doing Legends
on Broadway as well. Now that was quite a journey.
going to begin this question by trying to bring to mind an image
of Elvis. Any tribute artist that I’ve seen perform “Suspicious
Minds” always hits one signature moment -- the “I hope this suit
don’t tear up, baby” part. To my mind, I believe mainly as a result
of Aloha from Hawaii, this is understood to be the true
live interpretation of the song and the expected delivery of it.
Ok… thought in place… switch over to Liberace. How do you approach
performing as Liberace? Are there certain aspects -- song selection,
conversations with an audience, costume and dress -- that you
feel a need to deliver in a faithful manner? And -- especially
since I am unaware of Liberace coming to the stage for an encore
on roller blades, but found that moment from you to be wonderfully
perfect -- where do you look for areas where you might be able
to take some liberties?
is a tricky business for that very reason. When you try to recreate
an unflawed perfect reproduction of specific performer’s filmed
or taped performance, you have already lost the game. At best
you have done a living version of a Madame Tussauds wax figure,
and will be just as flat and lifeless. Stars are people too… no
one will ever know how they feel and what they are thinking while
on stage. (My dog is sick… the kid got in trouble at school… my
back is killing me… I wish that broad in the second row would
shut her damn mouth…) We will always be on the outside looking
in and seeing only what a particular performer at a particular
time wanted us to see. Period. What we do know regarding feelings,
thoughts, current emotions, etc., etc., is what we ourselves are
experiencing with all of these various things. That is where honesty
as an actor comes into being. By making something honest according
to our own reality, it becomes real as a representation of whoever
we are portraying.
take my own sense of experience and feeling a Liberace show created
for me. How did it make me feel, why, what are the emotions I
brought forward after seeing it? I use this info to translate
for myself how to create that experience for an audience within
the perimeter of all I understand and have learned as a performer
myself apart from the impersonation arena. It seems real because
I have made it real by my own standard. And every stage moment
is unique and you cannot put yesterday’s moment into this day’s
with specific mannerisms or dialogue that have come to be expected
from any given performer, what you see is what the public perception
has done to the memory of that character. A star can be a victim
of the impressions that other acts have done of them. This general
lampooning is always over-stated mannerisms and vocalisms that
this kind of send up humor demands. What we have seen from many
of these caricatures is that they become embedded in the public
conscience and after much repetition became an accepted reality.
Like repeating a lie until it is accepted as truth, this is the
realm many impersonators accept as their truth. Regardless of
anything based in reality, they deliver what has become public
perception of their star’s persona. By running out the expected,
the audience is not disappointed. Of course, this is entirely
woven from invisible cloth, and yet…
for Liberace, putting myself in his shoes was easier than I thought
it would be. His props were extravagant, his wardrobe was extravagant,
his double entendre were very saucy and he was fearless when it
came to doing business. Without duplicating one single thing exactly,
I was able to compose an entire act based on that reality. I use
enough lines from his show to establish the hook, but the rest
is all me. I believe this is why my work is successful. I am not
the outside looking, but rather on the inside sharing my reality
in an outward direction to the audience.
perhaps not quite having the continuing presence and identity
today that someone like Elvis can claim, I have many memories
of watching Liberace while growing up and believe millions of
others do as well… everything from his shows and guest appearances
as a performer to re-runs of Batman. For several decades,
he was one of the elite members of the entertainment industry.
I think he can quite correctly be identified as a legend, and
truly is a leader from that classic Vegas period along with Elvis
and Sinatra… when performers and musicians were beyond the description
of larger-than-life. I’d like to stay with that idea for the next
couple of questions, and begin by asking you why Liberace was
so important and what kind of lasting impact(s) from him remain.
was literally the first legend of Las Vegas. He preceded Sinatra
and all of them. When Elvis first played Vegas and was a miserable
bomb, Liberace was at the top of his game. His fame as one of
the pioneer shows on the newly invented gizmo called a television
set put him into the mainstream of American thought. Whether he
was being regaled as a master entertainer or debased as the butt
of cruel, insensitive humor… Liberace was talked about by one
and all. When he started as a lounge pianist in Vegas, he was
being paid $50,000.00 a week. And that was in the economy of the
had a plan for himself and built his name and reputation one step
at a time. His name is synonymous with over the top show business
in much the same way Ziegfeld was in his time. And of course,
he is still considered by the public at large as the quintessential
piano player. His memory is important as he was a groundbreaking
innovator of his day and many current trends can be traced back
to the time of Liberace.
mentioned an interesting point about Legends a moment
ago, which is that today they have widened their casting to include
tributes for living performers. For this reason in particular,
but perhaps others as well, do you miss the old days?
ways, yes. But to your thought, because it was such a different
foundation for a show. When you consider words like legend and
tribute, I think there is a big difference between someone that
is no longer with us and has, if you will, written the last chapter
of their autobiography, and the performer that is still actively
working and even creating new material.
was famous for his interactions with audiences and fans. He also
delivered some of the greatest quips and quotes this side of Groucho…
especially when addressing his detractors. What are some of your
favorite Liberace moments? And, having seen you connect with an
audience, as a group as well as individually, I wonder if you
have any special stories about getting on stage, how people react,
and some of you favorite moments from your career.
honestly don’t have a specific moment that stands out regarding
his shows because… quite frankly, when someone is driven onstage
in a mirrored Phantom Rolls, gets out draped in acres of fur and
between 20 and 50 pounds of rhinestones, and with an almost Jack
Benny-like delivery, says, “Well, look me over! I didn’t get all
dressed like this to go unnoticed.”… all bets are off!
many people see me for the first time, they are often just gob-smacked
and stare with childlike amazement. And when I open my mouth the
bar is raised. I truly believe I have the same effect on an audience
that Liberace had, inasmuch many people feel they don’t like or
don’t really know who Liberace is, yet when they see my show and
how I can work a moment they get caught up, and in spite of themselves
find that they are laughing and actually having a good time. Many
a husband was dragged into a Liberace show by their wife and ended
up having as good a time as she.
you enjoy the responses you get when meeting with members of an
And, in many ways, I enjoy their reactions now more than ever.
worked a lifetime, virtually my entire lifetime, to develop my
talent and make my shows entertaining. When people respond to
that, and when they express their joy, it is truly wonderful.
want to continue with that thought for a moment, because I’ve
also heard and read some of your thoughts on professional productions…
everything from theater to skating. I get the impression that
you feel very strongly about some things (in a way that Liberace
might have appreciated and even shared)… mainly based simply on
respecting an audience and being a professional. In other words,
there’s a place for lavish designs and perfection, and a place
for improvisation and happy accidents. However… be it for music,
a play, or anything else… those stages are a delivery point that
brings with it a sort of responsibility. A privilege, if you will.
Do you think there is something lacking today? …be it professionalism…
talent… or the drive for making a dollar over actually having
something worth paying to see?
the state of the business today can be rather mournful as I see
the bar for performers being so callously and with willful intention
lowered to a point of the ridiculous.
would be an interesting experiment to take all of those who call
themselves singers and put them on a bare stage with one overhead
light, one musician sitting at a piano and a single mike stand,
while standing in front of an audience numbering in the thousand
(give or take a few) present. How many of these overpaid and overhyped
darlings do you think could hold that room for a mere twenty minutes,
let alone a show that is ninety minutes long? Of course, a Josh
Groban or Clay Aiken could do it, as well as others of that caliber.
But most would be at a total loss to do anything live without
any smoke, mirrors and prerecorded track to lip sync to. And these
wanna be singers have such small and undeveloped voices with the
astounding range of four or five notes… we are subjected to music
that is written for the unchallenged and unsubstantiated voice.
are the good writers coming from? Where are the lyricists? The
market seems to have been saturated with people who have taught
themselves singing, dancing, and playing an instrument. Unfortunately,
this takes the craft back by many tens of decades. It’s like learning
to read but never going beyond the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries.
We have raised up the uneducated to the status of the greats,
and words like diva and superstar are now without any true meaning.
beauty of the arts is to take the best out of what has already
been done, be inspired, and bring your voice and vision to elevate
that art to a new level. Not going back to the days of beating
two rocks together, pounding a stick on the ground, and chanting
in random whoops at the moon whilst sitting around a fire.
of the current ‘stars’ should actually be represented on stage
by the people who created them… the technicians in studios who
push buttons, make videos and edit them, and turn nothing into
a something that can be promoted to the easily manipulated masses.
the old axiom of the biggest and reddest apple, so tempting to
look upon and desire, yet filled with worms and decay. Until people
decide to demand more though, they will get what they deserve…
a food-like substance deep-fried in a sugary, greasy batter, and
served in a gaudy paper wrapping with only your fingers to shove
this concoction of future diabetes down your gullet. (On second
though, I think I’ll just skip that meal.)
you’ve been performing shows themed around Liberace from beginning
to end. What kind of difference does that hold as compared to
a 15-minute set?
been fortunate. Liberace has such an extraordinary body of work
that it’s very hard to narrow it down to shorter pieces without
thinking about the material you could have played with just a
bit more time. He was a fantastic showman. He was ‘Mr. Showmanship’
after all. And when you are known for that, and all the spectacle
he was associated with, there is no shortage of quality material
to draw upon.
me personally, the longer shows are nice because they give you
a chance to really stretch out and show what you can do.
should people look for from you in the future? And, how can someone
follow your schedule, see you in person, and enjoy and support
best ways are to go to my Facebook page, Liberace
Tribute starring Daryl Wagner.
~ ~ ~
is my pleasure to thank Daryl Wagner for his time, consideration,
and participation on this interview. We first met in person at
a media night event for Legends in Concert a few years
ago, which provided some of the information you have read. In
addition, a great deal was developed through e-mail exchanges.
I simply cannot fully express my gratitude for his assistance,
and, for his kindness. It was an absolute honor meeting him, interviewing
him, and photographing his work with Legends in Concert.
It has been an even greater thrill to work with him specifically
on this material.
great news for you (and me) is that Daryl is constantly adding
performance dates to his schedule, and is investigating the possibility
of bringing his show on the road for select events. And that means
there are chances to see this talented man performing live on
are some places where you can learn more…
Tribute starring Daryl Wagner on Facebook
Wagner at Legends in Concert -- Liberace
pictures you see in this article are a combination of shots.
The majority have been provided for this project by Daryl Wagner.
Several were taken by Bob Hocking during performances with Legends
was involved in the approval of all images used in this article,
and granted permission for the use of the pictures where rights
are not held by Bob Hocking and In My Backpack.
rights to these pictures are protected. They cannot be used
for any other purpose without the appropriate written permission(s)
from Daryl Wagner and/or Bob Hocking. As a matter of convenience
associated with this specific effort, Daryl and Bob request
that you use the e-mail details on this page and for In My Backpack
if you have questions or would like additional information about
any of the material involved in this project.