A cabaret singer at the Inn at Whitefield in New Hampshire had lost his voice in the late 1970s.
A fill-in was needed, pronto.
The artistic director at the Weathervane Theatre — a former barn located just beyond earshot from the inn on Lancaster Road — asked the theater’s summer box office boy if he had any interest in belting out a few songs in front of strangers.
Two days later, a 17-year-old boy named Rick Boynton got his big break in show business. It was quite a jump: the youngest of five Boynton children growing up in the northern part of the Granite State went from handing tickets to audience members at one venue to hearing applause from audience members at another.
The next summer, the son of Herb and Pauline Boynton played Jesus in Godspell and later landed other plum roles.
“I had a blast,” recalls Boynton, now 54 and the creative producer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “I got excited when I realized, ‘Oh my God, I can do this for a living.’ ”
But he earned college credits first, beginning with two years at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, before finishing up at Northwestern University in 1984.
“I immersed myself in theater at Northwestern,” says Boynton, sitting at a table at The Lucky Platter in Evanston, his hometown since 2002. “I designed shows and learned about everything else that goes into the production of a work, but I also audited acting classes to get a different perspective.
“What I learned during my college years, and what I continue to appreciate today, is the great power of all arts.”
After collecting his degree and migrating back to the East Coast — New York this time — Boynton waited (on tables) and waited some more (to hear back after auditioning for roles).
“Spent it all in a year,” a grinning Boynton says.
He orders Jasmine tea and the Tofu Scramble, an eggless entrée with tofu, spinach, mushrooms and feta cheese. A fit man who started running regularly at the age of 50, Boynton — his eyes dancing above a perma-smile — exudes an infectious aura. I have known Boynton for no more than five minutes, yet it feels like I can’t wait to catch up with all he had experienced and accomplished in the last 10 years. It’s one of his gifts — the ability to put anybody at ease, just like that. He is as excited about the current production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, The Book of Joseph (running through March 5), as he is about his house’s New England-like wraparound porch and the Evanston Library and “every kind of restaurant you can think of” in Evanston.
The Book of Joseph — staged by artistic director Barbara Gaines and adapted by Karen Hartman from Richard Hollander’s book, Every Day Lasts a Year — centers on letters written during World War II by the immediate family members of Hollander’s father, Joseph, in Nazi-occupied Poland. Joseph had escaped to the United States; he was unable to convince his family, including his mother and three sisters, to join him. The family members, all of whom would die in the Holocaust, wrote countless Swastika-stamped letters to Joseph.
After the death of his parents, Richard Hollander found a suitcase packed with stacks of letters in their attic. But the son waited 15 years before beginning his mission to pore over the contents.
The play is billed as “frequently chilling, often humorous and deeply moving.”
“The suitcase,” Boynton says, “is a metaphor for ‘putting something aside.’ ”
In the late 1980s, having returned to the Chicago area, Boynton put his acting/singing career behind him to pursue a career as a talent agent. That led to his pursuit of a career as a casting director.
“I called up a good friend at the Goodman Theatre and told her, ‘I want to be a talent agent.’ ” says Boynton, a multiple Jeff Award-winning actor and a former ad jingle and cruise ship singer. “She said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”
Boynton eventually landed the position of director/associate at Jane Alderman Casting. His projects there included television series Missing Persons and ER and films While You Were Sleeping and Hoodlum.
Alderman — who suggested to the producers of the 1985 movie The Color Purple to consider Oprah Winfrey for the role of Sofia — died last fall at the age of 77. Winfrey was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress) for that role.
“Jane gave me wonderful opportunities,” says Boynton, who was the artistic director at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire from 2000-2005. “She was passionate about actors and collaborating with directors and coming up with ways to tweak a director’s vision. We had like minds. She was hardworking and dedicated, like I am. Around her, you could always count on engaging in great artistic dialogue.
“When I didn’t know if the opportunity at Chicago Shakespeare Theater would be a good fit for me because I hadn’t focused on Shakespeare in college, Jane said to me, ‘I can’t sing a note, but I can cast a musical.’ That made sense to me. I loved hearing that. … Don’t let fear steer your life.”
Joining his husband, Criss, to raise their daughter, Chloe, has filled Boynton’s life with immeasurable joy. The 10-year-old’s favorite stages, though, can’t be found in a theater.
Chloe prefers expressing herself atop mats and in pools.
“Chloe is a gymnast and a swimmer, plus she’s unbelievably funny,” Boynton says. “Criss and I are lucky. Our daughter is an old soul, and her love for life is contagious.”
The world premiere of The Book of Joseph runs through March 5 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Avenue. For ticket information, visit chicagoshakes.com or call (312) 595-5600.