PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff McCarthy

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeff McCarthy Urinetown's deadpan and light-footed narrator-cop Jeff McCarthy has enjoyed a healthy theatrical career with roles in Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserables and Side Show, flanked by side-gigs like the dry-witted executive in the Federal Express commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and as the voice of the WB Television Network's Michigan J. Frog. Considering his recent role in musicals, it turns out the actor, who may be in contention for his first Tony Award nomination, resisted musicals for years. McCarthy took some time — during Officer Lockstock's off-hours — to speak to Playbill On-Line's Ernio Hernandez about the hit musical's move from the fringe to Off-Broadway to Broadway, and about his hopes for the future.
Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden in Urinetown.
Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden in Urinetown. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Urinetown's deadpan and light-footed narrator-cop Jeff McCarthy has enjoyed a healthy theatrical career with roles in Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserables and Side Show, flanked by side-gigs like the dry-witted executive in the Federal Express commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and as the voice of the WB Television Network's Michigan J. Frog. Considering his recent role in musicals, it turns out the actor, who may be in contention for his first Tony Award nomination, resisted musicals for years. McCarthy took some time — during Officer Lockstock's off-hours — to speak to Playbill On-Line's Ernio Hernandez about the hit musical's move from the fringe to Off-Broadway to Broadway, and about his hopes for the future.

PBOL: How was the transfer from Off Broadway to Broadway?
JM: Our stage is smaller than it was Off-Broadway, we had a bigger playing space and that was depressing. It was cramped, you think of Broadway and it's supposed to be better. [Laughs.] It was kind of a pain, but we're used to it.

 

PBOL: At what point did you join the show?
JM: The Off-Broadway [production in 2001], which is most of us. Spencer [Kayden who plays Little Sally] was the only one at the [1999] Fringe production.

PBOL: Amazing to find out she's around 30 years old...
JM: Actually, I think she's 51. Something like that. [Laughs.] It's a testament to her genes. PBOL: Looking ahead, what are your plans for after Urinetown?
JM: Hmm, that's interesting, I'd have to think about that. I mean, what I really need to do is get a big fat TV job. I'd like to have a regular shot on something like the way John Cullum did it. That was a great career: work in theatre most your life and then towards the end have a big TV job and pay off all your bills.

PBOL: Anyone you would like to collaborate with?
JM: I'd actually like to work with [Side Show director-choreographer] Bobby Longbottom again. I think he's a good director. And of course, Sondheim, who I've never even auditioned for. In all my years, I think I've just been in another show or something and I've never auditioned for him.

PBOL: You've worked with a lot of younger composers and directors, do you see yourself as a guide for them?
JM: No I don't. [Laughs.] Well, this is huge generalization, there's a little bit of a freer dialogue when you're working with young people and you're somebody whose been around. It's a generalization, but actually the truth of it, Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown, is just a really great person. He's not ego-driven. He's written this thing and I think it's very sweet hearted as is he. He's great and Tina Landau [of Ricky Ian Gordon's Dream True, in which McCarthy appeared] — everybody that works with her would do it again in a second, just because she's truly a collaborator; you build the thing together. She's a director but, as she says, she's really more of an editor. You give her stimulus and she responds to it by editing, that's a great relationship, to work with a director like that. And John Rando is the sweetest guy in the world. He's one of these guys that directs by laughing. He'll laugh here and he'll laugh there and you get the idea what general direction you're headed by what he's laughed at. He'll come now, nine months or a year after we've been doing this and he'll still laugh like it's the first time.

PBOL: Do you have a favorite role that you've played?
JM: Well I did play George, in Sunday in the Park with George — when my daughter was born 12 years ago — at Seattle Rep. I think that's my favorite musical in the world. I would love to do that again. Unfortunately, the Kennedy Center Sondheim retrospective is this summer, but none of us can do it because we're in Urinetown. But, that is one of my favorite plays, I love the role. And the Chekhov plays I've done in my life, I've always thought of as my favorite things: Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters.

PBOL: Interesting that you mention Chekhov, because you've done a lot of musicals. Do you see yourself as more of a musical theatre guy?
JM: Well, I am...by default, I guess. I didn't used to like musicals very much, but I was gifted with this Robert Goulet voice. It never made any sense to me. It wasn't the kind of music I listen to, but you know I'd open my mouth and there you have it. And I was sort of sour grapes about musicals for many years. Then, years ago, a guy called me up, "Come to The Muny and do Oklahoma!" and I thought, "Oh, God, this is just the lowest point in my life." [Laughs.] And I went there and I sat during tech rehearsals out in the audience — and it was this wonderful group of actors — and I just looked at it and thought it was the most beautiful thing. It just looked like...I don't know...it was a very Zen experience looking at it, and I was thinking, "God, I've been so wrong." I think the flames of youth had died down or something — the anarchy and whatnot — and suddenly I was just seeing a lovely meditative moment. And after that, I sort of opened my heart, as it were, to musicals and the work kind of poured in. Now, I love them.