Julian Marsh is putting on a show!" Would these words mean anything to Werner Heisenberg? Probably not, but Michael Cumpsty—the actor who played the German physicist in Copenhagen and will play theatrical producer Marsh in the new Broadway revival of 42nd Street—thinks the two characters have a lot in common. If you haven't seen Cumpsty's work over the last several years, you just haven't been going to the theatre. Among his most recent credits are Electra on Broadway and 1776 at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The latter was Cumpsty's only previous major musical credit prior to being cast in what is perhaps the most self-consciously splashy musical ever devised. At first, he was intimidated by the assignment and the singing it requires. But after the verbosity of Copenhagen, how hard could it be?
Playbill On-Line: What's it like going from Copenhagen to 42nd Street?
Michael Cumpsty: It's been a major transition. I'm not a singer. I kind of marked my way through 1776, my only New York musical. So, I had to do a lot of intensive voice work. I only sing one verse of "Lullaby of Broadway" and the reprise of "42nd Street," but both of them have to be big. Apart from that, obviously the burden of text is slighter than in Copenhagen. But the character [of Julian Marsh], actually, I'm discovering is not that different. He is insanely passionate about what he does, something to the detriment of the people around him. He's driven, and he has a particular vision, and he's somewhat confused as to the best way of doing things. The confusion in his case comes out in how he deals with people and how he deals with Peggy Sawyer. But there are a lot of similarities.
PBOL: The style of acting is quite different as well.
MC: It is significant. Although, there was a quality in Copenhagen— that was necessary simply by virtue of all the material you had to deal with—where it was fast. It was fast and very direct. Every intention was played very directly. There wasn't a great deal of messing around at the edges. And there isn't here, either. We've been watching some '30s and '40s movies, like "Stage Door," and the way those women throw lines at each other, they are so sharp and so crisply delivered. [Mark Bramble] is trying to get that out of us. It's something we're more familiar with on a musical theatre stage, but it's actually something we were working for in Copenhagen. Michael Blakemore would have been delighted if we could have gotten more of that in.
PBOL: It must be fun to play a character who walks on stage and makes everybody cower.
MC: It is. It is. You sort of have to struggle to maintain a little focus, because they're all being brilliant around you, and you have to walk past them all and act like you're the person who taught them how to do it.
PBOL: Did you see the original David Merrick production of 42nd Street?
MC: Yeah. PBOL: Did you see it early in the run, or late?
MC: I saw it a lot. In 1981, I was on a university scholarship program down at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and part of my program was an internship each summer. You would tell them what you'd like to do and they would use their contacts to establish something for you. So I said I'd like to work in the New York theatre and they hooked me up with an office internship at the Shuberts. Essentially, I was in Phil Smith's office pushing paper, and after a few days I said, "I'm really glad to be here, but this is not what I want to do." So they said, "We'll give you carte blanche. You go off and wander around our theatres and talk to people and see if you can come up with anything to do." I stopped by Amadeus, and the production manager there let me sit on book for a while. And one of the theatres I went to most frequently was the 42nd Street theatre, especially to watch—I had favorite moments, the curtain going up and all the tapping feet I saw again and again; and Jerry Orbach singing "Allentown." I was captivated by it. I didn't grow up with musical theatre. And it's the glizziest of them all.
PBOL: So when this production called, it was of particular interest to you.
MC: I was interested. I was intimidated by the prospect of really having to sing. But that's now come. My voice has opened up. Interestingly enough, working on Copenhagen—because there was so much text, and we did have to do it fast, and it did have to be like skiing—I think I retrained my diaphragm in a way that, usually, speaking on stage doesn't require of people. I trained my diaphragm in a way singers train them. So when I started taking singing lessons, I had the equipment to produce the sounds. When my coach reconfigured what my tongue and soft palate were doing, it was all there, it's all down here. So I'm making noises I never thought I could make. The musical director and the voice coach are saying, "God, you're moving fast." But it's all there from Copenhagen.
—By Robert Simonson