When you come barreling out of the rustic backwoods at 90 mph in a hard-charging Dodge Charger dubbed the "General Lee" and land smack dab into the national consciousness — as Tom Wopat did for seven television seasons (1979-1985) — you must expect psychic residue.
"I wouldn't be the first guy to come to mind to play a real sophisticate," concedes Wopat, commendably understating the case. "Obviously, it's an acting choice and it's something I do, but, human nature being what it is, casting directors don't think in that direction."
Such are the hazzards — er, hazards — of the profession if you're forever locked in time and mind as Luke Duke, one of "The Dukes of Hazzard," a couple of country cousins who chased cars and skirts all over Hazzard County in the mercifully unspecified Deep South.
42nd Street is light years removed from that hick scene, and so, too, is the character Wopat is playing in this razzle-dazzle backstage fable. Julian Marsh, the broken-down old theatrical director who's steering what may be his last big show to Broadway, is no good ol' boy.
"Not even a little bit," admits Wopat. "He's something of a martinet, but there's a reason he gets away with what he gets away with as far as bossing people around goes. There's a talent there, as well. He's a larger-than-life guy, but he's still a human being — that's the thing you're trying to find." Any amorous feeling he harbors for Peggy Sawyer, the "raw kid from the chorus" who goes out there a youngster and comes back a star, is purely back burner passion. "The way they've got it staged, there's an awful lot that's implied and doesn't happen onstage — just little teasing things here and there — but it gives a throughline to the whole thing, and it also makes her character more interesting in the sense that she's entertaining the tenor [boy ingenue Billy Lawlor], but she's really got other things in mind for Julian.
"It's actually not the tailor-made musical for me in that Julian doesn't do an awful lot of singing. If I'm going to do a musical, I want to be doing a lot of the work vocally. One of the reasons I was halfway reluctant to play Julian was because I didn't feel like I did enough in the part. He's like a ninja. He jumps in and there's a big section here, then he jumps in again and there's a big section there. But he doesn't sing till the second act."
By actual count, Julian Marsh is only allotted two songs, but what songs they are (the Oscar-winning "Lullaby of Broadway" and the title tune)! "If I had to have only two, those are fine ones to have."
Primarily, of course, 42nd Street is a major workout for the raw-and-getting-rawer kids of the chorus, executing the original stage choreography of the late Gower Champion and the new stuff of Randy Skinner. "The amazing thing to me is how hard those kids work. And guys like David Elder and Meredith Patterson and Beth Leavel — they're really the ones who are working hard in this musical. I feel like I'm cheating to get top billing for it." He pauses for a long, thoughtful beat. "But I'll take it."
It turns out to be quite easy to take the country out of the boy. Tom Wopat was a musical-comedy star on Broadway before — and since — his historic, Hazzardous tour of duty. Beneath the back road dust beats a backstage heart and always has. He replaced James Naughton in two Cy Coleman musicals (I Love My Wife and City of Angels), replaced Peter Gallagher in Guys and Dolls and darn if he didn't get to originate the role of Frank Butler (to Bernadette Peters's Annie Oakley) in the Annie Get Your Gun revival, and, darn again, if he didn't get Tony-nominated for it for his trouble.
Wopat's rural roots are real — he was born and raised on a dairy farm in Lodi, WI — but musical comedy was an early calling, and he hones the craft with annual regularity at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI, where he has been a guest artist for 25 years, doing such shows as Sweeney Todd, 1776, Oklahoma! (twice), South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun (twice), The Pajama Game, The Robber Bridegroom, Guys and Dolls (twice), et al.
"It's a mutually beneficial thing. I get to do things like Equus and Sweeney and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — things I might not have gotten cast in — and they get some butts in the seats. Doing Dr. Dysart in Equus was terrific for me. He has about five speeches that I call soliloquies — they're two or three pages long — and it was like learning a song, in that the action stops, and he makes a complete commentary on what's going on. It's probably the most intense work I've done. I lump that with Sweeney and a piece I just did down at The Flea Theater with Amy Irving, called The Guys. In that, I played a fire chief who has to eulogize the guys he lost on September 11, and she's a writer who helps him sort through his feelings. It's an excellent piece, a cathartic thing. You gotta be ready for that. It'll work you over pretty good. I think there were lots of people in this business who wouldn't have suspected I'd play that kind of character. I did a Brooklyn accent, the whole nine yards."
As long as roles like that come his way, Wopat feels as if he's on course. There are no regrets about the road taken. "You can do musicals all your life, but one night of viewing back in the eighties drew 200 million people to the TV show. That's the name of that tune." —By Harry Haun