THE LEADING MEN: Angel of Music

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Angel of Music It’s an August occasion to celebrate when these "Leading Men" perform: Jai Rodriguez (Rent), Barrett Foa (Avenue Q) and Scott Coulter (The Duplex).
Jai Rodriguez
Jai Rodriguez Photo by Wayman Wong

GLITTER AND BE JAI
Ever since Bravo TV’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" came into his life, Jai Rodriguez’s world "has not been the same, and all things just keep getting better." The sweet and charming Puerto Rican-Italian actor from Long Island has become a pop icon, thanks to his gig as the Fab Five’s "culture vulture," though he quips, "I’m more of a culture hummingbird." Rodriguez and his gay caballeros just received an Emmy nomination, and their "Queer Eye" book is a N.Y. Times best-seller.

For the next two weeks (Aug. 2-14), though, the 5-foot-10 entertainer returns to the role that launched his career: Angel in Rent. Rodriguez is having a blast on Broadway with co-stars Melanie (Scary Spice) Brown and Frenchie Davis: "There’s such a fun energy. It feels like opening night every night." His other stellar stage credits include starring in the Off-Broadway musical Zanna Don’t and playing opposite Hope Davis in the critically acclaimed play Spinning Into Butter. At home, Rodriguez keeps pet fish and adores his Yorkshire terriers, Nemo and Dorrie. Currently single, he’s "looking for someone real, attractive and funny. Funny is a big thing."

Question: Congrats on returning to Rent! You were only a 17 year-old high school senior when you started. How’d it happen?
Jai Rodriguez: I had a friend who recommended me to her agency, Abrams Artists, and there I met this lovely woman, Ellen Gilbert. She had me read some sides and asked if I could sing. I sang two lines of "One Song Glory" from Rent. And she picked up the phone and called [casting director] Bernard Telsey and said, "I have this kid in my office, and you have to see him now!" So I got in a cab and went there. I ended up getting a callback on the spot. Three weeks later, they offered me Angel in the Toronto company. Yay! That was exciting, except I hadn’t come out to my mom or told her I’d be playing an HIV-positive transvestite. Thank God, she suspected about the gay thing, so we got that right out of the way. (And Ellen’s still my agent.)

Q: You later made your Broadway debut as Angel, and you’ve played him many times now. How has your portrayal grown?
Rodriguez: When I first got Angel, I was 17 and a virgin. I had never even made out with a guy. I was concerned with looking pretty and sounding like a girl. Now I’m 25, and my take on him has matured. I play him more upbeat, a little like Puck from Midsummer’s Night Dream. Mischievous and lovable.

Q:What do you enjoy most about the role?
Rodriguez: I like bringing smiles to people’s faces. I love telling the story of someone who’s terminally ill, but still is gonna enjoy every minute of life. I lost two family members to AIDS, Aunt Joanne and cousin Rico, and I felt they chose to live their lives that way, so [my doing the show] is almost a tribute to them. Q: What other Broadway roles would you like to play?
Rodriguez: Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. The role is such a tour de force that it makes you forget about the book, which is questionable. You get to make the audience laugh and cry. They approached me about taking over the role. It was on the table, but unfortunately they decided to close the show [with Hugh Jackman]. It’s really sad. The Producers also approached me, but the only age-appropriate part is Carmen Ghia, and I’m not interested. I’ve done the gay, over-the-top guy. I want to jump into another show where I wear pants for the majority of the time. If they wanted to turn Link Larkin in Hairspray into a La Bamba character, I’d do that. The number of Latino roles is very limited, and it’s unfortunate there isn’t more color-blind casting. In five years, I’d like to play Bobby in Company.

Q: Congrats on your Emmy nomination for "Queer Eye." Was coming out an issue for you when you got the show?
Rodriguez: I was raised thinking I’d burn in hell for being gay, but I didn’t have a choice. It’s just who I am. So when my agency told me I’d have to be openly gay to do ["Queer Eye"], it was a decision, but it was like, "It’s Bravo. Who watches Bravo?" I’ll just deny [I’m gay] if I get a bigger role. [Laughs.] But once the show took off, I realized that everyone wants a best friend like Will Truman, and they saw that in us. It soothed any anxiety I had about coming out. Now we’re syndicated in 98 countries, so I pretty much can’t hide anywhere. [Laughs.] We’re like the gay Beatles. I feel so humble to be part of something so majestic and larger than myself.

Q: What "Queer Eye" fans might not know about you is that you’re a sensational singer. Tell us about your nightclub act.
Rodriguez: I did covers with a rock band at xl, and it was awesome. I did everything from Christina Aguilera to Billy Joel to Cher. So I made a single ["Love Is Good"], and I’ve been looking forward to doing an album, but it’s been really saddening to see how many doors have been closed because of the gay thing. "We don’t know how to package you." I thought it was about the music.

Q:Finally, is there a Broadway star you’d like to make over?
Rodriguez: Yeah, but for all the wrong reasons. It would be evil of me to say I’d like to make over Norbert Leo Butz, but it would probably be just because I wanna see him in his boxers. I’d love to make over all the attractive and amazing leading men, like Brian D’Arcy James, Adam Pascal and Will Chase.

GRIN AND BARRETT
Barrett Foa is a bright Broadway actor who sings, dances and plays piano, but he literally never had a hand in puppetry until he joined the incredible cast of Avenue Q. However, director Jason Moore believed Foa could understudy John Tartaglia, the Tony-nominated star and seasoned "Sesame Street" puppeteer who plays Princeton and Rod. Because the pool of puppeteers isn’t deep, Avenue Q sought actors it could teach to puppeteer. Moore says: "We’re thrilled to have Barrett. He’s a very gifted singer and comedian, and like Johnny, he brings lots of youthful energy and heart."

After working with Avenue Q’s puppetry whiz Rick Lyon, then-stage manager Evan Ensign and Moore, Foa went on in January: "It was scary. I had three-and-a-half weeks to learn this bear of a role and to learn a whole new skill that all these people had been doing for years. It was daunting. But now I’ve gone on about 30 times, and I’m working on getting the smoothness and the nuances. It’s like acting through your hand. It’s strange. It’s akin to dancing. On this beat, you have to move here."

Foa, who normally works backstage in the Avenue Q ensemble, will fill in for Tartaglia, who’s going on vacation, Aug. 5-14, and Princeton and Rod are in good hands. Tartaglia says, "Barrett and I have jelled as friends really quickly. It’s very hard to teach someone a skill that takes years to learn, but Barrett’s done a great job. A couple weeks ago, I got a throat virus and did only three songs, so he took over for me [after "Mix Tape"]. I couldn’t sing, but we could laugh about it." Foa adds, "People were probably wondering: ‘Why is Princeton suddenly blond?’ But the switch was announced at the intermission and the audience cheered, which was nice. Johnny is a joy to understudy. There’s no Eve Harrington thing between us. He’s so kind."

Born in Manhattan, the 5-foot-11 blond ("I don’t dye my hair") went to the Dalton School and graduated from the University of Michigan. His Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Mamma Mia!, Cupid & Psyche and Godspell ("That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with comic geniuses like Chad Kimball and Leslie Kritzer"). Regionally, Foa, 26, has done Much Ado About Nothing with Karen Ziemba at the Hartford Stage; Camelot with Brent Barrett at Paper Mill Playhouse; and Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s Kept at TheatreWorks. On Dec. 6, he’ll make his Broadway Spotlight debut at the Ars Nova.

As for Avenue Q, Foa has been encouraged to bring his own take to his characters, but "the voices are not negotiable. Rod’s voice is like this. Princeton’s is like this." He’s even gone on as Nicky and Trekkie Monster. And Foa’s presence hasn’t gone totally unnoticed. RuPaul, who loved the show and the cast, wrote in his Web site blog: "I was distracted by the huge ‘opening act’ that Barrett Foa was featuring in his pants. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it." Foa’s reaction? "It’s ridiculous and I discounted it. But the next night when I did the role, I thought: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t wear those underpants anymore. Am I dressing a little bit to the right?’ It was hilarious!"

For more information, visit www.barrettfoa.com.

GREAT SCOTT : WHAT A SINGER!
Scott Coulter has such a sweet, sky-high tenor that Broadway and cabaret composers love to sing his praises. Stephen Schwartz raves, "It’s not just Scott’s amazing vocal instrument, but how he uses it to paint vivid pictures and evoke complex emotions." Tim DiPasqua adds: "Scott brings a great sense of humor and joy to everything he sings." And Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich concur that "Scott’s one of the world’s most gifted tenors; he’s spoiled us and even gives fantastic back rubs."

Coulter is opening Cinema Toast, a salute to magnificent movie songs, and his first solo show in four years. Backed by the marvelous musical director Michael Holland, he plays Aug. 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30 at 7 PM at The Duplex. Many of the Tinseltown tunes, such as "Footloose," "It Might Be You," "Let the River Run" and "Nine to Five," send Coulter’s mind reeling back to his youth in the 1980s in Tennessee. There, he grew up obsessed with "Smokey and the Bandit," "The Color Purple" and "Grease" ("I’ve seen it over 30 times and can recite it backwards and forwards").

Though he loves Wynonna Judd and Trisha Yearwood and grew up around Nashville, it’s surprising that Coulter didn’t become a country singer. He says, "I often kick myself in the butt and wonder why I didn’t stay at home, but I wanted to come to New York because the movies made it look so glamorous." Always a Broadway buff, the 5-foot-11 tenor says his favorite theatre score was, and is, Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife. Coulter has since toured in concerts with Schwartz, singing his "Chansons," and recorded four of his songs on his own award-winning CD.

In Cinema Toast, he sings "Colors of the Wind" (from "Pocahontas") and says Schwartz’s work always moves him: "His melodies are soaring, and his lyrics are poetry. I also identified with his main characters, who have always been misfits: Jesus in Godspell; Pippin, who’s looking for his own "corner of the sky"; Quasimodo in Hunchback. Growing up in the South as a kid who loved the movies and showtunes, I felt like a misfit, too. I always knew I was gay. My favorite movie was ‘The Sound of Music.’ Anyway, Stephen’s music always spoke to me about that dream that somewhere ‘Out There’ there’s a place for people like me."

Coulter attended the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, toured in Forever Plaid and appeared in the world premiere of Floyd Collins. And though his dream part would be Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, he says, "It’s very tough for me to find theatre jobs because my voice isn’t low enough to sing most tenor roles." Luckily, he found a place for his soulful voice in the clubs, where he’s championed brilliant new tunes by Heisler and Goldrich and DiPasqua, and won four MAC Awards ("You’re really able to touch people in cabaret"). More recently, he’s received raves at the "Broadway by the Year" concerts at Town Hall.

Besides singing, Coulter, 34, enjoys reading John Irving novels, watching "Celebrity Poker" on TV and spending time with Dave, a mortgage broker and his partner of ten years. Asked if they’re getting wed, he says, "I think about it all the time. I joke that Dave is going to have to vote for Bush just so he doesn’t have to marry me!" For more information, visit www.scottcoulter.com.cnchost.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Savion Glover has tons of talent on tap, and he brings his fancy footwork on Aug. 4 at 9 PM to Opia, one of the city’s classiest new rooms, 130 E. 57th St. (212-688-3939). Also headlining there: Michael Arden, the boyish star of Bare and a sensational songwriter, on Aug. 15 at 9 PM. Maybe the talented Mr. Arden will premiere a piece from his new musical project, Ripley. . . . Top pop tenor David Gurland covers terrific tunes from Billy Joel’s Grammy-winning album "52nd Street" on Aug. 9 and 10 at 9:30 PM at Mama Rose’s, 219 Second Ave. (212-533-0558). . . . Gavin Creel and Laura Benanti strut their stuff "Front & Center" as stellar singers and songwriters, directed by Jamie McGonnigal, on Aug. 9 at 7 and 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-239-6200). (P.S. Another Tony nominee is playing the Pub on Labor Day weekend: John Tartaglia will debut his latest show, directed by Alan Muraoka, on Sept. 5 and 6 at 7 PM.)

Remember Matt Cavenaugh, the honkytonk hunk of Urban Cowboy? He’s starring in Larry Lee and Ben Silliman’s Jonestown: The Musical Aug. 20-28 at Pace University, 3 Spruce St. (212-279-4488). He’ll play Samuel Foreman, the righthand man to the cult leader Jim Jones (J. Mark McVey). Cavenaugh also can be seen as Mark, a gay college student who came out to Marcie (Kathy Brier), on ABC’s "One Life to Live." He says, "Mark’s quiet, but once I come out, I come out swinging." Asked if he had any reservations about playing the only gay guy currently on daytime drama, the straight actor quips, "I come from the world of musical theatre. How could I have any reservations?" Next, it looks like Cavenaugh, 26, is set to play the young heartthrob in the new David Zippel musical Princesses this fall at Goodspeed. As for Urban Cowboy, Cavenaugh is proud to have earned his spurs (and this column’s "Leading Men" award): "I had a lotta fun, and it was a great cast. We worked our asses off. And even with all the troubles we had, I’d saddle up again and do it in a heartbeat!"

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theatre critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Barrett Foa (left) and Scott Coulter
Barrett Foa (left) and Scott Coulter Photo by Ben Strothmann
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