Jeffry Denman could easily be taken as one of Broadway's nicest guys. In Irving Berlin's White Christmas, his friendly face and personality are well cast in the role of Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye part from the 1954 film. But Denman also harbors a secret career as the impresario of a new blend called Broadway gangsta rap. As we chronicled almost two years ago, Denman's rap videos celebrating the different productions of Christmas have become hits on the youtube scene. Production of a rap video celebrating the Broadway arrival of the show has already begun, so keep your eyes peeled, both on youtube and on the streets of midtown Manhattan. On this, and other interesting topics, such as his August marriage to actress Erin Crouch, Mr. Denman holds forth below.
Question: I saw you in the world premiere of White Christmas in San Francisco a couple years back. You've done it in several places since. What does it mean to bring it to Broadway?
Jeffry Denman: There is a certain sense of ownership that anybody has with a role. You can do it once and have that, but when you've done it from the beginning, you have that sense of ownership, not only of the role, but of your little part of the show. We've always wanted this to come to Broadway. We were never really sure if the economics or the real estate was going to make it happen. To come to New York and have it be not only the right economic situation, but also, at the time we're coming to New York, there is a certain need for this type of show, a show that is based on generosity of spirit, helping out people who need a little bit of help. I think it is absolutely perfect, the show coming into New York when it is. It is perfect timing. As far as for me personally, it is a dream fulfilled, definitely. Not that I had anything to do with bringing it here [laughs], but definitely staying with it for those years feels like I did the right thing.
Q: Does Broadway hold that extra bit of something for you?
Denman: You know, the Marquis Theatre is just a theatre, but there is just something different. There's something different about Broadway. You could probably put the Curran Theatre [in San Francisco] and the Pantages Theatre [in L.A.] right up against a Broadway theatre, and any person would look and go, "They're just theatres, buildings with seats in them." But there is something we performers give to Broadway, some intent that we ascribe to it that makes it different, and that is really what you feel when you are onstage in a Broadway show. It feels somehow more special. I honestly hope that never, ever goes away because it is a really great feeling. White Christmas is where it should be right now.
Q: Is the show changed for Broadway, pumped up in any way?
Denman: I think everybody involved, especially Walter Bobbie, the director, we all came to this knowing that we didn't want to just put up the same thing, because audiences are going to read that. You can't view it as just re-mounting the show. You have to look at it with as fresh an eye as you can, so you're giving yourself the opportunity to make it be as new as it possibly can. There were enough little nips and tucks that they did with the book — a line here and there, maybe a different transition — just enough to make it feel like it is its own production, like it is the Broadway version, so that when you start the show, you feel like it is a new thing. Walter was really good about keeping us on track about that, especially in rehearsals, saying, "Let's actually rehearse this, let's not just put it up." Granted, we still had to do it in a shortened period of time, but you know the road map, so you can kind of stray a little bit from what you did before, make a couple different choices, take different chances, which is really refreshing, and I think the show is better for it.
Q: Did you end up surprising yourself at all with some of the choices?
Denman: I think that the choices actually become more refined. We're talking about little moments within moments. I did White Christmas with Stephen Bogardus in St. Paul two years ago, so to be reunited with him after a year off of doing it with him is really nice. We know each other, but it is not like we had done it year after year with each other, so we had this kind of reunion, which was great. As far as our characters, Bob and Phil, working with a [show-biz] partnership, it helped to have some history. When I did [White Christmas] with Brian d'Arcy James, then we had some time off, and I went back to working with Brian, we definitely felt that. I think that Stephen and I are feeling that as well. You have a little bit of history, you remember stuff about each other, and you automatically have that partnership. Meredith Patterson and I, we definitely have that partnership. We seem to always be dancing with each other and doing shows with each other. I think we've done like six shows together, so we have the chemistry.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: Chemistry is key.
Denman: Yeah, and it's chemistry that has to cross over. Bob and Phil have to have chemistry. Phil and Judy obviously have to have chemistry. Bob and Betty have to have chemistry. Betty and Judy have to have chemistry. Phil and Betty and Bob and Judy don't necessarily have to have chemistry because they don't have that much to do with each other. But usually [in a show] just two leads have to have chemistry. Here you have a foursome that you have to contend with. Luckily, we've found this great chemistry. I think the four of us genuinely love each other, and I'm very proud of that — it is not easy. Q: With a holiday show, the run is limited by design, so you don't have to worry about it closing, but you might feel like just as you are feeling great about it, it ends on you. Is that tough?
Denman: I think that is exactly it. The problem is, it is limited, and the great thing is, it's limited. You're right, there is a sense that you are starting to get your stride and feel comfortable in the batter's box, as it were, then it is over. I have a feeling that we are going to feel that way a little bit more poignantly this year because we are so badly going to want to stay with it, but the good thing is, when it closes on January 4, it is still not the end, there is still the White Christmas we have for years to come, the hope that it is going to happen again, so we won't be long without it.
Q: What is the legendary Walter Bobbie like to work with?
Denman: Because he was an actor — still is — he often knows what you're thinking, as opposed to a director who might not have done any performing. Especially when it comes to a musical comedy — that's his specialty. He can really guide you in so many ways around the pitfalls. One of his best directions for us in White Christmas is to always make positive choices. To realize how many 1990s and 2000isms, the kind of things you bring to your acting, cynical, been-there-done-that, kind of choices that won't really work when it comes to White Christmas. It was really amazing when he first said that to us, and he says it every year to people new to the project. It can be as simple as how to sing "White Christmas." It is kind of a melancholy song, and you get a sense that this guy is not where he wants to be at Christmas, and he is missing friends and missing family, and Walter always asks us to play against that, to play the hope of it. You're saying, "May all your days be merry and white." Play that. Play up! And it makes such a huge difference because it is one of the first songs we sing in the show, and Walter is adamant about that. He says, "Do not start this show off in this really deep and sad place or we're never going to get off the ground." And I think he is absolutely right. The show is about positive choices, people who honestly feel hope in their heart 24 hours a day.
Q:Do you have your New York rap planned yet?
Denman: Oh yeah. It is currently under construction. It is a little bit bigger than years past. They've kind of grown in size. We've already finished some of it. It is always a mystery, when it is going to get done and how it is going to get done, but somehow we always get it done. I just have to put my mind to it. Everyone's down with it, though, that's the best part. We've garnered a reputation now. People come up and say, "You guys gonna do a rap video? I want to be in it!" I just say, "Remember that when I'm asking you to be somewhere possibly on your day off." It really is a cast-bonding thing, and it becomes a kind of a yearbook, and we can look back at years past and say, "What a bunch of idiots we were!" If you're in Times Square this year, you will probably see us walking down the street and rapping.
Q: If only this were back in the days when MTV played videos, you could have a little side career for yourself.
Denman: [Laughs.] It's so funny. Because usually when people say that, they say, "Too bad you missed the movie musical era." I've never had anybody say, "Too bad you missed the music video era." I love it! Who knows, maybe I'll bring back both!
Q: When I first talked to you, you were doing a show at Birdland called "Jazz Turns." Do you have any more jazz turns planned?
Denman: If I'm going to do it again, I'd like to spin a couple more songs, and I haven't had a chance to do that. Have had a lot to do. Got married this year.
Q: That's right, to actress Erin Crouch, to form a new first family of the stage?
Denman: That would be lovely. It sounds corny, but we're just happy that we found each other and that we're able to make it work in this business. This business doesn't have a great track record for keeping people together, but I think we've started a really good, strong road, and we have a lot of people who care about us and love us, and that's pretty much the most important part.
Q: Can you tell me how you two met?
Denman: Well, yes. We actually met on match.com. We were both on the site looking for someone who wasn't in the business, so that worked out! [Laughs.]
[Irving Berlin's White Christmas plays The Marquis Theatre, located at 1535 Broadway in Manhattan. Tickets are available by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. For more information go to www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.]
|photo by Blaise Kearsley|
SAINT OF SOUNDS
Jason St. Little wants to be the greatest living iPod shuffle. His theatrical/cabaret/rock shows at the Zipper Factory Theatre leave no doubt, with his music selection often eliciting the "Oh my God! That song?" reaction from his raucous audience. By day, the Dean of Students at the Stella Adler School of Acting, by night, his alter ego, "Tits Fisher," commands the stage of the Zipper, supported by his chameleon-like band of pros, Kitten's Kiss. Question: How did this show come to be?
Jason St. Little: I just had a bunch of songs in my head that I felt were theatrical that made no sense on the page, but I thought I could fashion them together into some sort of theatrical moment. There's not enough rock 'n' roll theatre to me, and I don't mean theatre with rock 'n' roll, I mean as a theatrical idea. I think theatre right now is too safe and boring. When I first came to New York in the 1980s, there was all sorts of experimental theatre and downtown theatre and all that stuff, and that movement has sort of died, and I wanted to do a variation on that.
Q: Do you come from a theatrical or rock background?
St. Little: I had played Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch about seven years ago, and that unleashed the inner rocker in me and also taught me that that sort of theatrical experience is very powerful for an audience. Audiences like rock 'n' roll in a theatrical context, and that was my inspiration. I thought this could be really fun. The reaction I imagined would be, "Oh my God, AC/DC, then wait! Kurt Weill. How did he do that? Where is that coming from?" I just followed the map in my head, which is pretty crazy.
Q: The pure variety of your show is what makes it fresh, not knowing what song is next, the Smiths, Rufus Wainwright, disco, rock…
St. Little: Absolutely. It is my mad bipolar head, and I'm opening it up and saying, "Hi everybody. Come watch!" I think a lot of cabaret is too safe, and it becomes almost cliché.
Q: The show seems to have quite an effect on audiences, who were quite boisterous at the show I saw.
St. Little: That's been really fascinating for me. My director Peter Flynn, who is one of my dearest friends, he comes from a total theatrical background. He was Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast for three years, that's his world, and he was very much like, "This scares me. I think we should think about this as a theatrical experience." And I was like, "No I want a rock club sensibility." Yes, I want people paying attention, but I don't mind that they are talking and dancing and yelling and screaming. That sort of rambunctiousness is sorely lacking in audiences. I had a show on Halloween that was a little over the top. People wouldn't stop dancing, but at the same time, I was like, that's what I signed up for, so I had to go with it.
Q: Another wild element is the bizarre images that come up on screen behind your performance. How do you come up with those?
St. Little: I'm just an absurd person. I culled all these crazy images from the internet, and my director and I just sort of went crazy. "What does this song remind us of?" I'm sort of weird in the way that I don't understand why the world isn't more absurd. I don't see how we walk the streets and feel like the world is normal [laughs]. Some of the images are literal, and other things it's like, I'm singing a sexy song, who do I find sexy? Anderson Cooper! Q: How did you create the character of Mr. Fisher?
St. Little: When I did my first performances, I really had no idea who I was. And that was the criticism I got. "We're not really seeing Tits Fisher. We need more of the story." He's a borscht belt punk rocker, obsessed with celebrity. He's the bad me on steroids. He allows me to be really outrageous. He's also way more masculine than me, which is funny. I have the name because I had this acting teacher — this was back in the days before sexual harassment was understood as it is today — and there was a very large-breasted woman in class named Carol Fisher, and the teacher came in and goes, "Where's Tits Fisher?" And I thought this was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard even though it was totally horrible and demeaning to this poor woman. So I adopted the name.
Q: It has to be hard to find a band as up for anything as Kitten's Kiss. How did you connect with them?
St. Little: Seth Rudetsky, who I know you know, because we all know him. He's one of my best friends since we were like 18 years old, which is very cute because I've seen him become, like, "Seth Rudetsky." I did the very first Rosie O'Donnell Cruise and did Hedwig, and they invited me back. Seth set me up with the band, and we just really clicked, and they said, "We should do something in the city." I told them about my idea and they were in. Mark Fifer is my music director. He teaches at Pace. Ray Marchica is the drummer for Mamma Mia! Maryann McSweeney, the bassist, has been with Avenue Q since the beginning of that show. The guitarist, Greg Utzig, was with Curtains and now is with West Side Story. The fun thing for them is they are in their eight-show-a-week for the last ten years sort of thing, and my show is fun for them because they get to play live rock 'n' roll and be silly. So they have been a dream come true for me.
[Jason St. Little plays as Tits Fisher featuring Kitten's Kiss on the last Friday of every month (no show this month, next is Jan. 30, 2009). The Zipper Factory is located at 336 West 37th Street. Go to thezipperfactory.com for a calendar of events. Lots of great holiday happenings there, so check it out.]
HITHER AND YULE
Great to hear Tony Martin announced for shows at Feinstein's at Loews Regency Jan. 13 and 17, 2009. . . . Mr. Michael Feinstein himself will be performing "The Sinatra Holiday Project" at his club all month long. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or head to feinsteinsatloewsregency.com. . . . On Dec. 13, from 3-6 PM, Chartwell Booksellers in the Park Avenue Plaza, 55 East 52nd Street hosts a free concert by Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, for fans of 1920s and '30s jazz stylings. Call (212) 308-0688 for more information. . . . The talented and funny GUYTUNES returns to Birdland Dec. 15 for a little holiday fascination. GUYTUNES is Nick Blaemire, Justin Keyes and Joey Khoury. . . . Also at Birdland, Dec. 29, the Johnny Rodgers Band. Singer/songwriter and pianist Johnny is part of Liza Minnelli's new show at the Palace. Check out birdlandjazz.com for the details. . . . Another year in the books — almost — and I wish everyone out there a happy holiday season. What are your favorite hard-to-find Christmas albums? Drop a line and let me know. In the meantime seek out some of my faves: Barbara Mandrell's "Christmas at Our House," "The Voices of Christmas" by The Voices of Walter Schumann, "A Partridge Family Christmas Card," and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians' "Now is the Caroling Season." See 'ya next year!
Tom Nondorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.