THE LEADING MEN: Foster and Graae

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Foster and Graae Chatting with singing actors Hunter Foster (Frankenstein) and Jason Graae ("Graae's Anatomy").
Hunter Foster as Dr. Frankenstein
Hunter Foster as Dr. Frankenstein

TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS
Hunter Foster is out to prove that 2007 can be the year the Foster-Frankenstein combo conquers the world, what with sister Sutton playing Inga in Young Frankenstein at the Hilton Theatre and Hunter as Victor F. in the new Frankenstein musical at 37 Arts with book and lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson and music by Mark Baron.

Question: How are things going?
Hunter Foster: Good. We're in rehearsals right now, and my sister's down the street in the other one, so this season will have lots of Frankenstein.

Q: Is it merely by chance that you and Sutton ended up in such similarly themed projects?
Foster: It's very weird. We never planned something like this, but it's cool. She's having a good time doing her show, and we just started doing ours. I talk to her regularly about it. It's kind of wild that we're doing the same kind of show. Ours is obviously not funny.

Q: You hope it's not funny!
Foster: [Laughs.] If we're the funniest Frankenstein, then we're in trouble.

Q: Was there at some point the odd phone call to her saying, "You're not alone"!
Foster: She'd been involved with Young Frankenstein for a year. They had a reading last February, so maybe less than a year. I texted her when she was in Seattle in rehearsals and previews, and basically I said, "You're never going to believe this, but I'm doing Frankenstein Off-Broadway." She sent me a text saying, "What????" Q: Your show is more closely based on the Mary Shelley novel than the Universal films of the thirties. What will surprise people unfamiliar with the book?
Foster: The closest movie that people would know to the Shelley novel would be the Kenneth Branagh film with DeNiro, which is the closest a movie has come to doing the original novel. I actually saw the original ABC miniseries back in the seventies, which is the first time I ever saw "Frankenstein." Actually, [for] Steve Blanchard [who is playing Frankenstein's Monster] and me, [it was] the first time we head seen any incarnation of "Frankenstein." We're not doing a horror show…it's not going to be blood and guts — our approach is to be a little more artistic — basically about the relationship between Victor and the Monster, in the same way as father and son, man and his creator, that's the kind of relationship we're trying to explore. It's a real, fleshed-out story.

Q: What can audiences expect from Blanchard as the Monster?
Foster: You're going to see his face for the first time because he's been behind a mask for years [in Beauty and the Beast]! He's great. He's not going to be green, he's not going to wear bolts or big platform shoes, he's just going to be him. It's almost like the play The Elephant Man, you know, how the characterization was all in the acting. I think that's a challenge for Steve, and he gets to act the part as opposed to wearing prosthetics or wigs or fangs or whatever.

Q: Is it fair to say this is a bit of a departure for you from the comedies you've had most success with?
Foster: Sure. I was saying the other day that I'm usually in shows that satire things like this as opposed to being in one. It's odd actually being in a serious legitimate musical, but it's also a challenge and you always want to challenge yourself…I've done enough comedies where I know how to get laughs. This is a completely different thing. [Victor's] through-line is not about being funny. It's great to do something completely, completely new and not have to worry about being funny.

Q: No sitting backstage and wondering why certain lines aren't "landing."
Foster: No, don't have to worry about that at all. That's always the problem when you are doing comedies. You're always like, "Why am I not getting a laugh?"

Q: Are you someone whose offstage demeanor changes when playing a serious role?
Foster: I think so. I think you get a little more intense about it. I think with a comedy, it doesn't have to be so intense. Comedy is more technical; in a drama like this, you really have to delve in and understand these characters . . . really understand who these people are. Offstage I'm more focused and concentrated and intense as I can possibly be.

Q: One of your trademarks is said to be your spiky hair. Will Victor Frankenstein be spiky?
Foster: No, I'm actually growing my hair out, so I'm going to have a little bit longer hair than I'm used to having.

Q: Please straighten out some biographical info for us. Where were you born and raised?
Foster: I was born in Lumberton, North Carolina. That never comes up anywhere. I lived in Georgia till I was 18. Most of my time was spent in Augusta, Georgia. In fact, that's kind of my hometown. We moved to Michigan right after I graduated high school, and I spent two years working professionally in Detroit, and I went to the University of Michigan for three years after that.

Q: Did the U of M prepare you for the actor's life?
Foster: I thought it really got me ready for New York. The facility was so good, and you had so many opportunities to do different shows. You could do O'Neill, you could do Sondheim, you could do an opera…I tell kids to go to school if they can because you kind of become an adult in school and then you're not just coming here as a kid. You grow up a little bit. You learn the ropes from people who have been to New York and have been in shows. It was good for me because I learned a lot just talking to, meeting people who had been in shows in New York.

Q: Did you have some low moments in New York before the tide turned?
Foster: Sure, yeah. I was working two jobs — I was working at the Bank of Tokyo in the day and working at The Gap at night and was making just no money, and for a few months there, I was wondering if I could [make it]. It was just so expensive to live here, and I just didn't know if I could make ends meet till I got [an acting] job. You're just pounding the pavement going to open calls, doing whatever you can just to get your foot in the door. Yeah, it was difficult!

Q: Tell us about your Bonnie and Clyde.
Foster: It's a new musical by me and Rick Crom — almost a Mel Brooks kind of comedy about Bonnie and Clyde. There have been a couple drama versions of the show, and obviously there's that great film, and we tried to do this slapstick kind of screwball comedy with the two of them, with J. Edgar Hoover chasing them down. We're doing a big presentation in December at the York Theater, so we're just starting to get that underway. Hopefully somebody will want to do it.

Q: Do you envision a future writing or acting or both?
Foster: I think continuing to do both. You see a lot of actors in Hollywood who go back and forth between directing and writing. I think that you can do it all if you have the time. That's my problem is I don't have enough time!

[Frankenstein begins performances at 37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street, Oct. 10. Tickets are on sale now at TicketMaster.com or at (212) 307-4100. For more information visit www.FrankensteinTheMusical.com.]

Jason Graae

FROM ELF TO LEPRECHAUN AND BEYOND
That could also be the title of the story of actor Jason Graae. He grew up partially in the shadow of Ernie the Elf, near the Keebler Company of Elmhurst, IL, and was for several years the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun for Lucky Charms cereal. The man called a "frisky clown" by the New York Times gave us several amusing moments via phone when we called to discuss his cabaret return to Birdland.

Question: Where are you now?
Jason Graae: I'm on the left coast. I'm in LaLa Land, and my life is upheaved as I know it. Want to know why?

Q: Yes.
Graae: First of all, I'm so excited that anyone wants me to be a part of a Leading Man column, I can hardly see straight. That hasn't happened to me in at least five months. Do you know me? No one would ever accuse me of being a leading man.

Q: Those who amuse and entertain also lead.
Graae: That's right, darn it. That's what I've been telling people for years. Anyway, I just sold my condo out here and bought a house in the hills, and my mother just moved in with my partner and me from Tulsa, Oklahoma, so life has indeed upheaved as I know it. We're thinking of starting a new sitcom called "Two Gays, a Dog and an Old Lady."

Q: That does sound entertaining.
Graae: I think it's got possibilities.

Q: Tell us about the show you'll be bringing to NYC.
Graae: It is pretty much a repeat performance of what I did at Birdland, "Graae's Anatomy." . . . In January when I did one night in Birdland, it was the first time we tried this show, and I've been working on it all year. I did a version of it out here in Los Angeles at the beautiful El Portal Theater in May, so it's been kind of a work in progress, and I'm hoping by the time it comes to Birdland it will be fixed. It's fun — I've been trying to make it a lot more personal than my other shows. Q: More anecdotal?
Graae: I'm always full of anecdotes but trying to do a little more of an exposé of myself. There are serious things, and there are some not-so-serious. It's pretty much all over the map, which is a kind of a representation of me.

Q: What entertainers have inspired you?
Graae: I have to say the main one that sticks in my craw is Victor Borge. He really appealed to the masses for many different reasons. He just had a real eccentricity about him. I was always drawn to him. He was one of the only things that made the classical world accessible to the masses as far as I was concerned. I was an oboe major when I was in college and a piano major, so I really came from the classical world. He really opened it up and made me see, "Oh wow! This doesn't have to be just for the elite." It really spoke to me. A primo clown. He also came over from Denmark on the same boat as my father in the forties when the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Q: Did your father remember meeting him?
Graae: Yes, my father was drunk and came over with Royal Danish Engineers or something, he was with this group, and they went up to Victor Borge and tried to get him to perform one night on his off night, and he said Victor was less than amusing about it. But my dad was a complete fan of his. In New York when I told my father the people I was performing for, "Oh, Dad, Liza Minnelli came to the show tonight, and so-and-so came…" It wasn't until I told him that Victor Borge came to see Forever Plaid and came backstage afterward to talk to the Plaids that I think my dad kind of realized that, "Wow, my son is really succeeding in this business." That was a great breakthrough for me with him.

Q: What did Forever Plaid mean for your career?
Graae: Forever Plaid was one of those wild phenomena that nobody could believe was happening when it happened. I had done a version of it in New Jersey before New York, and it was a two-act play version, and it wasn't very well received. The producer dropped the rights because he didn't like it, and we all thought, "Ugh. What is this thing?" And there was a show they tried to do Off-Broadway called The Cardigans. It was kind of Forever Plaid-lite. They were starting to do performances, and [writer/director] Stuart Ross said, "Look, we gotta get Forever Plaid in here [to New York] now!" So we started working on it, and we did this shorter cabaret version of it, and we were rehearsing at Stan Chandler, the tenor's apartment and drinking beers and eating pizza and howling, but we didn't have any expectations for it. It was fun, we weren't making any money, everybody loved each other. It was just kind of amazing when it just took off and became this hot ticket, and we were on every national show, and we all couldn't believe it. It really meant the world to me. I think it was like the first hit show that I've ever been in.

Q: Have you had more successful shows when the cast loved each other or when people were at odds?
Graae: I have to say, it has been equal, I think. There've been many shows I've been in where everybody got along, and it was the most talented group of people, and the shows bombed. And there have been other shows where it was just fraught with tension and it was a nightmare to come to work every day, and the shows ended up being a huge hits. I remember when I was doing Olympus on My Mind, we did the workshop which did not go well, and they changed the whole concept of it, and we went to the Actor's Outlet Off-Off-Broadway, and I remember coming to work one day and there were fire engines on the street, and I was hoping the theatre burned down so we wouldn't have to do the show anymore. But sadly, it was some flower shop around the corner. Then the show opened, and we were all convinced it was going to be a turkey, and it just got great reviews. I think sometimes as an actor, you're the last to know what the whole show is going to be like.

Q: In your one-man shows, do you strive for the perfect show every night?
Graae: I really do. I try to make it as — pardon the expression — tight as possible. It's really immediate. When I am doing my own show, it is really between me and my musical director and the audience. When you are doing another show, there are so many variables involved that you have no control over. If I say something that doesn't work, I immediately change it or rewrite it. I make the adjustments really quick. What is kind of fun is that every time I do it for an audience, I can immediately gauge what kind of audience it is, if they're more conservative, more to the left, a little ruder, older, if they're inside-theatre types…I think on my feet pretty quick, and I like that. It makes me realize how much of my brain I really don't use most of my life. I realize what the brain has the capacity to do, especially when you have such adrenaline and you're performing and people are waiting for you to say everything. I love that. It's the most clear-headed and alert I feel in my life!

Q: Are you going to do more TV work? What's the plan?
Graae: I'm going to be around. I got new agents out here, and they said you gotta stay around town if you can, so I'm going to thrill them when I leave town for the Dallas Opera for five weeks to do The Merry Widow in November. The hope is to just keep working in every way that I possibly can.

Q:How did you get the Lucky Charms gig?
Graae: I had to sleep with Tony the Tiger, but it was worth it. He was really hot… I auditioned for it. They had the same guy doing it for 30 years, and one day it just sounded like he couldn't get it up anymore, and they wanted someone new. They had this big audition, and I got it and I did it for five years. [Then] I moved out to Los Angeles, and I was doing it by phone patching, so I would do my part in L.A., and all the clients and kids were in New York. Then they had a clearing out of all the clients, the director, the writers, everybody; they got a whole new regime. I was in Ragtime out here in Los Angeles, so I couldn't fly back to New York to continue the job, so they got a local leprechaun and bagged me, and now I only eat Trix.

[Jason Graae will be performing at Birdland Oct. 21 and 22 at 7 PM. Birdland is located at 315 West 44th Street in Manhattan. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or go to www.birdlandjazz.com.]

HITHER AND YON
Also at Birdland in October, don't forget to check out that mad dandy, Jim Caruso's Cast Party every Monday night at 9:30 PM. And, Jeffry Denman returns with another round of his "Jazz Turns" with the Joshua Pearl Quartet on Oct. 8 . . . . GrooveLily, who charmed us all with Striking 12, will be performing at the Zipper Factory Oct. 14 at 7 PM. Call (212) 352-3101 to order tix . . . .Tony Martin — the man who starred in films with both the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers, and the man nearing 60 years of marriage to the lovely Cyd Charisse —will be at Feinstein's at the Regency for two shows, Oct. 21 and 22 at 8:30 PM. Call (212) 339-4095 for reservations or further information . . . . Incidentally, the Keith David show at Feinstein's a few nights back was a real jolt out of the blue. You could close your eyes at times and think Nat King Cole was right there in the room . . . As Jim Stanek exits the cast of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change to play Henry Clerval in Frankenstein, another Frank rises. Frank Vlastnik, hilarious as Snail in A Year with Frog and Toad, takes over Stanek's part; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets . . . . Finally, you simply must not forget Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will make his solo Carnegie Hall debut Oct. 15 at 8 PM. A benefit for the Actors Fund of America, the evening will boast special guests Reba McEntire and Phylicia Rashad; Richard Jay-Alexander directs. Call (212) 247-7800 for tickets.

Till next time!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com