THE LEADING MEN: John Larroquette of How to Succeed and Christopher Innvar of People in the Picture

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: John Larroquette of How to Succeed and Christopher Innvar of People in the Picture
 
How to Succeed's John Larroquette and The People in the Picture's Christopher Innvar talk about the little choices they made and small roles they played that led them to Broadway today.

John Larroquette
John Larroquette Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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That's My *@&#$@ name!

That was John Larroquette's youngest son's reaction to seeing his last name in lights above the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on 45th Street where papa John is starring in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

"He was quite impressed that his surname was in bold on top of a building in New York," says the senior Larroquette, who loves that playing the president of the World Wide Wicket Company reconnects him with the moniker by which he was known to family and friends until he was 17: J.B.

J. B. Larroquette's J.B. Biggley, unwitting dupe of Daniel Radcliffe's ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, marks Larroquette's Broadway debut and the first time he's sung in New York since he hawked country music as Vernon Hawley Jr. on "SNL" in the late '80s ("Facedown at Christmas…Again," anyone?). Back then, Larroquette was winning Emmys as smarmy Dan Fielding on "Night Court," but music was never far from his personality. New Orleans-born, he caught an ear for jazz early on, learned to read music, played saxophone in bands, deejayed, got into the record industry, produced a kids album called "Hubert the Rain-Making Hippo"… Then, a different muse called.

Did you ever in your career have a J. Pierrepont Finch moment? Where you were in the right place at the exact right time?
I think probably how I got started in the business might be. I arrived in L.A. in 1973 having no idea how one becomes an actor but knowing that's what I wanted to do. I was riding down the street in the bus; I didn't own a car… right to the unemployment office. I saw a sign on a door that said, "Acting lessons $10 a week." So I walked in, and there I met a young man who's still a friend of mine today and he said, "Listen, I don't have enough money for the cab, but there's an audition for a play. If you share the cab with me, we can both read for this play." I said, "What do you mean 'read for a play' — what does that mean?" I went, and I happened to be cast in a production of The Crucible. Some of the people in that play said, "Listen, we're going to do another play. Do you want to be in it with us?" I said yes, and I did the lead in Enter Laughing, based on Carl Reiner's life story. I sent out like 100 manila envelopes, with a picture of me that some friend had taken and a cover letter saying I'm looking for an agent: "I'm in a play. It's funny. Come see it." Out of maybe 125 of these pleas that I sent out, one agent came. One. He identified with the play. He thought it was very funny, so he signed me the next day. That's just the serendipitous nature of being in that theatre on that night. He was my agent for the next five or six years and got me started. While I wasn't a con man, I did have some natural talent, which, you know, Finch does as well. He's a good talker. He's inventive. I just didn't have the credentials, much like he doesn't in this play. And I must add, I met my wife in that play as well.

So that was very much the right place, right time.
It was, and it's a good motto for life: "Enter laughing."

Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette in How to Succeed.
photo by Ari Mintz

Right. What about "succeed without really trying?" It sounds like you definitely tried.
Yeah, I think while the title of play is that, certainly when you look at the machinations that Finch puts himself through… he tries, maybe not in the most conventional of ways. But I think that the persistence of being in the right place at the right time is also showing up. So you are trying, whether or not you're specifically doing it according to the paradigm of the industry that you're part of. I certainly tried. I helped set up a theatre group after that play, and we produced five, six, seven plays a year, while I was also doing day jobs on TV shows and trying to learn the craft that I chose to pursue.

One of my first thoughts after I saw the show was, what took John Larroquette so long to get to Broadway?
I think, quite honestly, it was scheduling. Over the past 20-odd years, I've been asked a few times by playwrights who I respect tremendously to come and do something here. But it was always the high-class problem of having a series on the air and only having those three or four months off in the spring and early summer. I never had the liberty to donate a year or whatever — even six months — to doing something here. I know Herb Gardner wanted me to [play] A Thousand Clowns here, and I came back here and worked with him for a week or so to talk about it. I said I'd be here with bells on if my series is canceled, and it wasn't, so I missed that opportunity. As I looked at the inevitability of the end of "Boston Legal," I put the word out to my representation that I would prefer not pursuing another television series for a year or so and come to New York and meet people. I did a small Off-Broadway show at the Cherry Lane last year. It was Elizabeth Meriwether's new play [Oliver Parker!]. It gave me a chance to taste New York. I was never an actor here.

The first time I came to New York as an actor was to host "Saturday Night Live." I didn't know the city at all. I still don't, obviously, but I got a good taste of it. But then lo and behold, this came across my desk. When I heard who was directing it, Rob Ashford, I talked to Sean Hayes about his experience with Rob during Promises, Promises. It seemed the timing was perfect, so I left my calendar empty and was able to take advantage of it, finally.

How do you feel about the show now that it's up and running?
I'm enjoying it now. My confidence level of my own work has increased. I'm beginning to feel at liberty to allow myself the freedom just to be there instead of really, really concentrating on making sure that I don't make a fool of myself or screw up anybody else on stage.

Larroquette and Tammy Blanchard in How to Succeed.
photo by Ari Mintz

That thinking stayed with you until opening night?
Yeah, pretty much. Just my own personal habits. I like to carry a script until someone rips it out of my hands so that I know the work. And because this is the first time that I've actually danced, if one calls what I do dancing, or sang — again, if one calls what I do singing — I was very deliberately keeping myself within work mode so that I could get those down specifically and intrinsically and perfectly as well as I could do it. Then I could forget it and just worry about the humor and the acting. By the time we started previews, I started to feel more at ease with it and now it's fairly second nature. I still rehearse myself and make sure that I'm getting the beats right because it's very precise, the choreography Rob has done, and it's very good. I want to make sure I interpret what he wants correctly.

So you're not like a guy who's just like, well I'll get it in the ballpark.
No, I can't, no. God no. There's enough mediocrity in life, I'd rather have at least a step above that in my work.

Were you intimidated by the singing and dancing?
Good question. I don't think intimidation is the right term, but certainly it wasn't something that I naturally gravitated toward. David Chase, the musical director, gave me a good piece of information. He said, you know at some point, the character will sing like J.B. Biggley. He doesn't have to sing like John Larroquette. He gave me the freedom to go, "This is how Biggley sings. This is how he moves." He's a large presence on the stage. Physically, I am. I just tried to do as best I could. Rudy Vallee, [the original Broadway and film J.B.] I suppose, is the only signpost for this character. Certainly I didn't want to imitate Rudy. I just brought to the stage what I'm capable of doing as far as timing and comedy is concerned.

Larroquette as J.B. Biggley
photo by Chris Callis

With Dan Fielding, your famous "Night Court" character, you got the experience of working on a character that sort of evolved to encompass bits of your own personality. What was that like?
Reinhold Weege and I were close, the creator. He couldn't believe my childhood. He couldn't believe where I was from, foods I ate or just being from Louisiana. He found it very humorous, being a Chicago boy himself. So, that started creeping into the character and it grew from there. Every character is like that in the series, with Harry [Anderson]'s magic tricks and stuff. That wasn't absolutely part of the character when Reinhold created it, but it was good stuff and Reinhold was generous enough to use it. It's a tough job, writing one of those shows every week for nine years, and we helped him by giving him information and bits he might be able to work with.

You can never plan show-stopping numbers on Broadway, but "Grand Old Ivy," your duet with Finch, certainly had people going nuts at the performance I saw.
It's great. Rob did just such a phenomenal job with the choreography in that number. it's primarily that reaction every night, but it might be some mercy from the audience as well; we're sort of panting, acting it a bit. Certainly Dan more than I because he's dancing the entire song, but he's 21 years old. Every night is at least 25-30 seconds of applause before we can continue. It's wonderful. It sort of kicks the show to another level as far as energy is concerned.

What's it like witnessing Daniel Radcliffe from your point of view? The adulation and the cheers for what looks like a lot of hard work he's put in.
The cool part is that certainly being part of one of the most popular, successful movie franchises in movie history has a built-in contingent . Dan is very well grounded and very generous with his fans. But that's no surprise to me because speaking selfishly, when I heard that I had the opportunity to co-star with Dan Radcliffe, I thought well, there is going to be a great deal of attention and hopefully a great deal of enthusiasm for people to see Dan on stage. As I told him, joking one night, "You'll get all the young ladies and I'll get some old housewives from New Jersey that want to see me. We sort of have the demographics covered there." And I'm not a sycophant, so I wouldn't say this unless I really felt it… but he's a workaholic like I am. He's a constant professional, great timing, generous on stage with everybody else. He's really quite the gentleman.

Christopher Innvar

Christopher Innvar: The Big Picture Christopher Innvar's road to Broadway began in the basement of a church in Dover, NJ, when he was a 25-year-old Gandalf in a production of The Hobbit. The Long Island native had been "bouncing around," a bit. He'd gone to the Naval Academy, gotten a business degree from Syracuse, started a couple businesses in New Jersey, but "something was lacking," and he found it in that basement. The teamwork and camaraderie reminded him of his days playing lacrosse, and he was hooked.

The net effect is an acting career now seeing its fifth Broadway role and many others outside of Broadway including Barrington Stage in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where he was recently named artistic associate along with William Finn and Mark St. Germain.

Broadway role No. 5 is as Chaim Bradovsky, the love of Donna Murphy (Raisel)'s life in Roundabout's The People in the Picture at Studio 54. The show, from Iris Rainer Dart (the author of "Beaches") and the songwriters behind some of the biggest pop hits of the 20th century, Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, follows the lives of the Warsaw Gang, a stage and screen troupe that did their best to entertain in the Polish-Jewish ghettos as the Nazi menace grew. Raisel, their fearless leader, looks back at her life by bringing alive for her granddaughter the people in a photo hanging on the wall of her Manhattan apartment.

Since you started doing this show, have you ever thought of pictures you have around your house, maybe one in particular that you wish you could bring to life the people within it and hear their stories?
Yeah, Roundabout smartly has a website [www.thepeopleinyourpicture.com] where people have posted pictures from other generations from their family. I did that. There's a picture that I have which is hanging on the wall at my house of my Italian grandfather. He and his brothers were all musicians. They would just get together on the weekends, and they would barbecue and break out the guitars and the accordion and the banjo and the violin. They played songs that they knew but they would also just make things up. They'd do these mock Italian operas. They were just improvising. I grew up with that tradition. So the family parties that I grew up in, there was always music and laughter. So yeah, I always look at that, my grandfather Jimmy Raymond. He died when I was three years old. He was my first grandparent to go but he's probably the one that I'm most like and that I was closest to somehow. He was sort of like this guardian angel or something. That's sort of what The People in the Picture is about to bring…full circle: [It's] about people that were using music and laughter to make life bearable and just to be able to get through the day and enjoy family. I think that's what's striking people about the play. It's a real family story.

Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar in The People in the Picture.
photo by Joan Marcus

How are you enjoying your time in the show so far?
It's been good. It's such a challenge putting together a new musical, so we've had our struggles. But that's what it's all about. I'm happy finally to be on stage at Studio 54. [Director] Lenny Foglia did such a great job assembling the cast. We're actually getting to do the show for audiences who really seem to be appreciating it. Standing ovation every night. People are visibly moved every night. Can you talk about what attracted you to this piece?
We've been doing readings for about two years and it had been kicked around for a while before that. I think Donna and I came in at the same time and also Rachel Resheff [Jenny]. We did maybe two readings over the last two years, and you know, the Roundabout's Todd Haimes does such a great job as artistic director. I had worked there for Threepenny Opera and 110 in the Shade. They called up and asked me to do the reading, and so I was interested and available and I knew that Donna was involved, so I jumped in.

Do you ever think that we don't know enough darkness to value entertainment in the same way as people used to? We enjoy being entertained, but there were people of the past who needed it for sustenance.
Right, right. My friend Andre DeShields came to the show the other day, and I just worked with him in a play. He said he was really moved by the term "ghetto" because that term was brought here and applied to Bedford-Stuyvesant or Harlem, inner-city places. But it comes from the European ghettos that the Jews were put in. He said it had additional resonance for him because of realizing where that term really comes from. There's a lot of darkness in our world today, but certainly different from what those people were living. It was life or death, every day for them. They were dying of starvation and diseases. It's horrible, unimaginable. We certainly have our problems today. It might be different if we were doing this in, say, Japan right now. There's certainly other places in the world where there is complete darkness, but we're pretty fortunate here. If you can afford to buy a ticket to see a Broadway show, you're not living in that kind of darkness that they lived in, you know?

True. Andre DeShields, by the way, one of the most eloquent guys around.
Oh yeah, articulate. Supreme artist, gentleman. He's really a wonderful guy. We just did The Witch of Edmonton for Red Bull Theater. We shared a dressing room so I became close with him. We had a great time together.

Innvar, with Joyce Van Patten, on opening night.
photo by Peter James Zielinski

What is it like being in a cast like Picture, in which you're playing part of a troupe. Do you consciously work to capture that closeness of a unit like the Warsaw Gang?
It sort of just developed, I think, through rehearsals. I had worked with Chip Zien [Yossie] before. I had known Donna before; we hadn't worked together. Often times the ensemble would be off with Andy Blankenbuehler, our wonderful choreographer, and Donna… a lot of the focus is on Donna obviously because she has this Herculean part to portray. But we were often left to ourselves to talk about the play — the Gang, I mean — and we really became close. We bonded through talking about the play and sitting in the green room having coffee.

What has it been like watching Donna Murphy in what you call a Herculean role, playing the same character at much different ages?
As an actor, I have the utmost respect for her. She's an incredible artist. She really is. The attention to detail that she would bring to every rehearsal. In terms of even the most-minute detail, she's really a perfectionist and super hard-working and committed and fantastically talented. I get to see her in rehearsals, I get to see what a great actress she is, but I also get to be in love with her on stage and to be there for her as some sort of comfort as a character. It's an honor to work with her.

Can you talk about the work you do at Barrington Stage and what it means to you?
Oh yeah, I'd love to. I guess it's sort of my artistic summer home. But not necessarily just summer home, more like year-round home. Julianne Boyd, the artistic director, we started working together maybe eight or nine years ago, and we became great friends and collaborators. We committed to each other and decided that we would plan to do shows together, whether I'm acting or directing. It's a blessing to have a relationship with someone like that who's also become family to me. And also to have a beautiful place to go to in the summer and to do the thing I love. I directed The Whipping Man this past summer with Clarke Peters in it, who is just phenomenal. That then opened at MTC, a completely different production, but I feel like we had a good part in helping to develop the play. I'm going to direct a production of The Lord of the Flies in the fall.

Picture is your fifth Broadway credit. How much do you value the different shows you've done on Broadway and the experiences you've had here?
I've had all great experiences working on Broadway. My first Broadway show was Victor/Victoria. That was great. I got to work with Julie Andrews. I was a cover for Michael Nouri and I played smaller parts, but I got to go on for a week and play across from Julie Andrews and it was amazing. And to work with Blake Edwards, it was phenomenal. Then I played Javert in Les Miz. Then Threepenny Opera and 110 in the Shade. I've had great experiences. I've also worked closely with the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. I think great theatre can be done anywhere. That might be sort of stating the obvious, but sometimes we think that Broadway is the gold standard. It's wonderful to work on Broadway, but I think I value just as much the work I've done at the Shakespeare Theatre with Michael Kahn and the work I've done with Julie Boyd at Barrington Stage.

After 15 years living in Manhattan, you are back on Long Island now. How do you pass the time?
I play music and I write songs. I also just love the outdoors. I'd like to have a garden if I had more time right now. I live on the water out here so I go out and kayak a lot and that kind of stuff. I like to cook. I have two wonderful old dogs that are…unfortunately, they're 14, so I got some hard days ahead of me in terms of them. But they give me great joy and a lot of love.

(The Leading Men columnist Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.)

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