For my first go-round, I chatted with two well-spoken guys who are no strangers to followers of this column and certainly no strangers to fans of musical theatre in general. Marc Kudisch, currently on Broadway in Roundabout's The Apple Tree revival at Studio 54, and Burke Moses, currently Off-Broadway (and yet on Broadway at the same time) as El Gallo in The Fantasticks at the cozy Snapple Theater on Broadway and 50th Street. Both actors have excelled in their careers with stage-commandeering style and are equally at home in leading or character parts. In fact, when pressed, Kudisch would love to do away with such terms altogether. "Let's simplify," he says. "We are actors playing roles. End of story." Sounds like a line from Burke's show, actually. The Fantasticks and The Apple Tree are currently two of the most simply presented shows currently running, and therein lies a great deal of their charm. In honor of such simplicity, let's get right to the interviews.
Question: What drew you to The Apple Tree?
Marc Kudisch: I love that it is an intimate piece that does not involve a lot of scenery, so ultimately the scenery is the performer. The activity is the relationship between the performer — the eye is focused on the performer. You don't have a $2 million flying car, which is a great thing, but it is not the only thing, you know what I mean? It is nice to be reminded of the way we used to do music theatre.
Q: Do you tend to favor a project if it sounds like fun or if it sounds more like a challenge?
Kudisch: All of the above. I hope they are going to be both — fun and a challenge. Always. Just because something is light and fluffy, doesn't make it less of a challenge. No matter what you're doing, whether it be light or dark with an edge on it, it's all about getting to the truth, and that can ultimately be a challenge no matter what you are doing. I can tell you that I found Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to be a bigger challenge than doing something like [Michael John La Chiusa's] See What I Want to See. Because in Chitty, there are greater obstacles to getting to the truth than there are in See . . . .
Let's say the obstacles in Chitty are that it is a piece of high commercialism that has a wonderful story and a wonderful cast, but then it has a lot of sets, a lot of props, a lot of scenery. There is a larger factor of wanting to be pleasing. So to get to the truth of what you are hoping your performance speaks can be a greater challenge in a piece like that, because you have a lot of other things that are there to please the eye and ear. In some ways it can be less focused. See What I Want to See, albeit dark, interesting, challenging material, emotionally [it] is a more focused piece because it is just a bunch of actors. The challenge is more for the audience in that aspect. Whereas in something like Chitty, the challenge is more for the company to put together a seamless piece of theatre, and the audience has an easier job. Q: In The Apple Tree, how did you prepare for the physicality of your role as The Snake?
Kudisch: There was no way I was going to go out there and just sort of be there. I wanted to be as specific as possible. Everyone is going to have a specific interpretation of what The Snake is like, [and] this is my version. I look for how to communicate outside the lines. There's so much being said without words, and I've done quite a few characters like that. The proprietor in Assassins doesn't say much, but that does not mean that he's not saying anything. The physical presence, a look, a nod, a movement, a motion. . . . I try to find every way that I can communicate what this character is saying, given what his necessity is in the story. I am generally called on to play the crazy, wacky characters, whether that be comedic or serious. I think people have a misconception of things, with me at least. I say I'm not a leading man, [and] they say, "What are you talking about, what's Trevor Graydon [Thoroughly Modern Millie]?" I say, it's a character role; it's not a leading man. He's the foil. Chauvelin [The Scarlet Pimpernel] is the foil. The only leading man I've ever played on Broadway is Jeff Moss [Bells Are Ringing]. I find Jeff Moss to be a real character, actually, and I played him as such, and people had a real problem with that.
Q: You have the role of the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance coming up in March at New York City Opera. What's your excitement level?
Kudisch: Are you kidding? I am so excited. It's my prayer that we are not going to use body mics. Only myself and Mark Jacoby are from music theatre. Everyone else is in the opera, and so I am hoping that we do it the way they do it. I love the idea of allowing an audience to be actively involved. Let them work. They have jobs, too.
Q: Were you trained in operatic singing?
Kudisch: I didn't start singing till I was 25 years old. My first job in musical theatre was Bye Bye Birdie, the national tour of it, and I was losing my voice at the end of every week because I didn't know what I was doing. I mean, yes I could sing on pitch, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I had no skill, I had no discipline, I had no training, I had no craft at it. And craft is everything, so I began to learn. I never thought when I moved to this city I would do music theatre. Ever. I wasn't trained that way. My dream was to be Off-Broadway, and that's where I was for two-and-a-half years before I got Birdie. People say, "You need to do a play." Why? It's what I did when I got here! I love music theatre.
Q: The first I ever saw you was as a giant disembodied head on my TV screen in the late-nineties: "The Toyota Guy." What was it like to be an advertising icon for awhile?
Kudisch: I loved it. It was great work, lots of fun. I liked being somewhat unrecognizable. People would only recognize me if they listened to my voice because they stretched my face out on the screen, and it was a different form of performance. A 60- or 30-second spot, taking a bunch of numbers and creating a sense of something around them. Knowing that you are going to be on the radio during rush hour, how do you get people to buy your product when they get stuck in traffic? It's fascinating, and the people at Toyota were great. It was a very creative experience. And, the money is ridiculous!
Q: You played Inspector Kemp, (alongside Apple Tree co-stars Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d'Arcy James) in a recent reading of the Young Frankenstein musical. How did that go?
Kudisch: It was a fantastic experience, and certainly I hope they would like me to move forward with it. But if that's all it was, that was one hell of a good time.
Q: If you are more character actor than leading man—and we're not changing the name of this column, mind you—what is it about you that makes this so?
Kudisch: I love characters. I love that stuff. I love creating a character that is, I don't know, original, unique, quirky, specific, so it's yours; it's such a part of your mentality. I mean that's what makes what we do so much fun, putting forth our creative energy, putting forth our mindset. I mean, I don't know anyone else that thinks like me. The fact that people actually get my sense of humor half the time, that in itself makes me giggle. I think I have a very warped sense of humor, so it is sort of nice to know that perhaps I am not the only one enjoying it.
[The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Apple Tree plays Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; call (212) 719-1300 for tickets.]
* * * *
Question: Why does The Fantasticks endure?
Burke Moses: It's pretty simple. It focuses on a basic human condition, one that is fond to most people's hearts — young love.
Q: You brought a cartoon to life in creating the role of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. In your role as El Gallo, The Fantasticks' narrator/ringmaster, was there a temptation to ham it up a bit in this new incarnation?
Moses: I'm no big fan of camp, and a lot of my work has been overly large, some people might say. And, I must admit, I had to temper my performance for such a small space. When I first came into rehearsal, I had a rather short rehearsal period. My performance was probably for thousands instead of 199, which is what is at the Snapple Theater. In one fell swoop I sort of took an axe to my performance. I toned it way, way, way, way down.
Q: How do you keep the show fresh?
Moses: The show and the problems inherent in putting on the show are very much like the problems inherent in doing the song that opens the show, "Try to Remember." It is a song that has been done many, many times, and yet if you sing it as written and keep it simple and fun, it can have great resonance. And, it's the same with our show. If you play it keeping your tongue well out of your cheek and play it true and play it honest, it works best.
Q: In this show you get to work with some much younger actors as well as an "Old Actor" or two…
Moses: The combined age of my two dressing-room mates does not equal my own, so that's something new for me. They're right out of college. The most fun is my scene with [show's director, lyricist, and "Old Actor"] Tom Jones. Being a straight man to Tom Jones is classic.
Q: What was your first experience of seeing a Broadway show?
Moses: The first show I ever saw was when I was eight or nine, I saw 1776, which oddly enough probably starred my buddy Gary Beach. I didn't understand it, but I remembered feeling empowered by the lights when the curtain opened up and everybody yelled, "Sit down, John!" Q: Did this inspire you to head to the stage?
Moses: I had absolutely no theatrical experience until I was like 20 years old. My first exposure to Broadway — I drove my brother, who is also an actor, to NYU while I was heading up to Boston to go to college. He had a buddy who was the house manager of the Shubert Theatre at the time. He sat me down in the back of the theatre for a show called A Chorus Line, and it was the most stunning thing I had experienced in my life. It was early in the run, and the cast was superb. I then was pulled — literally yanked — out of my seat and shoved across the street where I then second-acted a concert with Bette Midler, which just absolutely rocked. I'm not quite sure I have had as special a night at the theatre, certainly in the audience, since. I certainly loved last year's revival of Sweeney Todd. That's the best revival I've ever seen. Bar none. At the end there was an ovation that lasted ten minutes. I've never seen anything like it, ever. I knew the second it started off with the guy in the straitjacket I thought, "Yes. I am going to enjoy this."
Q: Tell us a tale from one of your appearances with the New York City Center Encores! series.
Moses: I certainly have never been as surprised as I was during The New Moon. Many of us thought we were heading to our deaths on opening night [laughs], and all of a sudden the audience clicked in with this one joke in the first scene, and the rest of it was heaven. My mouth was agape. I thought we were going to be the biggest bomb ever, and it turned out to be one of their best-reviewed shows ever.
Q: Have you ever had the opposite experience?
Moses: Sometimes I like to think every show is like that. No matter how awful it is, it is very difficult not to treat it like your sickly child who nobody but you can love. It is very hard for me. Almost always whenever I get into a show, I can't be up there and absolutely hate it, even though I know many, many things don't work. Even more horrible is when you know it's good and for some odd reason, money or whatever, it doesn't have legs. We did a version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Goodspeed Opera House, and it was supposed to move on, but something didn't work out with money or producers, and it came to nothing. We had reviews that we could have written ourselves. And that happens — it's always a heartbreak.
Q: So do you try not to get too emotionally involved?
Moses: I try to get extremely emotionally involved, in fact maybe too emotionally involved, though I try to scale back on that. Age certainly helps as now I've seen so many, many things. I try not to get too emotionally involved in auditioning is what I try not to do. But during the show, if you're not emotionally involved, what are you doing there in the first place? It's kind of all about emotions, isn't it? I find that passionate people are to my liking.
Q: Now in The Fantasticks, there are some stretches of the show, where El Gallo, is onstage but mainly just observing. How do you keep your focus?
Moses: I don't! My mind wanders constantly. Oh boy, I can be miles away at times, especially those long, long times when I know I'm not going to say anything, and I give the illusion of looking interested, but I can't say my mind is constantly at the task at hand. I just make sure that wherever my mind goes, I am not being distracting, and whenever my cue comes, I am ready to go. Which, I believe, once or twice I might have been out to lunch, I'm not quite sure. It happens! At least I'm not the Mute, who has to stand there holding a stick and looking straight forward. Personally, I swear to God, I could not physically do that, I don't think.
Q: Sometimes one finds oneself watching the Mute stare off into the void.
Moses: I'm sure he'll be appreciative of that. I'm not quite sure the other two leads will feel the same! The last Mute understudy was up there one day, and she locked her legs while she was standing there, and I think she fainted afterwards. Who knew, if you lock your legs it does something to your blood pressure? I'm not quite sure. But you know what? I'll never play the Mute. Actually, strike that. I'm at the age where I never say "never." It depends. If the money's good, I might Mute-up!
[The Fantasticks plays The Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets.]
* * * *
NOTES FROM HITHER AND YON
In the wake of the "Dreamgirls" movie, it is nice to think back to a stage production I caught in late November at Long Island University's Kumble Theater in Brooklyn. To help create advance buzz, Dreamworks sagely subsidized licensing rights for any amateur theatre group that would put the show on prior to the film's release. Who directed this anything-but-amateurish production? None other than Ben Harney, Tony Award winner for his role as Curtis Taylor Jr. in the original Dreamgirls. . . . Caught the Ted Neeley "Farewell Tour" of Jesus Christ Superstar at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre just after Christmas. Neeley himself was out for the matinee I saw, but understudy Chris Gleim soared, both literally and figuratively. The other surprise was Corey Glover from "Cult of Personality" rock band Living Colour, who had no problem making the role of Judas his own while still channeling a bit of the great Carl Anderson. . . . Speaking of religious matters, Jim Brochu and Steve Shalchlin's open-ended run of The Big Voice: God or Merman? is continuing at The Actors Temple Theatre at 339 West 47th Street. . . . Lastly, don't forget Wayman's "Leading Men" benefit concert for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on Feb. 5 at 7 PM at Birdland, 315 W. 44th Street. John Tartaglia, currently back on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast is host. Check out last month's column for more information.
Tom Nondorf is a publications editor for Playbill Classic Arts. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.