Some Call Him Cry-Baby
James Snyder grew up near Sacramento, just south of Folsom Prison, and now he's on Broadway pounding out license plates behind prison walls as rock-and-roll outlaw, Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, in the new show based on the 1990 John Waters-Johnny Depp film. Snyder originated the role at the La Jolla Playhouse and is making his Broadway debut in a show he calls the "dirty French kiss to Hairspray's sweet little hug."
Question: Congratulations on Cry-Baby. How is it going right now?
James Snyder: A little crazy! Definitely, not something that if you asked me three years ago I would have thought would be happening. It has been like a whirlwind so far.
Q: Three years ago you were out West aiming more for TV or movies?
Snyder: Sort of in my whole plan, I was like, "I'll get to Broadway soon." I was in L.A. doing a little more film and television and a lot of musical theatre out there, but Broadway seemed like a far-off dream.
Q: Would you consider yourself a lover of Broadway?
Snyder: The first play I ever did was Godspell in high school, freshman year. I always did the musicals. But my training at USC was more about the acting. I was really intrigued by film, but at the core, musicals and Broadway were my first love.
Q: Describe the moment you thought this show was something special.
Snyder: John Waters' work doesn't always taste good on first bite. [At first read] the show didn't make a lot of sense, and then I went and saw the movie, and it all made perfect sense and now honestly is one of my favorite meals. As soon as I got [the part], there was no question in my mind that this was going to be a great project. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I am playing a role that Johnny Depp created." I get to take my own twist on it, but to follow in those footsteps, how can you beat that? Q: You a huge Depp fan?
Snyder: I am. He's one of our finest, most interesting actors. I don't know how he brings such depth. He's just one of those guys you can't take your eyes off. Something that I've always aspired to do is be that interesting to people. The best that I can hope for is that people could think I am that interesting or make people feel the way that Johnny Depp does.
Q: What was it like being a part of the show from La Jolla Playhouse to Broadway?
Snyder: Elizabeth Stanley, who is my co-star, we both joined the project at the same time, so it [has been] great to share that experience of figuring it out with her and figuring out the relationship and finding the depth of this love story amidst all of this crazy John Waters hilarity-chaos. That's true for everyone in the cast. We all know it's going to be wacky and crazy, but let's find the truth in this.
Q: Is it a tightly knit cast?
Snyder: We spent a lot of time in La Jolla doing the show. It was kind of like summer camp, everyone got to know each other, and we're all really close. It truly is like a family — a delightfully dysfunctional one at that. We all get along really well, but every night we go on and sing about kissing with tongue, and polio vaccines and Lord knows what else.
Q: It's amazing to think of two John Waters musicals on Broadway at the same time.
Snyder: Yeah, John says, "I don't know if two musicals counts as a genre," but he's willing to try it, I think.
Q: Any concerns for you about inevitable comparisons to Hairspray?
Snyder: We are actually embracing the difference as much as possible, welcoming the comparison, but there's no doubt in our minds that we are the trashy cousin of Hairspray. This is about rock 'n' roll, this is about class, not about race. They're very similar in that they're both about people trying to find freedom and expression in a world that says you can't be yourself, but that's about where the line gets drawn and then, I don't know who said it, but if Hairspray is the show all the high schools are going to be doing, Cry-Baby is the one that all the students want to do, but their principal won't let them.
Q: Cry-Baby is a little edgier in some ways.
Snyder: It's definitely got a lot more John Waters raunchiness. In fact, in the first audience — I'm not making this up — was a church group [whose] teacher made them leave at intermission because it was just a little too racy, and so 20 people walked out the first day. It's just wrong enough. It definitely brings up things like, "Oh! Should that be on stage?" But it's still quite palatable.
Q: Of course, later the church group leader came back to see the rest of it.
Snyder: [Laughs.] To figure out how it ends!
[Cry-Baby, currently in previews at the Marquis Theatre, is scheduled to open April 24. For information, visit CryBabyOnBroadway.com or www.ticketmaster.com.]
Last year, Daniel Reichard was in his second summer of Jersey Boys when he decided he needed to think about a new path, or he might lose, as he puts it, "the spark inside of me that keeps me going." He decided to tell the creative staff that he'd be finishing his contract last October, whether he'd lined up new work or not. Instead, someone who had seen him as Candide ten years ago in Michigan thought he'd make a great Candide for the New York City Opera, and Reichard was thrilled he didn't have to leave Boys without something to look forward to. He extended his contract for three "glorious" months, finished strong, and begins as Candide at the New York State Theater on April 8.
Question: What has it been like transitioning from The Four Seasons music to an operetta?
Daniel Reichard: For me, it's a thrill for so many reasons. One is, I get to go from one amazing American songwriter to another: Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe to Leonard Bernstein. Another reason is I get to show my range as an actor. It's a great opportunity to show my peers in the community that I'm not one single thing, I can do a lot of different things — and it's just such a fantastic role. My role in Jersey Boys was absolutely fantastic too, so in many ways, it feels like continuing on a great path.
Q: Did you have to prepare differently for this?
Reichard: The thing I thought about first was reinvigorating my legitimate technique as a singer. I knew I was going to be singing this for real. I wasn't going to be doing a poppy version of Candide. I really wanted to sing it as any tenor that sings with the New York City Opera sings, so I did go back into training for singing. And, I had to get my body in the best shape it can be because it is such an athletic role. I'm running up and down stairs, lifting women above my head; it's really a part that you have to be extremely physical in.
Q: What other differences have you seen between an operetta and a Broadway show?
Reichard: As far as the process, it has been totally fascinating moving from the Broadway world to the opera world. This is the New York City Opera. There are no music rehearsals. You are expected to come in knowing your music. You get individual coachings. But when we came in to rehearsal, we started with a full-on sing/read-through of the piece. It is like being shot out of a cannon.
Q: Did it help one iota that you had done the show in the past at the University of Michigan?
Reichard: Absolutely. It helped more than that. What's really cute about that is it was with Celia Keenan-Bolger as one of the sheep, and Barrett Foa played Voltaire and Pangloss, Alexander Gemignani was the Grand Inquisitor and Courtney Balan —Hatchetface in Cry-Baby — was the Old Lady. We were all a bunch of good friends; now we're all in New York City pursuing our dreams and making our own names. [Laughs.] And, here I am back in the show doing the same thing I did ten years ago.
Q: Was it weird stepping away from a successful commodity, from the known into the unknown?
Reichard: I have to say it is surprisingly not weird. The only thing I miss about doing Jersey Boys is spending my days and nights with that fantastic company of actors who are really, truly like my brothers and sisters. We experienced such an incredible rocket ride that that is something that is a part of who I am now, and will be a part of who I am in five years, in 30 years.
Q: Originally, when Candide was announced, it said you were splitting performances, but now you are doing them all. What happened there?
Reichard: I can pretty much only presume that once they decided they were going to use me as a marketing tool for the show, to bring in people who maybe don't necessarily go to New York City Opera, aka, the enormous fan base of Jersey Boys, I think they thought they didn't want to have people come to see the show and say, "Wait, we wanted to see the guy from Jersey Boys!" I think they wanted to make sure that it was an efficient marketing tool. And I wanted to do all 14 [shows] from the beginning. I said, "C'mon, I probably did close to 900 performances of Jersey Boys — I can do 14 of Candide." So I'm very honored to do both, and I get two leading ladies. I have the fabulous Lauren Worsham and the beautiful and elegant Lielle Berman. Lauren is a very theatre-trained actress, a very character-driven Cunégonde who also has a big voice, and Lielle is this incredible authentic opera house soprano. They're both gorgeous and talented, but they're very different people. Their essences are completely different, their personalities, their humor, their temperament, so it's been kind of a funny learning experience, to keep trading back between the two of them, and I've never had an experience like that before as an actor.
Of his Candide co-star Richard Kind, Reichard says everywhere they go, Kind is stopped by people saying, "Oh my God! I can't believe it's you!" Such is the familiarity of Kind, the tireless performer on stage and screens, large and small. A man who has made an art-form of obtuseness, the affable Kind says he is most recognized for his roles on "Spin City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." If you're like me, you first loved his work on the Carol Burnett TV shows of the early nineties. Theatregoers know him for anything from The Producers on Broadway to The Front Page in Williamstown last summer. He even went to Iowa in January to play Pseudolus in Forum. The man can't be stopped.
Question: Were you intimidated at all to be in an operetta?
Richard Kind: Not only was I intimidated, I was properly intimidated because the music is so tough for me. I know music, I can sing. Not opera-sing, but I can carry a tune, and this stuff is difficult, it really is.
Q: Clearly you can carry a tune, and in The Producers you had the volume for opera, but what are the differences between something like that and Candide?
Kind: Where I come from in plays, you want to evolve into a role, make it your own. In the opera world, the music comes first — so much so that they don't really care a lot of times about what surrounds the character. Usually tech at a Broadway house can take a matter of days or weeks. Here, it's a matter of hours. We're having dress rehearsal on Friday, and we open on Tuesday. We are not on stage between Friday and Tuesday. It's like they want to give their voices a rest. I want to say, "No! Let's do it again! Let's do it on Saturday! Let's do it on Sunday!" I can't believe that we have four days up till curtain to forget about it.
Q: Do you find the show hard on your voice at all?
Kind: No, the music isn't taxing on my voice, but as Voltaire, I do an old man's voice, and any voice teacher or throat doctor will tell you, you start doing an old person's voice, and usually you are going to give your throat a bit of wear. So by hurting my throat that way, my singing voice isn't as good as it should be. I'm glad I'm not an old man. I'm just going to fake being an old man using the voice.
Q: How do you like playing in an opera house?
Kind: This house is huge. Huge! They fit 80 people in this orchestra pit, whereas normally they fit from 12-18 people. Here, you have 80, so the first row is a bit of a distance and then the upper tiers are so high, it's not like playing a theatre, it's a stadium.
Q: Did you get to see any of the earlier permutations of Candide over the years?
Kind: The only one I saw was Hal Prince's production back in '74. That was with Lewis Stadlen, who at that time was a hero of mine. He was magnificent. He did Minnie's Boys around that time, he did The Sunshine Boys, and he did Candide, and I just adored him. I don't remember much of it, but what I do remember is how it overtook the audience. They went in and out of the audience. It was not just theatre in the round, but really environmental theatre. We are trying to do a little bit of that, but we're really a proscenium production. Q: Do you have a good feeling for Voltaire and his sense of satire?
Kind: Oh yeah. I gotta admit, I'm not playing the satire, but I am playing the humor. If that satire comes through, that's good. That's up to [lyricist] Richard Wilbur and Leonard Bernstein and everybody else who put their work in. I'm just trying to tell the story in a funny way.
Q: How do you go about choosing projects? Do you look for a challenge or mostly a good time?
Kind: That's a very good question. First and foremost, I like to work, so it's very difficult for me to turn down work. I worked with Hal once before on a show called Bounce, so he knows what I can do. I think if he hadn't worked with me, I would not have even been on his radar for playing this role. A lot of times, if you are associated with a great piece of theatre, that in itself is its own reward.
Q: You work so often. Does it get crazy for you at all to balance theatre and your young family?
Kind: It's not crazy at all. My sustenance is my work, and my sustenance is my family. You ask a guy who is a lawyer or a banker or a guy on Wall Street… I'm lucky, when the show is up, I get to spend time with my kids until seven o'clock. Nobody gets to do that. I got to spend the summer in Williamstown…and I got to be with my kids all during the day. When I am rehearsing during the day, I work from 10-6, let's say. That means I get to have breakfast and fool around with my kids for a little while and then leave for work at 9:30. Most guys have to leave at 7, 7:30 and don't get home till 6 at night and are exhausted, and the kids are in bed an hour-and-a-half later. I think I'm just the opposite. I think I'm blessed to have all this time and still be challenged by different roles, which is great.
Q: And your preference of late has been the stage?
Kind: Not just of late. For the past 25 years, that's my preference. I love being onstage. What's going to be tough is when this show is over. I love working in New York, and I really love working in theatre. I went to Iowa to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was sort of a ridiculous thing for me to do, but there was an actor's strike on, it's a role I always wanted to play, and it was a brand-new theatre. I could help them out, so everything seemed right… Now that was a bit self-indulgent, as far as what I want to do with my career, but I didn't do that as career move, I did that as an artistic choice, to play Pseudolus. I thought it would be great. But then there are other things like doing TV and having to go out West trying to get work there, and that will draw me away from my family, and then all of a sudden it becomes worse than a lawyer or banker. That's tough. But there are a lot of plays coming in next year, and I'm not in one of them, so I gotta go look for work!
[Candide is at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (63rd Street and Columbus) April 8-20. For tickets visit www.nycopera.com or call (212) 721-6500.]
Hither and Yon
Charles Mee's Fire Island, which is billed as a "multimedia beach party" opens on April 10, at 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich St. at Rector St., NYC). It's one of those things you can read all about and probably have no idea what it is until you show up. Holograms are involved. Also free beer. To buy or reserve tickets go to www.3leggeddog.org or call (212) 352-3101 . . . . Dean Martin fans: George Aline presents his Ain't That a Kick in the Head tribute to Dino at the Laurie Beecham Theatre at the West Bank Cafe, April 5 at 6:30 PM. Call (212) 695-6909 for reservations. . . . April 21, Michael Feinstein hosts a tribute to the late legend Kitty Carlisle Hart at Feinstein's. Proceeds will benefit the Dramatist's Guild. Go to www.feinsteinsattheregency.com for more details. Hart celebrated her 96th birthday onstage at Feinstein's just a couple short years ago… Meanwhile, spring is here, and boy am I glad! See you next time.
Tom Nondorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.