Sebastian Arcelus is working what the boys at Keebler used to call "Elfin Magic" as Buddy the Elf in the holiday-themed Elf at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. The role made famous by Will Ferrell in the 2003 film (about an infant who stows away on Santa's sleigh who is raised as an elf at the North Pole) is one Arcelus took on after most of the principal cast had already been through readings and workshops. He had about five weeks with the company before previews began, lending his Buddy an outsider's air that suits the stranger-in-a-strange-land tale nicely.
When last I spoke to the affable Arcelus, he was just about to marry fellow stage vet Stephanie J. Block (9 to 5, The Pirate Queen), and was lamenting the bright white pants he had to don as Fiyero in Wicked. Now, Arcelus and Block have been happily wed for three years, and Arcelus is wearing the most garish yellow and green tights imaginable.
How the Elf are you?
Great! I can't tell you how much fun we're having. It is a wild, wild show to be a part of. We're just so thrilled to be bringing the holidays to people with such reckless abandon.
It's always fun to hear when a show that looks like such fun to be in actually is.
Oh, God, it's been such a joy. Casey Nicholaw, it starts with him because he's such a joyous man, not to mention a talented director. He creates an environment in his rehearsal room that really fosters everybody feeling so protected and free. He created an environment where I think I, at least, approaching the task of tackling Buddy, felt really able to try any number of things which we found were great and some where I fell flat on my face. [Laughs.] But for two and a half hours a night or whatever, I'm an elf. And it feels right!
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Even though you are having a ball, do you think of Buddy as a demanding role?
Yeah, it is, I have to say. It is intensely demanding. You think with something as free, fun and joyous as it is, that it would also be easy to do on a daily basis, but it's actually quite difficult. You know, it's very physical, it's just a very emotional part where he goes from zero to 60 in a matter of half a second, and you have to be prepared for that. Then there's the toll that it takes on your body, which thanks to PhysioArts Physical Therapy, they are literally keeping me standing, and I credit them a great deal. They, and my wife, who has been just an angel to me. Every night when I come home, the bath is waiting and she's putting in Epsom salts and has ice packs ready for her husband.
Is it unique, being a part of a holiday-themed show?
I don't want to sound cheesy but there's that holiday buzz in the air at our theatre where you feel people really engaged and they're coming to the theatre expecting to be happy. And so there's a feeling of joy right at the top of the show because people are ready to have a good time, and I think that carries us through…as does the energy of my fellow actors and the general sense of joy that accompanies this piece, which — I can't stress enough — really has been joyous, not to beat that word to a pulp, but it has been that, from start to finish. From top to bottom, you know everyone associated with it just loves it.
One thing I find interesting is there are elements of the musical that have to work just for stage, and that made Elf fresh, not merely a carbon copy of the movie.
I think the writers — [book writers] Bob Martin, Thomas Meehan, and of course [songwriters] Matthlew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, along with Casey and the producers of the show — worked hard at that adaptation, and at creating their new version of Elf that would work for the stage. It has to stand on its own onstage…[it has to be a] a different animal [than the film]. I think they really rounded things out, they got deeper into the family story and along the way, we delved deeper into each of these characters and their relationships as opposed to just relying on the gags that come with situational comedy or physical comedy. There are certain things [from the film that] we couldn't do or chose not to do, and I think that's a great thing when you're doing an adaptation of a movie or of anything where people are walking away happy about what they saw as opposed to upset about what they didn't.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Something that was strong in the movie and was retained is Buddy's relationship with his father.
I agree, and Mark Jacoby [who plays Buddy's dad] is an amazing man to work with. I think we have a great rapport, and I get to mess with him every night, which is really fun. I think what the writers also did to strengthen the father-son relationship was they got rid of the Papa Elf character, which Bob Newhart played perfectly in the film. It's so great in the film, but getting rid of that character made our Santa — played perfectly by the amazing George Wendt — become more of a surrogate father to Buddy, which also strengthens that relationship.
Did you ever imagine as a kid that you'd be onstage with George Wendt, who we all love from "Cheers," and the "SNL" Superfans sketches?
I gotta tell you, no, I can't say that I did. And I grew up watching him all the time, so the first time I met him I couldn't resist — it was the night of "Monday Night Football" when the Packers were playing the Bears and I was sitting in a car with him and I turned to him and said, "So, uh, you gonna watch the Packers and uh, da Bears?" He was of course lovely and gracious and went along with it, but I'm sure he gets that a lot and it probably makes him roll his eyes. [Laughs.]
Now, we've heard of triple-threats on Broadway, but in this show, you have to be a quadruple threat, if you will, adding ice skating to the mix. Did you have to learn how to skate?
Well, I'll tell you, I might even argue with the "triple" part, but thanks to Casey and our associate choreographers and our dance captains, they got my dancing up to speed. I never tapped before, so you can imagine. But, the skating, I'll tell you, that is the fourth element there. I'll be honest with you, I actually grew up ice skating a bunch, but this particular surface we're using with the glycerin coating that mimics skating to a certain extent is actually quite difficult. It's harder than ice skating, I would say, and it definitely took some getting used to. We were on there in rehearsal almost every day to try and get up to speed on how properly to do it without falling flat on our tuchus, but… and I can tell you that I did fall several times, but yeah, it's wild.
Did Christmas mean a lot to you when you were a kid?
I do love Christmas, although my wife puts me to shame. She is a huge Christmas fan, so we do love us some Christmas in our house. Yeah, I grew up in a very European, Latin-American household and so we — our tradition, for whatever reason — we would celebrate late at night, almost at midnight on the 24th. The 25th was more about a food coma, but the 24th was when we celebrated, and Stephanie's family celebrates on the morning of the 25th — I think like most people do — so we've melded all sorts of traditions and we basically just celebrate all the time. If you're on the fence, just celebrate!
You and Stephanie are now a Super Couple of the New York stage. It must be great to have a partner who understands what you do.
It makes all the difference in the world. We certainly understand the grueling nature of this schedule and what it requires and what it takes emotionally and physically, and we're just there to support each other. We like to have our quiet home life away from everything, and we have our lovely dog who keeps us happy every day, and I think it's invaluable to have a partner in life that really understands what you do and how you do it and how best to take care of each other in the midst of all that. I'm the luckiest, absolutely the luckiest, to have that partner in her — she's literally the best thing that's ever happened to me, for certain. She's a remarkable talent, of course, but man, if people only knew how remarkable she is as a person. (Tom Nondorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Watch highlights from Elf: