Broadway, TV and recording star Tom Wopat, famed for his role as Luke in the TV phenomenon "The Dukes of Hazzard," and now co-starring as Frank Butler opposite Bernadette Peters in the hit revival of Annie Get Your Gun, has signed an exclusive recording pact with EMI-Angel Records. "I'll be doing something timely, different and exciting," said Wopat, during a matinee intermission. "It won't be just theatre material or anything nostalgic, but new stuff and standards I'll want to make sound new. The style will be lush large orchestra, maybe big band and maybe jazz trio accompaniment."
This is a departure from Wopat's soft country focus the last decade on record and on the road with this group, The Full Moon Band. There've been three Top-20 hits from his work on Columbia and America Records.
Because of a second Dukes reunion movie in November, Wopat won't get into the studio until early December. Because of the film, which will air next spring, Wopat will commute bi-coastally for three weeks, shooting during the week and appearing on Broadway weekends. Wopat said EMI-Angel, a label known for classical and theater work, and he have the same goal, "to reach that certain niche market out there for a male vocalist with a kind of a Sinatraesque quality, singing ballads and songs with a certain romantic attitude."
Wopat was quite comfortable talking during intermission, a time most actors spend relaxing or getting a bit of shut-eye. "We're deep into the run," he says. "My part's easy. I'm basically done at the end of Act One. I'm not on at the top of Two and have only a couple of numbers."
He grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, but began singing at age six. He went to college, but dropped out several times to front a band. In college musicals, he was a perennial leading man and went on to stock and regional theater. "I was slick and quick," he laughs. "I the type there seemed to be a lack of." He hit New York in 1977. "Through a director friend, I made a connection with an agent only weeks after arriving. Then I was on the auditions circuit." He landed his Off-Broadway debut in the musical A Bistro Car on the CNR.
"Does anyone remember that one?" he laughs.
His first major role was in The Robber Bridegroom in 1978 at Fords Theatre, Washington, Dc. He made his Broadway debut, replacing James Naughton, in I Love My Wife; then made the move west and ended up behind the wheel of the General Lee opposite John Schneider. "It was unbelievable," recalls Wopat. "There I was among hundreds and somehow I got it." Probably, he says in retrospect, because he was Luke Duke. "I had all the good things, especially financial security. But TV stardom was a double-edged sword. It wasn't always smooth sailing." He says the fame had value, "but there was little credibility to be had from it. For seven seasons, we brought a lot of fun into people's lives, but inside the business there was a subliminal form of type casting that stymied my growth. Fortunately, I was able to get around the edges."
And into the recording studio. "It took a while for disk jockeys to take me seriously. There was the inclination to think I was taking advantage of my TV success."
That name recognition also brought him back to theatre. With only about a week of rehearsal, he stepped into Off-Broadway's Olympus on My Mind, replacing Martin Vidovic. Harve Brosten, Olympus's producer, said that Wopat "had an incredible zest that carried to the back of the house and a big voice that worked well on stage." He also pumped up the box office. He later moved to Nashville and continued recording. "My music success has been minimal, but, for the last 11 years, it allowed me to go on the road with my band." It also brought him to the attention of Cybill Shepherd when her show "Cybill" was casting the role of a former husband. When that show ended, he planned to concentrate again on records, but got a call from his agent to audition for Annie Get Your Gun.
Did he want the role badly? "In a word, yes," he says. "I was thrilled getting it, and at what it's given me. Especially getting to work with Bernadette, who makes it so easy. God, she's talented and an amazing teacher. Best of all, she listens. We like each other, have lots of fun and we interact well on stage."
Being back on Broadway this trip, he explains, is a real break for his credibility as a singer and leading man. "To be considered not as a replacement, but as someone who could originate a role is a huge step. The show, and being nominated for a Tony Award, is one of the high points of my career. And to sing those songs with that great orchestra!"
But what about that "new," politically correct book? "The whole idea of doing the show was to showcase the music. We try not to agonize over the book revisions. We keep it moving and there's never a dull moment."