THE LEADING MEN: Hoff, Barbour, Wilson, Newman, Spirtas and Bullock

By Tom Nondorf
October 2, 2008

Spoke to October's "Leading Men" en masse by attending the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market and Grand Auction in Shubert Alley. It was fun to see well-known stage and TV personalities oozing out of the woodwork for a worthy cause (to contribute visit broadwaycares.org). I also got my picture taken with a green baby at the Wicked booth, so all in all, a beautiful day.

Hoff and Running
When we spoke, Christian Hoff was just beginning his final week in the role that nabbed him a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical three years ago, Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys. He leaves the comfort of the Jersey juggernaut to play the title role in Pal Joey opposite Stockard Channing, opening in December for Roundabout Theatre Company. Joey is a role first played on Broadway by Gene Kelly and on film by Frank Sinatra (a Jersey Boy if ever there was one). Hoff looks forward to the challenge of helping Joey play its first successful run on Broadway since 1941.

Question: Quite a time of transition for you. Are you having a ball?
Christian Hoff: Oh yeah — creatively, personally, absolutely. Doing what you love to do for a living and making people happy while you're at it, there's nothing like it.

Q: What brings you here today?
Hoff: The reason we're here is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and Broadway Cares has given this community the opportunity to celebrate and to continue to celebrate as a family, as a community. We will do that for years to come, and I'm so proud of that.

Christian Hoff
Q: What does an event like this mean to a performer such as yourself?
Hoff: A day like this, where you're surrounded by everything that Broadway is: Broadway history, the future of Broadway, the fans that are investing in their future and able to show their enthusiasm for what you do and why you do it. There's just nothing like it. For me, this is my fourth year doing it, and every year it is sort of like what happens at the stage door for me, which is a pinch in the arm to realize that this, [my career in show business], is actually happening. Without the fans, without the community support, there would be no Broadway, and it is such a privilege and an honor to be witness to Broadway history. If you walk down 44th Street right now, there's so much memorabilia, there's so much history right before your eyes — stuff from not only shows that are happening now, but from 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago that reminds you of just how precious this is.

Q: When was the very first time you knew you wanted to be on stage?
Hoff: My original inspiration for being an actor was when I did a production of Tom Sawyer when I was eight years old. I remember when I walked out on the stage, the feelings I got from all the hard work and the preparation and the dedication all came together when I was able to perform in front of a live audience. And that's what Broadway is. Without filling those thousands of seats eight times a week, the magic wouldn't happen, and that is what I celebrate every time I go out onstage, and that is what we are celebrating here today.

Q: There is nothing like that instant feedback a live audience can bring.
Hoff: It is an instant medium. You have to do it right, and you have to do it right every time. It is not something that is going to live in DVD sales down the road, or that someone is going to edit for you. You get to experience that sense of having to get it right every time. And, every time I go out there, I realize that not only am I bringing 32-plus years as an actor to that performance right then and there, but it also could be someone in the audience's first Broadway show or last Broadway show, and that's why I do it. For them.

[Pal Joey previews start Nov. 14 toward a Dec. 11 opening at Studio 54. Tickets available by phone at (212) 719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the Studio 54 box office at 254 West 54th Street.]

Barbour on Broadway
James Barbour, who knows his way around musicals based on historical fiction, can currently be seen in the epic A Tale of Two Cities which opened on Sept. 18 at the Hirschfeld. As Sydney Carton, Barbour gets to make the ultimate heroic sacrifice, whereas at the Flea Market, he only had to sacrifice a minute for a chat.

James Barbour in A Tale of Two Cities
photo by Carol Rosegg
Question: How are you feeling now that A Tale has finally opened?
James Barbour: I feel great. The audiences are standing on their feet every night, packing the house, and that's who we do the show for. We talk about it all the time, how without the audiences, theatre wouldn't exist and we'd be doing it in a vacuum. And that cheering audience, that's our people. They love the show.

Q: Are you someone who feeds off the energy of an audience?
Barbour: Absolutely. That's what theatre's about. It's not film. It's not television. It changes every night. Aside from doing concerts, you don't get that sort of visceral, visual experience.

Q: How rewarding is it for you to be playing Sydney Carton?
Barbour: Unbelievable. It is one of the greatest roles I've ever done. I've been working on it since 2004, and we were working very diligently to get the show to Broadway — the producers and the creative team, and the investors. It's been a long process, and it truly is a testament— I mean, this show is about overcoming adversity, and experiencing redemption, and it truly is a testament that that can happen, because we've made it this far, and audiences are digging the show.

Q: Did you, like everyone else, read the Dickens book in high school, and did you connect with it then?
Barbour: I read the book in high school and pretty much was like everyone else: "I can't read it." I like the classics in general, that was one of my majors in college. But as Dickens goes, it was pretty heavy reading. I made it through [the book] and understood it, but I didn't really focus on it until much later in life. When I was asked to do the show, I reread it, and suddenly I really had a strong connection to it, and have been revisiting it ever since I've been involved in the show.

Q: What was your very first inspiration to be a performer?
Barbour: My sister started singing when we were both kids, and she started going to dance classes, and our mother would drag me to all of those things because she just had to — we didn't have a babysitter. So I sort of learned by association, but I played sports. I played football and baseball and tennis. But I always wanted to do everything — I wanted to be an archaeologist, I wanted to be a biologist, I wanted to be a doctor, and I realized the only way to do all of those things was to become an actor. You can become anyone you want to become, research anything you want to research and learn as much as you want. That's sort of what prompted me into the arts, and I like the expression and the fact that arts take life to a higher level. I think they enhance life. After World War II, the first things that were rebuilt in Europe were the theatres. So that realization is when it happened for me, and acting is also an escape. You can escape your everyday life as an actor. That's what I did as a kid. I would create these characters and sort of run away in my head.

Q: For you, is there anything that compares to the Broadway community?
Barbour: It's unmatched. Most of my time I live in Los Angeles. The television community is similar, but you don't really see each other on a daily basis like you do here. If you walk down the street on any given day here, in my neighborhood, I will run into four or five people from Broadway, like, "Hey! How's it going?" Or at the gym and certainly going to work, you are just passing all of your colleagues and all of your friends, and more importantly, you walk out that stage door, and the audience is standing there waiting for you. You don't get that in film because you're going to see something that's already been done. Or if you're watching television, it's completely different. With theatre, there's an interaction with your audience and with your fellow entertainers that is unprecedented in other parts of the industry, and that's the magic of Broadway and theatre.

[Tickets for A Tale of Two Cities at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre are available at TeleCharge.com and (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250. Or visit www.TaleMusical.com.]

Patrick Wilson's War
Patrick Wilson's "got it goin' on," as the kids say. The weekend of the Flea Market, he'd just opened the box office chart-topper, "Lakeview Terrace," in which he stars opposite Samuel L. Jackson. All My Sons is in previews now for an Oct. 16 opening. Wilson shares the stage in Sons with John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and a young woman from Toledo named Katie Holmes. Wilson, like Lithgow, can handle himself in tuners too, most recently in the Oklahoma! revival in 2002.

Patrick Wilson
photo by Andrew Eccles
Question: You have a film opening and an Arthur Miller show about to open on Broadway. It must be a crazy time for you right now.
Patrick Wilson: Yes, it's a little busy. We had the ["Lakeview Terrace"] junket last Monday and the premiere Monday night, and All My Sons previews this week, so it's a little crazy.

Q: Are you tired of hearing yourself talk?
Wilson: I'm tired of talking, to be honest with you (laughs) — but no worries!

Q: Do you enjoy being a part of the Broadway Flea Market event?
Wilson: It's awesome. I try to do it every year. If I'm in town, I'm here. You know, I remember, years ago, when I first got into the business by way of knowing Jerry Mitchell — I knew Jerry a long time ago, and I sort of came in through that — [I heard] about the Gypsy of the Year Competition and about Broadway Cares, and seeing how active actors were in trying to help the cause, doing anything that we could. I feel like I'm just continuing something that I began doing when I started out 15 years ago. The actors that I admire [are those who] do their part. I feel like we have to, any chance we get. Anything I can do for Broadway Cares I'll do. And certainly for this, this is a great event to meet people in a civilized manner (laughs), not behind barricades and all that other stuff.

Q: And I imagine it's a good chance to see folks you know from shows past.
Wilson: That is very true. That always happens. I run into people I haven't seen in forever!

[The limited run of All My Sons is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Tickets are available through www.telecharge.com or by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.]

Newman Zone
A great thing about the Broadway Flea Market event is that not only are Broadway stars there, but a great deal of daytime television stars as well, mixing the two camps of actors that are a big part of New York's acting industry. Often you'll find the actors' skill-sets overlap, with Broadway musical people having done daytime TV and vice versa. The ageless Robert Newman has played Josh on "The Guiding Light" seemingly forever, but he makes time each year to go off and do theatre somewhere outside the City. The brawny actor, who, like James Barbour, grew up playing football, has done The Full Monty and A Little Night Music at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in recent years.

Question: Does making time to do some stage work outside of "The Guiding Light" recharge your batteries?
Robert Newman: It allows me to stay sane, and our producers are very understanding. In August I was up in the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, playing Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah. It was just wonderful to focus on that experience.

Q: Do you enjoy coming to Shubert Alley and being among theatrical folk?
Newman: I like it because it brings both my worlds together. I've worked with a lot of people who do a lot of Broadway work. Beth Leavel was just here. She and I did A Little Night Music a few years ago. Dee Hoty and Stephen Bogardus and all these people that I know from the theatre world… just a bunch of them. I feel like this brings both of those worlds together for me, so it's kind of cool.

Q: What are some great moments you've enjoyed?
Newman: A couple years ago, I sat at a signing table with Bernadette Peters right next to me, and at some point I turned to her and said, "You know, I've had a crush on you for about 100 years," and she just smiled really nice. Things like that are cool. I met Victor Garber, another guy who was really nice, who I'd never met, and it was a great opportunity to talk to him.

Q: I always wonder for someone who has played a character on a show as long as you have, do you add up all the crazy things that have happened to Josh and think of them all as part of the character, or is that too overwhelming and you just pick and choose the things that make up the man?
Newman: The answer to that is, yes, mostly you take him as a whole. I think the storyline we did involving clones, that one I pretend didn't happen.

[To see Robert Newman sing "All I Care About Is Love" at the Barn Theatre of Augusta, Michigan, via his official fan club website, www.ornfc.com.]

The Spirtas Moves Us
Kevin Spirtas is another crossover talent from daytime and musical theatre. He was the standby for Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz on Broadway, and is well-known to soap fans from "Days of our Lives" and "One Life to Live." Spirtas just wrapped up a production of They're Playing Our Song in Beach Haven, New Jersey. In Los Angeles, he performs shows of dance, pop and standards on a regular basis, and is working on a new two-man show with one of Streisand's Broadway Boys, Sean McDermott.

Question: Tell us about this show you are working on.
Kevin Spirtas: I've had a one-man show for awhile. Bruce Kimmel directed my one-man show called Night and Days about my nights on Broadway and my days on "Days of Our Lives." He's just now finishing directing a brand-new show that we are going to mount in Los Angeles called Jersey Men. It's about all the great singers and songwriters, the male great singers and songwriters from New Jersey. Sinatra, Frankie Valli, David Cassidy, John Travolta, Bruce Springsteen, every Jersey man. Sean McDermott and I are going to be starring in that together, that's what's up next.

Q: You've done TV, cabaret, film, Broadway. In which are you most comfortable?
Spirtas: Well, they're different muscles, it's like a different workout. Different types of performance bring you different types of energy or a different type of "high," if you will. Theatre is immediate. Singing is live, and it's immediate. And then you have film and TV, and it's kind of like you could do something, and it won't come down the line till three months or three years later and you go, "What was I going through when I did that?" But it's all an emotional workout.

Q: What does this Broadway Cares event say to you?
Spirtas: I think this is a great opportunity for everyone to get together and give thanks. It's kind of an honor for me to be a part of this community. I've been in L.A. for so long. [I come back here and see] the way this Broadway community pulls together, and helps create a place for people to support the arts. People need the arts, and I think it is very important, and I'm honored to be here.

[Kevin Spirtas and Sean McDermott's new show, Jersey Men, will have a special performance benefiting the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund on Oct. 27 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California. Go to www.kevinspirtas.com for ticket info.]

Jim Dandy
In other news, the New York Musical Theatre Festival rolls on. Theatre fans still have a few days to catch The Fancy Boy Follies, featuring former Ted Knight foil, hilarious Hollywood Square, Jim J. Bullock as part of the five-man ensemble. The show, which bills itself as "A Vaudelesque!," promises a dirty ol' time of sex-themed songs and skits. "It wouldn't be appropriate for four year olds," says Bullock — probably a few years beyond that as well. Dave August, Howard Kaye, Jon Powell, and Tom Stuart make up the rest of the cast.

Question: For the uninitiated, please describe The Fancy Boy Follies.
Jim J. Bullock: It's so hard to describe. It's a cross between a burlesque and a vaudeville show — like a gay burlesque and vaudeville. It's five guys, and it's a lot of fun, a lot of music, a little dancing (I can't do a lot of dancing). It's just filthy fun.

Q: How filthy?
Bullock: Oh, it's filthy. You have to have a sense of humor about sex. We talk a lot about taboo things in sex that people don't talk a lot about. If you address it properly with humor, it makes it more palatable — sort of like "South Park." I just watched a show today called "Little Britain." Oh my God! It's so taboo, but they do it in such a comical way that you can laugh at these things that are politically incorrect.

Q: You've played Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway and on tour...
Bullock: I was doing Hairspray this time last year. I love that show. I've been very fortunate to have a nice run with it. My first jaunt with it was in August of 2004. I came here and did three months, then I went back to L.A., came back and did six months, then I went on tour with it for a year, then I came back last fall and I got to play Wilbur for three months. Then I actually came back last spring and did another month run with it, so I guess they like me. They keep having me back [laughs]!

Q: Where are all your lady friends from "Too Close for Comfort" these days?
Bullock: As a matter of fact, I just saw them. I had a party, and I invited Deborah [Van Valkenburgh] and Lydia [Cornell] and Nancy [Dussault]. Nancy was busy doing some show, but Deborah and Lydia came, and it was so great to see them, and they both look fabulous. Deborah is doing a lot of theatre in California. Lydia is married and raising a family. She has a radio program. She's the co-host of this politically-minded show. She is very smart, not at all the dumb blonde everybody thought she was.

Q: Monroe was such an indelible TV character. He's not an albatross around your neck, is he?
Bullock: Not at all. You do something like that, and you do have to fight what people's preconceived ideas are of you. It is interesting to go into an audition and people say, "Oh, he's not right for the role." It's work, and it's frustrating fighting that, but do I have any resentment whatsoever for it? None. Monroe was very good to me. "Too Close for Comfort" was six incredible years for me that I'll never forget, and I'm so grateful I had. It gave me a career. I have nothing but fond, sweet memories of Ted and Nancy and Lydia, Deborah and Audrey [Meadows].

Q: Maybe I'm out of the loop on this, but didn't you used to go by "Jm"?
Bullock: Oh my God. Okay, here's what happened. Back when I moved to L.A., before I got into any of the unions or anything, I thought, "What can I do to catch someone's attention?" And I had a friend who spelled his name "M-a-r-c" instead of "M-a-r-k." I thought, that's so cool and different. How can I do that with my name? So I took the "i" out, which makes no sense, whatsoever. It was "Jm," but pronounced "Jim." And so when I went to the Screen Actor's Guild, the lady there said, "That doesn't make any sense. There's no vowel there." I said, "I know." Then I got "Too Close" and "Hollywood Squares," and in the late eighties, I had a manager who suggested that I put the "i" back, and on his suggestion I did, and it has really been a pain in the ass ever since. Most people still know me as the guy with the bizarre spelling, but I did put the "i" back in 1990… I had a vowel movement.

[The Fancy Boy Follies, with book and lyrics by David Pevsner and additional material by Bruce Vilanch, is at the 45th Street Theatre until Oct. 5. For ticket info check out nymf.org.]

Hither and Yon
If you get a chance, check out Close Ties, the Elizabeth Diggs play running at E.S.T., a very affecting tale of tough family transitions. Jack Davidson, David Gelles Hurwitz and Tommy Schrider are the men in an extremely tight ensemble. For tickets visit www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org or phone (212) 352-3101 . . . . Got great feedback from readers on rare cast albums in your collections. Reader Mark, for instance, is a Welly Yang fan who was happy to find an Asian-produced cast album for The Wedding Banquet . . . . Very little can I find out about the Off-Broadway musical, Hark!, since the album I found came in a plain, unmarked, white record sleeve with very little info on the label — a must-buy for me, of course! The internet tells me it is from circa 1972 and was written by Marvin Solley with music by Dan Goggin (of Nunsense fame) and lyrics by Robert Lorick (The Tap Dance Kid). If anyone saw Hark! and can tell me about it, do drop a line. And, keep your favorite rarities coming. Until next time!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.