Tony Nominee James Corden Is Broadway's Comic One Man of the Moment
By Marc Acito
The belly laughs of the Broadway engagement of the London hit One Man, Two Guvnors leave British funnyman James Corden — a 2012 Best Actor Tony Award nominee — hungry for more.
When actor James Corden begs the audience for a sandwich during the hit British farce One Man, Two Guvnors, it could be for real.
"I've been on a diet," says Corden, who has slimmed down from just south of 300 pounds to just north of 200. "I basically realized that bread is evil and is trying to destroy me. It's like kryptonite to Superman."
For nearly a year, Corden got plenty of exercise performing the raucously physical Guvnors in sold-out runs at London's National Theatre and then in the West End. And he's got the bruises to prove it.
"If you're big like me, you can't throw yourself backward over a chair eight times a week and not expect to get hurt," Corden says. In a bravura performance that requires smashing his face with a trash can lid and getting his tongue caught in a mousetrap, Corden has managed to scratch an eyeball, tear the cartilage in his knee and choke on a peanut. But he sees getting hurt as "a little tax on the job. It's not gruesome — just little knocks and scrapes."
Playwright Richard Bean adapted One Man, Two Guvnors from Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Venetian comedy The Servant of Two Masters, with the action updated to 1963 in the British seaside town of Brighton. Corden was recruited for the lead by National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, who Corden calls "pretty much the cleverest man you're going to meet" — so clever that Corden signed on without even asking what the project was."
That gamble paid off in his career-making turn as the always famished and easily befuddled "One Man" working for "Two Guvnors" (Cockney slang for bosses). Those two employers keep the hapless hero constantly on the go. Imagine Costello with two Abbotts, throw in some flying fish heads, and you begin to get the idea.
"The hardest thing is the pace of it," Corden says. "There's 40 minutes where I don't leave the stage — not even for a drink of water. And while it looks like chaos, it has to be done with absolute pinpoint precision. Really, it's as mentally exhausting as it is physically."
Plus, he sings. Really sings, with the show's onstage band, which plays skiffle music, Britain's precursor to rock 'n' roll.
But as a founding member of several high school boy bands, Corden was up to the task. Indeed, he made his West End debut at the age of 17 in the 1996 musical Martin Guerre and is best remembered for his immortal interpretation of the lyric "Roast the meats."
"Yeah, that was a real springboard for me," he says.
And then there's his xylophone solo. "I can't actually play the xylophone," Corden explains. "It's not like I have this amazing skill set. I can only play that one song."
But one skill Corden has in spades is improvisation. Among the play's numerous joys is the way Corden engages (some say tortures) audience members enlisted for unexpected stage debuts. "You never know who you're going to be interacting with," says Corden. "I never do the same show twice."
Whatever show it is, the role of Francis Henshall marks Corden's return to Broadway, where he played one of The History Boys, a part he originated at the National Theatre and re-created in the film. After that, he became a celebrity to over 10 million viewers of the BBC comedy series "Gavin and Stacey," which he co-wrote and appeared in. Since then he has made countless television appearances, including an onscreen bubble bath with soccer legend David Beckham. ("He was unbelievably nice," Corden told Britain's Heat magazine. "I just wanted to lick him.")
He also has over two million followers on Twitter, where he refers to himself as "Dancer. Ballet, Tap and Modern." There he reveals his obsession with "Moneyball" ("Can't stop watching…Every night."), makes personal confessions ("I'm gonna say something I think might shock you. But Kelly Clarkson frickin' rocks!!!!!!!") and reports on his and fiancée Julia Carey's newborn baby's teething ("Up at 2am, 3am, 4:30am, 6am and it's still going…not the best way to prepare for 2 shows today!").
But playing the fumbling Francis has made Corden the Man of the moment, earning him a fan in none other than Prince Charles, whom he calls "a good bloke." That encounter probably led to the queen herself seeing the show in London. "I imagine he told his mum about it," Corden says.
Her Majesty actually caught Corden's replacement, because he'd already committed to the run on Broadway, a place to which he professes a "romantic attachment."
"It's absolutely true," Corden explains. "That's not a manufactured sound bite. Broadway is the most magical place to work. When we came over with History Boys, we didn't believe what everyone said about the closeness of the community. The West End is so vast — you can't run into one another on the street the way you do on Broadway."
The transfer across the pond necessitated a few small script changes, mostly references unfamiliar to Americans, because "there's no point in bringing a play to New York if the audience can't understand it."
But the dieting actor does have one apprehension: "I don't know if I can resist going to Bar Centrale after the show for a grilled cheese sandwich. Ron is the greatest barman in New York, but that's a heart attack on a plate."
(This feature appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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