"Smash" Star Christian Borle Hooks Up With an Infamous Role in Peter and the Starcatcher
By Harry Haun
A 2012 Tony Award nominee, Christian Borle chomps into the role of the king of all pirates in the Neverland of Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher.
In his day (which has now spread well over a century), Peter Pan has been menaced by some magnificently hammy Captain Hooks — Dustin Hoffman, George Rose, Hans Conried and Boris Karloff, to name a few. These days, the one eliciting hisses at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Peter and the Starcatcher is as sugar-cured and succulent as his predecessors. Only much younger. The intrinsically funny Christian Borle — he with the wide, wildly darting eyes and frenetic sense of play — is a well-seasoned 38.
Which, perhaps, is a good thing, since the buoyantly young Borle is addressing a kind of Captain Hook: The Early Years, as advanced by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Their 2004 "pretend prequel" book, Peter and the Starcatchers (in the plural), conjured up back stories for the well-known J.M. Barrie characters before he had actually created them 100 years earlier, in 1904.
In Rick Elice's anachronistically urbane adaptation, which has been so imaginatively staged by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers that you almost leave the theatre whistling the direction, you learn lots about Peter, his pals and his foes — how an Everyboy riddled with teen angst became the ageless and airborne Eternal Boy, how Hook lost his hand and why he's haunted by a tick-tocking croc, even where mermaids come from.
The top-billed Borle, ever the team player, makes his entrance in an ensemble cluster made up of the motley dozen castmates. When he finally steps away from the herd, he paints on a black mustache à la Groucho — and voila! Captain Hook has arrived.
Back then, Hook was Black Stache — a shiftless, unformed villain looking for a hero who could give Stache's own life a direction and meaning. Peter and the Starcatcher amusingly connects the dots to Barrie's original.
Although he never saw it, there is in Borle's Tony-nominated Young Hook an echo of the overripe, foppish pirate chief that the late Cyril Ritchard famously played to Tony-winning effect in the Mary Martin production of Peter Pan in 1954. "I think it's more instinctual — how we, as a culture, know Captain Hook and picture him and think of him," Borle says. "A lot of it is subconscious, and the rest of it is just what Rick Elice wrote. I was either foolish or naïve, but the previous Hooks didn't intimidate me — partially because this is a different piece and I can hide behind the fact that this is a guy named Black Stache. People can extrapolate for themselves, from what we're doing to the broader Peter Pan mythos."
Borle, who played the rag-doll martyr "Not Dead Fred" in Spamalot and got that show off to a flying stop with a needless lecture on Finland, learned comedy "at the altar of Mike Nichols [who directed Spamalot]. I remember an interview Natalie Portman did about him once and thinking, 'C'mon. I know he's great, but she's talking about him as if he's some kind of a god.' Then, being in that room with him, what you come to realize is that he's some kind of a god. His wisdom, his economy with words, his taste — impeccable.
"Being on the frontlines with [Spamalot stars] David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria taught me how to relax in comedy, wait for the laugh and say the line. And the people in this cast — from Kevin Del Aguila to Greg Hildreth to Teddy Bergman to David Rossmer, across the board — are some of the funniest people I've ever met. Part of this has been to try to get each other to laugh in the rehearsal room and to keep it fresh. Even when we're not doing the play, we just kinda stand in the wings and have each other in stitches."
On stage, in true swashbuckling tradition, it's all for one and one for all. "There is something intrinsic about the way the show is built in that we all need to be there for each other — for safety's sake and for rhythm's sake. There's kinda no choice. You have just got to be 100 percent all the time, so I think not having the options of marking [time] or of not being completely focused and present makes it easier to just do it. If you're not there or you blank on something, somebody could really get hurt.
"What's lovely about it is that, once it starts, there's no time to think and no time to dread the most difficult, physical thing that's coming up. You just, all of a sudden, find yourself hoisting somebody above your head, and it's over in the blink of an eye. Then ramping up for the mermaid song — 'The Act Two Aria' is what I call it — again, you're supporting — holding an umbrella, holding a rope, and then, all of a sudden, I'm sweating buckets and standing on top of a trunk screaming my face off. It's fun."
These days, Borle is between Broadway and the TV series "Smash." Buckets of sweat notwithstanding, he's on R&R from writing music to Debra Messing's words in NBC's Broadway-backdrop series. Initially, there was a big "Smash" clash and it looked as if Peter and the Starcatcher would sail to the Main Stem without him, but a sudden scheduling change saved the day and spared the Hook.
(This feature appears in the June 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
Christian Borle speaks to Playbill Video about his 2012 Tony Award nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Play:
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