THE LEADING MEN: Crumm and Ullman, Jr. Plus Remembering Goulet

By Tom Nondorf
November 3, 2007

Yesvember!
Forget about November, the theatrical world is abuzz with activity, and it is time to say "yes" to getting out of the house and heading to a theatre near you for some live, staged excitement! Thus ends the Public Service Announcement portion of the column, although, this month's interviews with Max Crumm of Grease and Doug Ullman, Jr. of The Fantasticks are services to the public in their own right. Read on, public. Be served!



OUR CRUMM
There aren't that many Broadway stars you can feel a sense of ownership about. Maybe someone from your town made it big, and you "knew them when." But Max Crumm is America's choice. He's the guy who garnered the preponderance of votes during the casting of Grease via the "Grease: You're the One That I Want" TV show. As with his counterpart, Laura Osnes, who won/earned the role of Sandy, fans of the show can feel a certain attachment as well as touch of responsibility for his success. So let's check in and see how he is living up to our ideals and if he is having fun serving his elected term as Danny Zuko, the People's Representative on Broadway.

Question: Hello, Max. Congratulations on Grease and everything that led up to it. It had to be pretty amazing for you.
Max Crumm: It was, it was. It was a wild roller coaster of a time, but it was definitely the best payoff.

Q: How much are you loving life now?
Crumm: I'm loving life to the fullest. I'm having the time of my life, and it is good to keep busy.

Q: What was it like going through the whole "You're the One That I Want" process? There are people who would act like it was somehow easier than normal auditions, but it seems like it had to be insane.
Crumm: You know, I kind of just went to that audition like, "Oh well, I'm definitely not going to win this," so I just tried to have fun and tried to stay grounded the whole time, and it was pretty crazy because that whole show was just about cutting people. It was very nerve-wracking, very stressful but a lot of fun at the same time because I got to work with [director] Kathleen Marshall and I got to meet [co-creator] Jim Jacobs and [producer] David Ian, so it was a great experience, lots of exposure.

Q: What was it like mentally? Did people vying for the roles get a sense of how their "characters" were being portrayed to the public or where you fit in the pecking order as the show went on?
Crumm: I think so. I think [the show] sort of started to tell stories, people's public storylines, with what they were given. A lot of us tried to remain professional throughout and not bash anybody or anything like that, but halfway through I was sort of like, "Oh, they're making me a pretty cool character on this show, so I might as well just take that and run with it and give them exactly what they want every single week." That's pretty much what I ended up doing.

Q: On the kind of reality shows people see that involve eliminations, there is often some ugliness. It's not like you were the ones voting people off, but was there any of that backbiting we've come to expect?
Crumm: No. All 12 of us lived in this big house together. It was actually a pretty great group of people, and the only time we ever saw any type of backbiting or anything like that was actually on Sunday when they would play the videos, and we would see people's interviews and some of us would be like, "Oh wow! I had no idea that person felt that way." So everybody just left it in the interview room, and we all decided we wouldn't take any hard feelings about it because it's a competition at the end of the day.

Q: Did you end up watching each episode as the show went along?
Crumm: I did, yes. We got a DVD on Mondays after the Sunday show — we always got to watch it at the house on our day off.

Q: What was that like to see yourself on TV in that way?
Crumm: It was just so surreal almost, and I really couldn't believe it either because it all happened so fast. Each week was drastically different from the next. It took just one week to have everything change. Like, if you're third one week, maybe you're first after the next week. It was just weird. Certain people, if they didn't do well, didn't want to watch that week. It was such a walking-on-eggshells type of experience with everybody there. You don't want to step on anybody's toes, you don't want to make anybody feel like they're doing bad or anything like that.

Q: How much did you feel like you were in charge of your own destiny?
Crumm: You know [laughs], I thought I was going home every single week to be honest. Every time I was coming off stage from doing my own number, I would always be like, "What the…? What did I just do? Did I do good? I didn't even hear what the judges just said to me." Everybody would be like, "You did great," and I would be like, "Yeah, yeah, right, whatever. I'm going home. It's cool." I got very zoned out while I was on the show.

 

Max Crumm in Grease
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: Did you ever reach a point when you thought you could actually win the thing?
Crumm: Maybe when I was in the final two. But I really was just like, "No way I'm going to win this." And then even when it did happen, I didn't believe it.

Q: What was it like meeting Olivia Newton-John, who sat in as a judge?
Crumm: Oh, she's a dream. She's one of the nicest women. She had nothing but compliments to say to everybody, and she came back and was very sweet and very encouraging to the girls, especially when they had to wear their spandex!

Q: So, you win the show. Then does it dawn on you that, okay, now you have to come to New York and actually do the show?
Crumm: Sure, yeah. My initial reaction was just, "Really? Really? Austin [Miller] was going to win." That's what I thought to myself. Then I just came down and [show host] Denise Van Outen told me [I won]. She was like, "Look!" and it showed my name somewhere, and that was when I was just like, "Wow. Wow." I didn't really use that moment as a celebratory moment either. I was just like, "Okay, okay. I gotta go perform in a second." I was in such a weird daze. It was probably like a day or two after I won that I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to move to New York and I'm going to do this." It all just happened so fast.

Q: Had you been to New York prior?
Crumm: I'd been once or twice, and I'd only seen like three Broadway shows, and I love it here now. It's great. There's no other way to do it. A lot of people move here without jobs, so they don't have as good a time as I'm having. It's all real. It's happening. The cast is wonderful. It's great.

Q: A lot of your theatrical experience before this was in Arizona, where you're from. What were some of your choice parts out there?
Crumm: I most loved when I played the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was just a fun character for me. I love playing offbeat, crazy characters. And when I played Henry Etches in Titanic at Valley Youth Theatre. Titanic is a great musical to be a part of. And, of course, when I was in Grease. I loved being in Grease. I was Doody the first time I was in it. I was Kenickie the second time. I had a blast through the whole run of the shows.

Q: Did you feel like you kind of graduated to Danny?
Crumm:Yeah! You know, it was kind of weird, at Grease Academy, which was at the beginning of all the auditions, Jim Jacobs was telling us that usually Doodys grow up to be Dannys. So I went up to him and I was like, "Hey, I've played Doody before, so maybe I can be Danny." And he was like, "Maybe. Go away." [Laughs.]

Q: What has it been like working with Kathleen Marshall?
Crumm: I've been so lucky to be working with her since January, so coming into this…has been a very easy transition for myself because I know how she works, and I think she gets how I work and how to choreograph me. She really creates a great atmosphere for the entire cast, and she knows how to have control. It's great to see her in control all the time. She never is out of control of anything, and it's kind of wonderful.

Q: Laura Osnes, your Sandy, told us working with you was cool because you developed a rapport early on during the TV process, so it wasn't like meeting someone new.
Crumm: Every time we have a scene together it's wonderful because when I see her it's like, "Oh, there's Laura!" so it really creates that Danny and Sandy past, I think. I made great friends with her the first day I met her at the auditions in LA, so we've been really close ever since then, so it's kind of crazy that we both got to win the show.

Q: How do you deal with playing an iconic character like Danny Zuko where people may have pre-conceived notions about what he should be?
Crumm: I'm just having fun with it. The way I'm dealing with it is, [the characters] are all real kids, and a lot of people would do it sort of campy or would do the carbon copy Danny that a lot of people expect. I think that's a great reason people voted for me, too, because they wanted something different, something fresh and new. A different energy.

Q: Were you a fan of the "Grease" movie?
Crumm:Oh yeah! I loved "Grease" growing up. I watched it all the time in the summer when I was little. I would always try and copy John Travolta and his moves.

Q: Do you still feel like a beginner at all?
Crumm: I feel like a beginner at Broadway because this is my Broadway debut, but Kathleen was great about the casting of the show because most of our cast are making their Broadway debuts with this show, so it's a great community of people, it's a great cast. It's a great family. I don't feel like an outsider. Also, I've been acting and singing and dancing since I was six, so it's definitely something I have been used to and have been doing my whole life, so this is just another step — another door's been open, and it's just a blast. It's what I love to do.

[Grease plays the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets or visit www.ticketmaster.com.]

Douglas Ullman, Jr.
 

FROM MUTE TO MATT
Douglas Ullman, Jr. recently returned to The Fantasticks after some time away. Ullman, who was the original Mute in this revival and later moved up to Matt status, replaces Nick Spangler, who was recently a Mute-to-Matt man himself. Got that? To make matters more interesting, returning along with Doug is Burke Moses, reinhabiting the El Gallo role he created for this revival. We spoke to Moses back in January. Now it's Ullman's turn.

Question: What's it like to be back in the ol' Fantasticks action?
Douglas Ullman, Jr.: It's great to be back. I had a great time doing it the first time around; now I feel like I've had some time away from it. I've relaxed into things a bit more. I don't have to worry or work as hard as I did before. Now I can just have fun.

Q: How tough is it going from a character that doesn't speak to the romantic lead?
Ullman: I was actually the first one in this revival to do that. It's weird because I'm still sitting onstage, even last night, and El Gallo snaps his fingers and my inner Mute is ready to jump. I have to sort of check that once in awhile. It's also weird watching other Mutes do it because everybody's different.

Q: The Mute seems like a difficult part to play.
Ullman: It certainly is because you have a lot of stuff to do, and if you're not on top of everything, the show can really fall flat quickly if you mess something up. But I had a lot of fun doing it — almost, almost as much fun as I had doing Matt. You don't have to worry about your voice, you can really be present on stage at all times. It's really a lot of fun to do.

Q: I'd be afraid of my mind wandering and missing a cue.
Ullman: Oh, definitely! When we were in previews, I was supposed to open this trap door for [writer/director/actor] Tom Jones to go into the box, so he can come out as the Old Actor. After like the first five shows I was blanking out watching what was going on onstage, and I feel this tap on my ankle and it's Tom Jones telling me to open the door!

Q: What has it been like working with Tom Jones?
Ullman: He's really great. He's been working on this show since he wrote it, so lots of ideas floating around, and he has things he likes and things he doesn't like, and you learn really quickly which is which.

Q: What about Burke Moses? You guys have a good rapport?
Ullman: Definitely. He's a laugh a minute, Burke — if you can get a word in edgewise [laughs]. He's a lot of fun to work with onstage and offstage. You really miss him when he's not there. When he's there, you kind of wish he'd go away sometimes [laughs]. He's a lot of fun to be around.

Q: A couple years back you played Rolf in The Sound of Music in mainland China and Hong Kong. What sort of experience was that?
Ullman:The thing I learned about The Sound of Music out there is they use that movie to help teach their kids English. So all these kids, they know "Do-Re-Mi," they know all the songs to that show, especially in Hong Kong, [where] we had really enthusiastic audiences and full houses, and people responded to the show really well.

Q: Give us the ten-cent tour of Douglas Ullman, Jr. and how he got the showbiz bug.
Ullman: Originally from New Jersey. My dad was in the Navy, so I've been all up and down the East Coast from Florida to Rhode Island. I lived in England for a little bit. I think the first show I remember seeing was an English pantomime when I was about six or seven. I didn't have a lot of interest in going into the theatre until eighth grade when I saw our local high school production of Guys and Dolls and I was like, "Oh, that makes sense." I'd always sung in choirs, so acting and singing together in one medium, that clicked for me, and when I went to high school I began doing shows in-school, out-of-school, and I eventually went to NYU and got my degree in vocal performance in 2005 and went straight to Asia right after that.

Q: So you're just starting out in some ways?
Ullman: In a very, very lot of ways. This is only my second big job since I got out of school.

Q: How exciting was it when you got the Fantasticks gig?
Ullman: When they called me and said I was going to be the Mute and understudying Matt, I was jumping around the house. I was staying with my uncle at the time. I'd just moved into New York. No one was home, so I spent a good five minutes jumping around, jumping for joy, being excited about being in the show.

Q: What is your theory about what makes The Fantasticks so timeless?
Ullman: I think Jerry Orbach brought "Try to Remember" into the American consciousness. I was wearing one of my show T-shirts out the other day, and some woman comes up behind me and starts humming "Try to Remember." People just know that song. That song has helped propel [the show] into the American consciousness. Also, there's something about the simplicity of the story. Ultimately, it's about two people who go through all the trials and tribulations of falling in love and falling out of love, and at the end of seeing everything in the world that there is to see, they still decide to choose one another. I think that's it.

[The Fantasticks plays The Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets.]

WITHOUT GOULET
First thing I did when I heard that Robert Goulet was gone was kick myself for missing a chance to see him in La Cage a couple years back. Second thing I did was head to my vinyl treasury and grab my stack of Goulet LPs. For years, what I would tell anyone about Robert Goulet is to pick up any of his first dozen or so Columbia albums from the early to mid-1960s. This is pre-moustache Goulet, flush with the triumph of Lancelot, a gifted singer with excellent material at his fingertips, lush arrangements and orchestrations by people like Frank DeVol, Don Costa and Sid Ramin. But more than that, the delivery of a guy who was really living each song as he sang it, especially on some of the heavier material.

Goulet lost his father at the age of 14, and according to Ed Sullivan's liner notes on Goulet's debut album, "Always You," his mother urged him to pursue singing, telling him, "I know that you will work hard and develop your voice as your father would have wanted." So it's quite possible he didn't have to dig too deep to find the emotions at the core of some of the great love songs he sang. Or maybe his acting training carried over nicely into the recording studio. Whatever the case, on his 1962 album, "Two of Us," he does a marvelous job conveying the rich uncertainty in "Where Do I Go From Here?" from Fiorello! and you could swear he is breaking down on "Here's That Rainy Day" from Carnival in Flanders. The title song on "My Love Forgive Me" was his only hit, but his take on Charlie Chaplin's "Now That It's Ended" brings chills. "Gone With the Wind," "Skylark," "It's a Blue World" and "Imagination" are among the powerful renditions on the solid album, "I Remember You."

Like Frank Sinatra did a few times, Goulet released one album entirely composed of heartbreak: 1964's "Without You," the cover of which shows the man looking as bleak and grim as the sky around him and the songs inside. That cover photo was taken by his one-time Camelot co-star, Roddy McDowall. I had a chance to talk to McDowall in 1995. I mentioned that album cover, and he got a faraway look in his eye and said, "Ahh. That's when he was really singing."

That's to take nothing away from the stage and nightclub work Goulet did after the sixties. But the recording world was changing, and there was a noticeable drop-off in material for a singer like Goulet. By 1968, he was doing more middle-of-the-road pop covers, and lush arrangements had given way to brassy kitsch of that time.

Ah, but those first dozen or so. Several of them have been released in twin sets on CD, including his two "On Broadway" albums packaged together, but one collection to show the world the full scope of what Robert Goulet was like "when he was really singing" would be a fitting tribute and a great way to remember him.

HITHER AND YON
Broadway fans also cry out for a CD release of Goulet and Doris Day's 1963 recording of all songs from Annie Get Your GunJoshua Henry, recently of In the Heights, headlines the cast of Serenade, a new Rachel Sheinkin musical premiering Dec. 1-15 at Teatro LA TEA on Suffolk St. Call (212) 568-4444 for tickets…Column fave and all-around cool dude, Jeff Denman is in Yank! at the Brooklyn Gallery Players until Nov. 11. Denman also choreographed this original 1940s-style musical that features Bobby Steggert from 110 in the Shade. Go to www.galleryplayers.com for details.

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