THE LEADING MEN: Alexander Hanson and Colman Domingo

By Tom Nondorf
January 6, 2010

Alexander Hanson of Broadway's A Little Night Music and Colman Domingo of the upcoming Kander-Ebb show The Scottsboro Boys are our first Leading Men of 2010.

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The Glamorous Life
Alexander Hanson, currently Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music, is the only cast member to come from the West End version to the current Broadway run, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and Aaron Lazar. The British theatre veteran talks about working with Ms. Z-J, life in NYC apart from his family — including lovely wife, actress Samantha Bond — and…well, read on!

Q: Hello! Have you had much experience living in the U.S. before your time with A Little Night Music?
Alexander Hanson: Not really. I'd spent about three or four days in New York prior to this. My wife was on Broadway ten years ago; she was in a play [Amy's View] with Judi Dench. My wife was nominated for a Tony, actually. She was out here for four months, and I thought that would be my opportunity to come to New York to explore it a bit, but of course I then got a job too, which stopped me from coming over. It was Trevor Nunn, actually, who gave me that job. I was working at the National Theatre, and I had to beg him on bended knee to have a few days off of that production so I could come over here to see my wife. So that was my only previous experience in New York.

Q: Do you have any culture shock now that you are here for a longer time?
Hanson: I'm actually living in midtown, which is like living in Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus. In England, I live out in the suburbs of London, and it is very quiet, but [midtown] is very convenient, I have to say. New York is a wonderful, energetic city with a very up-front attitude. There is no pussyfooting around. That was a little bit of a culture shock, but I was prepared for that, and I very much enjoy that. And I try to give a bit of attitude back as well [laughs].

Q: You mentioned Trevor Nunn whom you have worked with a good deal. What has he meant to your life?
Hanson: He's quite pivotal, really, because the first time I worked with him was in 1994. He cast me as Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. I was working quite a bit in the provinces, and Arcadia was quite a step up because it was a big West End production and a high-profile and successful play, a fantastic part that brought me to people's notice in a way I hadn't had access before. And, Trevor seemed to like me. As a result of that six months in Arcadia, I went into another of his shows, Sunset Boulevard with Elaine Paige and subsequently Petula Clark at the Adelphi Theatre. And then when he took over the National Theatre, he started it all with an ensemble season which had great critical acclaim, and I was a part of that as well. I feel blessed to have been brought to his productions from a career point of view. Not only that, he is one of the great theatre directors, and I've spent time with him, and I found that over the years in other productions with other directors, I will still hear his voice in my head helping me try to analyze a text, and that has been wonderfully helpful.

Q: I never thought of that, that you could be in one show and have echoes of another director helping you out.
Hanson: Absolutely. The great ones are like teachers. They create another path for you, the way you approach your work or approach a text. Trevor is certainly one of those. It is always with me: "What would he say about this? How would he think about this?" It's not a bad little tool to have.

Alexander Hanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music
photo by Joan Marcus
Q: You've acted with famous folks before, but to be in a show with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is like a stratospheric superstar, is that intimidating at all?
Hanson: [Laughs.] A global icon! It's like anything — the thinking about something, the lead-up to something is always apprehensive-making. Things are never as bad as you often think they could be. Not that I was thinking things would be bad [laughs], but the thought that I was going to be meeting and rehearsing with Catherine Zeta-Jones, it was like, "What do I say?" all that type of thing. Then she made it terribly easy because she's very down-to-earth. She's a good Welsh girl, and she's a lot of fun. She's very easy on the eye, as I keep telling everybody, which helps, but we can discuss how she's got two kids, I have two kids older than hers, but those are things you find common ground with. I do thank my lucky stars I have the luxury of working with her.

Q: I read an earlier interview with you where you said you'd had a love-hate relationship with musicals. Is that still the case?
Hanson: Not as much, no. In my early days as an actor, I did quite a few musicals, and most of them weren't very good [laughs], but I was a young actor, and I needed to pay the rent and pay for food, etc. I'm lucky because I'm first and foremost an actor who can sing a little bit. Often you get wonderful singers who maybe aren't as strong as actors, or you get wonderful actors who can't sing very well. I've been lucky that I can act quite well and I can sing quite well, and that combination has allowed me to work in musicals. But it seemed to me in the early days, I wanted to do Shakespeare, and no Shakespeare would come my way, and they'd toss me a musical, and I'd do that. I needed to balance it out. I did the tour for over a year of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love, which took me around the U.K. and back to the West End. That did it for me, I'd had it. "I'm not going to do an musical ever, ever!" That was in 1993. I was offered Phantom of the Opera after that. I was absolutely skint, if you know that expression [laughs]. It means I didn't have a penny to my name! So I was offered Raoul in Phantom, and I turned it down, and I held out, and did some straight theatre credits, didn't do musicals for awhile. Then I felt things had balanced, and I felt I could do musicals again as long as it was a good musical and not the dross that I'd been doing before [laughs].

Q: Stephen Sondheim has a reputation for songs that can be tricky for performers to learn. Did you find that to be the case with Night Music?
Hanson: It's meat and drink to an actor because it is a challenge. I suppose that is the opposite of the type of musicals I did years ago. Part of the reason why those were not a very satisfying experience is that the music and lyrics aren't terribly interesting, whereas with Sondheim it is so multi-layered and beautifully crafted. And good things don't come easy. In this particular case, I'd actually done A Little Night Music 20 years ago, and played Henrik, so I was really familiar with the music. It was in my DNA, so to speak, and that helped. I don't read music; I get a tape and I listen and listen to it to get it in my system. That has its own process. The challenge is to give full worth to the wonderful lyrics and to fully understand them and communicate them. Not only that, but to make it look as if you are making them up on the spot, you see. You have to keep your wits about you every night, so it doesn't become pat. And that's fun.

Q: Is it correct that you were born in Oslo, Norway?
Hanson: Yes, I was. It is very close to my heart. My mother is half Norwegian and half French. I was born in Norway and spent the greater part of my first four years there. My mom was going through a divorce at the time. When she spent time in the U.K., it was easier for her to leave me with my aunt or my uncle or her father, so I have very strong family links there. As a result of that, Norwegian was actually my first language, and I have managed to maintain a rudimentary Norwegian. I do chat to my mother in Norwegian, particularly when we want a secret conversation. It is useful that way. Although I don't know Oslo at all, there is something about the feel or the smell of the place that feels like home, which is quite interesting.

Q: Does Norway have a theatre scene?
Hanson: There is a big theatre scene there. In fact, my Uncle William Jensen was one of the country's top set and costume designers.

Q: What was it like working on We Will Rock You, the Queen musical?
Hanson: It was interesting, like anything of that scale, it was a little bit fraught. I wouldn't normally have done it. It's a great fun musical, not a fun one to work on, shall we say, but I knew that Robert De Niro was one of the producers of it. That's really the reason I did it. I thought, being one of the principals, he's got to give me at least 30 seconds of his time, and that's why I suffered six months [laughs]. And I did meet him, very, very briefly. And it was witnessed by my wife, and it's all signed and sealed! Kind of pathetic, really, but, hey! I did get my 30 seconds [laughs].

Q: I know your family was just out for the holidays. How is it dealing with being so far from them?
Hanson: That's a very good question because, particularly to start with, I felt very homesick, but we have Skype now, which is fantastic. When my wife was over here ten years ago, we could only have a phone call, but now I can see them all, I can talk to them. Actually, when they have Sunday lunch, they put the laptop at my place at the table, so I can converse with them all!

[A Little Night Music is now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street. For more information, go to nightmusiconbroadway.com.]

Colman Domingo
photo by Aubrey Reuben
A Scottsboro Boy and His Soul
The Scottsboro Boys, the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, is now in rehearsals for a March 10 opening at the Vineyard Theatre. The show, directed by Susan Stroman, features John Cullum, Brandon Victor Dixon, and our second January Leading Man, Colman Domingo, who stood out in multiple roles in Passing Strange on Broadway, and recently had his autobiographical one-man show, A Boy and His Soul staged, also at the Vineyard. Domingo's show will be produced again in the late spring by the Vineyard and Elizabeth Ireland McCann.

Question: Please fill folks in on just what The Scottsboro Boys is all about.
Colman Domingo: It is a musical based on the infamous 1931 Scottsboro boys case in Alabama, which was basically when nine African-American teenage boys were accused of raping two Caucasian women. Of course, because of the court system and the way things were set up and, of course, because of racism, these men were basically found guilty many times. I think there were about six trials. And, basically, they were innocent, and these two women lied and ruined these young men's lives forever. It's being performed as a musical with some minor elements of, structurally, a minstrel show. I feel strongly that it's the right way to tell the story: to make it entertaining and to get people to listen.

Q: How do you think the music functions in a show like that, with subject matter so deep and hurtful?
Domingo: I guess that's why it is in the hands of masters like Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman, and [bookwriter] David Thompson. In their capable hands I think the music is really simple and powerful and entertaining and truthful. I think what they've crafted is something really special. I think it's really unconventional as well. The way that Kander and Ebb deal with subject matter in Chicago, or how Cabaret deals with Nazi Germany: How do you make that entertaining? They have the absolute, definite sensibility for this type of material. Get people to hear a story that is a wretched part of American history but in a way that is pretty powerful.

Q: Is it exciting for you to be involved in a Kander and Ebb show that has never been done?
Domingo: It is an honor. This is something I never set out to do. I never set out to do musicals. I've been predominantly a legitimate stage actor, and moving into musicals is exciting. And to do the final collaboration that Kander and Ebb were able to do before Ebb's death a few years back, you feel like you're a part of history.

Q: Director Susan Stroman is also a legend of sorts. How has it been working with her?
Domingo: We just started formal rehearsals yesterday. We did a workshop back in June, and boy, she has so much enthusiasm and positivity and she's a great leader. She is what every actor admires — they want to be inspired. I feel inspired just walking in the room by her enthusiasm and her knowledge. And you know you're in great, capable hands.

Q: You haven't done a ton of musicals, but you were a part of Passing Strange. Does it almost seem dreamlike looking back on that show from the time you first got involved to Joe's Pub, to Broadway, then the Spike Lee film?
Domingo: I guess this is maybe a time in my career when things are happening that I never expected. I never had expectations for this sort of thing. I knew I wanted to be on Broadway in some way, but I always thought it would be in a play. I thought I'd be doing some character work in a play. The idea of doing the musicals that I've been a part of, it's so unconventional. And even just from doing Passing Strange, the initial run was for Berkeley [Rep] and the Public Theater, and it didn't have Broadway aspirations. It's been about just being present and showing up and the universe just making things happen. It's been exciting. I did The Wiz last year. I took over for Orlando Jones playing the Wiz and that was a surprise, I never expected that. [Laughs.] I never expected to do Scottsboro Boys. I was all set to go to California to do a play that I did last year called Coming Home, but I was met with the opportunity to do Scottsboro Boys, and I knew that that was something I couldn't pass up. So all of it is a little bit of a dream, stepping into the realm of never having certain expectations and things just blowing your mind.

Q: I'm always fascinated that in doing this column, so many people had one acting teacher that had such an affect on their lives or one person that said something inspiring. Who inspired you?
Domingo: I always tell the story of this woman named Pat. I don't know her last name. I grew up in inner city west Philadelphia, and there was a summer program, and I was very shy and my mom wanted to help me get out of that shyness. And so I got into this summer program, and I didn't know actors or anything, I just knew they were playing theatre games and it sounded interesting to me. And the first woman I met was this woman named Pat, and she had a power with her words. Her elocution — I had never heard anyone speak like that, and I had never heard a black person speak like that from my limited experience, from my microcosm. And so she helped me with the power of words, the power of being present in the room and your voice having an effect. Because it changed me, it changed what I thought about the world. So I think she was definitely one of my biggest inspirations. And, it's funny because I was about 12 or something. I don't know what happened to her or where she is. She's this random mystery woman now to me. I almost think that I dreamed her up [laughs]. But this woman really inspired me, and I think that she had an effect on me for years.

Rebecca Naomi Jones with Colman Domingo in Passing Strange
photo by Carol Rosegg
Q: I have to tell you, I never walk past the Belasco Theatre without shouting out your phrase from Passing Strange, "What's inside is just a lie!"
Domingo: I get that on the street all of the time. People will always all of a sudden just [shout] "What's inside…!" and I'm shocked, usually. I'm like, "What? Somebody is yelling at me!" And all I see is a mouth yelling at me. That's a cool thing. I don't mind being known for that. You can be known for worse things [laughs]. I'm very proud of creating a character like Mr. Venus that I think that no one has ever seen or will ever see again on a Broadway stage.

[The Scottsboro Boys begins previews Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on Feb. 12 prior to an official opening date of March 10. Tickets are now available by visiting the Vineyard Theatre Box Office (108 East 15th Street) or by calling (212) 353-0303 or online at www.vineyardtheatre.org.]

Hither and Yon
The Spike Lee film of Passing Strange comes out on DVD Jan. 12, and it is due on PBS's "Great Performances" early this year as well…So long to Altar Boyz, one of the most enduring Off-Broadway triumphs of recent vintage. It closes Jan. 10. Always a fun show I'd recommend for folks looking for good Off-Broadway laughs. For more info, www.altarboyz.com…Feb. 1, one night only, Sam Harris, "Star Search" legend, whose "Sugar Don't Bite" once rose to #36 on the Billboard charts, will be at Birdland. (Anyone remember his other Top 100 hit? Drop me a line.) That's at 7 PM on a Monday, which means it will be followed by Jim Caruso's Cast Party. Sounds like an altogether fine evening. Go to www.birdlandjazz for all the details…Jan. 22, the sublime Jay Michael Reeds sings at Don't Tell Mama on 46th Street, with Wells Hanley on piano and band. See www.donttellmamanyc.com for the full month's schedule of events…This month's bit of esoterica to ponder: What are your favorite doo-wop versions of standards? For instance Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "September in the Rain" was done by everyone from Dinah Washington to The Beatles, but it is the version by The Duprees that I favor. Your thoughts, as ever, are appreciated. Happy New Year!

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