THE LEADING MEN: Wonderland's Darren Ritchie & Catch Me If You Can's Tom Wopat

Darren Ritchie plays an eager White Knight in Wonderland, and Tom Wopat is the ne'er-do-well dad to the anti-hero of Catch Me If You Can.

Darren Ritchie
Darren Ritchie

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I talked to both just as final changes were falling into place before their respective April 17 and April 10 opening nights.

A Knight's Tale

There is a moment in Wonderland, the new musical opening at the Marquis Theatre on April 17, where, in the midst of the action, the show's would-be hero, Jack the White Knight, and his followers transform into a boy band, complete with intentionally corny choreography. They are trying to convince Alice (Janet Dacal) that she needs but "One Knight" to rescue her. The desperate-to-be-needed Jack, who gets quite the audience response from this number, is played by Broadway veteran Darren Ritchie, who openly solicits fan ideas for what to say to Alice after he nails his high note.

With music by Frank Wildhorn, it's not a surprise that Ritchie has turned up in this pop vision of Alice's Wonderland. Wildhorn gave Ritchie his big break as Jonathan Harker in 2004's Dracula, the Musical. Prior to Drac, Ritchie did understudy and replacement work in Little Shop of Horrors, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bells are Ringing and Les Miz. In addition to the White Knight, the South Carolina-born, Florida-raised, Carnegie Mellon-trained Ritchie plays two other roles (that I won't divulge) in this modern twist on the already twisted Lewis Carroll tale, which has a 21st-century, urban Alice plunging down a rabbit hole to search for her missing kid.

How are you enjoying life in Wonderland?
You know, finally today we did our last bit of changes. It's been a lot of work but we're finally frozen. So we're really excited about that. The best way to answer the question is, "It's great."

For the laymen out there, when you say a show is frozen, does that mean nothing in the show can actually change after that point?
It does not necessarily mean that. It means there are no plans to change it. If there's something here or there, they might say "Hey let's edit this line." But what it basically means is that the structure of the cues — especially with our show, it's such a gigantic video game of a show, that you affect one line and then they have to fix the projections, the lighting, the set, all that — is frozen. That pretty much sets a lot of the text with it, but little edits here and there can certainly happen.

I suppose there's a balance. You've been involved with the production for two years. Early on, it's got to be fun when there are a lot of changes and everything's up in the air and you're still discussing character. Then you reach a point that you just want it to settle down.
Absolutely, you nailed it right on the head. One of the great things is, [the creative team] has been very great, especially with the heroes, the leads, really talking with us about things that we need. After we started this process again for Broadway on Feb. 28, we have been working nonstop, and for it to finally be set feels like a big achievement.

Ritchie (right) with Carly Rose Sonenclar and Janet Dacal
photo by Michal Daniel

It's definitely a show that requires good ensemble chemistry. You're with a group of hero characters, a rabbit, a cat, a caterpillar… each with their limitations, but all working for the same thing.
Really, for me, I always tell people that being in a Broadway show is like being on a pirate ship. You can't get away from people. You have to keep a chemistry that's really positive. I think that coming all the way down from Frank Wildhorn to Janet to myself, we keep things really light and positive, and I think that's really helped us. I was a fan of Jose Llana [El Gato] when I saw him in Spelling Bee. I met E. Clayton Cornelious [Caterpillar] a few times, and he obviously joined us after he did Scottsboro Boys. We really are like a family up there. Janet and I really try to lead that. We don't let a lot of negative attention get in. A lot of people work on their shows with an eye on the other shows out there. We're not trying to be Book of Mormon or Catch Me If You Can. I wish all them well. I'm so happy that Broadway is healthy again. I think New York has needed it.

In your mind, what is the target audience that Wonderland? There are elements for kids, but deeper themes as well.
This is one of the few shows that I've done where I really feel like we appeal to the whole family. We do have an 8-to-80 range. I'm not just saying that. Kids seem to be on the edge of their seat because of all the characters, and then we also have parents that really understand losing their childhood and losing the sense of the people around them. That message is universal for everyone.

Are there scenes you can relate to your own life?
My favorite scene in the show: When Alice gets to talk to herself as a 7-year-old. If I think back, if I could tell myself some stuff when I was 7. You know, "It's O.K., everything's going to be fine." My parents are coming up next week for the opening, and they have never seen the show, and for them, a Broadway show is a real event. My family is from the Carolinas. They are out of the blue collar, Southern belt. I think it's going to be a really fun experience for them. I was a kid that went through a divorce, and I kind of got caught in the middle of it sometimes. And, gosh, my parents sure do love each other still; they're great friends, but it just didn't work out for them. I think that sometimes people have to step back and be like, "O.K., life is so fast, how can I slow down? Oh, yeah, think of all the people that love me. They can help me get back on track." I think we do a really good job of telling people to do that in Wonderland.

Ritchie in Wonderland, with Stefan Raulston, Julius Anthony Rubio, Joey Calveri and Derek Ferguson
photo by Paul Kolnik

Do you ever look back to when you first got to New York and see how far you've come?
I spent so much of my career being a standby and I just never thought that the opportunity would come to me. I went to L.A. and I started working on TV and film, and I got a call one day from Frank Wildhorn personally, saying "Hey we want you to do this part [in Dracula]." I had never, ever had that in my life. I was sitting in my manager's office. My manager asked, "Do you want to read for it?" I was like, "Frank Wildhorn just called me and asked me to do a part that he created for me. Don't you think that's enough?" And it was enough for me. If I would have told my 21-year-old self that that was going to happen I would have said, "No way!"

You understudied Gavin Creel and Marc Kudisch in Millie at the Marquis Theatre, and now here you are in a leading part. Is that a "through-the-looking-glass" feeling?
It's really interesting because I remember when I was first starting to go on stage as Jimmy a lot, I'd go in Sutton Foster's dressing room and we'd run lines, and now I'm right across the hall from the Sheryl Lee Ralph dressing room from Millie. It is a little bit of a looking glass. The music room is where myself and Cheyenne Jackson sat in the boys' dressing room. The other day I was rehearsing some new music, and I looked under the desk and my signature was there from years earlier, which was kind of fun.

Finally, the "One Knight" number. How fun is that to do?
It's pretty fun. When it was first brought to me two years ago I remember sitting in the room and being like, "I don't know…" I did it for the first time in Tampa and ever since then, it's just been crazy. We've had people come and ask us if we want to tour as a boy band, which is hysterical to me. I have a competition where I ask people on my Twitter and my Facebook what they would like for me to call Janet after I sing the big high note. Fans will give me sometimes inappropriate things that I can't say, but last night a fan gave me, "That's for you, snuggle bunny!" and I liked that. It killed, the audience was laughing about it. I have such a great time up there anyway and certainly doing "One Knight" as my very first thing, it's like being shot out of a cannon. Not a bad way to make an entrance.

Tom Wopat

This Is Wopat Those are the three words with which Tom Wopat greets one via phone. Wopat, one-time "Dukes of Hazzard" heartthrob, now Broadway vet, is getting comfortable with playing the grizzled father roles. He played the patriarch in A Catered Affair, the musical, in 2008, and now is Sr. to Aaron Tveit's Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and Terrence McNally's muscular musical now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

"Believe me, I feel left out for the leading man parts, but I'm no ingénue that's for sure," he says, in a matter-of-fact manner that seems not far removed from his Frank Sr. character.

He dodged the dad roles last year on Broadway in Sondheim on Sondheim, during which Stephen Sondheim told him he'd make a great Sweeney Todd. "That made my year," says Wopat. It would be fun just to see just how dark he could go, given the gray depths to which his Frank Sr. sinks. The role provides some of what he calls the "meatiest" moments of his career.

How's it going, Wopat?
Well, it's smoking. Right now, we're doing little fixes this afternoon, so they may call me, but right now I'm not called. I'm sitting in this little area outside, waiting breathlessly. We just took a number out of the end, a whole number. Good change.

Is it rough losing material at this point?
It can be painful, you know, when your stuff goes away. I had a large part of a song taken away in the last couple of weeks. That's tough. You work hard on stuff and you feel like you've made it your own, and you feel like you've got something to say with it, but at a certain point, they say, well we've got to do without that. So, do you ever battle for it? Do you fight?
Some. I fight some if I feel strongly. You can't do too much just because they've got to cut. They always overwrite. You always have too much material, so it's essential that things get cut down.

You've been with this production, off and on, for a while, right?
Well, it's been… Yeesh! It works out to be five or six years. It's been a long process, but I think the way that the stakes are for big time musicals these days, it's hard not to have a long gestation process. You're dealing with your creative people — a writer, director, a choreographer, your musical writers. You're dealing with half a dozen people, and if they're good, they're all working all the time. It's really hard to get everybody together and get that scheduling done. That's also what's rewarding about it. People in this particular situation are so talented that we really feel like we've got a leg up in that department.

Wopat, with Norbert Leo Butz, in Catch Me If You Can.
photo by Joan Marcus

At one point you left and worked on Sondheim on Sondheim. When you leave for a little while, do you think, man I hope this is still something I can get back to?
Well, in that particular case, we knew Sondheim was a limited run. We also made sure there was a pretty good notch in the schedule so that wouldn't interfere. This show has always been on the top of the list. Actually this was on the top of the list back when I did Catered Affair. Yeah, I thought we were going to do this right after Catered Affair. That was the plan, the summer of 2008. It's been a long time coming.

Is it amazing to look back and see how it's evolved? To say "Wow, this is the same show I was working on five years ago"?
Yeah, in this case, especially. When you have guys like Scott [Wittman] and Marc [Shaiman] doing the music, you could make a musical out of the songs that have disappeared from this one. That's been one of the more interesting processes — to realize the things that have come and gone.

Do you mind talking a little about your co-stars? Norbert Leo Butz (Agent Hanratty) seems like he's a ball of energy to work with.
He is that. He is intense and driven and extremely talented and generous on stage. I would say the same thing about Aaron, for a young man of his age. I think he is as focused a leading man as I've run into. He's got his work cut out. That is just a tour de force what he does. He brings an awful lot of energy and intensity to the show. Obviously the show is not the show without those two guys. I'm basking in their reflective glow.

Where do you draw from for your character? Do you just try and go with what is on the page?
I do. I've always said for me in doing musicals over the years, I've developed a pattern of working from the outside in. I see what's on the page. I see how the character serves the musical and the other characters around him. I see what that has to be. If it was in a baseball team, what position he plays. Norbert has described me like a shortstop. I make the double play happen. I connect a lot of things for a lot of people in this show. I enjoy that.

So like the old baseball song, "Tinkers to Evers to Chance." You're one of those guys.
Yeah, yeah. I'm Evers. I'm making [the play] at second base.

The ball has to go through you.
That's it, that's my conceit anyway.

You've certainly had a lot of time to work out the father-son chemistry with Aaron — or did it come naturally?
To a certain extent, it's certainly natural. I have a son that's Aaron's age who is a photographer in San Jose. The other thing, too, is doing the leading man thing for as many years as I have, I feel I have certain things I can say to him. Ask if he wants any help with anything or just little tidbits about how to preserve himself a little bit and things like that. And to also kind of look out for him, not that he needs looking out for. He's a very self-sufficient young man. We have a really terrific relationship. I can't tell you how nice it is to have guys like he and Norbert, asa generous as they are.

It's got to beat the alternative.
I've been there. I'm glad I'm not there now. It should be a lot of fun to run, this show. It should be a terrific ride.

(The Leading Men columnist Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.)

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