When actor Christopher Fitzgerald was three years old, he escaped his mother’s watch at the mall and put on a show for a crowd of onlookers from atop the Easter Bunny’s chair. He has starred on Broadway and earned Tony nominations since then, but “that little essence of the kid standing on the Easter Bunny throne still is at the heart of everything that I intend to do,” he says.
Over the years, Fitzgerald has built one of the most quietly successful careers on Broadway. He boasts nine Broadway roles to his résumé—two of which he originated in new revivals and five of which he created from scratch—and three Tony nominations. He’s carved out a niche, often playing a sidekick or comic relief, but elevating what could have been average supporting parts to unforgettable scene-stealers. Young performers talk of emulating “the Christopher Fitzgerald track” when they get to New York. In fact, Fitzgerald once went in for an audition where the breakdown listed “a Christopher Fitzgerald type.” (Spoiler: He didn’t get the role.)
Here, he shares stories from the auditions for his now-famous roles, accounts from inside the rehearsal room, and the lessons from each job that led him to where he is today.
The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Public Theater
“My first Off-Broadway show was The Cripple of Inishmaan and it was the American premiere of that play [directed by Joe Mantello]. Being able to work on Martin McDonagh right out of grad school was a total gift.” He adds, “I had five eggs broken on my head every night. By the end of that run I had really, really healthy soft hair.”
Corpus Christi at Manhattan Theatre Club
This show marked Fitzgerald’s realization of theatre’s power to do more than entertain: “The most interesting part of [that experience] was this idea that a play was so divisive and it was so talked about and began a real conversation in—not only New York—but across the country about, ‘Who gets to have ownership of these stories?’ People that were feeling very, very strongly about a play kind of blew my mind. It became a really interesting part of my journey as an actor [because I had] the feeling, ‘All we’re doing is being silly on a stage and telling this story. Why are 5,000 people outside our theatre on opening night protesting?’”
Fully Committed at Cherry Lane Theatre
“That was an example of taking that early spirit and having to work my tail off and craft this evening that required so much focus and so many ideas,” says Fitzgerald of the one-man show in which he played over 40 characters as the reservationist, manager, and chef of a trendy new Manhattan restaurant and all of the callers clamoring to get in. This time Fitzgerald learned the beauty of simplicity. “It’s just a person onstage, doing characters, saying words, and an audience listening. I was always amazed that people would spend money to watch this.”
Amour, as Bertrand on Broadway
Fitzgerald’s Broadway debut also proved to be one of the greatest lessons of show business—one he’s happy to have learned early on. “We did a six-week workshop before we started rehearsal for Broadway and then we did all the Broadway rehearsals, and then we did previews, and then we opened,” he recalls. “The show got lukewarm reviews. We came in the next day and the producer was like, ‘We did all that we could. We’re closing in two weeks.’ To—early on in my Broadway experience—have this experience that ‘it is what it is’ and [proves] so much is out of your control, it helps me understand what something like Waitress is, which is just a wonderfully lucky break.”
Wicked, as Boq on Broadway
The next year, Fitzgerald reunited with director Joe Mantello for the role that catapulted his career. The actor joined the company after its out-of-town tryout and says he felt “like a small flavor in this amazing stew that is Wicked.” He never expected the way “people would respond to this weird little munchkin guy.” In hindsight, Boq was Fitzgerald’s stake in the ground as to his gift for playing open-hearted, unabashedly sympathetic characters. “I really enjoy playing these kind of open vessels of feeling,” he says. “I feel like there is a lot of fun comedy to be mined by people who have very clear wants and needs and are just completely open about those things.”
Young Frankenstein, as Igor on Broadway
Truth be told, Fitzgerald was first considered for another character in the Mel Brooks-Susan Stroman romp. “The journey started in the audition room where I think I had come in to play the doctor,” he remembers. “Mel and Susan were like, ‘You’re not right for the doctor, but maybe Igor. But we already cast Roger Bart as Igor.’” Still, they auditioned him for the role of the hunchbacked sidekick. “I came in with a black sweatshirt that I had pulled down around my head and I just went for it. Knowing that it was Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman—I saw The Producers, I know what these guys are looking for—so in terms of commitment, I literally went crazy. After that audition they thought, ‘You know what, we are having trouble finding who we want to play the doctor, so what we’ll do is Roger will play the doctor and this guy can play Igor.’” Working with Bart and co-stars Megan Mullally, Andrea Martin, and Sutton Foster exposed Fitzgerald to a fearlessness he took forward—to the tune of his first Tony nomination.
Finian’s Rainbow, as Og on Broadway
In re-creating the role of Og for the revival of Finian’s Rainbow, Fitzgerald embraced the boldness. “I suddenly felt very much like part of my job is to access this fearless, crazy part of myself that allows these ideas to come and to not be afraid of articulating those ideas to the director,” he says. One of those ideas? His infamous line reading of Og’s catch phrase “Doom and glooooooom.” “On the page it’s so weird. It just says ‘Doom and Gloom.’ What is that? So I was like, ‘Well, can we do something with sound where—I am a leprechaun—maybe I can control the environment. Can you get thunder and lightning and I can turn it on and turn it off?’ Suddenly, I have found myself able to put my ideas into something and have them happen. They don’t all work, but every now and then I’ve been able to confront something that tickles me, at least.”
Merchant of Venice, as Launcelot Gobbo on Broadway
“I had a similar moment [in Merchant of Venice] where I was doing this long speech alone onstage and trying to figure out what I was going to do with it,” says Fitzgerald. “Dan Sullivan, the director, was like, ‘Maybe you could eat something while you’re talking?’ I came up with this idea that I was eating a carrot and then I would drop the carrot and I’d pull another carrot out of my jacket. And I had three carrots. I was in rehearsal one day and I thought, ‘Just for fun what if the last thing I do is pull out a big piece of chicken?’ I did it in rehearsal. We started laughting and I had to stop my monologue. That was an idea that was never going to happen, but I thought, ‘I’m going to just try it.’”
Barnum, P.T. Barnum in London
“It doesn’t always work out,” says Fitzgerald. “I did Barnum in Chichester and you’d think ‘That’s a perfect Chris Fitzgerald role.’ I got some lovely notices and I also got the notices where people said, ‘He has no charisma. He has no stage presence.’ There’s a lot of things I don’t do well, but that’s not usually one of them. I thought, ‘Wow. This is interesting and this is hard.‘” And yet, when Fitzgerald returned to New York from London, producer Barry Weissler reached out. “I was literally walking out of the meeting and he says, ‘Oh, Chris, by the way, I’m doing this reading next month of this little movie. It’s this movie Waitress.’”
Chicago, as Amos Hart and Billy Flynn on Broadway
But first, Fitzgerald would go into Weissler’s long-running hit. “The kind of image that they’ve created for Billy Flynn is tall, suave, debonair. But, I don’t think that’s necessarily his essence,” says Fitzgerald of the second role he took on in Broadway’s longest-running American musical. “He is a survivor and a scrapper and had more of a Jimmy Cagney energy when I was playing him. He was a showman in that way that I’m a showman. Being able to be onstage and to do two sides of a coin were really cool.”
Act of God, as Michael on Broadway
By 2015, directors had caught on as to the creative force that is Christopher Fitzgerald and Mantello called him in to originate a role in the Jim Parsons-led Act of God. “He specifically said, ‘We have not fully fleshed out this character. We want this angel throughout the night to take questions from the audience, but as the night progresses you start to challenge God and by the end of the show you confront God. You speak for humanity. … But what we haven’t figured out is the ways that can manifest. The reason why I wanted you to do this is because I need your ideas,’” Fitzgerald says. And he brought some of the most memorable beats in the show. “It was me saying, ‘Would it be interesting if a cell phone rang in the audience and I got the cell phone and gave it to God?’ Or bringing in the late seaters. I came up with ideas like that.”
Waitress, as Ogie on Broadway
“The big kahuna,” Fitzgerald declares. His current Broadway role seems a culmination of his past engagements: Boq’s open-heartedness, Igor’s ridiculousness, Og’s charisma, a hint of Amos’ neediness, Billy Flynn’s showmanship, and Michael’s honesty. Fitzgerald says, “It’s so easy to drop into playing [Ogie] because he’s so clear about what he wants.” And the star had fun finding the endearing hilarity in Ogie’s big number “You’re Never Gettin’ Rid of Me.”
“You know those birds that do those dance and put their plumage up in mating rituals?” he asks sincerely. “Ogie is just this weird little dude but he’ll throw up his plumage just to celebrate himself and how awesome he is and how awesome love is and how awesome the world is.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.