BLAKE AND BORLE: BLONDE BUZZ
Ever wonder what a cast does during the time between the last night of its show's out-of-town run and the first night on Broadway? Well, we caught up Richard H. Blake and Christian Borle, who in the midst of a two-week Legally Blonde hiatus, are mostly happy to have a little time to hang out at their respective homes before getting back on the Legal case. The B and B boys will be vying for the heart of Miss Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) with Blake as cad Warner Huntington III and Borle as empathetic Emmett Richmond. If you haven't seen the movie and those character names and actors don't give away who wins Elle's heart, I'm not going to spoil it for you here. Suffice it to say, our two leading men are playing characters at odds with one another, much as they did in the national tour of Footloose in 1999 where they first met. Word is, the old friends have a lot of fun being at odds backstage as well. Though they mostly gushed about each other to me, Blake says of their battles, Borle "generally wins because he's wittier than I, but I don't ever give up. I'm a scrapper."
RICHARD H. BLAKE
Question: What do people do with their time in between San Francisco and New York?
Richard Blake: Sleep. [Laughs.] No, I think people have chosen to do many different things. Some people I know are taking vacations to Hawaii, things like that. I wanted to come home and sit in my house, and kind of rest up. I haven't gotten the chance to relax in a while because I went straight from The Wedding Singer, did double duty rehearsing Legally Blonde during the day and doing Wedding Singer at night, straight into doing Legally Blonde, and I haven't really had a chance to kick back and sit on my couch. So that's the road I took. Plus my wife works, so she doesn't have the luxury of taking vacations on the same schedule as I do.
Q: How do you feel about how the show went in San Francisco?
Blake: It's an interesting thing — we have to keep our heads on straight. They're a great theatre town. You just never know how things are going to be perceived when you get to New York where there's many other shows playing at the same time. We still have a lot of things that we have to keep working on and making better day by day. But I'm definitely, definitely excited. It was a joy to wake up the day after opening and go "Thank God, they like us, they really like us!"
Q: How has it been going from one "movie musical" to the next?
Blake: Actually, I had done the first reading of this before we had ever opened Wedding Singer, before we even went out of town with Wedding Singer. I did the first reading of Legally Blonde over a year ago. Wedding Singer, I must say, was still an amazing experience for me. I had a really wonderful experience with that show, and it pains me that it's not still open because I really did have a great deal of passion for it, but I always knew that I was leaving to do this.
Q: So you were going to leave The Wedding Singer even if it was a smash?
Blake: I was going to leave regardless, yeah. For me I really wanted to work with the people involved with [Legally Blonde]. I did Hairspray for [Legally Blonde director] Jerry Mitchell, which is kind of how I got this. But I wasn't part of the original cast. I came in and replaced Matt Morrison as Link Larkin. And I got to work with [Mitchell] a very small amount, and in that small amount I decided that I really did want to work with him on a creative basis starting from the get-go and be part of the original where I really got a chance to soak up some stuff. That was always my intention, to leave and to work with these composers and Jerry, so that was the plan all along, and I'm happy I did. Q: You've said that if people have seen a "jerk boyfriend" on Broadway in recent years, chances are you've played him. Does that concern you?
Blake: Oh no. Actually, I've run the gamut. I've played the good guy, the guy you feel sorry for, and the bad guy. I enjoy playing the bad guy. . . I mean, I'm certainly not playing some serial killer or anything — I'm just playing, you know, the jerk — so for me the fun thing about playing these roles is you're playing basically these jerks who let down everybody, but you have to play them with heart, and that's actually the fun, challenging part, trying to find humanity in them. Like this character Warner for instance. He's naïve to the fact that he's a jerk. There's really very little malicious intent in what he does. He just does it without conscious thought of other people, so, yes, he's a jerk, but at the same time he's just kind of in his own little world of arrogance and being very self involved. When you play it like that, that's when you start to have fun with it.
Q: No fear of being typecast?
Blake: I know a lot of people are probably going to disagree with me on this one, but for myself I don't mind being typecast as long as it keeps me working. If that's what it takes! Sure, every now and then you're going to be like, "I would love to play that character," but I don't mind people going, "Hey, we need somebody to play the jerk boyfriend in this. Who do we get? I know, Richard Blake." If that's what pops into your mind, then by all means, thank you.
Q: You were nine when you did your first Broadway show, Teddy and Alice in 1986. Did you always know that acting was the life for you?
Blake: I did actually. I don't really know if I remember this so much, but my parents told me that when I was just barely talking that I'd say, "I want to go to "Ew Nork" and make "macercials." I couldn't even say it right, and I'd stand in front of the TV and aspire to be on it. So when I got started, I started out as a dancer and entered a dance competition where an agent saw me and asked me to go out for a show, and I got it, and I never looked back. I had a blast on my very first show, and I'm still having a blast now. So until that ends . . . I'm going to stick it out.
Q:Do you remember much about The Prince of Central Park?
Blake: I can remember a lot about that; it was a very big part of my life. It was the first time I ever really starred. I was the youngest person — I still am the youngest person to have their name above the title. It was a huge deal for me, very short-lived, but at the time I had worked on it for like two years, and it was actually very special to me. And I was, what, 13 years old, something like that, and working with some extremely talented people. Joanne Worley was wonderful. The show started when we did the workshops and the out-of-towns with Nanette Fabray, who I learned so much from. Made some dear connections, friendships that I still have today from that show. It was deep, you know? It was a lot of hard work. I wish that it had turned out better than it did. I got a poster at Joe Allen's, so it's all good.
Q: Was the short run a lot to handle for such a young kid?
Blake: I was very disappointed. I had put so much into it, even at a young age, I knew what was at stake and what I was part of. I wished it had gone on longer. I fortunately closed the show and got a job the next week in another show, and that helped because I moved on, which was the best thing for me at that time. At the time I chose to do The Prince of Central Park over doing "The Mickey Mouse Club" on the Disney Channel. I had both offers on the table, and I wanted to star on Broadway. My parents were like, "Really?" And who knows? Maybe I would be in 'N Sync today if I didn't. Looking back, even with the hardships of being a five-show run, I'm glad I have a five-show run in my repertoire. It keeps you humble, it keeps you knowing that what we do is a very volatile thing, but that is one of the things that is exciting about it.
Q: What can you say about your Legally Blonde rival, Christian Borle?
Blake: I love Christian dearly. I worked with him on the project I met my wife on, Footloose.We actually had the same relationship (as in Legally). He was the good guy in the show, I was the bad guy in the show. I think he is one of the most talented musical theatre actors. He can do anything, but he has a real intelligence that he brings to his style of acting. He is good at letting go and trying things. I tend to fall into getting a character and sort of doing that and trying to come up with the truth and this and that. He's willing to just try a whole new take every day. I admire those very few actors who have the ability to do that well. He does. Our relationship backstage is we pick on each other constantly, so this is going to hurt, but honestly, in this business I think he has an incredibly bright future. I actually feel like I learn from watching him. Hopefully, we'll have plenty of time to keep our banter alive.
Question: What do you do with your time between the Golden Gate Theatre and the Palace?
Christian Borle: We're very lucky to have a hiatus. The experience of being out of town with Legally Blonde was such a crucible, and it happened so fast. Now that we're back and I'm sitting at home thinking about it, it went by in the blink of an eye. It was intense, so I haven't even had a chance to breathe. I know intellectually that I have two weeks off to do absolutely nothing, but some small part of me is still kind of antsy to get back to work.
Q: Are you feeling pretty good about how the show went out west?
Borle: It was encouraging. I am proud of the show, and the show is really fun to perform. There's not one scene that I dread stepping out onstage to do. I had heard before we left that San Francisco was a really tough crowd. Somebody gave me advice going out there to not gauge the reaction of the show based on the San Francisco audiences because they are notoriously curmudgeonly, and we found them to be very warm, and I think there's something about the Legally Blonde story. The show itself is kind of like Elle Woods, the character. I think people are skeptical at first, and they end up being hopefully won over by the pure good-natured charm of it all. And they were clapping and gasping and hissing. Things happen, and I'm not going to give anything away, but if you've seen the movie, you know some of the things that people do that border on being despicable. And there were like 15 to 20 people hissing at the time. I've never heard that before. It was amazing. I hope that that continues, but I think that New York is obviously going to be very different.
Q: What did you draw on for your character of Emmett?
Borle: I obviously couldn't draw on Luke Wilson's looks and charisma from the movie, so we tried to approach it from a different point of view. More than anything else I think the Emmett character is the biggest departure from the movie. I think they recognized that they needed to flesh it out and make it a little more of an actual character. Because they do a lot in the movie with Luke Wilson being very charming and looking at Reese Witherspoon adoringly, and on film you can really get away with that. I think that the writers realized that there needed to be more in the actual text for Emmett. So it went through a phase of being a really self-deprecating character, and we kind of slowly moved away from that into a more grounded, real character.
Q: You've identified yourself as a "social recluse." Is there some of that in Emmett?
Borle: There is, there is. I think Emmett is a bit of an outsider and is so focused on the task at hand that he kind of sacrifices a bit of the social niceties. I don't know, I always like to err on the side of being quiet and staying out of everybody's business. It's safer that way because we're all opinionated, aren't we?
Q: How has the show evolved up to this point?
Borle: There were several phases out of town that we went through. Jerry Mitchell wanted to start the first preview with the show that we left the rehearsal studio with, so there weren't a lot of changes between the time that we left New York and the first time we did it in front of an audience, which was exciting because it let us settle in and see what it was that we had. Then it all just kind of turned upside down, and they made pretty big, sweeping changes before opening, and once it opened they were encouraged by the reviews, which on the whole were very nice. I didn't read them, but I got the general tone from people. And then we just started making lots of very small changes, which all are adding up to a better show. I think there are still some changes to come. We're going to get back in the rehearsal room and just keep clarifying it and [laughs] cutting it down.
Q: Are you someone who rolls with the changes or do you want everything to be set?
Borle: I certainly only want the show to be better, and it has been very clear how effective these little changes are, and it is exciting. It's a challenge to get out there and find yourself in the middle of a scene and realizing there were four lines cut out. You know, they give you sheets at the beginning of the show with every single change, and we kind of go through rehearsal and run all the changes, but sometimes you have a brain fart, and you're out there flying by the seat of your pants. So it is exhilarating.
Q: How different is this role from some of the more "antic" characters you played in Spamalot?
Borle: It is a slight departure from me falling down on the floor and painting my eyebrows white, and I'm happy about that just for sheer variation. I loved playing all those different crazy characters. There was a moment in college . . . everyone wants to be a leading man. Every young actor wants to be Tony in West Side Story and wants to sing "Anthem" from Chess and wants to be Billy Bigelow, and there's a point when you really just have to look at yourself realistically and say, "Well, I am not the traditional leading-man type, so being a character actor isn't so bad." I really started to embrace the fact that maybe my strength was in playing some of the more off-kilter characters, and that really all came to a head with Spamalot. It was quite the couple of years being around those people and playing those parts, which is why, to me, it's so strange all of a sudden to be the leading man in Legally Blonde, which has its own sort of off-kilter sensibility to it anyway, but it's a nice surprise [for me] at this point.
Q: Word on the street is you are sort of a comic book fiend. True?
Borle: Wednesday is new comic book day, and as soon as I get off the phone with you I'm going to throw on some boots and go down to Midtown Comics. Yes, it's true.
Q: What comic characters do you think would make for good musical theatre?
Borle: I had heard mumblings about Julie Taymor and Bono working on a Spider-Man musical. And I think theatrically speaking, the things you could do with wire-work I suppose would be pretty effective. The humanity of the story — Peter Parker is this young kid going through what he's going through and all of a sudden having this power. Seems like fodder for a musical, doesn't it? Or is that the nerdiest thing I've ever said in my life? You decide.
Q: What was it like a couple years back, becoming a different comic icon, Snoopy, for one night at Symphony Space?
Borle: It was really gratifying. My wife [Sutton Foster] actually produced that for her friend's children's theatre, Pied Piper, uptown, and it was obviously fun to do, and the cast, everyone from Sutton to Hunter to Jen Cody. . . It was just a big family affair to benefit one of Sutton's oldest friend's theatres, so yes it was fun to jump around and shake my butt a little bit.
Q: I've heard raves about your work in William Finn's Elegies. Was that a heavy piece to work on?
Borle: I'll preface it by saying that throughout my entire college experience, William Finn was my kind of go-to composer. Any time we had a vocal class where we had to get up and sing in front of each other, during all my voice lessons, I always came back to William Finn's material, mostly his Falsettos stuff. His music just hits me on a visceral, grounded level. I am a huge fan. And so to all of a sudden find myself in a room with him working on something new, not to mention not only William Finn, but also Michael Rupert, whose voice is burned in my brain from those [Falsettos] recordings. So much of that experience was about finding myself in a room with these heroes of mine so that the actual performance of it was really about trying to do justice to those songs, and even though the tone of the entire evening could get somber, the kind of performance and delivery of it never landed in any kind of depressing place. Also, the whole musical is singing about dead people, yet it has more humor than a lot of comedies out there. He's able to infuse every song with irony and hilarity. I don't know how he can make singing about dead people so funny. It was a beautiful show, and we revisited it at Joe's Pub for one night in December. It's an experience I'll never forget. I'm dying to do another show with Bill Finn.
Q: What can you say about your Legally Blonde rival, Richard Blake?
Borle: [Vaguely sinister laugh.] Richard Blake. Richard and I worked together on the national tour of Footloose, and that seems like a lifetime ago, and to come back together with him in this process and get reacquainted and become friends has been fantastic. I have so much respect for Richard. He has a quality about him that very few people have, which is that he truly understands his strengths and weaknesses as an actor, and I really mean that sincerely. One of the most important things as an actor is to know what you're good at and what you're not good at, and he does it all with such a sense of self-deprecation and openness. I really don't have anything to rib him about. It's just fantastic to work with him again. He's a great guy, and he's great in the show. Just some gentle ribbing perhaps.
[Legally Blonde begins previews at Broadway's Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, April 3 with an official opening April 29. Tickets are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.]
ONE GOOD TURNER
While shows that lampoon the conventions of musical theatre are nothing new, the madcap pseudo-backer's audition known as Gutenberg! The Musical! gets huge mileage out of the many hats its two actors wear, literally and figuratively, as they convey, with hilarious dramatic license, the story of Johannes Gensfielsch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press.
When Christopher Fitzgerald decided to leave the role of Bud at the end of January, he and his co-star Jeremy Shamos (Doug) knew that the continued success of Gutenberg! depended upon finding someone with whom Shamos felt the same level of kinship onstage. Enter David Turner, who had played Jack to Fitzgerald's Charley in Where's Charley? at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He had also done The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) with Shamos in 2001. Fitzgerald and Shamos put in a good word, and Turner was on board.
The Manhattan-born Turner ("I grew up in New Jersey. My mom's obstetrician was in Manhattan, so I was almost born on the GW Bridge.") has made a specialty out of playing Brits, having recently been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his role as Sir Robin in the touring company of Spamalot. He made his Broadway debut and understudied Michael Stuhlbarg in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love in 2001, and also flitted about the stage as Winston the angel in 2005's In My Life.
Gutenberg! is his first role in three years where he is not playing a Brit. "It's great being stateside," he jokes.
Question: Why so many Brits?
David Turner: I guess it's just my bread and butter. Two reasons. One: I look very British, sort of like a British schoolboy, and I have an ear for dialects.
Q: How did that happen?
Turner:I'm a musician, I'm a pianist, so I think, like a lot of musicians, you just end up with a love of language, and with a love of language goes a love of sound and a love of learning to make different sounds. I certainly have that. Q: Did you go see Gutenberg! a lot prior to joining the cast?
Turner: I just went once when they were at 59E59, when Jeremy had first broached the subject, I wanted to go and see if it was the kind of thing that I wanted to do. I had just been on the road with Spamalot for a year, and I had this idea in my head that I wanted to come home and do something more staid. I just was craving one of those plays where you walk into someone's living room and you sit on the couch and you chat, rather than quick changes and stuff like that. Gutenberg!, I thought, was not going to be what the doctor ordered. And then I saw it, and I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard. It tickled my funny bone so much, I mean the writing is ingenious, and I couldn't resist.
Q: When one thinks back to Gutenberg!, it is easy to forget that there are only two people in the show. It manages to be funny in a way that really engages the audience.
Turner: It does, and I have great evidence of that. We spend the whole play treating it like a reading, reading stage directions, painting this huge, elaborate, epic picture out of no physical details at all. There's no scenery, there's nothing. And at the end of the show, Gutenberg is in the town square. It's sort of like the 11 o'clock number, you know. Gutenberg does something unexpected, and out of the "mob" that's gathered around Gutenberg, I say, "Everyone gasps." And the whole audience gasps as though it was an instruction to them and not a description of what was happening with the mob of people. I have never encountered something like that in the theatre. They are so absorbed in it, and they're so used to the way the picture is being painted with words and not with the technical production, that they actually participate without even being specifically exhorted to participate.
Q: What did your time in the Williamstown Theatre Festival do for you as an actor?
Turner: Williamstown — I know Chris Fitzgerald would feel this way also — I certainly feel that I would not have a career if it weren't for Williamstown and in particular, Jenny Gersten, who now runs Naked Angels, because she used to be the associate artistic director [of Williamstown] when Michael Ritchie was helming it. She was just so kind to me, and her dad is [Lincoln Center Theater executive producer] Bernard Gersten. And when we came back to New York after the summer ended and I was still non-Equity, they were looking for readers at Lincoln Center, and Jenny recommended me to Daniel Swee, so I started working as a reader in the casting office at Lincoln Center, and they cast Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money, and Daniel turned to me and said, "You don't know Latin, do you?" and I said, "Actually yes, I studied Latin for seven years." He said, "That's great because we're casting this Tom Stoppard play, and there's lots of Latin in it, and I want a reader who is not going to stumble over it," so I became the reader for The Invention of Love, and met [director] Jack O'Brien who liked me and brought me in for one of the roles, and that's how I had my Broadway debut. But it all started because of Jenny.
Q: Looking back through the prism of time, what are your thoughts on In My Life?
Turner: I have no regrets. Everyone knew when we started that it was going to be among the most unusual showbiz experiences any of us had ever had, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought, "Is it smart to do something like this, that's so risky and so weird?" And I think I and the other people who did it listened to the part of themselves that said, "Life is no good if you're cautious." And that was the spirit in which I went into it, which was to have this adventure of being in this crazy thing. And we loved each other, and we had a wonderful time, and what ended up happening was the most unexpected outcome of all, which was I had the most creative experience I have ever had in the theatre. I have been in shows that worked better and shows that got better reviews and didn't take the sort of critical drubbing that In My Life did, but in terms of the creative experience, it was so satisfying. Joe Brooks, for all his faults and his single-handed control, his refusal to collaborate on a lot of things that might have benefited from collaboration, he gave the actors a lot of agency that actors don't ordinarily get when millions of dollars are at stake. To try and make things work. In particular, my character had a lot of latitude as a comic foil. The most important charge was, "Don't be boring." And I had a hell of a good time trying not to be boring.
Q: As a composer, who inspires you?
Turner: Like everyone, I admire Sondheim, but of my peers, Jeff Blumenkrantz. God he's great. He's an actor and just a wonderful songwriter. He actually had a Tony nomination because he wrote a few of the songs in Urban Cowboy. There's a real cleverness and sincerity. That's the kind of writing I aspire to. I don't think I'm as good as Jeff, but I love his writing. And, add to my list of favorite composers Neil Bartram (The Story of My Life).
Q: You won the BMI Jerry Harrington Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement. What was that for?
Turner: I was, at the time, working on a project that I called Payola, which was about the payola scandal in radio in the sixties, but I've sort of let that go, and right now I am actually concentrating on learning filmmaking. I don't want to demean it by saying "I dabble," because I love writing music, but my interests keep evolving, so right now I'm sort of writing less music, but I just finished a short film.
Q: Is that "The Debut" I've heard about?
Turner: Yes. I made it on the road with Spamalot. I figured while I was surrounded with these great actors, I might as well take advantage of them, and they were kind enough to participate. So I wrote this story and plotted it out, so we could do a little bit in each city as we traveled, but it would all appear to be one location for the movie. And it just turned out beautifully. And some amazing performances, by the way, by Rick Holmes, who now plays Lancelot on Broadway and Tom Deckman, who now plays Prince Herbert on Broadway. They've even told me that casting directors are asking about seeing this movie because they've heard their performances are so great.
Q: Is making movies what you'd like to do next?
Turner: What I want to do is go to school to study documentary filmmaking. That's where my interest is. My other main interest is actually politics. I took a lot of time off in 2004 to work for John Kerry in Ohio. I had songs of mine done at a Manhattan Theatre Club showcase around November 2004, and I had to miss it because I was in Ohio. That gives you a sense of my priorities.
Q: Would you walk away from the stage?
Turner: Yeah. I mean ideally, I have some long-running show at night, and I can nurse these other interests. But barring that opportunity, I can certainly see myself taking a hiatus to pursue these other interests. For now, I love it all. The best part is, the Actor's Playhouse, I can see it from my window. I have the shortest commute of any New Yorker.
Q: Doesn't that limit your world a bit, living so close to where you work?
Turner: After being on tour for a year, I love my world being limited!
[Gutenberg! The Musical! plays The Actors' Playhouse, 100 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]
HITHER AND YON
Trivia note: The mysterious "H" in Richard H. Blake's name is a closely guarded secret. You won't learn from me that we have had not one but two presidents who had it as a surname. . . . I practiced what I preached in February and caught Jeffry Denman's show at Birdland, and it was all one could hope for: great tap and song, including a duet with Brian D'Arcy James on a combo-platter of Sondheim's "Pretty Women" and "Agony." . . . Next to catch at Birdland is composer Michel Legrand. The multiple Oscar-winning man behind the music for "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and many others will be performing his own songs from March 6-11. . . . The man behind the songs from "The Creature Wasn't Nice" (coming soon on CD, I hope), Bruce Kimmel, has hit the sci-fi musical trail anew, with The Brain from Planet X, cast recording now available via kritzerland.com. It features cabaret and soap star Kevin Spirtas, who is currently working with Kimmel on polishing a new cabaret show. . . . David Gurland's DGUR Concert Series will be featuring what he calls "boy singers and songwriters from the '70s and '80s" on March 18 at the Laurie Beechman Theater. Eddie Varley and Mike McArdle, brother of Andrea, will be featured.
Tom Nondorf is a publications editor for Playbill Classic Arts. He can be reached by e-mail and firstname.lastname@example.org.