Phillip Officer is one of those rare performers who truly inhabits a lyric, wearing it as if it were a second skin. Thus, he is able to take the most overdone standards, ones that we think we are tired of hearing like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Heart and Soul," and breathe new life into them. He is also an accomplished actor and recently made his Broadway debut in the cult classic Side Show playing the Geek. I caught up with Phillip as he was getting ready to open his newest show at Arci's in New York.
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Phillip. By the time this gets 'printed' on-line you will have already started your run at Arci's. Are you doing a Hoagy Carmichael show per your new CD?
Phillip Officer: Yes. We're releasing my new CD, Hoagy on My Mind, this month, which I actually started recording in Chicago because of this wonderful violinist who is there, Johnny Frigo. He's going to be coming to New York for the two weeks that I'm performing at Arci's, which is going to be fun. He's a remarkable talent.
JF: What made you decide to record a Hoagy Carmichael CD?
JF: And people can visit their website, www.arcisplace.com for more details, like times and such.
I really enjoyed listening to the CD; I'm embarrassed to admit that there were a lot of the songs on it that I recognized, but never realized were by Hoagy Carmichael.
PO: Well, that's part of the fun of doing a show and CD like this: a lot of people know these songs but never knew who wrote them. Everybody knows the melody of "Heart and Soul," for instance, but few people know that Hoagy wrote it, much less that the lyrics are by Frank Loesser. I was attracted to the songs of Hoagy Carmichael because they are so sophisticated. There is a jazz edge to his songs, yet since he came from the Midwest, there is a real down to earth feel to his music as well.
JF: In doing my pre-interview research on you I noticed that your recordings center around classic songwriters like Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen or Burton Lane. Is that mainly what you like to perform?
PO: Well, it's mainly what I've had success doing. I find that most people want to hear standards. I'm a huge advocate of new songwriters and promoting new material, but I've just had better luck with standards. Very rarely have I been in a performing opportunity where people wanted to hear new songwriters. And from a recording standpoint, this type of material has served me better. People who don't necessarily know who I am or have seen me perform are attracted to things like the Hammerstein repertoire or Harburg's songs or things along those lines, so it's been a selling tool. Also, when it comes to finding someone to fund a recording, people are more likely to finance an album that has a theme to it or an edge that they can sell, and is not just an eclectic album of songs.
JF: Did you start out intending to have a career in theater?
PO: That's what my background and training is. This type of performing just sort of happened after I moved to New York and it has given me another avenue to explore.
JF: I really enjoyed seeing you do "Heart and Soul" last year at the West Coast Convention. The song has become the ultimate piano duet cliché, which is a shame, since it really has lovely lyrics.
PO: Thank you. "Heart and Soul" was actually the first collaboration between Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser.
JF: I also love one of the songs on your CD, "Moonburn." I had never heard it before. Your credits have it listed as being in the film version of Anything Goes ... was it really in the adaptation of Cole Porter's show?
PO: Yes. The song was just stuck in the film. It's the same as what happened with the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; most of the score is by Jule Styne, but the song "When Love Goes Wrong" was stuck in. I don't think it would happen today; I can't see a Stephen Sondheim song being inserted into, say, the film version of Evita.
JF: I'm not familiar with the lyricist of "Moonburn," Edward Heyman. What else did he write?
PO: You know, good question ... I'm embarrassed to say that right off the top of my head I can't think of anything!
JF: Stumped ya! Guess I know what's not going to be in your patter next week!
PO: (Laughs) Actually, I'm still working on it! And I'm going to be on stage next week about this time!
JF: I love it! Glad to hear I'm not the only one who waits until the last minute to figure out what on earth he's going to say up there!
Now one thing I found interesting in reading about you, was that you like to use body mikes instead of the traditional hand-held ones when you perform.
PO: Yeah. It depends on the circumstances and situations, but I prefer having the flexibility of not standing behind a microphone all night or having to hold it. But when I'm at Arci's, for example, where I'll be on stage with other musicians, I won't use a body mike because they weren't designed for cabaret and tend to pick up a lot of the sound around them. I like to use a body mike when I can, though. I think it frees you up physically as an actor and provides one less barrier between you and the audience.
JF: My God! What do you do with your hands then (Both laugh)
It's obvious from what I've seen and heard from you that you are very much an "actor's singer" meaning that you are a lyric driven performer.
PO: I think that's what makes a performance interesting. It's like looking at a painting; the more colors, textures and levels it has the more you can get out of it. That's what turns me on. I see people get up and sing beautiful standard songs and sound really nice doing so, but they don't go much further than that; there's no investment in the lyric, or personal commitment, or point of view to the song. And that's what gives you detail and depth and where your gold lies as a performer ... bringing yourself and your life experiences to a lyric. When I pick songs, the first thing I do is look at a lyric to find out what it says. Then I try and figure out what is it's story, what is the emotion about, can I relate to it, and do I want to share it with an audience. Because if I can't connect to it ... if I can't find a reason to sing the song or discover a point of view ... then what's the point? It's just going to sound like anybody else singing it then.
JF: What lyricists are you particularly drawn to? Which ones write the stories you want to tell?
PO: I love Yip Harburg and Oscar Hammerstein ... Johnny Mercer ... I love Steven Sondheim and Cole Porter. I really don't have a favorite; they are all so vastly different. I think it's amazing, for instance, that Richard Rodgers got the opportunity to write with both Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart since they are so vastly different. And a lot of people will argue as to which is better, but ...
JF: For me, it depends on my mood! What modern songwriters do you like?
PO: Well ... I'm certainly turned on a lot by Adam Guettel. I love Floyd Collins and Saturn Returns. I think he's going to blow everybody away one day, and it's even spookier that he's Richard Rodgers grandson. I think Jeanine Tesori, who I worked with at Goodspeed, is a wonderful writer. She has been working on some exciting projects and will really come into her own soon.
JF: I don't know her. What has she written?
PO: Right now she's been working on Thoroughly Modern Millie. She also wrote the music for the production of Twelfth Night that was done at Lincoln Center a few years ago with Helen Hunt [and the score for Off Broadway's Violet].
JF: Before the interview I dug out my Side Show CD so I could check out the libretto and see what you recorded on it.
PO: See what solo line I had (laughs). It really was an incredible experience.
JF: How long were you involved with it?
PO: I was involved with it from day one. I was involved in the project for about four years and did two of the three readings, the workshop and then the Broadway production: I was one of three people who did the very first reading at the Manhattan Theater Club and who ended up surviving through the Broadway run. It was really cool to watch the piece evolve. It went from Song of the Siamese Twins to Side Show and went through unbelievable changes.
JF: Did your part change much during the evolution?
PO: Yeah, it did. After the first reading they started developing the side show freaks. The Geek had always existed and after the first reading they started coming up with other characters like the Bearded Lady or the FortuneTeller. During the readings and the workshop there was a cast of about 12 people. By the time we made it to Broadway there were 22 people in the show and I saw things that I had done in readings and in the workshop spread out to other people. Even in the three weeks that we previewed on Broadway, stuff was cut for the sake of time. So there was stuff that I was performing when we started previewing that had been cut by the time we officially opened.
JF: Have you done any shows since Side Show?
PO: Not theatrically, no. I've been doing a lot of solo shows and concerts instead.
JF: Have you been auditioning?
PO: I'm not signed with an agent and I don't get up everyday beating on doors. I go in when people request me, and they are usually for big things. I was called in for Rocky Horror and to replace Alan Cumming in Cabaret ... stuff like that. It's hard to land those types of parts if you're not out there doing shows eight times a week, but at least I get called!
JF: What did you audition for in Rocky Horror?
PO: You know what? I actually didn't go in for that when they called me, which was probably really stupid. (laughs) They called me for Frank N' Furter, but they didn't even give me 24 hour's notice. I decided that if the casting agency was calling me without agent submissions, then somebody there liked me. So I told them that I couldn't do it with less than 24 hour notice. I mean it was for a principal role! And an over-the-top one at that. We're not talking about simply going in and singing a love ballad; when you get called in for something like the Emcee or Frank, you have to take huge risks in order to bring the part to life. You can't just go in and walk through it. So I was figuring that they might be auditioning a bit later and would call me then ... but they weren't and they didn't.
You can get nutsy trying to jump through all these hoops and pondering the 'would have/could have' scenarios. I just think it's rather unprofessional; if you're doing a multi-million dollar Broadway production and you're trying to find the right actors for the parts, you should be able to give enough notice so that they can do their best. But New York is full of people that, if you called them up right now, they would be there in a half hour! I'm not into that; that's not the way I'm going to live my life or do the business. Maybe I'll miss out on some stuff, but at least I won't go crazy! When I was called back for the tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman, they called me up and said "We want to see you for Molina. We want to see you in eight days; come by and pick up the two songs and the scene we want to see." Which I think is very reasonable; you go and you prepare and you do it. Now I regret not going for Rocky Horror, because I feel if I had at least just gone in I might have gotten a call back. Maybe not for that role, but for the show period. But twenty four hours is just not enough notice ... I'm sure you're like me and you have things on your calendar, so when you get a call at 5:15 in the afternoon, you spend all night canceling your plans and rearranging your life and have little time to prepare for the audition the next morning. Your life becomes totally insane for 24 hours, and it's just not worth it.
JF: So, what's on your plate after Arci's?
PO: I'm trying to book the show and I'm lining stuff up for the Fall. I'm taking time off over the summer to do some traveling and visit my family. I've been keeping very busy lately, so that will be nice. And doing some real life stuff!
JF: Do you have a website?
PO: I do! It's down right now ... naturally, the flyers go out and the site goes down. But it should be back up: www.phillipofficer.com.
JF: So people can go there to check on your schedule. Well best of fates on your run!