Regional Reviews: Seattle
Chuck Wagner possesses one of the best baritone voices on Broadway, a fact that he has displayed in Into the Woods (where he originated Rapunzel's Prince, and played The Wolf/Prince on tour), Les Miserables (where he played Javert), and Beauty and the Beast (in which he played the Beast for over 1,200 performances). He is currently in the touring production of Jekyll and Hyde (see review), a part he originated at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1990. He recently released a CD, titled Chuck Wagner, which contains songs from various shows he performed on tour and on Broadway. I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck while he was in Seattle and asking him a few questions about his life in the theater and his new CD.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, and thank you for taking time to talk to us. Have you ever visited our website?
Chuck: No, I haven't. But I will, now that I know about it.
J: You originated the parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Houston in 1990, but Jekyll and Hyde really had its start 20 years ago. Were you involved with it then?
C: Yes. Frank and I were students together at USC and I starred in his very first musical, called Christopher. Another student named Steve Cuden got together with Frank and conceived of the idea of putting Jekyll and Hyde on stage as a musical. Basically, at USC, we just put together a recording of some of the music. We didn't actually put it on its feet until the Houston production.
J: So how does it feel to be doing a full, Broadway-style production of it after twenty years?
C: It's great. It's fun to do. I am only sad that I didn't get to do it on Broadway, but then I really can't complain because I made it to Broadway in Into the Woods before we did Jekyll and Hyde in Houston. And by the time Jekyll and Hyde came to Broadway, I had been on Broadway for several years already. So I beat Frank to Broadway!
My take on it is that if you allow yourself to do the work and stay focused, then your success will come to you. Maybe not in the way you anticipated, but if you allow yourself to take the gifts that God gives you when they come and be grateful, then everything will come as they are supposed to.
J: Why didn't you do Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway? Did you have a conflict?
C: I was doing Beauty and the Beast at the time. And when the pre-Broadway tour of Jekyll and Hyde began, I was doing Les Mis on Broadway.
J: Out of curiosity, what was Christopher, that first Frank Wildhorn musical you mentioned, about?
C: It was loosely based on a second coming of a Christ-like character. It was kind of a lame premise ...
J: But that kind of a premise seems to be popular all of a sudden. We had two shows Off-Broadway last year with similar themes. So who knows? It could resurface again!
C: Somehow I don't think so! Even then, it was a case where the music was good, but the book was kind of weak. Kind of like how the critics respond to his work today, in that he's always told he needs to work on the book aspect of the shows. It's a theme he's got going!
But I feel that if audiences go in with an open heart, nobody can truly dislike Frank's shows, because he really writes them from the heart and they go right to the heart of the people. Some people come in with preconceptions and are predisposed to not like his shows. The critics here in Seattle, for example, seemed set against the show to begin with. So all things considered, we got really good reviews because of the performances that we gave. But they still have a predisposition to dislike the show.
J: Part of that comes from the fact that the pre-Broadway production that came here four years ago was pretty awful. I really wanted to like it, but I just couldn't. This version is 1000 times better, and I really was surprised to find that I enjoyed it.
C: So we turned you around!
J: You did. It was very enjoyable.
You have been involved with every Frank Wildhorn show. You did the concept album for The Scarlet Pimpernel, you have a song on the Civil War album, and you even did Svengali.
C: Yes. I was Svengali in the production that occurred in Houston the year after we did Jekyll and Hyde. We had the same director, Gregory Boyd, who was the head of the Alley Theatre in Houston, and he also wrote the book for Svengali.
J: Is there a concept album out for that show?
C: No. Frank told me that we were going to do it, and I keep waiting.
J: It's been rumored for Broadway for a while
C: It should happen. But Frank's major focus right now is Havana, as far as stage pieces go. I have also heard rumors that he is going to write an adaptation of Blade Runner.
J: I've heard that also. I have to admit, that I can't quite see that as a musical. Although, perhaps a Frank Sci-Fi Wildhorn musical would be a perfect vehicle for you. I see you have a lot of science fiction in your bio. You even played "Automan" on TV!
C: Yeah, I love that kind of stuff! I did a demo for Star Wars: The Musical which Charles Strouse wrote. I sang the Han Solo song, which was kind of exciting.
J: Was the Star Wars musical ever staged?
C: No, it was just a demo. And there's some really fabulous music in it. Luke Skywalker got a song was called "To Fly" and it was beautiful. And there's an almost "One Day More" style rousing number in which the rebels are going off to fight, and Luke's number becomes a soaring counterpoint on top of it. There really was some great stuff in it.
J: It was never commercially recorded, though, was it?
C: No, just a professional demo that was never released.
J: Who knows ... maybe they'll do a prequel to it and you can play Liam Neeson's part.
C: (laughing) There you go.
J: You have played just about every heavy, intense part on Broadway right now: Javert, The Beast, Jekyll and Hyde. The only one you haven't is the Phantom. Is that a part you'd be interested in playing?
C: The only problem with Phantom is that I'm a big, imposing, bear of a man, and I don't know that they see the Phantom like that, after Michael Crawford set the type. There have been some taller Phantoms, but never have there been 'fleshy' Phantoms! And I'm just a big, strong man, not the lean and aesthetic type.
I would love to do it, but I'm not holding my breath! And frankly, it would almost feel like a revival to me, since it's been done for so long. And I much prefer being on the cutting edge of new theater.
J: Your association with Into the Woods started with the workshop, correct?
C: Yes, I did the workshop at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
J: I saw you when I saw the original production on Broadway. One thing that crossed my mind when I saw it was that the parts of Rapunzel and her Prince, the part you played, were rather underutilized.
C: But we got all the good laugh lines!
J: True! Were the parts bigger in the workshop?
C: Not really. What I liked about doing the show was that it's really an ensemble piece; everybody has their own story. I had a review in ... it was either in The Hollywood Reporter or Variety ... and it said that I took my little role, and turned it into one of the leads. And I thought, "well that's high praise!"
You can't be worried about the size of the role and how big or little it is. You just have to go in and take what you're given. Like Javert, for instance; Javert is only on for fifteen or twenty minutes in the whole show. I was practically on stage as much as Rapunzel's Prince as I was as Javert, and yet Javert seems like a much larger part, because when he does come on, he's like a tornado of focus.
J: You just released a CD that contains songs from all the shows you did on Broadway and on tour and never got to record. Did you produce the CD yourself?
J: It's a wonderful CD and I love the arrangements. Who did them?
C: Kim Sharnburg did the arrangements. A lot of the arrangements, though, came from the brilliant musicians: four gentlemen that played on the CD. Kim was responsible for bringing the musicians in, but a lot of the magic that happened in the studio happened because they were such fabulous musicians.
J: You only had four musicians on the CD?
C: I know, it's amazing!
J: It is, because it sounds like you have at least ten.
C: It's amazing what they did! The engineering was excellent and I'm blown away by what they did.
J: How long are you going to be doing the tour?
C: I'm signed on for a year, and they are tentatively going to add another four weeks in Washington DC, and possibly Toronto and Vancouver later.
J: When did you start the tour?
C: On April 13th. So I think that Chicago might be the last stop that I'm contracted for, but depending on how well we're doing and what cities we're playing ... I'm having a great time here, and I prefer this show to the New York show. I have it in my contract that, contingent on Robin Phillps' approval I can take over in New York whenever Rob Evan leaves. But I have mixed feelings about that. I like the show in New York, but I love our show.
J: I know that "Bring on the Men" was added for the tour.
C: "I Need to Know" is, too.
J: Really? So is the whole beginning scene, with the father in the madhouse, not on Broadway?
C: It's there, but there's a lot more dialogue and it's a lot more serious. The pacing is very slow in New York, I think. It's very serious and very theatrical. David Warren, the director for the tour, took what Robin Phillips did in New York and basically refined it; carved away some of the excess and made ours more streamlined. I don't like to say anything negative about the Broadway show, because I really admire it and I think they did a fabulous job. I think our show is just a lot more fun! I think it's sexier, too. Did you see it in New York?
J: No. I told you that after seeing it five years ago ...
C: Right! Well, it got a little out of hand, as far as being 'artsy.' Where "Bring on the Men" is in the tour, there's a song called "Good and Evil." It's not really written as a 'bawdy-house' number, but it's sort of done in a bawdy-house way. Only instead of the dancing women that we have, who start out in tuxes and strip down to become the women of the night, there are three muscular male dancers in gold lame circus underwear, one of whom is wearing devil horns. There's this strange, homo-erotic choreography, and I don't understand how this is supposed to make Dr. Jekyll get all excited about going after Lucy! Now, that doesn't mean that it isn't valid, it's just a choice that I don't get. So I do think that our production is much better.
J: What other changes were made?
C: The set, in particular, is different. The set in New York is very small, because the Plymouth is very small. And it's based on this red box, this rectangular acting space in the center of the stage. It's a beautiful set, and it's all panels of plexi-glass and there are beautiful projections for the back. It's a very slick set, it's just a very small space so it gets a little claustrophobic at times. We play in much larger houses, so the sets were completely redesigned.
J: That's interesting. Usually, the touring version is a scaled down version of the show that you would see in New York.
C: And that's what's great about this show, and what's great about working with Frank Wildhorn. If you look at what Frank has done with The Scarlet Pimpernel, for instance; it has gone through various manifestations and has become a stronger show in the process. Frank is not afraid to realize that all work in the theater is a work in progress, and if you stop and think about it it's true. Every time you get a new cast, it's going to be slightly different, because of the energy from the people changes. And that's why I never get tired of doing live theater. Because no matter how many times you have done the role, you walk into a new audience and it's as if it never happened before. It becomes the first time. And that's what's great about live theater.
J: How else is the tour different from the Broadway production?
C: The tour has the advantages of having all the bells and whistles of the Broadway show, but it has gone back to being true to to the original version we did ten years ago.
J: Just for clarification, that wasn't the version I saw and loathed. Please continue.
C: (Laughing) Thanks for the clarification!
One of the changes that goes back to the original version is in the sequence in which I address the Board of Governors. On tour, we use that Brechtian trick of my playing the scene so that I am addressing the Board while I look out over the audience, even though the Board is behind me. It allows me to connect to the audience with the plea for the experiment; to let them know where I am coming from, to kind of share Dr. Jekyll's optimism. Whereas in New York, it's played side to side. It's in a smaller space, and it's like he's making this small plea to the people around him. It's almost like a tea party. And it just lacks any of that 'bigger than life' excitement. Whereas, by playing it like we did in the original production in Houston, where you are giving it to the people basically, you're able to connect more; it makes it more 'in your face.'
So now, even before you have the experiment, you've had moments where you're connecting directly to the audience, or to God. Because after I say good-night to my father, and I turn up and start "I Need to Know," it's like Jekyll is praying; "OK God, what the hell is going on down here?" And anytime that you can be that open and open your heart out to the people, you are going to reach them a lot more than if you are trying to create this kind of 'little world in its own little insular box' on the stage and hope that the audience can appreciate it just by watching it.
The thing that I like about Frank's music, and the whole concept of musical theatre, is that by going out and opening your heart to a bigger experience that includes the audience, you bring them in and the energy of you and the audience creates such a cathartic experience. I don't know what the right words are that frame that experience, but it's very much like the 'whenever two or more are gathered' comment; that it becomes more than the sum of its parts. So I really do appreciate that connection with the audience, and I feel that the support that we get from that kind of open-hearted playing it's very rewarding. I feel blessed at being in a business where you can have that feeling, because it's like surfing a wave of pure energy.
J: I hope you are going to have a successful run here in Seattle and elsewhere. And I should mention that you are going to be at Borders here in Seattle for a CD and In Theatre magazine signing. Congratulations on making the cover of In Theatre, by the way.
C: Thank you. We're going to be there at 1pm on Monday (July 26). And I'm looking forward to it.
J: Where can people get your CD?
J: What's the next stop on the tour?
C: After this, we'll be in San Francisco for four weeks.
J: Have a great run, and thank you for a great interview.
C: My pleasure.
- Jonathan Frank