by Ed Feldman
Is it fate? You would think by looking at Stephen Buntrock's past that fate intertwined itself in his life. Let's take his last name. Buntrock is of German origin and means "colorful coat". Stephen was in the tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond for years. A trip to the original touring production of Annie was yet another "fateful" moment as this was the impetus to a career in acting. Fate returned as Stephen's friend convinced him to see the 20th anniversary of Hair in Chicago. A lovely young woman who had been involved with Chicago theater for years was in it. Nine months later Stephen R. Buntrock and Jamie Dawn Gangi decided to get married.
Is it all fate? No, of course not. Some people say everything happens for a reason. The events in Stephen's life led him to pursue his passion for acting and singing. Mind you, it wasn't always easy. A self described jock, Stephen was ridiculed by peers for being involved in theatre. His life was forever changed after seeing Annie. Stephen was hooked. He wanted to be on that stage. While that was not a reality then, it was the beginning of a journey which lead to opportunities in Les Miserables, Joseph ... Dreamcoat, Sweeney Todd, Hot Mikado and Phantom, to name a few. Each part was played with such determination and passion that Stephen became a favorite among audiences and well respected by peers.
Thank goodness for fate, life circumstances, perseverance, support, and most of all talent for leading Stephen to the stage where he belongs.
Stephen can now be seen as Enjolras in the Broadway production of Les Miserables. He will play the lead part in Martin Guerre, set for a pre-Broadway tour this fall.
I caught up with Stephen after one of his performances in Titanic.
EF - Where are you from originally?
SB - Chicago. Naperville to be exact. In fact, my family is still there except for my sister who lives up in Maine..
EF - Sounds like it is a small town.
SB - Well, when we moved there in 1970 there were only 15,000 people and when I graduated there were over 100,000.
EF - Anyone else have the acting bug besides you?
SB - Just me and my sister. She did it in high school. She didn't go after it at all. Now, she is one year away from getting her doctorate in psychology.
EF - Tell me about your last name - what origin does it have?
SB - It is German. I'm adopted actually. It is funny really because it means colorful coat and I was in Joseph for years.
EF - You are married, right?
SB - Yes! Eight years.
EF - And you have a daughter?
SB - You bet ya! She just turned five and is the light of my life.
EF - What is her name?
SB - Haley Paige. I met a girl named Paige. I thought it was the coolest name and it always stuck with me. When we found out my wife was pregnant, there was a discussion whether to name her Haley or Paige. We thought the combo of Haley Paige worked.
EF - How did you and your wife meet?
SB - I was in Chicago going to Roosevelt University. I came out to New York to visit a friend of mine. I stood out in line for cancellation tickets for Phantom of the Opera. I got in and the show blew me away. It was at this point that I got the acting bug. I got back to Chicago and a friend called and said he had tickets for the 20th anniversary of Hair in Chicago. After seeing a show in New York, I went with him but not really caring all that much. The show began and all of this sudden this girl comes on stage. She was playing Chrissy. I just went Wow! I really couldn't get my eyes off her for the rest of the show. At one point they were all singing in the aisle and she looked right at me. At the end of the show, she brought me up on stage along with a bunch of people to sing "Let the Sun Shine in". A week goes by and I was working at a comedy club as a bouncer. I decided to write her a fan letter thanking her and telling her I had a good time. Incidentally, she had said to a friend after that show, that if this guy writes me, I'm going to call him. So, I wrote her and two weeks later she called me. We dated. I was learning the ins and outs of Chicago theater through her since she was involved since she was ten. Nine months later we were in my car talking and we decided to get married. It all started from a fan letter.
EF - What is her name?
SB - Jamie Dawn Gangi. She was on tour with me in Joseph for a while. She made all the sacrifices when we moved out here when I took Les Miserables. Now she is getting the bug again. Believe me, I have nothing but admiration for her and whatever she wants to do. I want my success more for my wife than for myself. Postscript: After this interview Jamie joined Stephen in the cast of Titanic as the Stewardess.
EF - Would you like Haley to grow up and become an actress?
SB - She already is one for goodness sake!! She walks around the house singing and dancing, making up songs. It is absolutely frightening that she is rhyming them. She comes up with these weird lyrics. I will never push my child into it - ever. There are too many freakish people out there in this world. I have seen it and it is terrible. It is not the child's decision. It is the mother and father going through the child and I find that deplorable. Whatever she wants to do, I'll support her 100 percent. Two years ago when we were living in downtown NYC, we got her in this dancing class where she had one little recital. The only thing she did was run around in a circle with her arms flapping like a swan and I was balling my eyes out seeing her up there.
EF - How do you balance your career with your social life?
SB - Something hit me right before I auditioned for Les Miserables. My family and I were trimming the tree back in Chicago and I knew I was going to be auditioning for the 10th anniversary production of the show. It really struck me that this is what my life is. I'm not one of those call on the phone everyday people finding out why I'm not out auditioning. Sure, I'll get in that rut but I'm the happiest just sitting at home with my family. It was very hard during Les Miserables because the show is over three hours long. There is so much energy expended in that show. It was very frustrating that during the day my energy level was geared toward 8:00pm. I was ready to play with my little girl but my energy level was building up for the evening part. I'm the physical one that throws her around. I'm the tickle monster. My wife is the one that plays with her and the dolls.
EF - What is it you like to do during your down time?
SB - I'm a Civil War buff and a reenactor. I'll read a book or put in a tape of some kind of battle.
EF - The show Civil War is here in New York.
SB - I wish it all the best. I know for one thing that the reenacting community is excited about it. I was in the backfields of Kentucky doing a reenactment. They all found out what I was do for a living. They knew there was this show coming in. I was talking to my commanding officer of the reenactment. He tells me he actually invested money in Titanic. It was funny. Here I was in the back hills getting away from Broadway but end up talking about the business at a reenactment.
EF - So, are the reenactments part of a festival or something you do on your own?
SB - I have to do it on my own. There are companies that put it together. Last year at Gettysburg for the 135th anniversary there were over 30,000 reenactors that showed up and over the weekend over 750,000 spectators. When you walk into a camp, you drop all of the modern day necessities and you become a Civil War soldier.
EF - Now, if I were to talk to your folks, is there a story they would tell me about you?
SB - One things comes to mind. My mom loves to tell this story. Back in high school, I was doing a production of Oklahoma! You know how high school kids can get. If you are a lead in the show, you think you are the big guy. The choral director called my mom and asked her the size of my head and my mom responded that it was huge. The choral director was " like I know but what size is it?" This went back and forth. My mother meant all along that I had the biggest ego. It wasn't till the choral director specified inches that my mother gave in. One of my biggest things is I'm 15 hours short of my Bachelor's degree. I said to my mother one day that I'd hoped she wasn't upset with me for not finishing college. I remember she had asked me what I thought the purpose of college was. I responded, in part, to find out what you want to do with your life. She asked if I found that out, I responded yes. My mother said then that it was money well spent. Meanwhile, my father is an international research scientist. He's a chemist who got his doctorate from Princeton. Here I am, a jock who loves to sing and act. Both of them have been very supportive though.
EF - There is a debate going on that I'd like to get your opinion on. Some folks say that practice and performance are all that an actor needs to perfect their skills. It is an innate talent. Others say it is better to study acting in school and perfect it that way. What is your view?
SB - That is a good question. I wanted to be a professional soccer player but I always knew I had a voice. Anything that I've learned from Roosevelt University, I don't think I've ever used. I've always been on the cusp of every job I've gotten. There are a lot of times you have teachers who go from college to college teaching but they don't really know what it is like to act. I honestly have not gone through a program. I don't have the money to take lessons. My recommendation is to immerse yourself in what you like. I used to listen to musical theater and imagine myself doing it. I have to say the way I learned was on the job. Period. I did some shows in school but to me that is practical experience. If there was any advice I have for people who want to enter this profession is get your degree in another area. What you always hear from us actors is how we wish we had a normal job or something that we could fall back on.
EF - What kind of perseverance does it take to be an actor?
SB - You have to realize you won't have a lot of "civilian" friends. Your holidays and weekends are taken. The hardest time of the year is working 16 shows in a row without a day off . Another thing is auditioning. You give them what you have. Don't try to give them what they think they want. You have to be ready for the rejection. It could be the costumes won't fit you or someone is good friends with somebody. That is the business. I'd be wrong to say I'm immune to that. Fate, at least, in my life has played a part.
EF- Was there a moment you knew you wanted to do this?
SB - Yes, when I was ten years old. My parents brought my sister and I to see Annie. The original one on tour. I was in a depression after that. To this day, it is a really weird feeling. All I did over that summer was listen to Annie. I wanted, to a certain extent, to be Annie. All these kids my age were on the stage and I really wanted to do it.
EF - What was your first production ever?
SB - It was called Treasure Island. It was a kid's play and all I had to say was "treasure".
EF- Now, back in high school did your friends expect you to be famous one day?
SB - No, not at all. I was teased mercilessly. Junior High was a traumatic time for me. I was lost. I wanted to play sports but at the same time felt the need to play the bass and sing. I was teased a lot for it. The teachers had no clue what I was going through. They'd tell me how popular I was for being the school play. What they didn't understand was that was the exact reason I was being ridiculed. I was part of various cliques in high school but never belonged to one group. It wasn't till my senior when my best friend who was the Homecoming King wanted to be in The Wiz with me. He was a flying monkey. When he became a part of it, I started to receive the respect from my peers. When I went back to Chicago doing the tour of Joseph (which was a big hit there), it occurred to me that the people who were waiting backstage that used to make fun of me were now helping to pay my paycheck.
EF - Do you take your own voice for granted?
SB - Yeah, I guess I have. I never took voice lessons except when I was in Chicago. It is absurd how much it cost. Voice teachers know that something like 2% of the actors are making a living and they charge $125 for an hour. People can't afford that.
EF - If you were your own P.R. person, how would you advertise yourself?
SB - Hmmm ... how would I advertise myself? I guess I wouldn't (laughing). When I was voted in for that 10 most beautiful people on Broadway for InTheater, I was absolutely embarrassed to no end. I was so nervous for that photo shoot. I guess it is one of the things I've never had to do so I haven't given it much thought. I guess I would let people know that when I sing a song, I love doing it. This is a tough question to answer.
EF - Here is another tough question. Think of your best friend right now. If he or she were sitting right here, what would they say about you? How would they describe Stephen Buntrock?
SB - A family man that can get crazy at a drop of a dime. Energetic. Spontaneous. I guess we should call my friend. I've known Ralph since I was four. There are only three people in my life that I've known for a period of time. I know he knows that I love my family very much.
EF - How would you define success in terms of being an actor?
SB - Making a living and being respected by your peers. I don't need to become a star. I want to make a living so I can send my child to school. I want to walk in the backstage door knowing my reputation of being a hard worker and capable precedes me. I would be happy with that.
EF -What has been your most demanding role?
SB - Enjolras. There is no doubt at all. I was in Joseph and danced for two and half hours. When I got into Enjolras, I loved the role almost to a fault. There was a time when I knew the cast hated me because I didn't want to screw around. I had to say to myself that I have to work with these people and I can't be a jerk. That role was the most energetic thing I've ever done. I was so blessed to go through this newly developed show with Trevor Nunn and John Caird and recreate all my blocking, recreate the thought process and recreate everything in the show. I cursed myself for making it harder than it should be like going up and down the barricade five times instead of twice.
EF - Which role would you like to play right now?
SB - This is going to sound stupid. It is Raoul for Phantom.
EF - Hey, Matt Jones had that part or understudied that part.
SB - Oh God, he has the sweetest voice in the world. Raoul is what I'd like to do. I've come close several times. 1776 is my favorite show though.
EF - Is there someone you would really like to work with?
SB - I was just saying this to my wife. Many of the cast in Titanic did How to Succeed ... I would love to work with Matthew Broderick. I respect what he does. I think he is phenomenal. I would love to work with Timothy Nolan again.
EF - Changing gears a little bit here. What was the transition like going from Les Miserables to Titanic?
SB - Kevin Stites (musical supervisor) was great. He said to stop being Enjolras and think about something else. It is a hard transition. Sometimes I find myself taking a wide stance like Enjolras.
EF - Do you have a favorite part of the show?
SB - I don't think I've had more fun on stage in a scene than the radio room. I love every bit of that scene. I hope it works. The radio room is what I want to work. It shows so much humanness and so much kindness. I hope I'm doing it.
EF - Believe me you're doing it.
SB - Thanks.
EF - The role of Barrett has been played by a couple of actors. How did you make the role your own?
SB - Well, I only watched Clarke twice. I had ideas when I watched him. They changed history when they decided to kill him off. He is a hero. He has to be some kind of likable guy where you feel for him. I think the biggest thing I've tried to do in the radio room is to show how this guy is strong in the boiler room but once he takes a picture of his girlfriend out he loses that strength. I hope that comes across.
EF - Has your portrayal of the character changed since you first started?
SB - Oh yeah. I started off just sort of singing Barrett's. Now, I'm into showing how we all know each other down there and that he is a likable guy who can be kind of goofy like when he throws the coal around.
EF - What is your message to your fans out there?
SB- Every time I see someone out there I know, I appreciate it immensely. I'm taken aback. You just hope that you are as sincere as possible and let them know you really appreciate what they do. When someone does stop and talk to me, it means a lot.
EF - You know there a big Titanic following.
SB - Yes. I hope I make them happy. I didn't want to make many waves. Brian brought something to it. Clarke brought something to it. I think I'm bringing something different. I hope that there is nothing missing. I would be very happy to this day, and Brian knows this, if I were doing everything he did, I would be very pleased with that.
EF - I think people are very happy with your performance.
SB - I appreciate that immensely.
Thoughts and Reflections When talking to Stephen, you can see the passion he has for theatre. You can be wrapped up in conversation about life ambitions but the next second be laughing at a witty comment that Stephen makes. You can see his eyes glow when he talks about the importance of his family and the love for his wife and daughter. You realize he has one of the biggest voices around as well as a heart to match.