What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Cris Groenendaal
by Beth Herstein
Talkin' Broadway: Can you tell me a little bit about your new production, Voices of Spring?
Cris Groenendaal: It's a concert we're doing at the Merkin Concert Hall on June 14, which is a Monday night. There are four singers - Sarah Rice, Claudine Cassan-Jellison, John Jellison, and then myself. Claudine and John are married; and we've known each other since the late '70s, early '80s. Sarah and I were in the original cast of Sweeney Todd ; and, John and I were in the original cast of Sunday in the Park with George.
TB: Have you worked with Claudine before?
CG: No, but I sang at her wedding.
TB: How did you all decide to put on this show together, as an ensemble? Were you approached with the idea?
CG: Sarah and her husband John [Hiller] have a home up in Wurtsboro, New York - a little community about two hours north of New York City. And, they started to do local concerts. Sarah would call up some of her Broadway friends. Sometimes she would do a concert with them; or, in the case of Marni Nixon, Marni did a solo act. I did around three solo concerts up there. And Sarah and I recently did a concert together up there. John [Jellison] and Claudine and Sarah did a concert up there together as well, I believe. There was so much great material and such good feedback that John decided to see if the four of us could take a lot of this material into New York.
Usually when you're asked to do a concert, you're hired by a conductor, or you're hired by a musical director or a symphonic organization, and there's an agenda involved. You're pretty much told this is a Gershwin concert, or it's a Broadway evening, and, I'd like you to do this, this and this if you can do this. But, in this concert, the four of us have chosen music that we want to sing, that we love to sing, that we're comfortable with. That's what makes it really nice for us. And, we figure that if we enjoy singing this material, then an audience will really enjoy hearing it.
TB: And, if it all goes well, do you plan on doing this show or similar shows again?
CG: I think there will be more of these concerts. John is already looking at other halls in New York; and, there's talk of a concert with Sarah and Marni Nixon. I don't know if you know Marni. . .
TB: From back in the old days, when she sang on movie soundtracks.
CG: Yeah, she was the singing voice for all those movie stars, in all those musicals for all those people who couldn't sing. And, she's done a lot of Broadway herself. They're thinking of doing a concert with Sarah and Marni and me, possibly in the fall. [John Hiller's] definitely got plans for trying to market this kind of thing around a bit.
TB: You've had a very varied career in theater. You've played regularly in New York but have also worked in national and Canadian tours. How do you compare working on the road to doing shows in New York?
CG: If you're on Broadway and you're in a hit, then you're pretty much a commuter like everybody else commuting into New York to make their livelihood. So, that's kind of nice. I've lived in Westchester County since 87. In 89, I landed the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera. I was busy with that for over two years, commuting in and out in New York. That allows you to stay with your family. But, everybody's situation is different. If you're single and footloose and fancy free without a lot of obligations, there's nothing like a show on the road. The last big show I did on the road was the first national tour of Ragtime. We were gone a year - in 98 and a little bit of 99. And, in that whole year, we only played five cities. We actually got to set up camp in each place. We were four, four-and-a-half months in Washington, DC. You really could get to know the city and the area. Then, we were six weeks in Denver, and six weeks in Minneapolis, and six weeks in Seattle, and ten weeks in Boston. Also, on the road, the only real responsibilities you have are to the show, regarding your duties in the show; and, the rest of the time is yours.
TB: I notice that you perform a lot with your wife [arranger and pianist Sue Anderson]. Was she able to travel with you?
CG: No. She was home here with the kids [who are now 10 and 12 years old]. But, when I was in DC, I came home several times and she and the kids came to DC several times. And, they came for Christmas vacation to Seattle. They spent a couple of weeks with me in Denver. And, they spent some time with me in Boston. So, it worked out. It wasn't such a hardship. Now, the kids are really in school, so it's very difficult to pull them out for so long. If we see we're going to be in Hawaii for 10 days, we take them out of school. It's just worth it to go there with them. Most of the stuff that I do with my wife are solo concerts where she's at the piano and I'm at the microphone. I work for various concert organizations - for example, I work for a concert organization that markets something called The Three Phantoms. If the venue calls for a solo piano, sometimes Sue will play that. If it calls for a conductor with the symphony, and they don't have a pops conductor, my wife sometimes conducts.
At the end of June, I'm going to Nantucket with her and the family and with Liz Callaway, a wonderful, wonderful singer. The two of us are doing concerts together in Nantucket. But, my life on the road, I think, is pretty much over at this point.
TB: A little earlier, you mentioned The Phantom of the Opera. I read that you performed in 860 or so productions as the Phantom, and also that you said you found it a very difficult role emotionally, because it's a dark and neurotic and obsessive character. How did you manage to maintain that kind of energy, to do such a tough part performance after performance? And, also, what is it like to be that closely associated with a show that so many people have strong feelings about?
CG: It was three different productions. There was the Broadway production and the Toronto production, and then the Canadian national tour. And, within those three productions, I performed the role 860 times - not in a row. I did a year straight on Broadway; and, then I worked in Toronto and Canada over the next four years. The producer would have me come in and out of the production. He had all my stuff, and he would contact me when he needed me. It was really a great way to play the role, instead of doing it eight shows a week, year in and year out, which some of my friends have done. I just couldn't do that. It's truly exhausting. Of course, that's just my personal experience with the part. You could talk with somebody else who played the Phantom and he might say he's never had more fun in his life. But, I'm someone doesn't need to play the lead role. For example, I was Father in Ragtime. It's such a brilliant piece of theater and I didn't have all the responsibility. I was playing an important part and I was making a contribution; and, that's what I really like to do. I see myself as a good, competent ensemble player. And, the Phantom doesn't get to work with anybody, really. His part is kind of a one man show; and, he's always in the dark, and he's always hiding from people instead of engaging people. And, when he does engage people, it's in kind of a violent, fearful, threatening way. That really goes against my own personality.
TB: And as for sustaining the effort night after night?
CG: It's just something you do. After a while, you learn what works best for you and for an audience and you rely upon your years of experience and technique. And, you always remind yourself that there are lots of people out in that audience who have never seen the show. When people ask me how I do it, I often think of a dentist who's filling his six thousandth molar; or, a heart surgeon who's putting in his four thousandth cardiac pacemaker or something. Every one is different, but you kind of rely upon your experience and expertise and technique to get you through it sometimes. And, you just have to stay focused and keep your concentration.
TB: You've also been in a lot of Stephen Sondheim shows.
CG: Yes. In fact, the other four Broadway shows I've done have all been his.
It started in 79 when I was picked for the ensemble in Sweeney Todd . Six months later, I was the only principle replacement. They gave me the role of Anthony Hope. So, I got to play that role opposite Sarah [Rice], and all of the other original leads, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury and all those wonderful people, for the next six months on Broadway. When the new cast took over, I went out on the road with it.
Sunday in the Park with George was 1984. I was in the original cast there. Then in 94, I was in the original cast of Passion. And, in 1996 was the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum , in which I played Miles Gloriosus. There again was a classic ensemble effort. There were stars like Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg, but you still had a really experienced group of character actors who had done a lot on Broadway; and, it was quite joyous to be a part of that.
TB: What kind of adjustment was involved in making the switch from starring opposite Nathan Lane to starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg?
CG: It was very different, and it changed my show a lot. They decided that my big, vainglorious captain would have more to do with her in the opening and closing numbers. That changed the choreography and some of the intent for me, and my particular character. So, that was kind of fun. Also, she was the first woman to ever play that role. It wasn't just that it was Whoopi Goldberg or an actress or a black actress or what have you. It was quite a switch, and a lot of the things had to be rewritten so that it made some sense.
In addition to the shows, I got to do some really wonderful projects. Like, there was an early album made by RCA called A Stephen Sondheim Evening. It was in 1983. There were two performances of this concert at the auction house Sotheby Parke Bernet. There were seven people picked to sing all of the Stephen Sondheim music in a composer's showcase series, a dedication to him. I was one of the four guys picked and it was quite an honor and thrilling to be a part of that. Most recently, a couple summers ago, there was the salute to Stephen Sondheim at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I got to play a really nice part in Sunday in the Park with George.
TB: What was that like, revisiting the show?
CG: It was really fascinating, because in the original Sunday in the Park with George, I played Louis the Baker; and, after six months, with cast changes, I was switched to the role of the soldier. And, then, there was a very brief period in time where I actually played George. So, I kept changing roles in that production. When I got to go to the Kennedy Center, I got to play Jules, which is a really nice supporting role. So, I was revisiting the show in another part; but, all of that beautiful ensemble singing just came back to me. It was an amazing thing.
TB: What projects do you have lined up for the future?
CG: I have no booked shows at all, but I have various concerts. As I said, in the end of June I'm going with Liz Callaway and my wife to Nantucket. Next fall, we're going to have five of those Three Phantom concerts with the Detroit Symphony. In January, February and March of 2005, I also have several concerts booked with symphonies around the country.
TB: What is it like working with a symphony - when you step into an ensemble but don't have that ongoing relationship?
CG: Well, you come in rehearsed. You get one, or two at the most, rehearsals with the orchestra and the conductor. Of course, they're very professional, and have the music ahead of time, and hopefully have gone through some of it. After you rehearse together, you give one or two performance and then you're back home. You're in and out in a weekend. Usually, you're pretty familiar with the material, and the more of the shows you do the more familiar you get with the material. So, it's a really pleasant way to make a few dollars. Especially because, even if you're in a Broadway show, these days the most musicians you're singing with are I think it's like 19, 20. In these shows, suddenly you're singing the same material with a 60-70 piece symphony. And, with a hand held mike. What can be bad?
TB: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the Voices of Spring concert?
CG: This concert is very eclectic. And, as I said, people are getting to sing what they like. Lots of times when you are forging a career, people start to cast you in a certain mode. So, time and again, the audience sees you in a particular light. I'll always remember when Hal Prince, the very noted director and producer over the last four decades, said, "Cris, I only cast you in nineteenth century revenge tragedies." And, then I realized: He's right. He cast me in Sweeney Todd, the Phantom of the Opera and Candide - and they're all these kind of very heavily made up, wigged, heavily costumed nineteenth century revenge tragedy. (Laughs.) How can you make a career out of that?
TB: I can see how it would limit your options a little.
CG: But, in a concert like this, you can sing a serious piece, and then you can sing a totally silly, funny, ridiculous piece that the audience is not prepared for. So, from an artists' standpoint, it's so much fun. And, from an audience's standpoint, they can end up saying, "Oh, my God, I didn't know he was so funny." So, for us this is really great. Also, it's fun to sing with these people, as well. We're all old friends, that kind of thing. And, except for those shows in Wurtsboro, Sarah and I haven't sung together since 1980. So, it's fun to sing together again; and, to see that we're both kind of vocally in our primes. We may look a little different, but we still sound a lot the same.
The Voice of Spring, An Eclectic Evening of Song
An evening of songs celebrating spring and life, ranging from Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George), Finn (A New Brain), Kern, Romberg, Simon (Secret Garden), Maltby & Shire (Closer Than Ever) to J. Strauss through Billy Joel and more, sung by four of the most exquisite and riveting voices on the Broadway stage today.
Reserved Seating, so order your tickets early to ensure good seats for this exciting one night only event.
Concert at Merkin Hall (Kaufman Center), NYC
Visit www.BwayDirect.com for more info.
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