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Interview with Christopher Fitzgerald

Finian's Rainbow

By Beth Herstein

Christopher Fitzgerald
Though he's not yet 37, Christopher Fitzgerald already has been a favorite among theater lovers for years. He played Boq in the Broadway smash Wicked when it premiered in New York in 2003 and co-starred in 2006's Off Broadway hit Gutenberg! The Musical!. Fitzgerald has turned in memorable performances in shows such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme, Corpus Christi and The Cripple of Inishmaan; and he earned a Drama Desk nomination for his work in Amour and a Tony nod for Young Frankenstein. For his recent star turn as Billy Minsky in the new musical Minsky's in Los Angeles, he received an Ovation Award nomination for best lead actor.

Now Fitzgerald is back on Broadway as Og, the leprechaun trying to recapture his stolen pot of gold, in the delightful Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, which recently opened to rave reviews. An earlier version of this production debuted last summer as part of City Center's Encores series and transferred with cast members Cheyenne Jackson, Kate Baldwin and Jim Norton as Finian. Fitzgerald fits smoothly into the mix, playing a role well suited to his whimsical charm, his musical comedy prowess and his talent for magic. A few days before opening I sat with Fitzgerald and chatted about his career in general and his work in Finian's Rainbow in particular.

Beth Herstein:  I saw the show a few days ago and really loved it. The audience as a whole was extremely enthusiastic.

Christopher Fitzgerald:  People really are responding to it. I think it's kind of fascinating to see this older musical that no one ever gets to see. You can almost hear people singing along with the songs sometimes. It's the show that everybody knows and loves though no one has seen it.

BH:  Why is that?

CF:  Satire has a hard time traveling through history. It was so topical at the time, a hard core social satire. It almost didn't make it to Broadway. Now some of the issues of the time are back with us in some way. Even the word "hope" and what Finian represents relate to what we're thinking about and dreaming about.

BH:  In a previous interview, you mentioned that you went to clown school when you were five. Did you study clowning for a while?

CF:  Yes I did. In Maine at that time there was a revival of vaudeville performers and storytellers. Tony Montanaro and Celebration Barn were in South Paris, Maine. He's a famous mime. I entered this whole world of all these crazy people. [I learned] so many techniques of clowning but also mime and storytelling, singing and comedy and everything. Juggling, balancing. I can balance anything on my face! And magic too. It's funny that so many of the shows I have ended up doing have utilized some of that stuff. Or I make them utilize it.

BH:  How else do you think this part of your training influences your acting?

CF:  My initial approach is as an actor rather than a clown. But certainly [I draw on] that kind of clarity that clowning has, and that relationship that clowns have with the audience. The thing about clowning that I think is different has to do with the superego of the clown. It's all about what the clown's journey is. [In Finian's Rainbow], we're playing scenes. We're talking to each other and listening to each other, and telling a story with language. What's fun about this character is that I can bring some of those elements into the scenes. It's fun, the scenes become like mini-plays. Like the scene with apples. I'm holding them, but not letting you see that I'm holding them. Apple here, apple there, little red apples everywhere. Bing! Then change the expectation and eat a banana.

BH:  Because of the show's structure, you get to do a lot of one-on-one scenes with the other actors in the show.

Christopher Fitzgerald with Alina Faye
CF:  All my scenes are one-on-one. I love it. I get to do a scene with Jim [Norton], a scene with Kate [Baldwin]. My whole final number. Then I work with the kids. And then Alina [Faye], who plays Susan the silent. It's really a blast. And it's great to start the show with Jim, who's one of those crazy people who come along every now and then. He is Finian to me. He's almost a better human being than he is an actor. And he's an amazing actor. The play would be hard to do without someone like him. He's kind of magical.

BH:  He was terrific. You also work with Warren Carlyle in this show. He both directs and choreographs. Is it any different for you as an actor when one person performs both of those roles?

CF:  That's interesting. Susan Stroman did it with Young Frankenstein too. I think if they have the skills it's fine. Especially in this show, for my numbers, they're not really dance numbers but actable songs. Like, [sings] "Something sweet, something sort of grandish." It's kind of slow ... so my take on it is that it has to be specifically about the story we were telling. Warren was open about that and has lots of enthusiasm for our ideas and the material. He can talk both languages—director and choreographer—and that's what I needed for my part.

BH:  I also wanted to ask you about some of your earlier theater work. You were in The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Public.

CF:  All those years ago [in 1998]. It's weird to be alive and acting long enough that a revival of something you originally did has arrived [at the Atlantic Theater last season] and been hailed. That's kind of odd.

BH:  Not long after that you were in Terence McNally's play Corpus Christi. There was so much controversy around that.

CF:  It was a wild experience. I met some of my dearest friends that I still have to this day on that show. Jeremy Shamos, [Michael C.] Hall, a lot of those guys. And [director] Joe Mantello is still a very good friend, and a good friend of my wife [Jessica Stone] especially. It was so weird how strong the reaction was to that show.

BH:  You also were in the one-man show Fully Committed. I saw Roger Bart in that show.

CF:  I saw him in it too, because I had to replace him. He was great.

BH:  In Fully Committed you worked with a very simple set and were on the stage the whole time. How did you approach the project?

CF:  That experience was so interesting because it got to the essence of storytelling. We were live in a theater, and it was me and the stage manager and the lighting operator. That was all that was there. You go out, and you have a coffee cup and some sound effects. That was it, and it was an hour-and-a-half with the audience. To me, when the audience was right and I felt right, nothing was quite like that experience. It was really fun and so in my hands—just me and the writing. When you're doing Wicked, it's a different ball of feelings. You're part of such a giant thing, you're kind of a small dot.

BH:  Although I'm sure a lot of people remember and love you from that show.

CF:  Oh yeah. People are so crazy about that show. I've seen people with tattoos of Boq on their arm. Wicked probably will outlast us all. It's the new Cats.

BH:  I also wanted to ask you about Gutenberg! The Musical!. It's very different from the other shows we've been discussing of course, but also a lot of fun.

CF:  The recording is coming out this week [on P.S. Classics]. I just got some copies, and I am so proud of it. When I got the part, I had just finished a show and I was thinking [in a discouraged tone], "What's next?" Nothing was coming up really. Then I was asked to do this workshop. I remember telling my wife, "I got this email to do Gutenberg! The Musical!. That's where my career is now. Gutenberg? The musical? There's a song called 'Biscuits.' They want me to do a song called 'Biscuits'?" She said, "Play it!" So I played it, and it made me laugh. Then I thought, "Wait a minute. This could be really funny." So I started reading it and it was.

BH:  You also got to work with Jeremy Shamos again.

CF:  It's a two-person show, just me and this other guy, and I thought there was no way I was going to do it unless I had input into who the other guy was. I think I called the director [Alex Timbers] and said, "I'd be interested but I have to help you find the other guy." He asked me, "Do you know this actor Jeremy Shamos?" And that was the name I was going to give him. Then it turned out the director had talked to Jeremy too, and he had wanted to know if I was going to do it. So he was very smart, he kind of played us against each other knowing that we were buddies. It wound up being one of those little tiny shows that could. Again, the same thing as Wicked. There are Gutenberg-crazy fans. You have to listen to the CD. It's really, really stupid.

BH:  Stupid smart, though.

CF:  That's how I think of myself. Stupid smart.

BH:  Smart enough to know that sometimes silly or stupid can be a good thing. Which probably makes you fun as a dad too.

CF:  The most fun dad. But my God, so tired.

BH:  How old are your children?

CF:  (pointing at their photographs, which adorn his dressing room) There are two of them. The six-month old is Emmett, and the two-year-and-three-month old is Charlie.

BH:  Your oldest son was born right around the time you did Young Frankenstein.

CF:  Charlie was born two weeks after our first rehearsal. Two weeks after that we went to Seattle. So it was a time of two big things happening. One was really big, and that was Charlie. One was—the expectation of coming to rehearsal and having to be funny for Mel Brooks and Roger Bart and Megan Mullally and Andrea Martin. Luckily, all of those actors were friends of mine. Andrea is a really good friend. We've always been friends, we've traveled together. She threw our baby shower. She's great. And she is so funny. ... So I had a great time doing that show. It was hard work, and it was hard doing something that had so much noise around it. That is what I love about this experience. Young Frankenstein was done for the same reason as this show, I really believe that, but no one would do Finian's Rainbow except for love. Because it's a weird show and there are no big stars in it. It's a little different when Catherine Zeta-Jones is headlining your show [A Little Night Music], or Scarlett Johansen [A View from the Bridge]. A lot of actors are getting their Broadway cred lately. Every time you turn around there's someone making their Broadway debut. I think that is great, but it makes a show like this harder to produce, even more a labor of love. I've talked to the producers privately, publicly—they just believe in this show and love it. And that filters through to everybody. That has been a new experience to me, to have the producers all so full of love for the project.

BH:  Congratulations on your Ovation award nomination for Minsky's. That was a big production and you were the lead, the title character. What was that experience like?

CF:  That was interesting. It was a new thing for me to try to helm a show in that regard. But it had to do with burlesque and vaudeville; and as we talked about earlier, that kind of stuff makes sense in my bones. So it was great.

BH:  Before you became a professional actor you got your master's in acting at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. You've said that grad school gave you a lot of space to explore yourself but not as much practical preparation. I know that there is a danger in a school environment that when you listen to the collective voice of your classmates, you'll be encouraged to fit more into a mold.

CF:  Some schools can take that on, but I didn't have that experience. It wasn't a break-you-down kind of program. But I know exactly what you're talking about. School for art is a really interesting thing. We could talk for a whole interview on that. Ultimately, it was a great experience for me. For me it was the repetitive experience of getting in touch with myself and getting freer and freer with my facility and my emotional world. I had done so much clowning and silliness—that's sort of what I was before I went to school. So school was an opportunity to explore other sides of myself. Those aren't always fun to explore—they're painful or they're challenging. It's a cliche to say it, but then you get out and your first audition is for Starburst. I wish there was just a little more prep on how disappointing and challenging the life is ... but then in the end you just have to go out and give it a shot anyway ... Acting is weird. What do you think about when you act? It's sort of a mish mash, you think about everything. Sometimes I think about hot dogs. Then suddenly you're just—in the scene.

BH:  I know you have to get ready for the show now.

CF:  We can finish this up, though. Get out your last question that is really fun and exciting.

BH:  Well ... one thing I often ask people about is collaboration. You have a lot of ongoing collaborative relationships. You've worked with Jeremy Shamos, Richard Easton a number of times. Even when you're not working on the stage with your wife you collaborate and bounce ideas off each other all the time. Can you talk about how important that is to you?

CF:  To me, it's one of the highlights of my experience as an actor. Working with someone like Nicholas Martin, the director. I started working with him at Williamstown—thirteen, fifteen years ago, something crazy like that. I've done maybe ten shows with him, and all sorts of things. Shakespeare. We did Where's Charley? together [at Williamstown in 2002, in a cast which also included Jessica Stone]. Observe the Sons of Ulster. Springtime for Henry, this great old play. Fully Committed, which he put me into. Endless stuff. It's so satisfying when you find someone who shares your sensibility.

And when I say Warren was very open to what I have to offer, and let me help shape what I do in the show—I don't take that lightly. We worked together once before, on Stairway to Paradise at Encores. For him to know me and trust me is so satisfying. Some directors are very different from that. For this kind of part, and for me and for him, I feel like our collaboration was pitched just right. It becomes the best thing. You're working together, you're great friends, you really trust each other. That's been my favorite for sure. It's all collaboration.

Finian's Rainbow Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by Yip Harburg. Book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy. Starring Jim Norton, Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Guy Davis, Alina Faye, Brian Reddy, David Schramm, Terri White, William Youmans, with Chuck Cooper and Christopher Fitzgerald. At the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets and schedule at Telecharge.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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