Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

Interview with James Carpinello
by Michael Portantiere

James Carpinello
James Carpinello hit Broadway in a big way as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, but that show didn't run very long. His next Broadway outing was to have been in Xanadu, but he had to leave the production before it opened when he was injured during rehearsals. He bounced back as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, and though he now lives in Los Angeles and has been working mostly in film and TV, he can currently be seen onstage in New York at the Westside Theatre as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. (and other roles) in the long-running hit revival of Little Shop of Horrors. I caught up with James during a recent Zoom interview:

Michael Portantiere: Like the original production, this revival of Little Shop of Horrors has become one of those rare Off-Broadway shows that settles in a for a long commercial run. What was your familiarity with the show before you joined this production?

James Carpinello: My first job in New York was with Michael Mayer, when we did Stupid Kids at the WPA Theater. That was Howard Ashman's theater, where Little Shop premiered. And of course, Michael directed this production [of Little Shop], so that's another connection. I went to college with Christian Borle, so I was aware of this production and very much interested in it. I've seen the show in many iterations, I'm a big fan of the movie, and this is a dream part that I've never done. I live in Los Angeles with my family, and though I always have my agent looking for things in New York, it's been difficult to come back here. But when they asked me to do this, it was an instant "yes." It was the right timing–we have a place here, now my son is in college, and my daughter is self-sufficient and just about to get out of high school. Going into the show with Jinkx [Monsoon] and Corbin [Bleu] was really exciting to me. I hadn't seen this production until I arrived in New York, and then I saw it with Darren Criss and Evan Rachel Wood, who were fantastic. I believe this really is the definitive production of the show. Anything you want Little Shop to be as a fan, Michael has achieved in that space.

MP: I agree, and I would say that was pretty much everyone's reaction when the show opened.

JC: One thing that's so spectacular is the work of our puppeteers, who make that plant move and talk. I sit offstage every night and watch the monitor in awe of them. Their talent is just mind blowing to me.

MP: Yes, it's amazing when they come out to take their bows in the curtain call, and you see how many of them there are. So you didn't see the original cast of this production. Have you heard about Christian Borle causing some of the other actors–specifically Jonathan Groff–to break up in laughter onstage?

JC: I hadn't heard about that, but I would question whether it was intentional or if Christian is just so brilliant that it's hard for other people onstage not to break up. I saw a recording of the show with Christian, and I unapologetically stole most of my performance from him, though of course it's different in my body, my voice, my mouth, and my brain. He came to see the show a couple of weeks ago, and he was very complimentary. I've never before replaced in a show–well, I guess I replaced Will Swenson in Rock of Ages, because he did it Off-Broadway before I did it on Broadway. Especially with a long-running show, the replacement process is so strange. The jokes, the bits, the moments have evolved from cast to cast to cast, so you have to try to get to the root of the moment–what's the etymology of this joke, what was the reason it was instituted in 2019?

MP: The first time I saw you onstage was in Stupid Kids, which you mentioned earlier. I vividly remember that show, with you and Keith Nobbs and the rest of the cast, but thank you for reminding me that Michael Mayer directed it.

JC: I love Michael. That was my first theater experience in New York, and it's very near and dear to me because of the people who were involved in it. To come back to New York and be onstage for the first time since 2009–that's a long time away from it. Now my body is old and tired, so it doesn't feel exactly the same, but what a lucky little gift for the summer to come back in this beautiful production that Michael created.

MP: I thought of you recently when I saw The Heart of Rock and Roll, because I remember that, before I saw you in Rock of Ages, you told me how funny the book of that show was. I felt the same way about The Heart of Rock and Roll. I really enjoyed it because it doesn't take itself seriously and it's so much funnier than many of the other jukebox musicals, which I think tend to be silly and witless.

JC: I would agree with that 100 percent. Chris D'Arienzo's book is why Rock of Ages ran so long on Broadway, not because it had '80s hair metal. It was smart, it was funny. I'd love to see The Heart of Rock and Roll, and so many other shows. Maybe, after my run in this show is over at the end of the summer, I'll try to do a theater week before I head back to Los Angeles.

MP: What are some of your favorites that you have seen?

JC: I saw The Outsiders at the invited dress. I'm producing this musical of Lost Boys, and in one of our readings, Brody Grant [who plays Ponyboy in The Outsiders] was our lead. I think he's a singular talent–the voice is just out-of-control special. I thought what Danya Taymor did with the staging and the physical production of The Outsiders was spectacular–watching those boys dance and kick that stuff up on the air, and the blood, and the rain. I was blown away by all of that. And I saw The Notebook. I had not read the book or seen the movie; I knew there was a famous scene in it with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, because you'd have to have lived under a rock to not know that. I went to the show with my two producing partners from Lost Boys, Marcus Chait and Patrick Wilson. When I got to the theater and saw they were selling merch tissue boxes, it made me angry. I was like, "Really? You're so convinced I'm gonna cry at your musical that you're trying to sell me a tissue box?!" Cut to me about 10 minutes into the show, when I started ugly crying–and I kept crying for the next two hours. What else? I would like to see Stereophonic. I've known Shoshana Bean forever, so I'd like to see Hell's Kitchen.

MP: Of course, that's the thing. If you don't live in New York and you come here to do a show, it's difficult to be able to find the time to see anything else.

JC: Yes, plus I get into my routine, because I'm almost 50. I do my hot yoga, my Peloton. I like to have my day free so I can get ready for the show. I see the youngsters going to see shows before their show, or going out after, and I'm like: "Oh, my God, that takes so much energy!" I would be tuckered out, I'd need a nap.

MP: The progression of your career has been interesting, with a few road bumps. Thoughts?

JC: I was talking to my agent in New York about this. I wish I could get everyone who thinks they know what I do to see Little Shop, because I'm getting to mine all of these things I love about being onstage. I love to be a clown, I love to swing a big stick and make some bold choices. When I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, I would have been over the moon to be one of the guys singing "Drink With Me" in Les Miz on the road, but it just so happened that my first big job was as the lead in a big, giant, expensive Broadway musical. I never would have anticipated that in a million years, but that was the way it went down. Then I was involved with the workshops of Hairspray [as Link Larkin] but, ultimately, didn't wind up doing that because I went and did a movie instead. And then Xanadu was such a weird experience–oh, my Lord. So for a while, I felt a little like musical theater and New York theater in general were kind of eluding me, or I was responsible for that.

MP: The success of Rock of Ages must have been very pleasing.

JC: That was a great experience, but then I went back to Los Angeles to work in television and movies. We have a beautiful home in L.A., my wife is a very successful film and TV actor, and my kids as they got older didn't really want to leave their school and their friends. So the idea of coming back to New York to do a play or musical seemed harder and harder. Plus I've been working on Lost Boys on the other side of the table. With all that, I began to feel more and more distance from the community. But now, getting the opportunity to do Little Shop and be part of it again–I feel super, super grateful.

MP: Before I let you go, please tell me more about Lost Boys. You mentioned that one of your producing partners is Patrick Wilson. I assume you mean the actor?

JC: Correct.

MP: And your other partner is Marcus Chait, who also is or was an actor. What's happening with the show?

JC: Well, the beginnings of the project were about 20-some years ago, when we first tried to get the rights from Warner Brothers and they kind of laughed at us as three young musical theater actors trying to get the rights to a massive property. Then, during COVID, the movie was airing a lot, and the three of us bandied about the idea of trying again. Now Patrick has two major franchises with Warner, Aquaman and The Conjuring series, which doesn't hurt. So we made a new pitch for the rights, and we were able to get them. That process for me, being on the other side and building something from the ground up, has been very exciting.

MP: I'd love to hear the basics of it: Who wrote it, what's the current status...?

JC: We've done three workshops. The book was written by two other Carnegie Mellon alums, Chris Hoch–whom you may know as an actor, he's done many, many a musical–and David Hornsby, who is a show runner on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." The music and lyrics were written by a Los Angeles based band called The Rescues. The first person we brought on after we pitched Warner Brothers for the rights was Michael Arden to direct; I've known Michael socially for years and I'm a huge fan of his work, not only as an actor but then, obviously, as he segued into directing. He was the one who told us about The Rescues, and as soon as we heard them in concert in L.A., we said: "This is the band for our show." Here we are several years later, we had a big presentation in February, and right now we're just capitalizing it and gunning for a Broadway opening in the near future. I think we've created something special that's going to be very surprising to audiences. Some people remember the movie as scary, others remember it as campy and funny, and others remember it as a moving story of a single mother and her two boys starting over in a new place. When people ask what's our take on it, our answer is, "It will be all of those things." I'm very proud of it.

MP: That all sounds great. Maybe you and I can talk again when it opens on Broadway.

JC: Absolutely. Please. Many times, hopefully!