Spotlight on Alexander Gemignani

by Nancy Rosati        

See our update interview with Alexander

Alexander GemignaniAlexander Gemignani is a 24-year old actor who speaks with the wisdom of someone with twenty years in the business. He wasnít a child actor, but he did grow up in show business. His mother is actress/singer Carolann Page and his father is Broadway musical director Paul Gemignani.

Shortly after graduating with a BFA in Music Theatre from the University of Michigan in 2001, Alex was cast for his Broadway debut - the role of John Hinckley in Stephen Sondheimís Assassins. That production was cancelled after September 11th, but is now set to begin previews in March, and Alex is once again on board.

This past spring he played Brian in the Vineyard Theatre production of Avenue Q. Before that, he understudied John C. Reilly in Marty at Bostonís Huntington Theatre Company. Alex has done quite a bit of regional work, including two seasons at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Company. Heís also a recipient of the 2003 NY International Fringe Festival Award for Best Performer for his role in Trapped Family Singers.

Nancy Rosati:  I usually begin by asking people where they grew up, but it sounds as if you practically grew up on Broadway.

Alexander Gemignani:  Yeah. I grew up right across the water in Tenafly, New Jersey. Since my folks were in the business, I was in New York all the time seeing shows. The first show I ever saw was Dreamgirls. I donít have a lot of memory of that because I was two.

I came into New York a lot and I frequently sat in the pit. Into the Woods is the show I saw the most, probably over 20 times.

NR:  Was that because you wanted to see it that often, or did you get dragged along?

AG:  I wanted to. My folks never said to me, ďFollow the path of the creative field.Ē They said, ďDo whatever you want to do.Ē

NR:  They didnít discourage you?

In Marty
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
AG:  No, not at all. I went to college to be a trumpet player and after my first semester, I was losing my love for playing. It just wasnít my thing anymore, so I thought, ďWell, I can kind of sing ... I guess. Maybe Iíll try out for this musical theatre program.Ē It was the only thing I really loved, and I got in.

It turns out I was at a great school for it - the University of Michigan. The main reason I stayed and auditioned there was because I loved the school so much. I didnít want to leave because Iíd had such a great first year.

I still play trumpet every now and then. My first show in college was Anything Goes and I played it in that show. When I did Marty last fall in Boston I played a bandleader, sort of a ďSinatra-y, Harry JamesĒ guy and he played trumpet.

NR:  Had you done any acting before you switched majors in college?

AG:  Growing up, I didnít do any theater other than high school. I didnít do summer theater or any of that kind of thing until I was in college. I spent my summers working at the UPS Store - formerly Mailboxes, Etc - and thatís basically what I did. I had to spend a lot of time doing trumpet stuff in high school.

NR:  Growing up in the business didnít scare you off?

AG:  Not really. Itís what I knew. I knew the hard times. The highs are so high. The lows are more frequent, but when the highs come, theyíre so high, that you donít remember the bad times.

NR:  It sounds like you didnít enter the profession with stars in your eyes.

AG:  No. In fact, itís prepared me in a lot of ways, to be able to come to New York and say, ďOk, now what?Ē

NR:  Youíve done a lot of regional work already.

Fiddler on the Roof
Alex (standing at left) in
Fiddler on the Roof

Pittsburgh CLO/Matt Polk
AG:  Yeah. I worked at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for two years. I had a blast there. I did Marty at the Huntington last fall and that was an amazing experience.

NR:  I saw a review that said you probably had a better voice than John C. Reilly, whom you were understudying.

AG:  Thatís one personís opinion. I covered John in the show and I learned so much from him, just from watching him and from being around him. As a human being, and as an actor as well, heís just a fantastic guy. Johnís voice is so genuine, and it matches the character so perfectly. Marty is a simple butcher, and he was right on the money.

NR:  Is it possible it could still come into New York?

AG:  It might. (laughs) Everything might. Itís not dead yet. I was speaking with (Marty composer) Charles Strouse about it and he said theyíre hoping to get it going again. Weíll see. We did do a reading in New York in March or April. John couldnít do it so I got a chance to do the part, which was fantastic. It was most of the same people from Boston and it went great. All of the rewrites they did were so smart and so good. We all left chomping at the bit, saying, ďPlease, let this workĒ because itís such a great story. The three of them - Charles, Lee (Adams, lyricist), and Rupert (Holmes, bookwriter) - have done amazing work on it. Rupertís book is just sensational.

NR:  Thatís some team.

AG:  I know. Youíve got a score by Strouse and Adams - thatís spectacular as it is. Then youíve got Rupert Holmes writing the book. And Mark Brokawís a fantastic director for the show. Then we had Rob Ashford ... some very talented people. All of these people were giving a thousand percent to the show, and it showed. Even in Boston, when we all knew there were flaws, everybody left with big smiles. It made you laugh, it made you cry. Thatís the kind of arc the show has, which is so refreshing. The reason I want that show to come to New York, whether or not Iím a part of it in the long run, is just for the showís sake. Itís got such a good heart, it would be really nice to see it succeed.

NR:  You received the Fringe Award this past year, for The Trapped Family Singers.

Trapped Family SingersAG:  Yeah. It was weird. I got a call from Ellen Schwartz, whoís the lyricist of the show. She said, ďCongratulations!Ē and I said, ďFor what?Ē I had no idea. She said, ďYou won this award.Ē Nobody had called me or anything. Apparently there was some kind of ceremony where they gave out the pieces of paper, but nobody told me about it.

NR:  (laughing) Thatís terrible!

AG:  Well, I just donít want them to think that Iím ďtoo bigĒ for this award. I didnít even know about it!

NR:  While you were doing all of these kind of jobs, were they your way of working towards Broadway, or were you grateful just to be employed?

AG:  Yes and yes. Itís a strange dichotomy an actor goes through. Every step you take could lead to the next job you get. You always want to be working. There are plenty of opportunities for actors to take crappy jobs, and there are plenty of opportunities for that not to happen. Sometimes itís hard to gauge. Suppose you always wanted to do Hamlet, and you find someone whoís doing a production of it. You may be dying to do it, but itís not going to help your career at all. Youíre always juggling that.

Iíve been very lucky. Iíve been a part of great projects with great people. Itís hard. Just because I lucked out and Iím going to have a chance to be on Broadway, it doesnít mean that when Assassins closes Iím not going to be back to square one again.

NR:  Tell me about Avenue Q, which you did at the Vineyard. What made you leave when they moved to Broadway?

AG:  I wasnít asked to move with it. I replaced Jordan Gelber as Brian. He did all the previews and a couple of performances. Then he got an HBO movie and had to leave. I was doing a reading and I got a call that said, ďCan you come in tomorrow and audition for Avenue Q?Ē I knew nothing about the show, but I went in and sang for them. I got a call later that day and they said, ďCome in tomorrow.Ē I did maybe a week of rehearsal and then I was in the show. The great thing about it was that it kept getting extended because it was such a hit. I was only supposed to do it for three weeks, but I ended up doing it 8 or 9 weeks.

What a great experience. The cast is fantastic. That was the hardest thing, when the producers said, ďWeíre going to go with Jordan for the Broadway run.Ē (shrugs) Thatís the way the cookie crumbles. The hardest thing was not being able to see the cast every day because they are such a spectacular group of people. I still see them. I hang out with them all the time.

Jeff (Marx) and Bobby (Lopez), who wrote the score, put together a great mix of contemporary pop music, with a huge influence of TV jingles, and old school Broadway stuff. The show really has a nice sound to it. Itís truly a fantastic show, and Iím glad itís enjoying the success that it is. Iím sad that Iím not a part of it, but what are you going to do?

NR:  Before we get to Assassins, I wanted to ask you about a cabaret show you did last spring. Is that another sideline?

AG:  A friend of mine, Justin Brill, who is in Christmas Carol right now, asked me to do it. We were roommates my first summer at Pittsburgh CLO. We became great buddies. He was an voice student of my grandmotherís when she taught at Carnegie Mellon. We had done a couple cabarets together out in Pittsburgh and he asked me to do this one.

Itís not something I usually do. Twenty years from now if Iím not acting, maybe I will think about doing it. We had a good time, but I canít be known as that now.

NR:  That reminds me of something Douglas Sills frequently says, that heís not a singer. He wants to be known as an actor, and he just doesnít get the same thrill when heís singing in a concert or cabaret setting.

Anything Goes
As Moonface Martin in
Anything Goes

Photo: David Cross
AG:  Itís an interesting point you bring up. I try not to separate the two in my mind. When Iím singing, I make sure Iím not just singing. I donít put on a different hat. Iím performing, whether Iím in a play or a musical, or if Iím singing in a cabaret. The trick is that you get labeled by casting people - ďOh, heís a singer.Ē One of the main reasons I did a recent project for the Drama League is because itís a play credit on my resume. Thatís huge for a musical theatre performer. As it turns out, I had a blast doing it, but it was also a wise move, because people get pigeon-holed. If casting people think of you as a singer, then you wonít get called in for a play.

It works a little differently the other way. If they view you as an actor, theyíre more likely to call you in, because with the style of todayís musical theatre, audiences are demanding better than just a good voice. People want to see a really good actor first, and then a really good singer. Sometimes in a musical, the voices arenít that great, but their acting is great, and itís forgiven. In the old school, someone like Ethel Merman had a fantastically huge voice, but she wasnít known for her acting ability. So, it makes perfect sense that Doug would say that. If someone asks me, I tell them Iím an actor.

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