BWW Blog: Eric Ulloa of Goodspeed's THE MOST HAPPY FELLA on Bill Nolte - A Wonderful Guy
Sometimes the stars align and the universe grants us the rare opportunity to see an actor in a role that they were born to play one day. To say that Bill Nolte is "Tony Esposito" is the understatement of the year. If you don't get misty eyed during his "Mama, Mama" or in the last 15 minutes of this show, I will buy you a drink at the Gelston House after the show (Hey Goodspeed, I can borrow that corporate credit card just in case right?). Bill is also one hell of a great guy and someone you'd just love to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine with for the stories alone. So without further ado, I give you my interview with "the most happy fella" himself, Mr. Bill Nolte.
Eric Ulloa: If you could play one role of the opposite sex from the musical theatre canon, what would that role be? Why?
Bill Nolte: Wow! Well I would usually - I would look for an actress that inspires me and then I would look at her roles. I don't really think about roles like that. The first thing that comes to mind is Mama Rose, because of the mothering instinct, but she's not really a mother, she's kind of a hard ass mother...
EU: She's a mother something.
BN: Yeah. So that kind of shoots that all to hell.
Um, isn't that funny, now I'm thinking about Mother in "Ragtime" as well. I'm thinking about all these mother roles, but she's sort of dysfunctional too as she wants more and to get out and what have you.
It would be someone that has to sing, you know? The thing is, I've done all these roles that require character singing and that's why I'm loving "Tony," because I get to really sing. So, I'm trying to think of roles that require a real singer.
You know, I think about Effie in "Dreamgirls," not that it would fit my voice but for the fact that I'm a survivor. You know, I've been ignored and I said, "I'm going to have a career!" I got out of the business for a little bit, and the whole time I was out of the business, I studied acting and voice for three years. I think most people thought I had given it up, but it was still a dream of mine to stay in the business. So yeah, maybe it would be Effie in "Dreamgirls," for her determination and because she really gets to sing out.
EU: I'd pay to see it!
Bill and Effie in Dreamgirls
EU: So when I was 16 years old and just getting into theatre, I was obsessed with the original cast album of Titanic, wearing that CD out and playing/singing every passenger and crew member onboard. My bed was serenaded by my teenage forced vibrato crooning, "The Proposal/The Night was Alive". What are some of the first cast albums that you went this crazy for and couldn't stop playing and singing?
BN: Well the absolute first album that I remember playing the crap out of was one that I got at a Goodwill store and it was a Johnny Mathis album. People used to tell me that I sounded like Johnny Mathis when I first started singing, because there was a natural quiver to my vibrato and a high larynx, kind of soft and float-y.
The first real show album I remember was in college, we used to listen to "I Got Love" from Purlie with Melba Moore screaming that out. We used to listen to it, I mean, we would have parties and all sit down and listen to it. So we wore that out, and we also wore out Dear World for some reason...I don't know why? That was really popular at CCM from '73 to '76, those were the three years that I was there.
Pippin! Pippin was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I had a chance to come to New York, for the first time, from New Jersey with my roommate from college. I had a choice to see Pippin, Seesaw, or A Little Night Music, and I choose Pippin. The other two closed and I wish I could have seen them, because I ended up moving to New York two years later and Pippin was still running - I saw it six times...for free!
After I saw Pippin though, I wore it out! "Corner of the Sky," even though it didn't fit me, I sang it at auditions. I loved it! I loved it!
Sketch of Bill's costume by Thomas Charles LeGalley
EU: Given your role in the recent revival of La Cage Aux Folles and the popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race, if you were a drag queen, what would your drag name be and what would your act consist of?
BN: Well my drag name would be Tiffany Simone. That was my drag name in college. I was a waitress, God it's so funny you mentioned this, I was a waitress my first year in college and it kind of became a repeat performance. My name was Tiffany Simone and I wanted to be an actress, but I had to be a waitress. The first year I moved to New York, I went as Tiffany Simone to a place called "The Bushes," and it was a cabaret in the Upper West Side in the 70's. I went in with my friends who lived in the building and I started waiting on people, pouring coffee and everything, and I ran into Vinnie Liff and he just thought it was hysterical. I got home and my friends said, "Do you know who that was?" and I said, "No," and they said, "That was Vinnie Liff," and I didn't know who he was. About ten or fifteen years later I was in an audition for "Chaplin" out in LA and I'm singing and the people at the table are just laughing and in hysterics. When I finished a guy raised his hand and said, "Excuse me, did you one Halloween dress as a waitress?" I said, "Yes! That was my first year in New York, who are you?" And he said he was Vinnie Liff the casting director, and he ended up casting me in like six of my Broadway shows, so I definitely made an impression.
I've always wanted to do a Miss America "Pack Your Suitcase" talent thing. You know, what you would take on a quick trip/how to pack a bag for the weekend in three minutes...that'd be a good talent.
Bill in drag as waitress
EU: What is the most embarrassing moment you've ever had onstage?
BN: Oh my lord! I haven't thought of this in yeeeeeaaars. Non-equity summer stock, we were doing Brigadoon - we wore kilts - and I think I was playing Harry Beaton's dad Archie Beaton. It was theatre in the round at "Wagon Wheel Playhouse" in Indiana. At the top of Act Two, we all had to run around the aisles. We had to run around in the dark back to the women's bathroom in the lobby to make our entrance for the "Come and get it, get it..." - it's a big searching thing looking for Harry Beaton or what have you. The women's restroom was right next to the candy cupboard with all the candy bars and everything in it. So one night, (laughs) I stuff five Almond Joys in my Woolworth's- well they didn't have enough money to buy tights for the men so they bought us Woolworth's women's panties...black panties! (Laughing) And so I stuffed like five Almond Joys in my panties, and I thought I would do the scene and then go back and share them with my dressing room. So they started falling out as I'm running down, and I have a lantern, so I'm trying to do my number, hold my lantern and keep the Almond Joys from coming out. I think one did fall out in the aisle and I was mortified. The director found out about it and balled me out and I never put candy in my panties again.
EU: That's a good lesson for the children.
BN: Yeah! (Laughs) That was my first summer stock summer, so that would have been like 1973.
EU: So, I know this, but the rest of the world may not know that you are an exceptional painter. How did you get into painting? Had you always painted?
BN: I never really sang. Well, I knew I could sing, I knew I had a musical talent, but I really didn't like the music teacher that I grew up with. We finally came to blows in high school when he picked on me and I didn't respect him so I wouldn't listen to him. I got straight "F's" in conduct in Junior High and I was just in the choir as an elective, I didn't want to be a singer. When I got to high school I thought, "You can't stay in choir because you're gonna get F's and you're going to want to go to college," so I dropped out of choir. I always painted. In fourth grade I discovered that I could paint and I won a prize for my watercolor painting that I did out of National Geographic. I was hooked after that and I've always only been interested in watercolor, I never wanted to do any oils or acrylic. I was accepted in an arts school and I wanted to be an artist. I didn't want to be a commercial artist and that's one of the reasons why I dropped out of art as a major, because the whole commercial side of it didn't appeal to me. When I dropped out of art school that first year when all my friends were going off to college, I thought they were getting ahead of me one quarter, I was home and I thought maybe I wanted to take a voice lesson. We had always driven by this conservatory of music in Toledo, Ohio on my way to the art museum and I thought, "Well they would teach voice lessons." And so I called them up and signed up for a lesson and got all the way to the front door and chickened-out. I got home and called them and said that I couldn't find parking, I lied, and I was ready to hang up and let that be the end of my musical quest and they said, "Okay, we'll put you down for next week." So the next week I went and I got up the stairs and said, "Just get it out of you! Get this feeling that you might want to sing, out of you!" I went in and just let it all come out and my teacher said, "You've really got a voice," and he gave me a job in his choir while I was still an art major at Bowling Green. He let me sing at his church and when he did a production of Hello, Dolly! he let me play Cornelius then cast me in Iolanthe, the Gilbert and Sullivan piece. So my second year at Bowling Green I switched to music and kind of put art on the back burner, I decided to go to the conservatory (CCM). Painting has always been something that I do on my own, and when I got to the city (NYC) I took a group watercolor class down on Christopher Street above McNulty's Tea on Saturdays. The teacher introduced me to textile design, she said, "I think you'd be a good textile designer" and I was like, "Oh, forget it!" And then when my whole career came to a crashing halt when I was 27, I decided to get out of the business. I said, "You know, I think I'd like to get into textile design." I went back to her and learned textile design, got a job as an apprentice, I was a designer, I won a TOMMY award for one of my designs, and even had my own studio for a little while. I've always painted in spurts though. When I was doing 1776, I would go home at night and for two hours I would paint. That's when I am my happiest, when I am doing theatre and painting. Now, when I'm doing theatre, especially in rehearsal, I'm so concentrated on the work that it's kind of hard for me to paint. When I'm home I paint on Sundays with a group and on Wednesdays at the Leslie Lohman gallery.
EU: Where can people go see your art?
BN: On my website. My favorite things are on there.
EU: that would be www.billnolte.com ...Enjoy!
BN: Yes. So, it's always been kind-of - well, it was my first passion and then became a dual passion - kind-of on the back burner. I made a living at it for three years and it's now taken a back burner position again. As I get older though I want to paint more - I want to paint when I grow up. You know what I mean? I feel like that's what I'll do when I retire. I'll have the time to just paint when I want to and if a role comes along that I want to do then I'll do it, but I won't have to be forced to go to some far away dinner theatre to do a show.
Model of the set by Michael Schweikardt
EU: These next few questions are rapid fire and I just want the first word that comes to your mind when I say these. Ready?
BN: Michael Price.
EU: Opening Night?
BN: The Producers.
EU: Tech Week?
BN: Christmas Carol.
Thank you Bill!
Bill in rehearsal
As you read this, we are smack dab in the middle of tech rehearsals and I'm somewhere on a computer underneath the Goodspeed stage in my dressing room awaiting my next cue. We have left the rehearsal studio and our run-throughs in that space have come to an end. One of our last ones involved a practical joke on our director Rob Ruggiero and a note he had about wanting one of the men having their shirts off during "Fresno Beauties," which is the opening of Act Two. So unbeknownst to him, we made a plan that during the next run - and in mid-song - every man onstage tore off his shirt and some even dropped their pants. The sounds of the cast and creative team hooting and hollering echoed well across the Connecticut River! In the future though, a couple of one dollar bills in the underwear band wouldn't have killed anyone ladies... And since sex sells as they say, here's a little tease of what you all missed that afternoon (and all I can show and still have friends in this cast.)
To give you all an exciting moment-to-moment feeling of what it's like to be in the middle of tech rehearsals here at the Goodspeed, I will be tweeting live from noon to midnight this Thursday the 19th. Follow me on twitter @EUlloa03 and share the excitement with us as we get ready to open our first preview for audiences this Friday. I promise you many insights from the cast and as many backstage "peeks" as I can before they replace me and ship me down the river back to New York.
If nothing else, please have pity on me and the twenty "selfies" it took to get this photo, and follow me for that alone.
Take care Broadwayworld readers!