BWW Interviews: Andrew Samonsky is Having One Good Year!
It's late enough in the year to start thinking about new year's resolutions, but Andrew Samonsky may have a hard time coming up with plans to top this year. He's currently costarring off-Broadway in the musical Queen of the Mist, his third world premiere of 2011. All three have been heavily hyped projects involving well-known and well-loved names. And they follow the year in which Samonsky closed out his first run on Broadway, the highly acclaimed revival of South Pacific.
In the world premiere of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco this summer, Samonsky portrayed Beauchamp Day, the bisexual philanderer played in the 1990s TV adaptation by Thomas Gibson. Tales of the City, which originated as a series of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and was turned into a musical by librettist Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and songwriters Jake Shears and John Garden of the rock group Scissor Sisters, broke box office records at A.C.T. and was extended three times. Samonsky did Tales of the City right after performing in the new Little Miss Sunshine musical at southern California's La Jolla Playhouse in the company of a multitude of Tony winners and nominees—stars Hunter Foster, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Dick Latessa and Malcolm Gets, composer/lyricist William Finn and bookwriter and director James Lapine. Originally in the ensemble, Samonsky ended up with a starring role in Little Miss Sunshine when Gets had to drop out of the production shortly after opening night due to a throat ailment. Samonsky, his understudy, took over as Frank, the role that Steve Carell had in the Oscar-winning 2006 film.
Now back in New York, Samonsky is part of the Transport Group production of Queen of the Mist, Michael John LaChiusa's new musical about Anna "Annie" Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel (which she did in 1901 at age 63). Mary Testa stars as Annie, with Samonsky as her manager Frank Russell. Julia Murney, Theresa McCarthy, Stanley Bahorek, Tally Sessions and D.C. Anderson complete the cast of Queen, which is playing at Judson Church in Greenwich Village.
Samonsky made his Broadway debut in South Pacific, performing an ensemble role before succeeding Matthew Morrison in the part of Lt. Joseph Cable. He appeared as Cable in the 2010 PBS broadcast of South Pacific. Earlier stage credits include lead roles on the national tour of Disney's On the Record and in White Christmas at the Denver Center. Samonsky spoke with BWW backstage during Queen of the Mist's previews last week.
Have you learned anything about Frank Russell beyond what's in the script?
There isn't a lot to know, actually. There's a couple of pictures of him, and they're of different people. So they're not even sure which person Frank is! I think Michael John really used his imagination about what that relationship was. Some of the historical data is true—that he stole her barrel afterward and went on the road and made money off of her—but beyond that, not too much is known about him. You use the material that's there. He says [in the play] he has a wife back home, and in this story he has a bit of an alcohol problem. You just start filling in the blanks yourself and in the end just bring yourself to it, just keep deepening it and find out who this guy is to you.
He's a wonderful character that Michael John's written, and especially the relationship he has with Anna Edson Taylor: this personal and professional relationship he has with her, and this time of crisis that brings them together, and that strong bond that is created when someone is about to do something like this. It's not a common relationship that's explored in musical theater—man and woman, but it's not a romance.
Queen of the Mist is a tour de force for Mary—her role dominates the show. What's it like to play opposite that?
Really, just sit back and enjoy it! The performance that Mary gives is unbelievable, and I feel like we all support her. And we want to support her, not just because she's so good but the show is so beautiful. We're all so eager—me and the other five people—to help her along this ride, and I think that's what we're doing in a sense in the show: taking her on this journey and helping her through this profound experience.
Were you involved in the show's development?
One year ago we did a three-week workshop of it. Mary and I and Theresa and Stanley were part of it. We memorized the whole thing and did some really solid work on it. It's stayed very much intact since that time. Even then we knew we had something really special. I knew whatever was happening at this time, I was going to be doing this.
How familiar were you with Michael John LaChiusa's work before this?
I had done another workshop of his, Giant. I saw the revival of Hello Again the Transport Group did. I knew his music very well, but I didn't know his shows as well. But you know his history and how his work's been received, and that's enough to make you want to do anything he's written.
While I was watching the show, Annie Taylor occasionally reminded me of a reality TV star—milking her unconventional celebrity for all she could. Did that connection ever occur to the cast and creative team?
That's a great observation. It's not something we really discussed. What's interesting is, at first she does this for fame and fortune, and in the end we realize that her experience of doing it ended up being quite different for her. It was a very profound, perhaps spiritual experience going over the fall, so it becomes something serious. To the rest of us, who watch reality television or watch someone go over Niagara Falls, we look at these people like they just want attention. At first she did; she wanted to feel important. I think all these reality stars want to feel important. We all want to live forever in history. But instead of it being a stunt, in the end it was something important that she felt she did. She knew what she was doing: She built the barrel herself, she researched everything. And she survived. People since then have done it, with technology, and not survived. She felt she should be taken seriously for doing something like that, and perhaps she's right.
Have you ever been to Niagara Falls?
I have. Right after Michael John called me to do the workshop of this piece, I had already scheduled a bachelor party with my buddies up to Niagara Falls, for a friend that was getting married. It was the first time I had been there. It was helpful to feel the power of Niagara Falls, and the mist. Interestingly enough, the water that's going over Niagara Falls right now is maybe only 50 percent of the water that would have been going over when Anna Edson Taylor did what she did. Most of that water is funneled through tunnels now for hydroelectric power. To imagine what those falls might have looked like then—they're impressive now, but they would be twice as impressive.
But you're from the West Coast, right?
I am. From Ventura, California, about an hour north of L.A. I grew up there, and then I went to college and grad school in southern California. I have a bachelor's of music in vocal performance from Cal State Northridge and a master's in acting from UC Irvine. Because I was a singer and because I loved New York, I immediately moved to New York. Luckily, work has taken me back to California a couple of times. There's a theater called PCPA near my hometown that does musicals, and we'd go every summer to their outdoor theater. We have a theater in Ventura called the Rubicon that does some great work. Five years ago I did Tick...Tick...Boom! there, and then we did it in L.A. for a few months.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
The bachelor's of music degree is basically an opera degree—classical training. We did several operas, and after a few years of it I realized we didn't seem to be having as much fun as the actors. Nor did I know if I was quite suited to be an opera singer, so I thought, "Those musicals are a lot of fun..." We didn't receive any acting training in the music program, so I was like, "If I'm gonna do that, I think I need more training." Actually, the acting professors helped me get into grad school. They started directing a couple of the operas, and we started doing a couple of musicals, and they kind of took me under their wing.
Do you ever sing opera anymore?
No. I think Rodgers and Hammerstein is the closest I come.
So what was it like singing those iconic showtunes on Broadway?
Oh, gosh. It was kind of surreal. First of all, because it was my Broadway debut and I was understudying Matt Morrison, who I was already a huge fan of. Then he got sick during previews, and I had to go on with no rehearsal. To be making my way onto the Broadway stage as Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific—opposite Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot and all these people I was already fans of—was an extremely surreal moment. And then to be awarded the role later, when Matt left to do some little show called Glee, was a huge honor. And because that show was exquisite on every end—design, orchestra, the actors—and then the Tony Awards... It was such a remarkable experience to go through with everyone. And to sing those songs, and to hear people humming in the audience, singing along with us. As frustrating as it may sound, it was flattering. And then to hear people say stuff like, "I saw the original, and this was even better." South Pacific might be up there in the top five greatest musicals of all time, so to be part of that history is...you think about it too long, it kind of blows your mind.
Have you done other classic musicals?
We did The Most Happy Fella, Man of La Mancha in college... Anyone wants to do another big, grand Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, I'm up for it.
Based on how you praise Michael John LaChiusa and the other contemporary theater composers you've worked with, though, you don't sound like one of those people who feel musical theater's best days are behind it.
I'm all for big, fancy musicals that you go in for two or three hours and forget everything and come out feeling good. But this is a really fulfilling experience artistically. This piece is not [just] entertainment. This piece will challenge you, it gives you a little history lesson, and maybe challenges your ideas on what the human experience is all about. Hopefully it'll make you feel—perhaps make you laugh a little, cry a little.
You mentioned that Matthew Morrison started working on Glee while he was in South Pacific. Did you know much about the show before it began airing?
I actually had an audition for it as well, for the same role. But I didn't have the experience, and Matt already had an impeccable résumé. I was at the audition with him. That's what was so fascinating, to watch the whole process happen: He got the part for the pilot and had to take five weeks off from South Pacific—I got to go on for him during that time—and then to hear that the show's getting picked up, and then to watch it become the phenomenon that it became. He really just went in and auditioned, and off he went and the show becomes a huge hit.
In 2006 you were in Shenandoah at Ford's Theatre starring Scott Bakula. Had you been a fan of his from TV?
I did watch Quantum Leap. I really liked that show when I was a kid. And then he did Star Trek. Then he came in [for Shenandoah] and he had this long hair and he was singing...to do a Civil War musical with him was awesome. He was the coolest guy—we'd go bowling with him.
How'd you get your Equity card?
I am one of the many who got my Equity card through the power of Theatreworks. Forgive me, Theatreworks, but I had heard so many horror stories... Imagine six people in two vans for a couple of months—it can get a little hairy. But I lucked out. We did Sarah, Plain and Tall. It was a beautiful show, and we had a great group. We went around the Southwest and Northwest, and went through all of our parents' towns. I was the father, and my son was two years younger than me in real life! It's experiences like that—you pay your dues—that keep you humble. We're going in and giving children a beautiful theatrical experience. It was fun, and it felt good to do that.
Your last two shows were based on a popular movie and book/TV series, respectively. How do you approach material that people know well from an earlier incarnation?
You kind of have to ignore the source material; otherwise, you're just doing a replication of something. For both Little Miss Sunshine and Tales of the City, they wanted to make it something new. We're not putting the movie, or the books, on stage. With Little Miss Sunshine—a movie I knew very well—I didn't watch it again. With Tales of the City, I was not familiar with them. I did read the books [after I was cast], but I didn't watch the television series. I think you can be easily influenced by those performances. Depending on how they cut up the books and change the dialogue and this and that, your character may be quite different from the books or the movies. You really have to just use the material that's given to you and make it your own, and hopefully you can avoid the comparisons. It should be living on its own.
Did any actors from the Little Miss Sunshine movie come to see the play?
Not that I'm aware of. But Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney both came to Tales of the City. They were super-fans of the musical.
What role did you originally have in Little Miss Sunshine?
A small part. I played the ex-boyfriend of the Steve Carell role, that he bumps into in the convenience store in the middle of the desert. The ex-boyfriend who had dumped him for this other professor that he was competing against. It was a little scene that they built into a duet and a fight scene in the musical. But then Malcolm Gets, unfortunately, got sick and had to leave the show. I was understudying his part, so again I had to take over a part with no rehearsals. It's one of these actor's nightmares that you dream about but you never think happens: You might have to go on stage with no rehearsal in a James Lapine/Bill Finn musical, or a South Pacific on Broadway.
Hmmm...considering how you ascended to a principal role in both South Pacific and Little Miss Sunshine, should actors standing between you and a part fear you?
Oh, no, no! Like a Showgirls... [laughs]. Which I do not want to be compared to. I felt bad for both of them being sick, and I was not excited about going on with no rehearsal!
What's next for you after Queen of the Mist?
Just Christmas vacation. It's been a really special year for me—three brand-new musicals, all by premier writers and composers—and this has been the cherry on top.
Photos of Andrew, below his headshot: with Mary Testa in Queen of the Mist; as Cable in South Pacific; with Testa in Queen; dancing with Betsy Wolfe in Tales of the City. [Photo credits: Carol Rosegg; Joan Marcus; Carol Rosegg; Kevin Berne]