Barrett Foa - from Dalton to Avenue Q
Craig: Barrett - you've been involved in many interesting projects, but before I ask you about those, why don't you tell me a little about your childhood and how you realized theater was your thing... (include here if you have any other family members who are theatrical/musical)
Barrett: I was born and raised in Manhattan (we're a rare breed, but we do exist), and I attended a private school on the Upper East Side called Dalton for 14 years. While Dalton had this amazing modern dance/choreography program for high schoolers, it was very academic oriented. My parents, who have always supported me in everything I've done, never really pushed the professional theatre thing while in high school, and in retrospect, I'm glad they didn't. I wasn't a complete theatre dork until college, so while the city was a great resource, it was actually my summers away from the city that formulated my love for the theatre.
I actually think it is written in the New York City Charter that all city kids must attend sleep away camp for the summer. As a result, I went to an all boys sports camp for 4 summers during my middle school years, which was pretty much a living nightmare. I dreaded every minute of it... except, of course, for the plays we did (oh, and waterfront.) Eventually, my parents picked up on this and sent me to Interlochen Arts Camp in upstate Michigan for four summers during high school. Simply being exposed to all these other arts forms (orchestral music, choral music, opera, ballet, Shakespeare, fine arts) and to see how dedicated these kids were about them, was invaluable. Interlochen was crucial in expanding my parochial view of what I thought "doing a play" was. It was there, for the first time, that I realized the arts were more than a fun hobby; they required dedication and work and were worth getting passionate about.
However, at The University of Michigan, I really came into my own with performing. I have nothing but great things to say about the Musical Theatre Department there. They really stoked the fire that Interlochen had sparked, and focussed me and gave me confidence. I started out as more of a dancer, so I would get cast in the ensembles of the shows at U of M. My junior year, I spent a semester studying acting and Shakespeare in London. While there, I gained more confidence as an actor and just as a person, so when I returned to school, I started landing leads in the musicals.
Meanwhile, I was working my way up doing summer stock and gaining all this experience that way, so when I moved back to the city after college, I had my Equity card and was ready to work...
Craig: You took on an interesting role last year in Cupid and Psyche - can you tell us a little bit more about that and what attracted you to it?
Barrett: Frankly, I was freaking out this summer because I hadn't worked for over 3 months (my longest stretch of not working since moving back to the city - thank my lucky stars...knock on wood.) A casting director friend asked me if I wanted to go in for this small, four person, off-broadway show. I really liked the idea of the show, and the score was great, but I was unsure about the piece as a whole. It sounds very strategic, but I had been doing some great regional work last year, and I really wanted to get my face back in circulation in New York. Well, I got cast, and it turned out to be a great project. It was this charming, funny, hour and a half of updated Greek mythology, and audiences seemed to really enjoy it. We had this killer four person cast (Laura Marie Duncan, Logan Lipton and Deborah Lew), and we had so much fun onstage and off, which is so key when you have such a small cast ...and that score was so much fun to sing. We still might actually record it, so look out for that.
Craig: What was it like performing in both the Children of Eden and Chess concerts? How did you get involved and what show(s) would you love to see done like these in the future?
Barrett: I saw Seth Rudetsky's one-man show, RHAPSODY IN SETH, this summer, which I loved, and as he greeted people after the show, he asked me if I wanted to be in the CHESS concert. Seth usually writes the opening numbers to Easter Bonnet each year, and I had been an offstage singer a few times for him in the past.
Chess was a lot of fun. The singers were on these huge risers behind the orchestra, so I got to hear these blazing brass parts and lush cello lines I've never heard before. The music and orchestrations to that show are really quite wonderful. Now if only someone could figure out what the story is about....
As for CHILDREN OF EDEN, Jamie McGonnigal, the concert's producer/director, asked me to be a part of it... at the after-party for the CHESS concert, now that I think about it! That show has always had a very special place in my heart since I first heard an old bootleg demo recording of it years ago. Then I played Abel/Ham at Music Theatre of Wichita in 1999, and had a bit of a love affair with that role. Abel is a small part, but there is so much there: he is very observant, a listener, and he's very torn and fair. He sees both sides to every story almost to a fault. There is a big part of me that can relate to that, for better or for worse.
But in this concert, it was fun being part of the Snake, because Deb Lew (my Psyche) was in it with me, as were Ann Harada and Jen Barnhart. Who, not 10 days later, were welcoming me to the AVENUE Q family!
As for future shows, I guess EVITA would be fun, although it's probably due for a revival any day now. Who would play Eva? Could it be.... Julia Murney?
Craig: You've also been involved in some interesting premiers, workshops and readings such as Kept, The Opposite of Sex, The Gondoliers and one more which we'll talk about in just a moment. How is the process different for you between exploring new and/or unfinished work versus a full blown production? Which is more challenging and why?
Barrett: New work is great because you get to be in on the creative process and the role really becomes yours. Plus, there are less comparisons going on, like in revivals. If the director, the writers, and the actors can look past their egos (not an easy feat) and collaborate their efforts towards good storytelling, you can have something magical on your hands. We had that with KEPT, Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's world premiere directed by Scott Schwartz. The book was by Stephen Chbosky who is the author of one of my favorite novels, "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower."
In rehearsal, I remember switching around a few words in a long speech I had, and Steve (Chbosky) comes up to me after the scene was over and says, "Whatever you said just then, was better than what I wrote, so I'm going to change the line." I remember thinking, "Remember this moment, Barrett, because that is not going to happen again." (It was this kind of collaborative process that was lacking in CUPID AND PSYCHE, and I think the show suffered a bit because if it.)
People thought I was crazy leaving a long-running Broadway show (MAMMA MIA!) after only 4 months to be in a 6 week run at TheatreWorks in California. But if I wasn't going to leave for a new project like that... what was I going to leave for? I mean, this was the chance to finally create a character. Plus I was working with the guy who wrote DREAMGIRLS for god sakes! The cast was amazing (Christiane Noll, Karen Murphy, Brenda Braxton) and I got to play Blake who was this over-the-top, sarcastic, gay, party boy who pretty much lived at Studio 54 in 1980. That was one of the first times I played the character man, and boy was I addicted. No high notes, just walk out on stage in a fabulous new costume, make the audience laugh, sing a patter song, go back to your dressing room, come back 10 minutes later and do it again! Then at the end of the show I had this amazing dramatic scene. I think Blake had the best arc of all the characters in KEPT.
It's always fun doing work that has been produced already because then your job is to dig deeper and find what other productions or actors may have skimmed over. Also, you have more perspective on the piece and can therefore make some more informed choices.
Craig: Ok - so I have to ask. Poop: The musical? Tell us a little bit more about your involvement in that.
Barrett: Bill Russell (who wrote the lyrics to SIDE SHOW and KEPT) saw POOP at a new musicals conference in the midwest and really liked it because it was out there and different (just like Bill!) So Bill cast and directed a reading of POOP with me, Danny Burstein, Kim Cea and a handful of others. It was great fun and very very silly.... we could hardly keep it together, we were cracking up so much. It was based on the true story of Thomas Crapper who invented the toilet. I played his nephew, George Crapper. With song titles like, "Why I'm Not A Floater," and a pretty great duet called "The Hard One That Hurts," we heard it all: "The jokes are corny. The music stinks" "URINETOWN: Number TWO!"
Craig: Last year you were in Paper Mill's Camelot (as Mordred) with Brent Barrett. What was that experience like?
Barrett: That was actually my third time playing Mordred and it was probably the most fun. The first time I did it was in summer stock and the director wanted Mordred to be this lizardy, evil queen, which was fun, but totally over the top. A year later, I was cast as Mordred again, but this time he was this butch, punky, Scottish kid with a kilt and a Braveheart wig. It was great doing a total 180 with a role like that. And it just shows the integrity of Lerner's book scenes. They are so well written that Mordred can be interpreted in completely different ways, and they still hold up.
Robert Johanson directed us at Paper Mill, and he happened to have played Mordred 13 years earlier in the same production. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about Robert having very rooted opinions about the role, but the process was a very collaborative one. This Mordred was a combination of the best of the other two: still Scottish, still butch, but he had a sexy edge, with a small amount of reptilian sliminess thrown in for good measure. Robert really let me play and have fun up there, but he did insist that I take my shirt off. (Oh Robert...) I love that role, but don't like sitting around for the entire (2 hour long) first act. The reward is that you hit the ground running in Act 2 and get to pretty much destroy an entire kingdom single-handedly, and that is just hot.
Craig: Also very well received was your role as Jesus in Godspell on which you are on the cast recording. There is often confusion as to the production you were in which had a run during the National Tour. Can you shed some light on your production and cast and also what it was like for you to be a part of the cast recording?
Barrett: Scott Schwartz directed a non-Equity national tour that was out at the same time. They did a cast recording as well, which actually came out the same day ours did. I think the fact that Stephen Schwartz approved the recording of our off-Broadway production which would be in direct conflict with the recording of his son's touring production, was very much a testimony to how much he believed in us. I remember him saying that that our voices and arrangements needed to be heard.
That 2000 GODSPELL was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The cast was so ridiculously talented: the comedic skills of some of the cast members were impeccable and the voices were insane. (Shoshana Bean, Capathia Jenkins, Leslie Kritzer, Chad Kimball, the list goes on...) I learned so much from being in that show and working with those people. We stripped every joke from the original script and started with a clean slate of these very dry parables. Then we would just play and brainstorm ideas for how to tell each parable in an innovative and accessible way. We really brought it up to date by steering clear of the hippy/clown/1970s aspects that are ingrained in the script by making it very 2000 and very New York City. The cast really created that production, and our musical director, Dan Schachner, arranged the songs so they were no longer these 70s pop tunes, but full-on rock and roll numbers. Our band (an actual band called Shirley Temple of Doom) really brought that music to life. Stephen Schwartz was in on the casting, and with each new stage (showcase contract, mini-contract, off-broadway) he would offer more and more guidance with the piece. He was really helpful while still maintaining perspective that this was not his production. It was a great 10 months of my life. Some of those people will be my friends forever.
Craig: Ok, Barrett - Your Broadway debut was in Mamma Mia! At what point wereyou involved in the production, what was it like being in a show that is both wildly successful, but also on the receiving end of a lot of criticism? And what's your favorite ABBA song?
Barrett: I was in MAMMA MIA! right from the start. It was strange being part of a new Broadway show that we knew was going to be a hit. The Broadway company was the 5th company in the world at that point (I think there are 11 now.) When they taught it to us, there was no, "let's try this, let's cut that." It pretty much was what it was. There was a little wiggle room for individual interpretation within each track, but for the most part, we were just doing what they did in London/Toronto/ U.S. National Tour/Melbourne... It wasn't the kind of experience where we opened the show thinking, "I hope we make it! I hope people think it's good!" It almost didn't matter what people thought. It gave the cast a sense of confidence, but the risky, putting-yourself-on-the-line factor was missing. Not bad or good, just different.
My favorite ABBA song is probably "The Name of the Game." I love the bridge to that song. "Under Attack" is another one of my faves, although that was a weird one, as we were rehearsing that number the week of 9/11/2001 - which was an unsettling coincidence. For a while, 9/11 actually helped us... reviewers were a lot easier on the show because of it, but as everyone became jaded again, the anti-MAMMA MIA! backlash reared its inevitable and ugly head and people just wrote it off. There are actually some great things about that show. Although the book gets panned a lot, I think the fact that someone created a pretty tenable story around 22 random songs was an impressive feat. However, if I am in a bar and "Dancing Queen" starts playing, I have to leave the room.
Craig: So now you are part of the Avenue Q family. How did you wind up with this gig? What was the audition process like?
Barrett: My first audition was in mid-October and my first day of rehearsal was two months later. I had about 5 auditions plus two days of "Puppet Camp" where the other actor up for the role and I were in a mirrored studio with a bunch of puppets, a stage manager, and Rick Lyon, who plays Nicky/Trekkie Monster/Bear in AVENUE Q. Rick started us out with some basic puppet techniques, and we worked with the text and the puppets. It was very informal and Rick is a great teacher. It was not officially an audition, but I'm sure they were looking for puppet potential...
Craig: The rest of the cast/puppeteers have several years of experience, and yet you are brand new to the world of puppetry, that's quite a challenge for you, isn't it? What were rehearsals like and what kind of training was given?
Barrett: It was and is incredibly challenging. This Tuesday will be my 13th performance as Princeton/Rod, and I am still learning. Princeton/Rod is a bear of a role, and does not leave the stage for the entire first act. So I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me.
First, I had to get what I liked to call the "Barrett blocking" down... meaning where I, as a human, was actually moving on the stage. Then we added the puppets which was a whole other set of blocking: Where is he looking? What is the puppet-ography for this song? etc. The tricky thing was that my lip sync would get off whenever I would concentrate on any dancing steps. Then we got down to the smaller intricacies of puppetry which are just as important, like eye line, eye focus, and size of lip sync. It's a lot to think about, but it starts to become second nature and then it starts getting fun.
Craig: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your characters? I understand there are quite a few puppets/versions backstage (and not a lot of room) - tell us a little bit more about what the audience isn't seeing while the show is going on.
Barrett: My favorite section of the show to perform is actually three scenes back to back: the Princeton/Kate hospital scene into the second therapy scene with Rod and Christmas Eve into "I Wish I Could Go Back To College." After the great energetic nonstop hilarious first act, this part is where Princeton and Rod are really learning the biggest lessons and being dealt the biggest blows. It's the first time they realize that they are going to have to live with the repercussions of their sometimes questionable actions. This part kind of hits home in terms of where my friends and I are in our lives: that mid-twenties, "all right, now what? 'Cause this ain't turnin' out like I planned" kind of period.
I also just really love doing "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." It is so well constructed, the way it just builds and builds. You can really feel the audience coming along for the ride with that number.
Many of the puppets actually have to change their clothes off- stage in order to double in a different scene. For instance, graduation Princeton takes off his cap and gown to become naked Princeton later in the show. We have an amazing puppet wrangler that changes their clothes and pins their arms and moves puppets from stage left to stage right.
I think the most interesting thing backstage is all the second handing anddoubling that is going on. Whenever a live-hands puppet (Trekkie or Ms. T.) appears in a window, the lead puppeteer is manipulating the mouth and the left hand, while a second, unseen puppeteer is doing the right hand... and it all comes together to make a whole character. Without divulging any secrets, there are a few times when one actor is doing the speaking voice of the character, but a different puppeteer is actually manipulating the puppet. But I will tell you this: none of the puppet voices are prerecorded. It is fascinating how it is all put together.
Craig: After you're finished with your run in Avenue Q - would you consider a career working for the muppets or is your passion on the stage?
Barrett: I would love to continue working with and learning puppetry, but my passion really is for the stage. Also, I am learning that TV and Henson puppetry is a whole other art form. The puppetry in AVENUE Q is quite unique and actually doesn't immediately translate to many other forms of puppetry. The reason I like doing AVENUE Q is that the puppeteers are not hiding behind a wall, so the actors' expressions are just as important as the what the puppet is doing, in fact the two inform each other and you get an even clearer picture of what the character is thinking and feeling.
Craig: Finally, can you share some of your future plans? What would you like to tackle next?
Barrett:I would love to see where this show takes me in the future. It is a lot of fun and I'd love the chance to play this part more.
What really turns me on is any project that makes me grow as an actor or as a person. That happened when Mark Lamos took a chance on this MAMMA MIA! chorus boy, and directed me as Claudio in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in a dual production at Hartford Stage and The Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. about a year and a half ago. I had never done a full Shakespeare play and there I was with all these mucky-muck MFA actor-types, trying to pretend I knew what I was doing. It was an invaluable experience and I got an opportunity to grow in ways that most musical theatre performers don't get to. I was grateful for that challenge in the same way that I am grateful that AVENUE Q is forcing me to stretch in ways I never dreamed I would. I really wish casting directors and directors trusted actors more. We don't have to be pigeon holed! We can do more than one thing! I can play other parts besides Matt in THE FANTASTICKS, and hopefully, I am showing people that. It seems to me that the point of life is to grow. To learn. To be the most well-rounded human you can be by tackling a challenge head first and then learning from your triumphs and your mistakes. I have been so fortunate to be given these kind of opportunities and I just hope I can continue to keep creating and developing in more ways. I never imagined I would have done Shakespeare or puppetry, and I can't wait to see what I can tackle next!
You can visit Barrett Foa online at www.barrettfoa.com