BWW Interviews: Broadway's Craig Schulman Then and Now
Broadway artists come and go. Some are talented enough to survive the Great White Way for a few years and some are fortunate enough to have an enduring lifetime doing what they love the most; performing. Craig Schulman is among those whose career spans some 25+ years. From his numerous performances as Jean Valjean in one of the world's most beloved theatrical productions to producing and directing projects and teaching young people in theatrical master classes and workshops, Craig has done it all.
We caught up with Craig as he departs yet another production of LES MISERABLES. This time in Troy New York where he once again wore the mark upon his chest.
Pati Buehler: Craig, you've come full circle again in the role that has brought you so much joy and well deserved recognition. What is it about this role, this show that continues to capture so much interest?
Craig Schulman: The simple answer (if there is one) is in the universal themes of the story. Victor Hugo has given us a love story on a number of different levels: the romantic love stories of Cosette, Marius and Eponine. The story of Fantine, who ultimately sacrifices her life for her daughter, or of Valjean who raises the girl as his own. Man's inhumanity to man. Valjean's love for Mankind.
These subplots are set against a period of history that remains current; a wealthy, seemingly uncaring ruling class, desperate to deny its citizens basic necessities. That's where the title comes from: literally, 'the miserable ones'. There are even more themes and subplots, but you get the gist. LES MISERABLES is a story that remains poignant today, and almost anyone who sees the show will find something that they can relate to.
PB: As the only performer in the world to have played the title roles of Jekyll & Hyde, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera and Valjean in LES MISERABLES on Broadway, how do you prepare for such demanding roles?
CS: I came to the world of musical theatre from a career as a classically trained singer. My training and experience singing sometimes massive, dramatic operatic roles uniquely prepared me to undertake these difficult theatrical roles. I have a developed a healthy vocal technique that allows me to bring great emotional and dramatic weight to roles like Valjean and the Phantom. I am able to adapt that technique to different styles of music, including 'Broadway'. I also need to be in good physical shape. Discipline is paramount. No smoking, very limited consumption of alcohol. If you take care of your body, it will usually take care of you.
PB: What other roles have you enjoyed playing over the years?
CS: Tevye (Fiddler On The Roof) comes first to my mind. A wonderful character, and one that among other rewards, allows me to get some laughs. Most of the roles in my career have been so serious! I love performing Archibald in The Secret Garden.
PB: You have undoubtedly seen many changes in the way Broadway has evolved in so many ways. In your opinion who are today's Broadway audience and what are they looking for?
CS: Good question. Music and musical styles evolve over time. I came to the world of musical theatre in the decade of the '90's, the era of the 'mega' musical. The most enduring shows of the time were Les Mis, Phantom, Cats, Evita. Now we are in the era of the 'Jukebox musical', where a body of musical works of a single composer (usually pop) are combined in a story line. Mamma Mia is one of the most successful; 'Jersey Boys' has the best storyline in my opinion, because it uses the music of its composer(s) to recount its own history through the performers who made the music popular (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons). Jukebox musicals are, in some ways, a throwback to the heyday of American operetta (gasp!), where a composer would create a body of songs and then try to come up with a story to tie the songs together. Some great songs came from that era, but operetta is rarely performed anymore.
In answer to your question, I think audiences continue to look to be entertained, moved. I think the 'pop' style of music used in so many shows at present is a great way to bring young audiences into the theatre, but I enjoy stories with great drama and more sophisticated music and lyrics.
PB: As more former artists move into producing what are investors/producers looking for prior to putting a million dollars into a show?
CS: I don't think too many performers are moving into producing on a grand scale in the musical theatre. Most of us don't have access to the kind of money required to mount a major production. However, some of us have realized that there are ways to create work for ourselves through smaller productions of new or existing works. I myself have had a great career producing and performing programs with symphony orchestras and at performing arts centers.
PB: With the release of many major productions rights to the regional, community theaters and even student productions, there is a need for professional actors to share their experience and knowledge with the future "Beasts", Valjeans", "Gypsys", etc. Craig has just completed yet another Broadway workshop in conjunction with the upcoming Cumberland County College production of Les Miserables in Vineland New Jersey. How do such programs benefit theatrical students?
CS: This is an extraordinary way for young performers to learn firsthand from actors who have actual high-level professional experience. As I teach my Master Classes, I find that I can impart my knowledge of "how things work" in "The Business". It's amazing to me that so many young performers have difficulty singing on pitch (in most cases that's easily fixed) or how many haven't the faintest idea how to analyze a song or a scene. I bring real world experience to the table and am able to help young artists overcome problems as well as reinforce what they have been hearing from their own teachers and directors.
PB: As times have indeed changed, what advice can you give some of your college age Broadway hopefuls and how should they prepare for the road ahead in front of the footlights?
CS: That's the million-dollar question. I could write a book about this subject! Learn your craft! You must learn to act and sing and dance! Some of the reality shows on TV these days are fun to watch, but often present an incomplete or erroneous message about what it takes to succeed.
Take some business and marketing courses. You are a product that needs to be sold. Badgering your friends and family through social media is one way to get your name out there, but learn some real business skills.
You must want to perform more than anything else! For most of us, we can look forward to years of minimal compensation for our labors. Be prepared to put your career, at least for a while, ahead of material things and relationships.
Know yourself as an artist. Know what you are capable of doing and don't put yourself in situations where you know you can't deliver the goods. It's very difficult to get noticed and build a career; it's very easy to fail and lose it all.
There's much more, but this should give aspiring performers some food for thought. Come and see me for a voice lesson or acting coaching!