BWW Interviews: Walnut Street Theatre's 'Music Man' Jeff Coon
Philadelphia boasts some fairly famous film and stage actors from the 1900's from the Barrymores to the Bacon Brothers, Kevin and Michael to Broadway Phantom Hugh Panaro. However one of the reasons the arts are so alive in Philadelphia largely goes to a handful of actors who have made their living in the City of Brotherly love. A core group of actors such as Scott Greer, Fran Prisco, Mary Martello, Ben Dibble, Tony Braithwaite and Jennie Eisenhower just to name a few. Among these Philly favorites are Josh Young and Rob McClure who both recently made their mark on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar (Josh) and Chaplin, The Musical (Rob).
These multi talented actors have made a living keeping theaters such as the Walnut Street, Arden, Wilma, Philadelphia Theater Co. and Bristol Riverside Theater buzzing with patrons who often come not only for great stage productions but to see their favorite Philly actors play the leading roles.
But our focus for this article is on Jeff Coon who is currently playing Harold Hill in the Walnut Street Theater's production of The Music Man which will open and run right through the Holiday Season.
I once teased Jeff That he has played every role except a woman, which he challenged me with "Hey, find the right role and I'll play it". One could call Jeff "The Man with Many Faces" having played Billy Bigelow (Carousel), Che Guevara (Evita), El Gallo (The Fantasticks), Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Enjolras (Les Miserables), George (Sunday in the Park with George), John Wilkes Booth (Assassins), Buffalo Bill (Annie Get Your Gun) just to name a few iconic roles.
Jeff is a "Delaware Valley boy for the most part" who was born in Media Pa, moved to Florida when he was 7 and back up to north to Cape May when he was 11. He went to Lower Cape May Regional High School, Penn for college and has been in Philly or Philly 'burbs since then (1988). Oldest of 4 siblings: Stephen, Michael and Julia. Jeff has two great kids: Piper and Jackson.
We caught up with Jeff while rehearsing for Walnut Street Theatre's Music Man which will open November 6 and run through January 6.
Pati Buehler: I know that playing Harold Hill has been a dream role for you. How are things going with Music Man?
Jeff Coon: They are going extremely well. This truly is a dream coming true. To be doing this show on this stage with this group of people is absolutely a gift. I'm extremely excited for people to see this show because it's got so much heart and I think it's going to be a lovely production of a beautiful show.
Pati Buehler: Please tell us about your start as a stage performer and who influenced you?
Jeff Coon: I guess my official start as a performer was as a very young kid when we had to do a "play" about the Greek gods in school. We all got to choose which god or goddess we'd be. I must've been 5 or 6 at the time. I chose Hermes, the messenger god, for no other reason than we had a cat named Herman at the time and the two names sounded alike. I made a pair of wings for my sneakers out of tinfoil and cardboard and a hat with wings the same way. I'm sure you can imagine how good this "play" was.
"My first musical, however, didn't happen until my freshman year in high school. I had never really sung before then, at least not in any concerted (forgive the pun) effort, like taking voice lessons or singing in church or with a school choir. I suppose I sang in the shower or when no one was around. That year, my mom took me to Philadelphia to see my first show at WST (Walnut Street Theater). It was 1984. And we went to WST because they were producing the same show that we were doing at school: "The Music Man". I have loved this show ever since."
"I think the biggest influences I have had have been the people I have worked with, locally and otherwise. When I first started trying to be a professional actor after college, I didn't have an MFA or even a BFA. I went to Penn to be a pediatrician and it wasn't until my junior year there that I even decided to be a Theatre Arts major to get my BA. So I tried to learn as I went. People like Tom Teti, Babs Pinto, Greg Wood, Terry Nolen, Grace Gonglewski, Aaron Posner, Hazel Bowers, Tom McCarthy, and even some of my contemporaries like Scott Greer and Jen Childs influenced me a lot. Because I was trying to steal from everybody I could at that point; learning good habits and technique from people with whom I was working and whom I admired. And of course my mother was and still is a big influence. She comes to see everything. And my kids now are a big influence, believe it or not. I find they inform my work a lot just because they allow me a wider and fuller perspective about life".
Pati Buehler: How many productions have you been involved with in the Philadelphia area and which roles have been most challenging? Most rewarding?
Jeff Coon: I am actually not sure exactly how many productions I've been involved with in Philly. I can give you a pretty good ballpark estimate of 80 shows since I graduated from college in 1993. It's kind of a daunting number when I see it, actually. Some of the most challenging roles have been Picasso in "La Vie En Bleu" because it was a new piece translated from French and it was vocally and physically taxing, Stanley in "Streetcar" because of somebody named "Brando" who had played the role before, and Che in "Evita" because I was literally onstage for 95 percent of the show and smoking a cigar while singing that score. It was tough. Some of the most rewarding have been Frog in "A Year with Frog and Toad" because of the fact that so many kids got to see that show, Stanley in "Streetcar" because, well, it's a great play and we had a great cast and crew that I thought put together a wonderful production, and probably Harold Hill, when all is said and done, because this is one of my dream shows".
Pati Buehler: Philly is famous for using a core group of extremely talented local professional performers. You have a special bond with many of them. What do you think is the benefit of working with so many of the same artists for the theaters and for the audiences?
Jeff Coon: The biggest benefit is that so many of us know, respect, and love each other already, either from working together or off stage relationships. To go into a rehearsal room with people with whom you already have a relationship allows for more risk taking, more trust, and a quickly generated chemistry that doesn't always happen with a roomful of strangers meeting for the first time on the first day of rehearsal. When rehearsal time is often only a handful of days, this kind of ease of relationship and chemistry is a great advantage. And for audiences, I think it's great to see a group of people who we've come to know assay many different roles throughout the course of their careers. I will say, too, that I love that there is a new generation of Philly actors getting work and making careers for themselves. People like Mike Doherty, Rachel Camp, Alex Keiper, Greg Nix, Alex Bechtel, and many more are kicking butt and taking names right now and I think it's awesome. It's great for the entire Philadelphia theatre community.
Pati Buehler: What advice would you give aspiring young artists today?
Jeff Coon: Take every job you can in the theatre when you're first starting out. If you can afford to work for free in the theatre, then do it. The more you work, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better a performer/designer/director/all around person you'll be. And try to remember that even when theatre is hard, there are so many other things that we could be doing that we wouldn't necessarily choose to do that are so much harder. They call it a "play" because it should be FUN.
Photo # 3: Jeff Coon (Gaston) and ensemble of Walnut St. Theatre's production of "Beauty and the Beast"photo credit Brett Thomas)
Photo # 4: Jeff Coon (George) Arden Theater's production of "Sunday In The Park With George", courtesy Arden Theater