From Prince to Prince - An Interview with Chuck Wagner
The Prince Theater Group worked in various venues and finally found its home in the former Midtown Theater in 1995 and offers a wide range of opera, musical comedy and drama as well as experimental works from various local and international sources. It is named after famous director Hal Prince who visits from time to time.
For more than 20 years Chuck Wagner has landed very masculine, authoritative character roles, largely due to his physical appearance. He's appeared in roles such as Rapunzel's Prince, Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf in Sondheim's Into the Woods; Javert in Les Miserables; the Beast in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast; Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde; and General Harrison Howell in Kiss Me Kate. He now finds his way to the Prince Theater to play in another Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle. I caught up with Mr. Wagner, who enters into this Philadelphia production fresh off the closing of Wildhorn's Dracula on Broadway where he was standby for the title role.
Pati Buehler : Welcome to Philly, home of the Eagles frenzy and freezing weather. How is this production going?
Chuck Wagner : Thanks! Very well! We had our first audience last night and it went very smoothly. It's a lot of show, a lot of dialogue and complicated music, but it's a great cast and we're having a great time.
PW : This role has broken your casting mold a bit, is that something you've been looking to do?
CW : Well you do what you can. At times I wish I was not as big as I am (laughing) but at the same time you have to play to your strengths and in as much as it may be a limitation, it can sometimes be a gift. I have been fortunate because in the golden age of Broadway big roles were made for baritones, so in that respect, it's not a bad place to be.
PB : Are you enjoying your character in Anyone Can Whistle?
CW : I'm enjoying it very much because of the idea that there's real fun to the idea of who's crazy and who's not. There are a lot parallels in the creative world of knowing where you fit in, and one almost has to be a little crazy to be in a creative business in a sense.
PB: Who are some of the talents on stage and screen that have grabbed your interest or who inspired you when you were younger?
CW : As a child I was struck by listening to recordings of Richard Burton doing Shakespeare, because he was an auditory kind of inspiration. Another key for me was the magic of Walt Disney. When I was a young child, the concept of imagineering and finding a place on earth that was a little bit happier than the real world had a real impact on me. I'd have to say that he is my prime inspiration outside of people in my own family, of course.
PB : And what about in the theater business?
CW : I enjoy everyone, I am a good audience member! It takes a lot for me not to enjoy a show and I appreciate the effort that goes into all that I see. As far as acting goes, I've always been a big Patrick Stewart fan. I just saw Mandy Patinkin in Concert who was amazing. Bernadette Peters and Brian Stokes Mitchell are among those I really enjoy. There's really nobody I don't like!
PB : Moving on to a more controversial topic, I'd like ask you to share your perspective on what took place on Broadway with Dracula...
CW : Well, for one thing, they didn't let me perform! I think that was their main downfall (laughing). Sorry, that's a bit tongue in cheek. The main thing is that it was a beautiful production of a show that barely scratched the surface and the story was not specific.
It was not quite scary enough or romantic enough. It was a beautiful attempt with some brilliant sequences. The cast was amazing. I think they did a disservice by taking away some of the strengths of the plot and some of the characters. For example, Bram Stoker identified with the Van Helsing character and the thought of the hunt for the vampires was really downplayed. They really assumed that the audience would come in knowing a lot of Dracula's stuff, which was true in a way, because they may have known so much and were given so little and walked away disappointed. There was a radical shift that goes from Dracula saying, "I will make life an eternal fantasy for you" to "I was kidding, it's really not that good, just kill me. Goodnight everybody!"
They needed to build the relationship between Dracula and Mina. Dracula is a monster. It might be a good idea to have Mina be the hero and destroy the monster. The story was never fleshed out or made clear. I think it was stunning production wise and it can still be fixed. Perhaps they'll tweak it again for the road. We'll see what happens.
PB : Chuck, with the controversy surrounding the Dracula cast album, what are you willing to share on that?
CW : I feel sorry for this state of the business that Broadway shows can't make any money selling an album. But, I also don't understand when producers who are going to lose 3 or 4 million dollars on a show and are still willing to spend $40,000 on signs on the top of taxies in Manhattan, how they could not record it. As a producer, I think you'd be far better served to save that money and put it into a cast album. Even if you never made another penny, generations from now you can go into the library and find that show.
Anyone Can Whistle only exists because years after they did this show they did an album with the cast and because it was preserved it has developed a following to the extent that it's being done again and again.
That being said, I understand Frank's situation because if they had paid the cast the salaries for the time frame after it closed and all the other costs involved, it would become another issue. The way they're doing it, I do think that Frank is not spending nearly as much money on this album. A lot of the sounds are being created synthetically by some of the best in the industry. Sadly, it's not live musicians, but by saving money on the orchestra and Equity fees, he's saving a lot of money. I think the way it was handled was unfortunate. I understand why he did it though and he using some great talent.
There may be some legal issues to deal with, and I think that Frank wasn't as upfront about this as he could have been. When the cast found out what was going on, Frank had to acknowledge what his plan was and that it was a shortcoming on his part. This created a bit of drama, where prior notification would have defused the problem. There are, in fact, a lot of union issues regarding this and sometimes our union also creates barriers for those involved and these kinds of issues are made more complicated. Sadly, more often than not, producers are willing to step around those barriers and go in a different direction. It's a difficult time to be an actor or a producer. There are valid sides to both sides of the camp, but it's always sad when a cast album doesn't exist.
I still think Frank's heart was in the right place and he is doing the best he can to save his product. He needed to have the album quickly in order to promote Dracula in Europe. His mistake, which I think he has realized, was not keeping the cast in the loop of his plan. It was a learning experience for everyone.
PB : Getting back to Anyone Can Whistle, what's it like to work with the 17 piece orchestra in this show?
CW : A live orchestra is a gift today. It's just a crime in many ways that when you buy a ticket to some Broadway shows, you assume you are getting a full orchestra, when in fact you are getting a partial or severely scaled down version of music. While I am amazed at the technology that produces synthesized music, I don't think a keyboard should replace 15 live instruments in a live Broadway production.
PB : Any advice that you'd like to pass on for the younger thespians out there?
CW : Find ways to perform and enjoy it, and don't be discouraged. There will be times you will not get what you want. Know your priorities, live a responsible life. This is true whether you are in theater or anything. Learn as much as you can. Most of all, learn everything about theater, from the staging, lighting, managing, producing, promoting. It's a team effort, so meet your crew and you might be able to find a career on stage or behind the scenes. As time goes on this is where we will find our next generation of Sondheims & Rodgers & Hammersteins, the inspiration, that we need to bring Broadway back to the prominence it deserves.
Anyone Can Whistle plays through February 6th. For tickets and more information call 215.569.9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org.