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A Monster Chat with 'Young Frankenstein's' Fred Applegate

By: Jul. 25, 2007
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Mel Brooks' latest mega-Broadway musical, Young Frankenstein, is gearing up for an out-of-town production at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, running from August 7th through September 1st, before heading to Broadway's Hilton Theatre, with an opening night scheduled for November 8th, 2007.  Previews begin October 11th.

Starring in Young Frankenstein are Roger Bart (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein), Megan Mullally (Elizabeth), Sutton Foster (Inga), Shuler Hensley (The Monster), Andrea Martin (Frau Blucher), Fred Applegate (Kemp) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Igor).

"Based on the Oscar-nominated smash-hit 1974 film, Young Frankenstein is the wickedly inspired re-imaging of the Mary Shelley classic from the comic genius of Mel Brooks," state press notes.  "When Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, an esteemed New York brain surgeon and professor, inherits a castle and laboratory in Transylvania from his grandfather, deranged genius Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein, he faces a dilemma.  Does he continue to run from his family's tortured past or does he stay in Transylvania to carry on his grandfather's mad experiments reanimating the dead, and, in the process, fall in love with his sexy lab assistant Inga?"

In between rehearsals in Seattle, one of the shows stars, Fred Applegate, who will play Inspector Kemp, recently spoke to BroadwayWorld's James Sims about the monster musical and his experiences working with Mel Brooks in The Producers.

What was it like to first work with Mel Brooks?

I did the first National Tour of The Producers, where I did Franz.  And Mel was at rehearsals for the tour just about every day, pitching ideas to Susan Stroman and bouncing ideas back and fourth and letting us know what he wanted, which he is very good at doing.  Which is fine, because he's Mel Brooks (laughing).  I think he liked what I was doing, so it went really well.

And then you were called upon to take over the lead role in London.  How did that come about?

The chronology in London was Richard Dreyfuss who was supposed to do the show.  Well, he had a back injury years ago, that he thought was going to be okay.  It turns out it wasn't, so Nathan Lane came in and opened the show at the last minute, but he could only stay a short time.  And then Brad Oscar came in when Nathan left, and he could only stay for a short time.  Then when Brad left, they asked me to go over and stay for a year.  And I took my wife and youngest son who was still at home and we lived in London for a year… and it was a really amazing thrilling year.

Is there much of a difference working on the London stage compared to doing a National Tour and Broadway?

It's a very different community in London, because the actors cannot afford to live anywhere near the theatre.  So after the show, everybody races for the train and spends thirty minutes on the train going home.  Which I guess is sort of the equivalent of living in Washington Heights, except in London the mass transit closes at about 12:15.  Our show is long, so we would get out of the theatre at about 11, and everyone would just zoom to the train.

What has the experience of working on two different Broadway adaptations of Mel Brooks' movies, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, been like?

It's a very different experience for me, because doing the first (The Producers) National Tour, the production was already set.  And that was the production we were going to take out on the road.  With (Young Frankenstein) nobody knows what it looks like yet, because nobody has ever done it.  It's a much different process to be in a room and sit down at a table with the other principles and Mel and Thomas Meehan and Susan and have someone say this scene isn't quite working.  Then the next day there is a new scene, or a song has been cut or added or a change has come.  It's not a question of how do I do this like they did on Broadway, the question is how do we want to do this at all.  And it's very exciting.

Did you find yourself looking at the original film, "Young Frankenstein," for any sort of inspiration?

Absolutely.  I am doing Inspector Kemp, which was originally done by Kenneth Mars, and I am doing the Blind Hermit, which was done by Gene Hackman.  And of course, they are both brilliant, and if I see someone that does something good, it's just good, and I am happy to do it.  But the play is different from the movie.  I think Thomas and Mel made some really good choices early on that the plot of the musical is going to be slightly different from the movie. So that, you really have to pay attention to the musical and follow it for the story it is telling, and not just sit and wait for scenes from the movie to go by.  Because a lot of scenes from the movie are missing, and there are new scenes in the musical, and the ending is slightly different.  I think that was a very good choice, because if people came and it was just the movie on stage, initially people would be thrilled and it would be campy and fun, but they have really made a new musical out of it, based on the movie, and I think that was a much better choice.

Is there an aspect of camp embraced in this new musical?

If you go back to the very beginning of Young Frankenstein, the film itself is homage to the original "Frankenstein," so there is no way you can avoid a layer of camp.  Because the (film) is lovingly played with in the musical, so there is no getting away from that, and it is Mel Brooks.  So all that matters is, its funny and its good.

How involved is Mel Brooks throughout the process?

He is tremendously involved.  He's at rehearsal nearly every day with Thomas, listening to the scenes and deciding what needs to be adjusted and what is working or could be working better.  And he jumps up and runs over to Susan and they have a conversation, then he runs back and sits in his chair.  And then Susan interprets what he said and if things are going really well he is doing the scene with us.  He is watching us and saying the lines and starting to gesture and it's hysterical.  It can be intimidating at times.  You know he hears a line in his head a certain way, and either you do it that way or try to convince him its better or just as good.  And he's Mel Brooks.  I remember when I first auditioned for The Producers, it was Mel and Thomas Meehan and Susan who I had met, and I studiously avoided saying hello to Mel before I said hi to everyone else.  Because he's Mel Brooks.  And I thought, I know some of these people, and if I talk to somebody that I know, I will feel more comfortable introducing myself to Mel Brooks.

There seems to be a group of people that have carried over from The Producers.  Do you find that both Mel Brooks and Susan find it easier working with the same people on different projects?

Yes, Susan likes to put together a group of people who will support each other.  It's almost trite to say get along, but in the sense of the process of building a new musical comedy, the stakes are pretty high at this level.  So Susan likes to put together a group of people who will support each other and support the project and bring energy into the room every time they show up.  Once she sees that, you are sort of on her short list.

What has your experience been like working with your Young Frankenstein co-stars?

I love the fact that you said co-stars, thank you.  That's certainly nice of you, but it's hardly a reality (laughs).  Delightful, creative and funny. Aside from the seven of us, Roger Bart and Megan Mullally… I did an episode of "Will and Grace," and Andrea Martin played my girlfriend on a very short lived CBS series years ago, and I am getting to know Shuler Hensley who is absolutely insane, and Christopher Fitzgerald who is more talented than I think two people should be, and Sutton Foster, who is just Sutton Foster.  You say her name, and everyone just goes awe.  She is a darling woman.  To dispense unfairly and quickly with them, the ensemble in this production is breathtaking.  The dancers and singers really dance and really sing, and they are really pretty.

How big does this show feel so far?  Does it have a blockbuster type sense as you go into it?

It does.  The expectations for this show are huge.  And when expectations get really big, you see people lined up to be the loyal opposition, those are the good people, and then there are the snipers who just want to be the first one to take a shot.  But that is to be expected.  The stakes with this one are so high, and we all came in aware of that.  And it doesn't really make any difference as to how we work, but there is always that little note of, this is the second huge Mel Brooks musical, and everyone is going to be comparing it to the first one, and we are kind of ready for that… the expectation, will it be as good as The Producers, is understandable, but in an unfair way.  Is it a really good rippingly good musical based on Young Frankenstein, is the right way to judge it.

Describe your character in the musical, Inspector Kemp.

The Inspector is the local head of government/police, the only local official, and he was a victim of one of the previous monsters, and he has devoted his life to protecting the village from Frankenstein, and that is the function he serves in the play.  He is very suspicious that there is something going on in the castle, and almost delighted to find that he was right.  He has a wooden left leg and a wooden left arm, which gets me out of a lot of the dance numbers.

Are there any whacky musical numbers you get a chance to sing in the show?

Kemp is in a couple numbers, and I also get to really sing in this show.  It is written more in the style of an operetta, which is more appropriate to the era of the original film, and very different from The Producers.  Mel is a very clever tunesmith.  And of course he has Glen Kelly and Doug Besterman doing arrangements and orchestrations.  He actually does come up with these things, and I have seen it happen.  The music is in a different style.  The Hermit has a song, kind of an Al Jolson number, which is really strange.  At the end of the day it is a musical based on Young Frankenstein, so what is not to enjoy.

You have a long list of various television credits.  How did your transition to Broadway, beginning with The Sound of Music in 1998, come about?

I went to California nearly 25 years ago with my pregnant wife, and started working in television.  And I thought, pregnant wife… television… good.  So, we stayed in California.  Now, I always wanted to work on Broadway, and I have done a lot of regional theatre.  I started doing T.V., because with what are now three children, it is better.  It's just the truth.  And then the opportunity came along to do Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast in the Los Angeles sit-down production, with the almost the entire original Broadway cast… and it just reminded me how much I loved theatre.  It fed my soul and made me happy to be exhausted at the end of the day having worked in the theatre.  I then started pursuing opportunities in New York, and did The Sound of Music, but then headed home.  But I still wanted to be back in NY, so we were bouncing back and forth for a while, and London of course, but with this one, we are moving East.

Have your kids reacted at all to their dad being cast in Young Frankenstein?

I got an email from my daughter when the big billboard went up in Times Square, and I sent her a picture of it, and she sent me a message back saying my Dad is too cool for school, which was great.  When I started going back to doing big theatre, because I have done The Mark Taper Forum and the Geffen Playhouse on the West Coast, but when I did Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast, my children were 12, 9 and 4.  Doing that with children in middle school was pretty amazing.  The school groups came, and I would talk to them afterwards.  And I thought, for this reason alone, I should go back to the theatre.  I have been fortunate, and I have been lucky to work with really good people.

Talk about the process of going out of town, as you are doing Young Frankenstein first in Seattle.  And what can you possibly tell us about the set design?

Umm… big.  This is a big set, and the laboratory is a loving homage to the movie and the original movie.  It is breathtaking and is going to be a blast.  We still have a lot to learn about what works and what doesn't, and how things play together when we run the show.  The only way to learn that is to put it in front of an audience and learn from them.  So there is a lot of work to be done, and I think we are all very excited about what we have.  But the reason you do out of town tryouts is you need to learn from the audience.  And we have four weeks here to do it, and then four more weeks of rehearsals in New York, and then five weeks of previews.  So, pretty confident we can come up with a pretty good representation of Young Frankenstein by the time we open.

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Photos - (1) Fred Applegate. (2) clockwise from top is Fred Applegate, Christopher Fitzgerald, Megan Mullally, Mel Brooks and Andrea Martin.  (3) left to right is Roger Bart, Megan Mullally, Shuler Hensley, Fred Applegate, Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin and Christopher Fitzgerald.  (4) Thomas Meehan, Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman; by Erin Baiano/Paul Kolnik Studio.