BWW Interviews: Ed Watts on His Return to THE FANTASTICKS!
Celebrities of often make specific requests prior to being interviewed. Some will establish certain topics that are verboten, some request an advance list of the questions to be asked, others ask for approval rights before the article is put online. Actor Ed Watts had probably the most unusual request of the batch: that the interview be conducted in a place that does not have a television playing. Watts, you see, is an avid sports fan but his performance schedule in The Fantasticks precludes his being able to actually watch complete games. Instead, he tapes them and watches the games with his girlfriend when he gets home from the theater. This means he assiduously avoids the theater's green room because there's a small television in there and it's usually set to whatever game is taking place so the cast and crew can check in between their on-stage cues.
"I came into acting late," the current El Gallo explains. "I was an athlete growing up. I was a soccer player and I wanted to become a professional soccer player. This was in the 80's and there really wasn't anything like that in the United States. In middle school I found out that I could sing and I sort of got roped into doing shows there. I thought it was fun but it was really just a side thing from doing sports. It wasn't until college that I realized I could do this for a living. By that time I'd experienced a knee injury so I really couldn't play soccer much. That's when I transitioned and studied theater at Ohio State--a huge football school, of course!"
Watts goes on, "When I got here ans started making friends in the business I heard about a place called Michael Howard Studios. I went there and got into a scene study class with a terrific coach named Larry Singer--who has since opened his own successful acting school. He invited me into a select group of his students into a year-long scene study. That's where I got a phenomenal education. I actually did that for two years. I also found an amazing voice teacher named Luba Tcheresky, a former opera singer. I really couldn't have found a better person to teach me technique and get me ready. She was very good."
"I got here when I was 20," Watts continues. "I looked like I was in my mid to late 20's, though. I just couldn't get hired because I had no resume and was up against people who had worked for years--so I needed to catch up. I wound up working by day and taking classes at night. Finally, at the age of 27 I got my Equity card ans started working professionally. I was ready by then but it took a full seven years."
Ed Watts' first professional job was at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, New York. He played Thomas Jefferson in their acclaimed production of 1776. "I was working at a law firm in the city at the time. I actually was a full-time manager of technical support and they gave me five weeks off to pursue my passion. The Gateway then hired me for their next show, which was Maury Yeston's Titanic, and asked for another five weeks off, They advised me that I'd already used my vacation time, so I quit. That was the start of my acting career." Titanic was not only the first regional production of the show, but was the inaugural production of the Gateway's Patchogue Theater.
What was supposed to be Ed Watts' first Broadway show collapsed before he could ever set foot on stage. He was a late addition to the cast of Finian's Rainbow after the show opened in 2009. He was set to be a standby for Cheyenne Jackson in the role of Woody. "I had had fittings," the actor recalls, "and everything was set. On the day I was scheduled to start musical rehearsals the show posted its closing notice. I had a contract and dates to go on--Cheyenne had told me to be ready in two weeks because he had a weekend when he needed to be off. They wouldn't even rehearse me. I got paid, I had a contract, but I was never even at the theater."
Watts wound up taking his first Broadway bow in the short-lived Scandalous, which was penned by Kathie Lee Gifford. "It was wonderful to work with Kathie", " Watts explains,"and she and I remain very good friends to this day. I think she's a lovely, talented, driven woman and the story of Aimee Semple McPherson was a passion project for her.One of the challenges of the show was that the Aimee Semple McPherson story was so vast and covered so many decades that there was great difficulty in deciding what to tell. Between the earlier productions, the workshop and the out-of-town tryout in Seattle, Kathie played with and changed the story line quite a few times trying to figure out how to pare it all down to two-and-a-half hours or less. Another thing they struggled with was HOW to tell the story. There were so many different ways they tied to show it: flashbacks, monologues, sermons and beginning/middle/end story lines. Ultimately we just couldn't find the right way to do it and never found an audience. But despite the challenges and the show's eventual failure, I loved working on it, and creating new characters. "
In Watts' estimation, Scandalous featured a lot of gifted artists. "Carolee Carmello is one of the most spectacular performers I've ever worked with. and they got George Hearn to come out of retirement to do the show. He's still a good friend of mine and he's just lovely."
Most people who saw Scandalous will remember Ed Watts appearing in costumes that were virtually non existent. The actor doesn't regret it. "My parents blessed me with genes for a good physique and I take care of myself in that department. Besides, I'm realistic about it. The time will come when I'll be told to put the shirt back on. Besides, I got good notices for it."
Cheyenne Jackson's name pops up in the conversation once again as the discussion turns to the Encores! production of It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!. Jackson had played the title role at the York Theater a few seasons earlier and was set to repeat the role for Encores! "The story I was told, " Watts recalls, " was that when Cheyenne heard they were doing Superman he called them and said he wanted to play the title role. They immediately agreed. Then the Broadway play he was in closed quicker than anyone expected and he decided to get away from New York and head to LA so he could do some work out there. He called Encores! and said he'd be out of town and wouldn't be able to do the show for them. The story I heard from Jay Binder, who was doing the casting, called the producer and director and said, 'Cheyenne's out. How about Ed Watts?' They said 'Get him right now.' I like that story, so that's the one I'm going with!"
Recently the actor did a reading of a new play with Vanessa Williams. "It all came about when we did Showboat together at Lincoln Center. I was her husband in the show. She's been friends with a gentleman named Edward Beck who is both a priest and commentator for CNN. He'd written a new play called Sweetened Water and they'd already done a reading of it out in Martha's Vineyard, where the play is set," Watts said. "They were doing a few more readings and they didn't have anyone for the part of the priest--who is the leading character. Vanessa immediately recommended me. We've done two readings; one in New Jersey and another one a week ago here in New York. It's actually a lovely play and I'm very happy to do it. You know, we musical theater types sometimes get over-looked for plays because people think we can't do anything but sing. Of course, that's not always true. I'm hoping there's be a future for it because it's a wonderful, interesting story which brings light to some issuesin the Catholic Church. These are things the author can't always express in the pulpit but can effectively explore on stage. It's a role I like very much."
Watts is now enjoying his third tour of duty in the long-running show The Fantasticks. "I joined the it in March 2010 and got to do the 50th Anniversary performance. I stayed with the show for 2 years or so and then went off to do other things. I came back for about 5 months before I left again--for the longest period of time. I returned to the show this September because it's a show I love and adore. It keeps me in the city to audition for other things, and that's a good thing. Truth be told, though, I've turned down other jobs that would have taken me out on tour and would have paid more but I close to stay with The Fantasticks. The role of El Gallo is so close to my heart after doing it so long that I actually love doing the show every night. The actor's feelings for the show are evident when he is observed during the performance. He is fully involved in the show--even when his character sits off to the side observing the action. It is obvious that he relishes a moment mid-way through the first act before the Old Actor makes his entrance. El Gallo says, "I need actors...to help me" and audience members spontaneously raise their hands to volunteer. No audience participation is actually required and Watts gets to do a bit of improvisational acting at that moment. At a recent performance, a 9 year old girl wanted to participate and Watts deftly responded, "Sorry, honey. The rules state that you must be 18 years or older." At an earlier performance, several inebriated ladies were handled with less delicacy. but he effectively got them to quiet down.
No other El Gallo in recent memory has had that kind of rapport with the audience. In fact, Watts has in his possession a hand written note from composer Tom Jones praising his performance and saying he was one of the finest El Gallo's to grace this production. Watts says, "I really do enjoy being on stage; singing those songs and telling this gorgeous story. Getting to the theater every night is a real pleasure for me."
In addition to his love for musical theater and sports, there something else that motivates Ed Watts: he loves carving pumpkins. He carves elaborate pumpkins every Halloween and months ahead of time his friends contact him about what that year's theme will be. He's so proud of these creations that he carries photos of them on his Android These are not some jack o"lanterns with triangular eyes and noses, but, rather, elaborate creations that are done with genuine artisanship. He started in the 80's His Fantasticks inspired pumpkin is genuinely a work of art. "It was actually two pumpkins: there was a pumpkin inside a pumpkin. The idea was that the outside pumpkin would be the half moon and the sign reading "Fantasticks" . The inner pumpkin was going to be carved with three different scenes from the show that could be turned and show up on the outer pumpkin's 'stage'. Like, Mount Rushmore--that other great product of carving skill--Watts' Fantasticks pumpkin was never finished. He simply ran out of time. His favorite creation, though, was a Headless Horseman that was truly unique. It's a complex creation that was carved with incredible intricacy.