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InDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. Hanke


Today we are talking to one of the stars of the smash hit Broadway revival of Frank Loesser's HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, co-starring Daniel Radcliffe, Tammy Blanchard and John Larroquette, at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, this actor can also be seen in the just-concluded final season of HBO's BIG LOVE and in a recurring role on ABC's BROTHERS & SISTERS - Mr. Christopher J. Hanke! Discussing everything from HAIR and hippies to business suits and HOW TO SUCCEED, as well as a thorough analysis of his CRY BABY experience and even a little IN MY LIFE, Hanke opens up about his co-stars, characters, collaborators and even shares a few audition stories.

Coffee Mate

PC: Happy belated birthday!

CH: Thank you, thank you!

PC: Tell me about working with director Rob Ashford - this is your second show together.

CH: This is my second show with Rob. I am a huge fan of him. I don't know if I can speak for him, but he seems to be a big fan of mine, too! We love working together.

PC: How are the challenges of the two productions different?

CH: As far as when we did CRY BABY together, and he was the choreographer there and, now, on HOW TO SUCCEED, he's the choreographer and director, and how they are different - for me, I have found that Rob's choreography is all about storytelling and furthering the plot. It's all really rooted in the character - in my character and Dan's character and Tammy's character and some of the ensemble characters that are fully fleshed out. The same is true of CRY BABY: his choreography helped tell the story and direct the piece through his choreography - not to take anything away from Mark Brokaw, our director. Now, he's just upping the ante - I felt like he was our leader in CRY BABY and I feel like he's our leader now. It's really exciting to see him do both now.

PC: The license plate song in CRY BABY was unforgettable.

CH: Oh my gosh, right? I remember being in the wings every night, watching them and wishing I was a tap dancer.

PC: What was the CRY BABY experience like for you, looking back?

CH: When I booked the first reading for CRY BABY, and Bernie Telsey cast that, it was before I did IN MY LIFE on Broadway, which was my debut. I thought CRY BABY would be my debut. Nowadays, when you put your stamp on a role in a reading you can see it through to the workshop stage and maybe Broadway - you can stay with it, you know?

PC: So, it was the James Carpinello stage of the show?

CH: Yes, he was in it and Sarah Uriarte Berry - who was so fantastic - and I was so, so, so thrilled to have booked it. Great research! (Laughs.)

PC: What was that version of the show like?

CH: It was fantastic! As I said, I thought it was going to be my debut. But, it took a while to kindInDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. Hankeof develop that show. Then, the RENT experience came along, and IN MY LIFE and, before I knew it, CRY BABY was my third Broadway show.

PC: How long did you stay with CRY BABY?

CH: It was a three year journey. It was a wonderful journey. I saw it through every reading, every workshop, through La Jolla, to Broadway. By the time that we got here, it was like familial, you know? The cast, the crew, the creatives - it was like a nice homecoming.

PC: What was John Waters like?

CH: Oh, he used to call himself this hilarious and creative nickname. He was so, so open to ideas from the actors and creative team. He was such a positive influence on the whole show. He was such a cheerleader. It was just wonderful to work with him. I only knew him as that guy with the weird little mustache and I didn't know his movies and everything he's done in his career.

PC: Did Johnny Depp come and see the show?

CH: No, I don't think he saw the show - at least not to my knowledge. He never visited us backstage if he did!

PC: What do you think of the original film? It's a lip-synched jukebox musical, of course.

CH: I sort of tried to stay away from the original film a little bit. It's a little too iconic. I wanted to live the CRY BABY experience in my own way and evolve it from inside. I saw some scenes to kind of pick up the tone and to see sort of what's going on in it.

PC: What do you think of the film of HOW TO SUCCEED? Your character isn't in it very much.

CH: I wasn't familiar with HOW TO SUCCEED in any way. I didn't own the cast album or see the number on the Tonys when I was a kid and I didn't see the revival. My family and my siblings are big TCM/old movie fanatics, so I vaguely remember Robert Morse as an actor.

PC: How did you become involved in this production, then?

CH: My agent said that this part was available and I was really right for it. So, I said, "Let me read the script and watch the movie," and I did. I thought Michele Lee and Robert Morse were just fantastic - they just popped off the screen! They were just terrific in the movie. I love how colorful and bright and 60s the movie is. Bob Fosse's choreography is, of course, in the film, too. I just loved it. I actually saw the movie on the plane, because my agent told me about it when I when I was coming from LA to New York.

PC: What do you think of Frank Loesser in general?

CH: Well, I hear a lot of people say that GUYS & DOLLS is one of the greatest musicals ever written, and I certainly can't disagree. I think HOW TO SUCCEED is a real gem - it's so heartfelt; it's so Americana; it's so tongue-in-cheek. It's hilarious. It's just a fantastic, fantastic show. The Loesser family have been so supportive and amazing with this revival - I mean, at my first audition and my second audition they were there.

PC: Tell me about Jo Loesser.

CH: She is a bright, shiny penny. Just a doll! I feel so blessed that she let me put my stamp on this role in this show. She's all of five feet tall - so fantastically diminutive. Her daughter is just lovely, too. I was talking to her the other night - as I said, I am feeling a little under the weather - and I was talking to our music director, David Chase, and he was telling me I'd be OK and she was there and she said, "Oh, honey, you'll be fine! Put it right here," and she put her finger to the middle of her forehead, and she said, "Put it right here!"

PC: That's great advice. What is working with musical director David Chase like? He's so respected - for good reason.

CH: He's one of the smartest men I've ever worked with. You know, he'll look at the score and say, "Now, this chord is here because Sputnik was happening at the time and people were exploring these raw tonals and...," Oh, my gosh!

PC: Loesser's scores are so dense and complex.

CH: Yes, indeed. And kudos to him for getting the full orchestra. The woman who plays harp, her name is Grace, and she played harp in the Broderick revival, as well. But, with David, he really cares about everything that is going on in each and every instant of the storytelling, too. It's not just the notes. In trying to discover who Bud Frump was, we'd discuss, you know, why this crescendo works or doesn't and he's so open to those sorts of discussions.

InDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. HankePC: How do you take on a Charles Nelson Reilly role since he is so well-known for going all-out in "Coffee Break"?

CH: Oh, yeah. I mean, the music is the music and the notes are the notes, so the song wasn't altered in that respect too much. I am definitely no Charles Nelson Reilly, and what he had and what he did as an actor was uniquely special and uniquely fantastic. I think maybe they hired me for this job because maybe I am not that and maybe they wanted a new spin on Bud Frump.
PC: What did you discuss with Rob Ashford about that new take on the role?

PC: What did you discuss with Rob Ashford about that new take on the role?

CH: I remember Rob and I spoke about a Kennedy version, where he poses more of a threat to Finch, and that you would believably buy the ascent where, as Finch rises up the ladder, there is Bud right behind him. When Rob wanted that version of Bud, that paved the way for how it was going to be for the whole journey and took it out of Charles Nelson Reilly land - and I wouldn't even be able to give that justice, anyway.

PC: What are some of the ways this Bud is unique?

CH: Bud became something different - with a lot of great physical comedy and a lot of great really freeing moments have developed because of that door Rob opened to let it be different from other versions or Charles's version.

PC: So are you playing Joe Kennedy then, if it‘s a Kennedy?

CH: (Big Laugh.) That is hilarious.

PC: Have you seen THE KENNEDYS yet? It just premiered this week, finally.

CH: I did not see it yet. I live in Los Angeles, but I am living in New York for the run of this show, so I barely just got cable hooked up in the apartment I am staying in. I don't even have DVR hooked up yet! I haven't seen THE KENNEDYS, and I probably won't.

PC: Did you bring MAD MEN at all into the vibe of this production? It's such a part of modern society and Ashford's production of PROMISES, PROMISES last season was clearly influenced by it in some ways.

CH: I love that show. I actually auditioned for a character on the last season, but I bombed the audition. (Laughs.)

PC: What happened?

CH: Oh, it was so terrible. It's best to say I went to the audition and I just... tanked. (Laughs.) I am such a fan of Matt Weiner, the creator of the show, and I think Jon Hamm is just genius, and so is John Slattery.

PC: So, how have you brought that experience into the show?

CH: As far as a MAD MEN influence? It's just there. It's like drinking water... (Clears Throat.) with a little gin! (Laughs.)

PC: And a puff of a cigarette!

CH: Exactly. But, no, there wasn't an active homage or anything. But, when you see Tammy Blanchard in this, though, there's a little Joan. But, we didn't watch episodes in rehearsals or anything.

PC: What was Rob Ashford's main concept for this production?InDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. Hanke

CH: The main idea Rob had that we talked about was that the World Wide Wicket Company was about us coming in and doing the same thing every day and nothing changes - like a conveyor belt - and everything was perfect. Then, one day, this guy - Finch - shows up and he puts a cog in the train and it messes everything up. Rob was very specific in reminding us that this was our universe - not MAD MEN or other things - so we knew what was going on historically and what the universe of the show was and we took it from there.

PC: Do you think that is the best way to address the era today?

CH: Yes. I think you get in trouble when you try to bring in the 2011 version of the 60s.

PC: What's your favorite moment in the show every night?

CH: Umm, I really like intermission when I get to eat burritos. But, that's because I am from the South and I am a little trashy like that. (Laughs.)

PC: (Laughs.) What about in the show?

CH: I really enjoy singing the end of Act One with Tammy and Dan. We're in this little triangle with spots that make these little pools of light over us. It's so over-the-top. We're like, (Sings.) "I will return! I will return!" You know, It's just hideously, ridiculously, fantastic. I just love being able to play, you know, eleven-plus at that moment. Singing those harmonies - it is so beautiful, the way those three notes come together. It's such a harmonically pleasing moment and it hits at a really good place in my voice and I like to hold that note and I like what's going on with the character - in Bud's mind and in Bud's body - at that moment, too. And, I get to sing with Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway - and how cool is that?

PC: Very cool. What is it like working with Harry Potter aka Daniel Radcliffe?

CH: He is a very strong leader, and has been since day one. I remember our very first meet and greet and everyone was meeting and talking and he stood up and thanked Rob and said he was looking so forward to this. He really set the tone for this whole journey of ours. Coming from this twenty-one-year-old, even though he's been working for half of his life, I guess I wasn't expecting this mature, beautiful soul. I love that he has that - it's great gravitas for us. At the same time, he loves to have fun and just be treated like everyone else. He's just a gem. He's so gentlemanly and so very gracious.

PC: What's it like working with him eight times a week?

CH: He exudes all of those things daily and I really respect the hard work that he put into getting ready for Finch. He did two years of dance lessons, plus music lessons, and got completely ready to headline a musical - major kudos to him for that.

PC: Do you all have your own dressing rooms? Every theater is different on Broadway, so you never know.

CH: (Laughs.) Yes, we are all lucky enough to have our own dressing rooms - there are lots of them at the Al Hirschfeld!

PC: What's John Laroquette like? This is his first musical.

CH: Yes, and he's doing such a great job! He's so funny. He's singing his heart out. He's doing such a great job - and it's so unexpected, at least for a musical. But, when you see him, he's just awesome - he's a star. Such a discovery. He puts on this gruff, tough exterior, but he's really, truly, this warmest, kindest sweetheart inside. He's also from New Orleans and I'm from the South, so I connect to him on that level. He's got a wicked sense of humor and he's really, really into playing Words For Friends - the iPhone app.

PC: Tammy Blanchard is one of the finest actresses in musical theatre. What is it like working with her?

CH: Oh, yes! She is has a very special angelic arc over and in her.

PC: Have you seen her in the Judy Garland film, ME & MY SHADOWS? She is astounding in it.

CH: I have not, but it's on my to-do list, believe me.

PC: How do you keep up the stamina to do "Coffee Break" every night? John Leguizamo was just telling me he can't even drink coffee the days he performs his one-man-show because it's too dehydrating.

CH: I do not drink coffee. I don't drink any hot liquids, but that's just because I don't like them. I get my caffeine from Diet Coke. But, to piggyback on what John Leguizamo said, when I have to do a tough singing role, I have to stay away from caffeine as well. I only allow myself one a day, and that's in the morning. So, I think that by the time "Coffee Break" comes along in the show, I am just amped-up and ready to jump into the world of World Wide Wickets. Plus, I get the easier track in "Coffee Break" because I am the one keeping the coffee away from everyone else. So, I get let off the hook pretty easy.

InDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. HankePC: You have had quite a wild ride in the last few years - HAIR, playing a hippie, to playing a Mormon on BIG LOVE, to playing an Ivy League business man, back in the 60s, now, in HOW TO SUCEED.

CH: Oh, my gosh, I know! Yeah. I am so blessed and so thankful to be able to be working - my dream as an actor was to be able to continue to work.

PC: How do you compare playing a hippie in HAIR to a straight-edge in HOW TO SUCCEED in the roughly the same era?

CH: Well, playing a hippie is way more fun! (Laughs.)

PC: Especially Claude in HAIR!

CH: Definitely. I do have to say it was more fun, if only because I never had long hair and I never smoked pot in my life - and that's the honest-to-God truth. So, to be able to act all that out and experience those feelings under the stars in Central Park, wearing those amazing, cool clothes - it was just very, very freeing. But, it's fun to get laughs playing the comic villain, too, in HOW TO SUCCEED - as Bud - but playing Claude in HAIR and playing a hippie, I'd like to do that again.

PC: Something in that vein?

CH: For sure. Not HAIR again, though.

PC: Moving to TV: What do you think of the BIG LOVE series finale? You were wonderful on the show.

CH: Thanks! I have not seen the series finale yet - so don't give anything away, please!

PC: I won't! I promise.

CH: Thanks. (Laughs.) I read the script, so I know what happens, but there was also talk of some different things at the very end, so they might have changed it without me knowing. But, I have been a big fan of that show the whole time it has been on. It's so dark and so real and something about it seems like every house in America - and I know every house in America doesn't have three houses and three sets of wives and all that - but something about it feels very, very normal. I think that's the fantastic twist of it all.

PC: How did you become involved with the show in the last few seasons?

CH: It was very last minute. It was like, "Hey, wanna audition for BIG LOVE tomorrow?" And, I had just come back from auditioning for THE BOOK OF MORMON and I had gotten pretty far along in the process. I ended up not getting it.

PC: You can't win them all, right?

CH: Well, I do have to say, I was very disappointed and I think the show is fantastic and I loved the script and I love everyone involved. But, I flew into New York and I didn't get it and I flew back to LA. A couple weeks later, BIG LOVE called and I auditioned and I got the job. I was so happy. I mean, I didn't get to play a Mormon on Broadway, but I got to play one on TV. So, there was a different plan. Had I gotten MORMON on Broadway, I wouldn't have been able to do BIG LOVE because there was another workshop at the same time. So, it all worked out. There's a saying that God has a great sense of humor and that's probably a great example of that.

PC: What was working with the great actors on BIG LOVE like? Bill Pullman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny.

CH: Working with Jeanne, Bill and Ginnifer [Goodwin] - since most of my scenes were with theInDepth InterView: HOW TO SUCCEED's Christopher J. Hankethree of them - was surreal at first, but, quickly, very comfortable. They were so encouraging. I wish the show had gone on some more and, had it not been the season finale this year, I think there was a really cool storyline for my character; but I am excited to see the finale, anyway.

PC: Speaking of Kennedys, did you see Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie in GREY GARDENS?

CH: Oh, of course, yes. Yes, I did.

PC: What was she like on set?

CH: So, so funny. She's just a jewel. She's so open to ideas. There's no, "I've been here and this is what I've done." It was very collaborative.

PC: Speaking of which, my last question is always: define collaboration - especially in terms of this production of HOW TO SUCCEED.

CH: Define collaboration. (Long Pause.) In general, I think, in terms of all things artistic and certainly this piece - having your soul open to receive another's ideas and presence, and being willing to voice and communicate your soul's desires and ideas.

PC: Are you coming back to BROTHERS & SISTERS?

CH: I don't know if I can comment on that! Nothing is official. I will leave it up to the BROTHERS & SISTERS gods.

PC: Is this the last season of that show? Do you know? It's on the bubble.

CH: No, I have no idea. It's all very corporate and very network and I try to stay away from all that!

PC: What's next?

CH: Hopefully doing eight performances a week at the Al Hirschfeld Theater for a very, very long time! (Laughs.)

PC: What's the top song on your iPod?

CH: Probably some cheesy Amy Grant song! I love me some old school Christian music. (Laughs.)

PC: Thank you so much, Christopher. Send the cast my best!

CH: OK, Pat, I'll pass it along that you give good interview! Thanks so much, buddy, have a great night! Bye now.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)

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