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InDepth InterView: Santino Fontana Talks Encores! ZORBA!, Plus FROZEN, New TV Series, Upcoming Tina Fey Film & More

Today we are talking to a spectacularly accomplished Broadway leading man with a considerable TV and film resume who plays a prominent role in the new Encores! production of John Kander & Fred Ebb's Tony Award-winning musical ZORBA! coming up next month, Santino Fontana. Explaining his part in the production as well as the unique demands of a special limited run concert presentation such as ZORBA! is, Fontana also opens up about the rehearsal process for the show and the developing rapport and camaraderie between himself and the starry assortment of fellow cast members involved in the production - including John Turturro, Zoe Wanamaker, Marin Mazzie and more, all directed by Walter Bobbie. Besides the full 411 on ZORBA!, Fontana also sheds considerable light on his many current and upcoming projects, including the recently released FROZEN follow-up short musical film FROZEN FEVER and whether or not he would like to be involved in subsequent FROZEN-related entities. Furthermore, Fontana gives us a first look at his new TV series SHADES OF BLUE, starring Jennifer Lopez, as well as his new feature film comedy SISTERS, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Additionally, Fontana previews his upcoming PBS twofer with the hotly anticipated premiere of his recent Broadway play ACT ONE, as well as a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert co-starring members of SESAME STREET. All of that, SUBMISSIONS ONLY reflections, comments on MOZART IN THE JUNGLE and digital platforms and much, much more!

More information on Encores! ZORBA! at City Center on May 6-10 is available at the official site here.

Life Is

PC: How would you describe your character in ZORBA! to those who may be unfamiliar with the show?

SF: Well, it is the first day of rehearsal - we just started - but I will do my best. I play a man named Niko who was an academic who is kind of stuck in his place in life and he goes to Greece around 1916, I believe, and he visits Crete - his family is American, but he is Greek - because there was a mine that was left to him there by a relative who passed away. Because he is stuck where he is at in life, he decides to go and see what will happen and it is there that he meets this man, Zorba, who kind of helps him get un-stuck and live a full life. That's really what the show is about.

PC: A timeless tale.

SF: It is. And, it's so beautiful - and, it's also so unique; I mean, it's tribal, too. It's so beautifully told. The score is wonderful and John Weidman has now adapted Joseph Stein's book and kind of rearranged the order of some things a little bit, which I think is great. The lyrics are so smart and the music is so beautiful, too. The cast is great, of course - Zoe Wanamaker and Marin Mazzie and John. We all just started rehearsing today - it is going to be so fantastic working with them on this.

PC: The 1983 version and the original national tour were significantly altered from what was originally done on Broadway. Will this version be based on any of those productions in particular?

SF: It's all of them - it's all of those things. It's a combination of the original and the revival and the tour. I don't know how much of the movie and the book are actually in there, but I know that they didn't really add any text - and, I know that they have rearranged things to more closely mirror the book and the movie, just in terms of structure.

PC: That makes sense.

SF: To be honest, I never saw the original production and I never read the book, so I have no way to compare it to them.

PC: It's one of the great lost Kander & Ebb musicals for the younger generation.

SF: It is - it definitely is.

PC: "The Butterfly" should be a moment to really shine for you. Have you started work on that yet?

SF: Yes! We did, actually. We've rehearsed "The Butterfly" and also "That's A Beginning" already - which are both of my big songs, basically. It's a very unique musical, though - it's very much like a play; you need actors for this show. It's not a song and dance type of show - it really requires skilled people who can do straight theatre and musicals.

PC: Have you ever worked with John Turturro before?

SF: Actually, I haven't. I saw Tony Shaloub in this play that he did, with Andrea Martin, the other night and we went backstage afterwards and Tony said, "Oh, you're working with John?!" because they have worked together many, many, many times before. So, then, when I got to rehearsals we started talking and we realized how many people we know in common, which is just fantastic. But, no, I have never worked with him myself, but I've been a fan of his work onscreen for a long, long time.

PC: Will this be your first time working at City Center?

SF: Yes, it will. I did a concert at Carnegie Hall, next door, but I've never worked at City Center.

PC: You did THE MUSIC MAN for a special event limited run similar to this a while back, did you not?

SF: Yes, I did. It was a lot different, though, in that it was unrehearsed and we just came in and sang it. It was for the Transport Group - a bunch of people sang Marian and Harold Hill and we just came in and did our piece and that was it. You know, we all do so many 29-hour readings and workshops and things, but this certainly isn't that, either - it's much different. It's my first time at City Center and it's my first Encores!

PC: If this leads to a full production, would you consider continuing on with the show to the next level?

SF: Oh, I don't know! I mean, we are at the very, very beginning of it right now and it all seems super-fantastic and interesting - there is a lot to play with right now, so I am basically just focusing on that at this point, you know?

PC: Have you actually ever been to Greece?

SF: You know, I never have. I had a pretty similar experience, though - my family is part-Portuguese, and, when I studied abroad I went to Portugal for a long weekend where I met all of my Portuguese relatives whom I had never known before and they didn't speak a lot of English; one of them spoke English a lot better than everybody else. So, they took me around and they showed me everything and I feel like that experience was very similar - a sort of Mediterranean foreigner in the midst of all of these people from the actual place that we are all in; so I feel like that is sort of the parallel for me.

PC: The way into the show - and the character.

SF: Yeah - exactly.

PC: ZORBA! of course is an ideal fit for you given your extensive training as a straight actor and its emphasis on book.

SF: Yeah, I think you're right. I mean, I still feel like my career is probably a lot more plays than musicals - especially if you include television and film in that. But, that's what's so exciting about doing ZORBA! - just the material itself, what is required of it dramatically is a lot; there are big, dramatic scenes that you don't normally get in musicals. But, at the same time, there is also this great, thrilling Kander & Ebb score. So, it's great for me to be able to do.

PC: The best of both worlds.

SF: It really is. My speaking voice teacher in college in Minneapolis was one of the teachers at Yale Grad School, where Turturro went, and I remember her talking about him when she was teaching us, so it's a strange world when these classically trained actors end up doing a musical in a limited run at City Center.

PC: Of course ZORBA! is part of the great year of John Kander - ZORBA! at Encores!, THE VISIT on Broadway, his new musical KID VICTORY in Washington, as well as a recent reading of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN which many are hoping leads to a full revival. What is your feeling of being a part of this celebration?

SF: Oh, it's so wonderful. You know, I saw CABARET this year - which I had never, ever seen before - and I was just blown away by it! The construction of the piece is just so, so unique - it's really well-done; kind of the perfectly built musical. I had never seen it before and I just loved it. I saw it with Emma Stone and Alan Cumming and everybody else and I was just blown away - I really loved it.

PC: Is this going to be your first time working with these actors, as well as Walter Bobbie?

SF: It is. You know, I remember when I was a kid I saw the national tour of CHICAGO in Seattle, which is about three hours away from where I grew up - which Walter of course directed - and I remember just loving it. We saw it as a family and that was my first Kander & Ebb musical. I remember saying to myself afterwards, "Oh, that's amazing!" And, one of the first things I saw on Broadway was KISS ME, KATE with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. So, that in conjunction with being a big fan of John's and Zoe Wanamaker's makes this really exciting for me and I am really looking forward to doing it.

PC: FROZEN is such a gargantuan hit - the biggest Disney film to date, as a matter of fact. Has your life changed at all as a result of its worldwide success? It is already iconic.

SF: I think it's so surreal. The biggest way that my life has changed is, you know, seeing stuff like merchandise with my character being on sale at Target - that and kids being on airplanes wearing FROZEN t-shirts with my character on them. Those are the most surreal parts - and, because it's animation, they have no idea that I had anything to do with it.

PC: You can avoid some of the attention that way, as well.

SF: That's one advantage of animation. But, yes, to answer your question: it's so surreal, but it's mostly great and fantastic. I am proud to have been a part of it and it's an exciting thing to have done.

PC: You recently participated in the short film musical follow-up FROZEN FEVER, as well.

SF: Yes, I did - very briefly. We all were a part of that, thankfully.

PC: Would you be open to appearing in FROZEN 2 down the line?

SF: Yes, of course I would love to be a part of it. I don't know if I will or not - I don't know what they are planning. I know that they are going to take their time and make sure that they come up with the story that they want to tell that they think will really please the most fans and also surprise everybody at the same time - and, I totally trust that they will do that. I don't know if I will be involved, but I would love to be - but, I don't know.

PC: It could potentially be even more popular, of course.

SF: Well, as far as my character is concerned it was all left open-ended - you know, I don't die! [Laughs.]

PC: This is true!

SF: So, you never know.

PC: Was it an interesting element of the project for you to play the villain, more or less?

SF: Yeah, it was. I mean, I think I have said before that I always wanted to be a Disney prince and a Disney villain and with FROZEN I got to be both. So, you know, I was thrilled by that - really, really, really excited. And, also, I got to see how they changed the character throughout the recording process because towards the beginning you were aware that Hans was a villain much, much, much earlier in the movie and I got to see over the process of recording how they were going to keep that a reveal and a surprise which I think was a smart ploy.

PC: Did you have other musical material that didn't make it into the final finished film?

SF: They had written other material and I know that there was an idea for me to sing something when I am revealed - and there was another song that they had written before the song that turned into what I sing in the final version. But, otherwise, that was it.

PC: Perhaps there will be a FROZEN concert of cut material. Perhaps 54 Below is listening?!

SF: [Laughs.] Yeah! Exactly.

PC: You seem very involved with social media, as well. How do you perceive interacting with fans in that way?

SF: Well, I feel like Laura Osnes is the one who told me to start doing it during CINDERELLA, and I was happy to. I feel like I really don't know how to do it at all, though! So, every time I see something where I'm like, "Oh, that's cool!" I try to post something about it. But, I don't think about it too much. I do think it's a great thing to be in direct contact with an audience - I think that's fantastic and that is going to change the way that we view media and entertainment; actually, it already is.

PC: In a major way - just in the last few years.

SF: It is. Frankly, I think that what is going on with television right now will eventually happen with theatre, too - we're not far away from people doing a Kickstarter campaign for a production where you will be able to pay for the production by people literally buying tickets for the show that you are promising them only if they raise the money. I think that could happen.

PC: It seems quite likely.

SF: And, then, you know, the show could sell out and you could end up recouping in certain situations - not necessarily on Broadway, but that all could happen. We're not far away from that, I don't think.

PC: Speaking of digital platforms, you famously participated in the theatre-centric web series SUBMISSIONS ONLY.

SF: Yeah - of course. I love that show.

PC: Do you know if there is going to be a new season anytime soon?

SF: I don't know if there is - that's up to Kate [Wetherhead] and Andrew [Keenan-Bolger]. I know it is a lot of work for them and I know that they love doing it, but, also, it's very hard to do all that on your own without a network and without an infrastructure helping facilitate it.

PC: Understandably so.

SF: And, they both have lots of other interests, as well - I know that they just wrote a children's book and Andrew is starring in TUCK EVERLASTING, which has a future, and Kate has been busy, too. Kate and I are actually writing something together now, too. So, yeah - they are super-busy, but I would love to do it; I'd love to. I have a feeling that all of those characters will come back, but I don't know in what form - there was talk at one time about a feature film idea using those characters. So, I don't know what will happen - but, I hope something.

PC: You yourself have a network series coming up - SHADES OF BLUE.

SF: Right. We start in June with that.

PC: And it's already been greenlit for a whole season, has it not?

SF: Yeah, it has! A whole season! It's very exciting.

PC: Did you film a pilot?

SF: No, there was no pilot, actually. I filmed a different pilot for Showtime in October and that's actually come back alive, so that might have a future, too, but this show is for NBC and Barry Levinson is directing it.

PC: How prestigious.

SF: I know! And the cast is Ray Liotta and Jennifer Lopez and Drea De Matteo and a group of great, great actors are in it, too. We didn't do a pilot and we're not going to do a pilot - we are just filming the first episode and then the rest of the season and that's it and then we'll see how it's received.

PC: These are truly busy days for you between that, the film and TV specials coming up and ZORBA onstage.

SF: I never really thought of that, but it's true - yeah, you're right.

PC: You are in the new Tina Fey movie, as well.

SF: Yes, I am in the new Tina Fey movie SISTERS.

PC: Tina is currently working on MEAN GIRLS: THE MUSICAL. Have you been involved with that at all?

SF: It's so funny because it's kind of all coming full-circle - Kate in SUBMISSIONS ONLY has the MEAN GIRLS musical and I happened to write the song for it, "Nobody Does Mean Like Me".

PC: You can't predict that kind of fated occurrence, can you?

SF: You really can't. Kate wrote the lyrics for that and I wrote the music and it was so much fun to do.

PC: Is Tina aware of it, as far as you know?

SF: I actually didn't bring it up to Tina, but I was tempted to! She's a big musical theatre person, as you may know.

PC: Of course.

SF: I remember I was getting ready to do a concert in Utah of all places and I was rehearsing the lyrics - I sang "Never Never Land" there; and she of course knew it and sang it along with me. She is a huge, huge musical theatre fan.

PC: Another multimedia project of yours is the PBS presentation of ACT ONE coming up soon, as well.

SF: That's right! It is. I actually don't know when that is exactly, but that is definitely coming up soon. I'm looking forward to it. And, I did a Christmas concert with the SESAME STREET Muppets and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that is going to air this year, too. I guess I am like the king of PBS this year. [Big Laugh.]

PC: And what a wonderful thing to be!

SF: Yeah, it is! It's a little weird, too.

PC: But, before all that, you are starring in a Kander & Ebb musical at Encores!

SF: Yes, I am.

PC: Have you ever participated in a Kander & Ebb musical before?

SF: You know, I don't think I have - not even in high school or anything. So, no - I never have. It's funny, though, because I used to audition with "Mr. Cellophane" - I did it in a different way, but I used to do that all the time. And, I have sung some music from FLORA THE RED MENACE before, too. But, no, I have never done a Kander & Ebb musical before.

PC: There is some beautiful material in THE RINK that would be perfectly suited to you, actually.

SF: Oh, I know! "Marry Me" - I love that song.

PC: That and "Blue Crystal" would be perfect for you.

SF: Yeah, yeah, yeah - I know what you mean. It's great material.

PC: Are you technically a baritone or a tenor?

SF: [Pause.] Yes. [Big Laugh.]

PC: Good answer!

SF: It's true! I was just talking to John Turturro about this, too, because my voice teacher, Joan Lader, is also working with him in prepping for this, as well as other things, and she said to me once when I asked her what to say when people ask me that question, "Just say yes!" Also, to be honest, I had just done HAMLET and I wanted to do something different, so I had an audition for THE FANTASTICKS and I was like, "Well, it doesn't get much different than that!"

PC: HAMLET to THE FANTASTICKS is quite a leap.

SF: In THE FANTASTICKS, the Matt part is written pretty low and they were having a hard time finding guys who were going to sing down there - and, it's true; we don't have a lot of writers writing for voices down there these days. Those guys kind of disappeared, you know? And, so, along with Joan's technical help, I was kind of the first one that came along recently who was like, "OK. We're gonna do that." We'll figure out how to do this in a healthy way that is still using the voice, but why not sing low? And, it's fun! To be honest, it's opened up a lot of things for me since - because, as you probably know, a lot of guys in musical theatre and theatre in general are trying to sing to the rafters all the time. As Joan would always say, "Your top is only as good as your bottom." And, that's totally true.

PC: What are your thoughts on the movie musical renaissance of the last decade and a half and the pronounced presence of musicals in the media? It's a world of difference since the 1980s and 1990s.

SF: I know what you mean - it really is. You know, I think what is really, really great is that, whether it is a musical or not, the idea of live performance is now something that is special again - and it is only going to become more so, I think, because of Netflix and Amazon Prime and HBO GO and being able to get whatever content you want whenever you want it in terms of filmed entertainment, getting to see live entertainment is really unique compared to that. So, that's why I feel like, in addition to people wanting to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC with Carrie Underwood and all of that, it's also about, "Oh, wait! We have to go to the TV to see something live tonight because something that is going to happen live we otherwise would never be able to see." That's gone as far as TV is concerned, really - you can watch an entire season of a series in a week; and, I love that. But, the excitement of live TV is gone - I remember when I was kid, you'd want to see what would happen on SEINFELD; you know, "Oh, I wonder what is going to happen this week?!" I guess some people have that now with EMPIRE but it's not quite the same thing. So, I think the idea of live performances being filmed is great, as is the feeling of, "Oh, is it going to go all right? I wonder what is going to happen?" and all the AMERICAN IDOL type shows and things like that are the same way - and I think it's all really exciting.

PC: Would you be open to appearing in a live production ala THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE?

SF: Oh, yeah - I would. I think that would be really fun to do.

PC: Maybe ZORBA! Or CABARET?!

SF: You never know! You never know.

PC: Do you feel a hankering to do some Shakespeare again anytime soon? You've done so much.

SF: I know! I know. It seems like that is all that I did in school and then right after. It's funny that you brought that up today because I have been thinking about that a lot recently - the other day I was thinking, "You know, I wanna do that again." But, it's tricky - scheduling it is tricky and finding the time to do it and where is tricky, too. But, I'd love to do it.

PC: Lastly, BILLY ELLIOT is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, as well. Have you seen the Blu-ray of it yet?

SF: I haven't had the chance to see it, no - that's great that it is still running over there and doing so well.

PC: What a whirlwind year this is shaping up to be for you! Theatre, movies, filmed productions, concerts, TV series - you are doing it all.

SF: I know! The two TV things - SHADES OF BLUE and then the Showtime thing that might be happening, too - then there is the Tina Fey movie and the two PBS things and then I have some concerts coming up, which is great. And, I'm getting married in September, too! I think that's plenty for me for now!

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Santino - let's hope you continue to do it all for many years to come.

SF: Thank you so much, Pat - I really appreciate it. Have a great day. Bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, City Center, Disney, etc.


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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...)