Martin Vidnovic: What Matters to Him

Martin Vidnovic stretched his wings in the New York theatre scene in 1972 as a cast member in the original run of The Fantasticks.  Today, he stars both as a father on-stage in the current revival, and as the father off-stage to Broadway's Laura Benanti.

As a collection of his experience, including his 1983 Drama Desk Award-winning role in Baby, plus Oklahoma! (1979) and Guys and Dolls (1992), Vidnovic has created an original and unique cabaret performance.

"Martin Vidnovic: What Matters to Me" plays at the Metropolitan Room Mondays at 7PM from July 16 to August 6.  For more information visit www.MetropolitanRoom.com.  For more information on The Fantasticks now playing off-Broadway visit www.FantasticksonBroadway.com.

Vidnovic spent a few minutes between shows last weekend to chat with BroadwayWorld.com's own Eugene Lovendusky, based in San Francisco, to discuss his up-coming cabaret show and a life in the theatre that has led to where he is today…

Eugene Lovendusky: Thanks very much for taking a moment out of your busy day to talk to BroadwayWorld.com! You're about to begin a weekly cabaret gig at the Metropolitan Room.  What can audiences expect?

Martin Vidnovic: I'll be doing a number of songs from Broadway shows that I was in and also songs that I just fell in love with over the years; and actually a song dedicated to my daughter Laura Benanti that's called "Laura." And of course I did a show called Baby and I have a little segment where I do three songs from that.  And I'm doing "Delilah," the Tom Jones song, because when I was a kid, tooling around in my Mustang convertible in the summer, I heard this guy's voice and it was unforgettable.  I'm doing a song called "Lonely Room," from Oklahoma! That show kind of put me on the map in the eyes of Broadway… It's a nice mixture of comedy and serious songs, lyrical songs, patter and all that!

Eugene: It certainly sounds like, after all those songs you've listed, it's living up to the name of the act: Things that matter to you. Who is helping you put this together?

Martin: I have a musical director named Jim Fallowell, he is actually the one who told me, when I was saying: "You know, I think I really want to do an act."  He called me up and said: "You know, call Lenny Watts at the Metropolitan Room and book some dates!" I had a lot of help from my acting teacher, Elizabeth Browning, to work on the numbers and connective dialogue. She really helped me to create a piece, to tell a story in its own.

Eugene: If you don't mind switching gears, how did your life with The Fantasticks even begin?

Martin: It began in 1972 down at Sullivan Street.  I was real new to New York. In college we did two or three productions of that at the University of Cincinnati and at a summer theatre.  We fell in love with that and read all about Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. So when we came to New York we would all go right down to the Sullivan Street Playhouse, take our pictures and resumes and drop them off. Later I got a call from them and I auditioned.  I was doing Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof out at Papermill when I call telling me that they wanted me to do El Gallo.  So I left a $250 a week job at Papermill to do a $125 a week job, but I really wanted to do El Gallo. I did it for three months in the summer of '72 and then one week while I was rehearsing a musical with Yul Brynner called Home Sweet Homer, which I toured with for a year. It opened and closed in the same night on Broadway.

Eugene: Yep I read about that.

Martin: It opened and closed on my birthday in 1976. Very interesting! So I did it with Sarah Rice for that week. After doing The Fantasticks I had dreams about getting back there. It wasn't until now that I did. Of course now I'm playing The Girl's Father with a really great cast. It's just a thrill to do it. It's just a gem of a show. It's just a show you need to see.

Eugene: When this new revival came along, how did you get yourself back in the picture?

Martin: My agent said "They're reviving The Fantasticks" and I went in and I auditioned for both fathers and they also wanted me to audition for El Gallo.  Apparently I was in the running for that but apparently they thought I had a little too much age on me. They did offer me the understudy but I decided not to go in that direction. I just wanted the part. So I got it through an audition and it's great to be able to be in it! I've known Tom Jones for a long time, not just from The Fantasticks but I did a show called Colette which he wrote – which unfortunately never made it back into the City – starring Diana Rigg. We were on the road with that for a while. He's back in the show, he's doing the same part that he did when the show opened in 1960, which is the Old Actor. It's great. Unfortunately recently we had one of our members who left the show, who played Hucklebee, The Boy's Father – he passed away about a week ago and that was a real blow to us. He had been out of the show for about 5 months or so but we'd always stayed in contact with him – Leo Burmester – that was pretty tough. Still is…

Eugene: I believe it…When someone arrives to the Jerry Orbach Theatre not knowing anything about the show, what can they expect?

Martin: The character of El Gallo, who is the narrator, this bandit early in the show says: "Let me tell you a few things about the play before we begin. There's a boy, a girl, two fathers, and a wall." I don't want to give away the story but there are no mothers – it's comedia del arte – the two fathers come together to figure out a way for their children to get along. I'm just a father doing what I feel is the best I can do to ensure her happiness. We're kind of like second-bananas… dressed up in pantilones… not clowns but in checkered pants and striped shirts, a straw hat and fake glasses. We have some of the lighter moments – not comedy like the Old Actor and The Indian – they bring the house down. But we do drive the story along in terms of the relationship between the boy and the girl.  We are light-hearted characters.

Eugene: Many young theatre fans today get swallowed up in a new generation of Broadway with the bright lights, and the sound, and a huge fan-base.  With its 1960s origin and wholesome music of The Fantasticks, what does the show have to offer today's theatre generation?

Martin: What it has to offer is what I think some of those shows – you talked about – don't.  Which is a real heart to it. Telling a story. It's very human. It really is about learning that without the hurt, the heart is hollow. You have to go through pains and hardships in order to come to a place where you're a more full and loving human being.  Harvey Schmidt's song are so beautiful and so witty, and the lyrics and book by Tom Jones; it's just a real, simple, honest story that you connect to on a real human level. And it's very funny. You don't need all those trappings. El Gallo comes out and says, "Boy, girl, two fathers and a wall. Everything else that's needed we can get out of this box!" We have a couple of boxes that actors pop out of, props pop out of. It's just very simple, kind of bare-bones production, which then becomes about the people in it and their relationships. And it's just a beautiful story. Things that make people cry at the end. It's love. It's love!

Eugene: Yes! The amount of time you've spent in the theatre world so far in your life has brought that kind of wisdom to you… what is one of the most proud moments in your theatre career?

Martin: I guess my daughter!

Eugene: Just where I was going…

Martin: Her doing so well in her career is the proudest thing, I'd have to say. She's now doing Louis in Gypsy with Patti LuPone at the Encores! And the day after that closes, she flies out to LA to start filming her new TV series that Victor Garber's in, and Joanna Gleason, called "Eli Stone." She's done about six Broadway shows now. That's the absolute proudest part.  In terms of my own career, I've had many wonderful moments on Broadway. I'd have to say especially with Oklahoma! and Baby. I loved also doing Guys and Dolls. My daughter certainly is it.

Eugene: What were the warning-signs that Laura was bound to follow in your footsteps in show business?

Martin: Her mother is a singer and teaches voice in New Jersey, and she's Laura's only voice-teacher ever. I remember watching her in some elementary school plays. There was just something special about her standing up there. It was mostly speaking but she played the piano. I remember her giving a piano recital… she wasn't as technically proficient as the other kids but I remember when she played, her soul came out through the piano, her identity, it was personal.  I took her, when she was little, to about 15 or so Broadway shows. I don't remember, but she said to me, "I remember, Dad, when we went to go see Grand Hotel, that I turned around and said 'I know this is what I want to do'."  I guess it's when she started singing when she was in intermediate school. She sang "Summertime" and it was unbelievable. And then when she got into high school, she was the world's greatest 14-year-old Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, I gotta tell ya! Her senior year she played Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and it was just unbelievable. She did go to NYU for a week and she said she didn't like it. But at that same time, she had seven auditions for The Sound of Music and was cast, was the understudy for Rebecca Luker, and eventually took over the part. She was raised in it.

Eugene: Going back to your roots, how did you discover the stage?

Martin: When my voice changed! The summer of my eighth grade year, I started singing and all of a sudden this voice came out. It was delightful but it was really surprising. That summer on the Chesapeake Bay, I would sing around the beach to stuff that I was listening to, which was folk music. Back in those days, they had a show called "Hootenanny" which was like the Kingston Trio and The Letterman.  I'd be singing all around the place. It was my mother who suggested that my freshman year I try-out for The King and I. So I did and got Lun Tha. But I was really more into sports; football, baseball and track. But sophomore year I had blown my knee out in football, so they just put me in the chorus of Brigadoon. My senior year they did Carousel so I did that. From there I went to the Conservatory in Cincinnati and ended up in the musical theatre department with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. There was a guy named Lehman Engel who used to be a famous Broadway conductor who also ran some BMI workshops in New York. He came to Cincinnati and did some seminars and we at the same time were preparing to do a collection of musical theatre scenes for a concert at the university.  Over the week the guy fell in love with what I did. He said, "Why don't you come to New York during your spring break and I'll take you to some agents." Which he did and we went to plays and musicals, and auditioned for some agents which didn't really work out. But it did induce me to come to New York right after college. I came and started working right away, little things. Like 1971 I did a thing called The Stingiest Man in Town which was a version of The Christmas Carol with John Carradine, well not such a great production.But once I got into Fiddler on the Roof, then The Fantasticks, and from there I did a national tour of The Rotten Child and did some Summer Stock and finally did my first Broadway thing late in '74 with Yul Brynner. After that I did The King and I, Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, then Baby.  Then I got out of the business for a while, trying to figure out my life, but then I got back into it. I did A Grand Night for Singing at the Roundabout, then got into Guys and Dolls and King David and got back into things. I'm real fortunate to still be working. This cabaret thing is all new! I've done revues in cabarets, but it's different when it's just you. It's a new step for me. I'm a little nervous and excited about it.

Eugene: But by the sound of it, after all that you've told me, you're going to put on one hell of a story.

Martin: I think so!

Eugene: Thank you very much and I wish you all the success with your new concert series and your performances ahead!

Photos: Martin Vidnovic (headshot); Martin Vidnovic with Anthony Federov, Julie Craig and John Deyle in The Fantasticks (2007) by Joan Marcus; Martin Vidnovic with Douglas Ullman Jr and the late-Leo Bermester (2006) by Joan Marcus; John Deyle and Martin Vidnovic (2007) by Ben Strothmann; Martin Vidnovic (2006) by Genevieve Rafter Keddy

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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)

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