BWW Interview: Tom Wopat, Up Close and Personal at The Beach Cafe
Tom Wopat may be best remembered for his role as Luke Duke on the classic television comedy The Dukes of Hazzard, but the two-time Tony Award nominated actor-singer-songwriter-guitarist (and vetern of 11 Broadway shows) has, in recent times, had a surprising reinvention on the music scene as a first rate stylist of the American Songbook.
Beginning October 23rd, Wopat will begin a 5 week Wednesday night residency at the charming Beach Cafe on East 70th Street and Second Avenue (just steps away from the Q Train) allowing fans old and new the rare chance to experience the performer in a cozy, close up environment. In anticipation, I sat down with the affable star to learn more about his roots and what audiences can expect in this new series of concerts.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Tom, I'm curious about your career. Did you always love music?
Yeah, I was a singer first. I've always been a singer. Honestly, I physically enjoy singing. It just feels good. It's something I've done since I was a baby. Even when I was like a year or two old, I'd be crying about something and all of a sudden it would be a croon. I sing every day and I was blessed to have really really good teachers all through public schools and in college - so that helped. I first went to the University of Wisconsin... Played football. I was on the crew and then got cast as Tony in WEST SIDE STORY. And that really grabbed me that I really wanted to do theatre. And there was a guy named Gilbert Hemsley, who was kind of a world famous lighting designer at the time out of the University of Wisconsin - he took me with him to the Houston Grand Opera, and I sang for the general manager.
How old were you at this point?
22 or 23. And the General Manager of the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley, a legend in the opera world, said "You've got a nice little voice. You've got an interesting rasp in there, so you must've been singing some rock n'roll (which I was). He said, "You know, you could have a career playing second and third parts in little opera companies in the midwest." But that wasn't interesting to me, and so that's when I decided to come to New York. And I got hooked up with Jack O'Brien who was a friend of Gilbert's, and he got me meetings with three different agents - one of which was J. Michael Bloom who had a pretty good run here in town and in LA. I signed with him and I was with him for 20 years. I did my first Broadway show about six months after I got to town: the Jim Naugton part in I LOVE MY WIFE. And I did Curly in OKLAHOMA! At the old Equity Theatre Library.
Wow! Of all the roles you've done here in New York City, what was the most fun to do?
Well, OKLAHOMA! is still the most fun to do. But, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with Bernadette was probably the acme of my Broadway career. She's just indescribable.
How did that opportunity come to you?
[The Weissler's] asked me to come in and try it out with her and we hit it off. We had a great time. That's a show where there's a very large amount of freedom to do what you want inside the scenes. And with her and me, we would do something new probably four or five times a week.
And that score!
You can't go wrong.
You've been nominated for a Tony Award twice (for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and A CATERED AFFAIR). Any special memories related to the Tonys? I remember the group numbers you were a part of in the 1980s...
Ha! Too much trouble?
Oh for sure! But those were terrific. Different day. Different age. I remember the year Henry Fonda died and I got to do the speech that Tom Joad does in THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Goosebumps...
You're doing a sit-down at The Beach Cafe for a month: one of the things that I'm fascinated by is that this is such an intimate space! I mean, you just can't get much more intimate than this unless you are playing someone's living room.
No. But to me...well, I enjoy all different size venues.. I've worked at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and I sang the national Anthem at Lambeau Field, (which was f*cking amazing!) I look at myself as a better than decent singer, but I think probably my strength is as an interpreter of song. To me, the value is in taking a good song or a great song and putting my spin on - to really express it to the people that are listening. And for that, this (space) is perfect. (Laughing) I just want to be a saloon singer. I just try to find a nice flow. The cool part about doing a residency is that we get to try different things. What we're looking at for the first one on October 23rd - we'll do a bit of a melange. So there will be some Broadway, there will be some big swing. And I like to do novelty numbers - like "Twisted" and "I'm Hip."
When you do Broadway numbers, do you reinvent them for the space?
Oh sure. Very, very seldom do I do a Broadway number straight out of the book. For example, one of the numbers we'll do a spin on for the 23rd is "Wait for It" from HAMILTON..
Yeah! So we do some offbeat stuff. After that, on October 30th, I'll do a night of Sinatra. Basically all swing with a couple of ballads. Another night we'll do a singer-songwriter set. No Broadway. More of my original songs from my new record, WOPAT.
Are there certain songwriters you have an affinity for?
Joni Mitchell. We'll do one of hers. There's a song called "Two Grey Rooms" that we like to do. There's a James Taylor that we've worked up that we haven't done in New York City yet called "Copper Line." Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River," which is a great song. So it's not your typical cabaret show.
Outside of these fantastic intimate jams at Beach Street, what other projects are on the horizon?
I've got a couple of cool things coming up. I'm going to do Jazz at Lincoln Center October 28th (The Cabaret Convention celebrating Dorothy Fields & Great Women Songwriters). And I'm thinking of doing something at the downstairs space at Birdland. There I would probably go with a horn section. I've been lusting after doing a sort of "rock horn show." Material like Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Sly. Can you imagine? Tower of Power, Little Feet... I'd probably play some too. Believe it or not - I actually play trombone from way back.
We did a show at Joe's Pub when we did that record. God, that was fun!
When you were doing Dukes, were you aware that you were both singers?
Oh yeah. First time we met and I picked up my guitar He's one of my best friends.
If there were to ever be a musical of The Dukes of Hazzard, who would you pick to play you guys?
Follow Tom @wopatofficial