Eddie Korbich: Like a Phoenix...

By: Dec. 17, 2005
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Eddie Korbich's career was reinvigorated by a flop. After the Night and the Music, Elaine May's vignettes about singles looking for love and marrieds looking for extra bedmates, opened to unanimously bad reviews last June and closed a month later. But just as nearly all the critics—and many theatergoers too—ripped into its woefully outdated insights and lack of humor, they were all charmed by Korbich's performance as a schlub at a singles dance who takes a lesbian wallflower (J. Smith Cameron) out for a spin on the dance floor.

Korbich appeared in only the first—and the shortest—of the three playlets that comprised After the Night and the Music, but those 15 minutes in a crummy show ended the only downturn in Korbich's 20-year career. He's currently performing at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre in The Drowsy Chaperone, a new Roaring Twenties musical (starring Sutton Foster and directed by Spamalot choreographer Casey Nicholaw) that's bound for Broadway, and he'll be in the New York City Opera production of The Most Happy Fella, starring Paul Sorvino, in March.

On the strength of Korbich's nonmusical (if you don't count ballroom dancing) After the Night performance, he was recruited for the cast of a play, The Irish Curse, at last summer's Fringe Festival. It was good to hear the phones ringing again, as Korbich says he had endured nearly a year of seeming unemployability. "It was weird for me: I couldn't get auditions. Actors go through this all the time, but I never did. Since I got here in '84, '85, I've steadily been able to support myself as an actor. So what everyone was going through for years I never went through," he says, describing his fallow period that started in 2004: "Everything dried up. It got really scary. All of sudden I was thinking, What did I do wrong to people in the industry? Did I burn a bridge? Did I say something wrong? I didn't know what was going on. I was hearing about auditions, calling up and saying, 'What about this?' 'Oh, we'll get back to you'—[but they were] never getting back."

Even Korbich's last Broadway gig before After the Night had been largely unnoticed. In the original cast of Wicked he was supposed to understudy just Joel Grey, but after much contract negotiating, he ended up as the swing for the Wizard and several other roles. He never did get to play the Wizard but went on as about 10 different characters, including Dr. Dillamond, during his six months with the show.

Korbich now believes the ebb that followed Wicked may have had something to do with the age he's reached and the kind of roles he's usually considered for. Possessor of one of the sweetest singing voices around, he has never been a leading man but has matured too much for some character roles yet not enough for others. "My voice is high, so I have this youthful sound to my voice, and a pretty youthful face," he says. "But I'm gray, I'm bald, I'm 45. If I had more lines and was fully gray, I could fit into older character parts. But that doesn't work when you're in a room with lots of people who've been doin' it great for years. And gone are the days when I could slap a wig on and still play the Artful Dodger...although I did that when I was 31."

The Drowsy Chaperone has Korbich doing something he hasn't done in a while. The big number "Cold Feets" is the first serious tap dancing he's done in seven years, and he admits getting back in tiptop tap shape hasn't been easy: "My body hurts, but it's getting better!" He also does magic tricks in one number, although they've been altered several times during the L.A. run. Overall, though, he's loving being part of the show. "It's probably the nicest cast and creative I've ever worked with—and [there was] an effortless rehearsal process," he says.

In Drowsy, Korbich plays George, the best man to bridegroom Robert (Troy Britton Johnson). Sidekicks have always been a Korbich specialty, along with outcasts and nerdy types—or some combination thereof. He's parlayed that niche into a lengthy resume spanning stages nationwide. Though his breakthrough role was Tobias in the 1989 Bob Gunton/Beth Fowler Sweeney Todd (his Broadway debut), he's probably best known as Audra McDonald's Mr. Snow in the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel. He won an Obie in 2000 for Taking a Chance on Love, the York Theatre revue tribute to songwriter John Latouche (Cabin in the Sky). Korbich has also been Sancho in Man of La Mancha (San Jose Civic Light Opera), a Who in Seussical (Broadway), Zangara in the original off-Broadway production of Assassins, Frank in the national tour of Show Boat, title characters in George M (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma) and the Hal Prince-directed Flight of the Lawnchair Man (Ahmanson), Renfield in Dracula (North Shore Music Theatre), a Las Vegas bartender channeling Sammy Davis Jr. in the Rat Pack tribute Heaven Help Us (Florida Stage, Denver Center), an O. Henry narrator in The Gifts of the Magi and the swinger-murdering Paul in Eating Raoul (both off-Broadway).

Those were all musicals. Prior to After the Night, the only plays he'd done were A.R. Gurney's Buffalo Gal, with Betty Buckley, at Buffalo Studio Arena Theatre in 2002 and The Gamester, an adaptation of a French verse comedy, for St. Louis Rep in 2003. So making his Broadway nonmusical debut was an honor for Korbich, regardless of the reviews either he or the show received. "I was just happy to be playing with what I consider 'the big boys.' Not that musical theater isn't great—I've made my living at it, and I adore musical theater. But as a challenge, I wanted to see if I was a good enough actor not to depend on my high C or something like that."

Mission accomplished. And consequently, Korbich got to wade further in nonmusical waters. After seeing After the Night, playwright Marty Cansella contacted Korbich about being in a new comedy of his at the Fringe Festival. In The Irish Curse, Korbich played one of five men in a support group, all successful professionally but not so much romantically due to their ethnically imposed underendowment (Korbich assures us there was no typecasting involved—he's neither Irish nor…well, you know). The play sold out its Fringe run and won a best-of-fest award.

It also continued a revamping of Korbich's onstage persona—something instigated by the acclaim he received for After the Night. "Because of my look, I've had a career playing offbeat characters," says Korbich. "I was going up for murderers and this and that—in Law & Order I'm always this sleazy guy—and it just wasn't fitting. But with the vulnerability of the character in After the Night and the Music, who the audience really feels for…my agent said, 'Now I get it. Now I know how to market you.'"

While After the Night was a triumph for Korbich, it flopped in every other way. But it was still a more pleasant experience than the previous Broadway failure he was involved in, Seussical. Following After the Night's critical pummeling, "nobody was down. There wasn't a pall that went over the theater," Korbich relates. "There was disappointment, and there was sadness, but we went out and just had the best time doing the show. To wallow in that and dwell on that is death. And that's what happened on Seussical. A few people in that company were poisoned [by the bad reviews]. And when that happens, it's like a cancer. They were very professional; they went out and gave a great performance every night. Nobody ever slacked off. But backstage, in the dressing room, it was sometimes torture to go in to get dressed. One person actually said to me—snapped at me—'You're so goddamn chipper and positive, I can't stand being around you!'"

He did get something marvelously life-transforming out of being in Seussical: Rosie O'Donnell's guidance (and referral to a lawyer) that helped him and his partner, Andy, become parents. They had been pursuing adoption for a few years without success, so when O'Donnell—an adoptive mother and public campaigner for gay adoption rights—joined the cast, Korbich gingerly sought her advice. "She was very careful when I first met her. When you're that famous and someone comes up to you, you can't help but think they only want you because of your celebrity," he says. "The second she realized that the interest wasn't about celebrity or trying to get something, it was like, boom, she was our No. 1 fan, and the catalyst."

Eddie (who was adopted himself) and Andy were in the delivery room when Alexandra, whom they call Sasha, was born in May 2002. When they had first started exploring adoption, pre-Rosie, Korbich had wanted a child from Ukraine, where his family traces its roots, but they gave up that idea when they discovered Ukrainian authorities didn't like giving children to gay couples. "We would have had to lie," he says. "This woman [at an adoption agency] said, Do you have a lady friend who could come over and 'pose'? We didn't want to start off this thing by lying."

At 3, Sasha is now about old enough to start appreciating her father's work—not in the theater, but in TV cartoons where he's voiced characters. He was Al and Moo in the Nickelodeon series Doug (and the 1999 movie spun off from it) and Flick the Duck in PB&J Otter, which aired on the Disney Channel. Korbich says he's known he had a flair for voices since grade school, when he started doing imitations—Bugs Bunny, Lily Tomlin in Laugh-In, Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz and Julia Child, among others. He describes cartoon voiceovers as "incredibly different gratification" from stage and on-screen acting.

In his current stage role in Drowsy Chaperone, Korbich shares the stage with Georgia Engel, who's best known as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That's one more degree of separation from the landmark sitcom than Korbich previously had: He appeared in the 2000 reunion movie Mary and Rhoda, playing Rhoda's boss. Working with a TV icon was inspirational, and confidence-building, for him. "Valerie Harper is a completely secure actress," he says admiringly. "I would do some lines in my scene, and we would rehearse it, and then they would light something, and she would say: 'You have an instinct to go on and do something else, don't you?' And I'm like, 'Well, yeah, I do.' And she'd say, 'Do it, do it, do it, keep the scene going, just do what your instinct tells you.' And I said: 'But it's your scene.' She was like: 'Screw my scene. Just do it! If they like it, they'll use it. If they don't like it, they'll stop it earlier.' She was like that all the time."

Korbich would have reprised his role in a Mary and Rhoda series, but plans for it were scuttled. Soon after, another Korbich TV role was curtailed. He played a patient in the pilot of ABC's Wonderland, a psychiatric-hospital drama lauded for its daring and then abruptly canceled when that daring proved a ratings liability. Korbich recalls the program's fate: "The pregnant woman was there [in the first episode], and some drug guy came with a hypodermic needle and stuck it in the woman's thing—and half of America turned off. Nielsen ratings went chcckk!" The show was canceled after two episodes, putting an end to what would have been a recurring role for Korbich.

His longest-running role, Mr. Snow in Carousel, was no cakewalk either. First, he had trouble figuring out what to do with the character; then, he was subjected to John Raitt's not entirely flattering appraisal of the production. "Mr. Snow was hard, hard, hard. I couldn't get a handle on it," Korbich remembers. "Then one day in rehearsal, we were getting ready to go to the clambake, and we were getting in the boats for the end of the first act, and [director] Nick [Hytner] said, 'There's props over there if you think you need a prop. Go take a look.' And I went over and I saw some stuff, and I finally saw this wicker hamper, and I went, 'Nick, we're going on this clambake, but I can't eat that food, so I brought my own food. Okay?' And he said [imitating Hytner's British accent], 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mr. Snow's private hamper of his own food because he cannot eat the food that everyone else has because he has special dietary things. Yes, yes. Well-done, Eddie, well-done.' And from that moment on, the character clicked: He was an outsider who was not going to fit in. He was this guy who was completely on the fast track to success, by hook or by crook, because he was an outsider and he couldn't fit in anywhere. Only with Carrie, and then near the end she only stayed with him because...I don't know, that's what you did back then, you stayed with your man."

Korbich's interpretation diverged from the more macho Mr. Snow of the original Broadway production and film version—a fact the original Billy Bigelow, John Raitt, brusquely pointed out to him. "I got a dressing-down from John Raitt one day," Korbich says, still quaking a little from the encounter. "I met him and he was very nice to me. We talked and talked and I said, 'In the original it wasn't exactly the same...' And he said, 'Oh, God, no! He wasn't anything like you. He was a leading man. He was a big leading man!'

"That was rough," Korbich adds. But you know how it goes with Broadway idols—talking with them can be nerve-wracking even when there's no trace of hostility. Korbich has done several Sondheim shows—Sweeney, Assassins, A Little Night Music at Equity Library Theatre (he was Henrik), the Carnegie Hall tribute—and says the revered composer has always been "sweet to me." But, he adds, "when you talk to Steve, you always feel inadequate. Geniuses operate on a different level than normal people like me. We'll be having a great conversation and inevitably I will just do that stupid extra sentence. Who knows [if he thinks that], but I always feel like I just said the dumbest thing, gone one step too far, and any respect he had is gone."

Being liked, though, has never been a problem for Korbich. Despite John Raitt's apparent disapproval, audiences and critics took to his dorky Mr. Snow. There often seems to be some personal affection for him in reviews, regardless of what else they say. Theatergoers feel it too. Their warmth was palpable at last September's Broadway Unplugged concert, when Korbich gave one of the evening's most-praised performances, singing from a role he'd probably never get to play: romantic leading man Tommy in Brigadoon ("There But for You Go I"). "Well, I want to be liked," Korbich says when the public's embrace of him is brought up. "I do have an ethic: I don't like to miss shows. Ya know, I was doing a show once and people were missing it for a hangnail, and you say: 'Why are you in the business?' The audiences are your bread and butter, plus the producers. The whole thing about being difficult—the older I get, the less I understand it."

Photos of Eddie, from top: hoofing it in The Drowsy Chaperone, with Troy Britton Johnson in Drowsy, with J. Smith Cameron in After the Night and the Music, with his daughter Alexandra last year. [Photo credits: Craig Schwartz (2), Joan Marcus, courtesy of Eddie Korbich. Homepage photo by Linda Lenzi.]


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