BWW Interview: Alan Campbell of Judson Theatre Company's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
From November 21st-24th, Judson Theatre Company will be presenting a production of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution at the Bradshaw Performing Arts Center. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing actor Alan Campbell, who will be starring in the role of Sir Wilfrid Robarts.
Alan received a Tony Award nomination in 1995 for his performance as Joe Gillis in the original Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard starring opposite the one and only Glenn Close. He has also appeared on Broadway as Sam Carmichael in Mamma Mia! and as Michael Wiley in Susan Stroman's Contact. Television audiences may also know Alan from his five seasons as Derek on Jake and the Fatman with William Conrad and from co-starring with John Ritter on the Three's Company sequel series Three's a Crowd. His feature films include Universal's A Simple Wish with Martin Short, Mara Wilson, and Kathleen Turner; Weekend Warriors directed by Bert Convy; and the recently completed Uncle Frank with Paul Bettany. Alan is also a resident of North Carolina and a founding director of Theatre Raleigh.
JK: To start things off, how are rehearsals going?
AC: Really good. We did a lot of work before we arrived. So the rehearsal schedule is kind of short. We have 68 pages of courtroom type dialogue and a lot of people arrived have done their homework. So it's been kind of a fast process, but we're having a great time.
JK: I imagine it's like that with a lot of regional theaters.
AC: Yeah, and it depends on the piece I guess. But this piece in particular because of the courtroom stuff and Agatha Christie's incredibly literate language is something that I think a lot of Americans are not always completely used to. It requires a little extra work.
JK: How familiar were you with the works of Agatha Christie prior to this?
AC: I've read some of the things I've been aware of. Uh, you know, I'm a big fan of the Hercule Poirot series with David Suchet. I've watched a lot of her things. They're remaking a lot of her classics that have been released in theaters as big budget movies lately. I don't think she's ever gone away. She's always been one of the most popular writers, if not the most popular in her genre. I have never done an Agatha Christie play. This is my first, and so I'm kind of thrilled to be able to experience what I understand was her favorite play that she wrote. So it's kind of fun.
JK: She seems to be one of those writers whose works get reinterpreted to this day like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
AC: Absolutely. She had kind of defined the genre. It's when you realize that everything from Perry Mason to Law & Order to almost every courtroom centric piece of writing and mystery writing that is common for us today in all of entertainment kind of has filtered down from not only this piece, but some of the other things that she's written. But this piece is really formative in terms of courtroom dramas in English language.
JK: So what made you want to do this show?
AC: Pretty much everything I just said. It's a challenge to play this character, Wilfrid Robarts. A lot of people know the Billy Wilder movie with Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich. The screenplay was not written by Christie, so this is a bit more true to her original concept, but it's a lot of fun. I mean, it's a great entertainment. It's just really the best who done it I think out there. It's kind of an amazing ride for the audience. Extremely literate and surprising at every turn.
JK: Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theater?
AC: Well, I actually started as a musician, as a singer, and had like a cover band. I made my money in high school singing in a rock band. Then when I got to a university, I tried out for literally almost everything. I didn't study theater in college, I have a business degree, but I got in every single play and every music group I possibly could as an extracurricular. Throughout my experience, I guess I enjoyed it so much that I decided that I really wanted to at least try to pursue a career in the theater, and in music after college and just see what happens. And assuming that relative, if I was unable to make a living at some point, if the universe conspired to put me on another path, I would take the hint. But I certainly wanted to give it my best. Almost forty years later, I'm still at it, so it's been a wonderful ride.
JK: You originated the role of Joe Gillis in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard, on Broadway. How did you get involved with that?
AC: I was living and working in L.A., I had finished the five years of Jake and the Fatman. It was kind of a little serendipity. I hadn't been singing much and I missed it. So I was kind of taking voice lessons with a guy who had been preparing some other local musical actors to audition for Sunset Boulevard. He just mentioned to me that I was the right type, the right age and kind of the right voice. He said, "you ought to let your representatives know and audition yourself." That's literally how it started. They were coming to L.A. after having gone to London, New York, and several other cities over the course of several months to audition actors. So I said, "I have nothing to lose." I didn't have a job at the time, the series had ended, and I was kind of looking for my next challenge and the next piece of work. Originally I'd always wanted to be in musical theater for about a year and a half in New York before I moved to L.A. for a TV job. I was trying my best to get into a big Broadway musical, but could never get my foot in the door. So the opportunity to then kind of reinvent myself and kind of go back to what my first passion really was, combining all the things - dance, music, and acting - that I thought would be the most gratifying, I jumped at the chance and began the audition process towards Sunset Boulevard.
JK: In fact, it has now been 25 years since the show opened on Broadway.
AC: Oh my God. That's amazing!
JK: How long were you in Sunset Boulevard?
AC: I was in it the whole time. I did it for nine months in L.A. When they first rehearsed and put the new version together. They had moved it from the West End, recast and rewritten large portions of it. I guess it's Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber now, and the powers that be decided that they wanted it to premiere in L.A. It was a story about a movie star surrounded by the glamor of Hollywood and work on it out there, hopefully for a transfer to Broadway. So I did it for nine months there. We had a few months break and then I did the entire run in New York for I think almost 1,200 performances. It took us from 1993 through 1997 with Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, and Elaine Paige as Norma Desmond. George Hearn, Alice Ripley and I were all there for the entire Broadway run. Of course, Judy Kuhn had played Betty Schaefer in Los Angeles, but was unable to continue with the show because she was pregnant with her daughter. So Alice took over the role in New York.
JK: A couple years ago, I actually interviewed Karen Mason, who was the standby for the role of Norma Desmond.
AC: I should've mentioned Karen. She was unbelievable. She was a stalwart during the entire run. It was amazing because you can imagine the difficult work if Glenn called out for any reason, because you do get sick, people get colds or the flu. She had to go out there in front of an audience that was expecting to see Glenn Close, and every time she set foot on that stage, she'd won them over and it was just a phenomenal piece of work. She is one talented lady. I have a lot of respect for Karen Mason.
JK: I remember hearing Seth Rudetsky say "never be disappointed in the understudy because you'll never know, they might someday become a star."
AC: It's absolutely true and the great thing about it is sometimes when the understudy steps on the stage, the other actors kind of lean in and are energized in a way that can sometimes make those performances even more thrilling because everybody is kind of focused in a way because there's a new person on the stage, a new energy, a potentially slightly different timing, and a different performance. The actors become kind of hyper aware of supporting that person in a way that can make those performances thrilling.
JK: I remember when Glenn Close returned to the role of Norma Desmond for a limited run on Broadway two years ago, you got to be in attendance on opening night.
AC: Yes, I was. Glenn and I have remained good friends over the years and we see each other as often as we can, though we're not living in the same city anymore. She just called me and said, "Hey, I want you to be among my guests opening night," and I said, "Absolutely, I'll be there." It was wonderful, I had the best time. I was really happy that they chose to do it again in a very different way which I thought honored the piece even more so because why do what you've done before? It was gratifying to see a completely different interpretation. Of course, it had the same central performance, but a completely different interpretation. It worked as far as I was concerned every bit as well, just very different.
JK: In recent years, there's been quite a bit of talks of a Sunset Boulevard movie musical starring Glenn Close. What are your thoughts on that?
AC: Well, I don't know. I would love to see it. The original film is so definitive that I think to do a musical version would probably be really challenging, but I love the score. I also love the original Billy Wilder film that the musical is based on, and the musical is very faithful to the script, so that wouldn't be much different. I also think Lloyd Webber's score is among his best and most evocative, especially of the period. In fact, I heard him say that when he was interviewed by Charlie Rose one time and I was kind of amazed to hear him say, at least in this interview, that he thought it was his best score. You think of Evita and there's so many other scores that he's done, but he said that he thought Sunset was his score in terms of being evocative of the period and the feeling and the kind of dark quality of the piece. I think it would be wonderful, I'd love to see that happen. I think there are probably a lot of hoops to jump through to make that happen, so I certainly hope I will be able to see that one day, absolutely.
JK: Do you have any personal choices for who should play Joe Gillis?
AC: Oh my gracious. There's so many people. I guess it depends on how they cast it age wise. I mean there's so many incredible younger actors out there. I haven't really thought about it much, but I think there's all kinds of wonderful younger actors out there that I think could play wonderfully. People that have movie careers, which I imagine they'd want to go with. Any number of people I think could do an amazing job.
JK: Like my idea for the role, which is actually Jake Gyllenhaal.
AC: Yeah, and also Ryan Gosling. I think he's a wonderful actor. I think he'd be an interesting choice. I know he has musical chops as well as Jake, and that's important because it's difficult material to sing. Andrew is not known for being real easy on singers, so you can only pledge it so much and then whoever doesn't really actually has to sing it.
JK: So after Witness for the Prosecution, do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to share with us? I know you just filmed a movie earlier this year.
AC: Yeah, Alan Ball, who had won an Oscar for American Beauty, has written a beautiful independent film called Uncle Frank starring Paul Bettany, though I'm not sure of a release date. I've also been working on developing a piece called Rock and Roll Man about the life and musical legacy of Alan Freed, who is a very early rock and roll pioneer, a DJ in Cleveland who actually coined the term rock and roll in the 50s and was the first person to play R&B on predominantly white radio stations and really kind of revolutionized the early days of rock and roll. We've had a couple of productions of it on its way, hopefully, to Broadway and certainly they're hoping to tour it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that is still in the offing because that was a really joyful thing to be part of them.
JK: It almost sounds like the R&B equivalent to Memphis.
AC: Yeah, I mean it has some similar qualities to it. I think the difference is that Rock and Roll Man uses both an original score and some of the great classics from period. It's a biographical book musical that is a hybrid of both these existing classics like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' and 'Tutti Frutti.' We feature characters like Buddy Holly, Little Richard, The Drifters, and The Platters doing the music that they made famous os wonderful with a wonderful original score by Gary Cuffer. It's a challenging thing to get right, but the producers really believe in it, and they are continuing the work to perfect the kind of hybrid quality of putting an original book musical with the already existing classic songs. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
JK: In conclusion, what advice would you like to give to any aspiring young performers out there?
AC: Have a balanced life, work on your craft, don't be too good for anything because it's amazing I have managed to rest every bit as much satisfaction from working regionally and working smaller jobs than I have the big ones. If you're going to have any longevity in this business, it's great just to be able to be as versatile as you possibly can. That is if you can sing, work the singing, be an actor who moves, be able to do straight plays, be able to do musicals, understand the difference, and continue to work on your craft. For me, being able to do a lot of different types of medium from soap operas to sitcoms and everything else is the only reason that I think I still have something to offer because I luckily have been so fortunate that I've been able to work in these different mediums. That's a good thing for all actors to shoot from good acting in good work and good technique is universal across our mediums. So that's what I would say.
JK: Alan, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
AC: Thank you so much! I appreciate the opportunity. I enjoyed it.
For more information regarding the production, please visit: