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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Leslie Wolfe

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Leslie Wolfe
John Leslie Wolfe

Today's subject, John Leslie Wolfe, has been living his theater life to the fullest for many years now. His credits include Broadway, national tours, television, and film. Local theatergoers might remember him from his performances at Signature Theatre in Titanic, The Threepenny Opera, and West Side Story or in 1776 or Ragtime at Ford's Theatre. Currently, John is back at Signature Theatre in rehearsal for the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Passion directed by Signature Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner. Performances begin on August 14th in Signature's MAX Theatre space. The production runs through September 23rd.

John is definitely no stranger to Passion. He was part of the original Broadway production and can be heard on the cast recording. He then performed in the show again at Kennedy Center as part of the 2002 Sondheim Celebration and was directed by Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

John has also appeared on Broadway in Parade, Evita and the legendary Broadway flop known as Sarava. You might remember the commercial that just kept playing over and over and over. Click here to refresh your memory. National tour credits include the Las Vegas production of The Phantom of the Opera, Parade, Martin Guerre, Evita, Cabaret, and Bright Star.

Besides his work at Signature Theatre, John has been seen locally at Ford's Theatre, Arena Stage, Round House Theatre, and Olney Theatre Center. He has also worked at some of the other top regional theaters in the country, including Goodspeed Opera House and Syracuse Stage.

You may have also seen him on TV in The West Wing or House of Cards, or in such films as The Invasion or The Distinguished Gentleman.

John's story is one of a constantly working actor. He has had the privilege of working with such Broadway legends as Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim. That's what I call one impressive theater life.

The new theater season will be in full swing soon and what better way to begin it then with Signature Theatre's production of Passion. It is, after all, Signature's signature to produce Sondheim - and this one features an original Broadway cast member. "Happiness" indeed!!

To get you ready to read this interview, John provided us a little back story about himself.

From John Leslie Wolfe: My wife and I were working actors in New York City, but wanted to start a family away from the city, and so moved to the DC suburbs. Besides being a good place for family, DC offered new opportunities in performing, especially in film and televison. And indeed, I've been able to do feature films and TV, including House of Cards, Homicide, and The West Wing. I've worked at multiple theaters in the area, sung with the National Symphony Orchestra, and sung at the White House three times. I also managed to do two Broadway shows and three national tours since moving here, including several years with The Phantom of the Opera, and my most recent national tour, Bright Star. The move from New York was the right one.

Who was your biggest influence for becoming a performer?

My first role model was my older brother, Steve, who was often the lead in the high school musicals when I was in junior high. But, I wanted to sing from an early age. Unfortunately, I was pretty much a monotone until I was a teenager. My parents had me "sing" in the back yard and pushed me toward instrumental music.

Where did you receive your training?

Like many people, it started in school choir. Our high school had a terrific program. I sang in a barbershop quartet and in the school musicals. Then, I went to Kansas University (KU) and majored in Theater/Voice, a fine arts program of voice training, music theory, and acting.

What was your first professional performing job?

I got my Equity card at Kansas City Starlight Theatre after my freshman year in college and worked there each summer while I was at KU. They would hire a company of singers and dancers for the chorus, and bring in stars like Shirley Jones, Ethel Merman, Robert Goulet, and Carol Channing for the leads. Each season, we did nine shows in eleven weeks. It was exhilarating. It trained me for the real world of theater.

You have a long history with Passion going all the way back to the original Broadway production. Can you please talk about some of the changes that the show underwent from first rehearsal to opening night?

Passion was a new show, and like all new shows, went through constant change. There had been at least one workshop of the show, so the script was pretty set by then. But, we would still get new pages of script and music every day, well into previews. The changes were often just a few words in a scene, which could completely change the feel of the scene. I remember one scene during which the audience reacted very negatively to one character. The next day we had a new page that fixed it completely. But, the biggest change was recasting of the Doctor just before we opened. The actor playing the role was a comic Shakespearian actor - very good, just very wrong for the part. But, it took them a while to realize that. All these changes, by the way, are part of what makes Broadway exciting and terrifying at the same time.

What do you recall about you're audition for the Broadway company of Passion?

My first audition for Passion was for the musical director/conductor, Paul Gemignani. He conducted all of Sondheim's musicals. I had done several shows with him before, including Evita. He called me back in. When I had my final audition, I already knew people in the room, and I wanted to do well for them. And yes, the stakes were high; I knew exactly who I was singing for. But, you either use that "fear" to focus, or you let it undermine you. It's part of the excitement.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Leslie Wolfe
John Leslie Wolfe's history with Passion. L-R Original Broadway poster. Title page for the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration production and the artwork for Signature Theatre's upcoming production. Title page graphic courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Can you take us through the different roles you have played in Passion on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center for the Sondheim Celebration, and now for Signature Theatre's new production?

On Broadway, I was a soldier and Fosca's father - a chorus part, and I got to sing some beautiful music. At the Kennedy Center, I played the Colonel, Fosca's cousin - a principal character, older, with more to sing. Now, I'm playing the Doctor. It's a very interesting role, and I'm not yet sure how good his motives are. He's a principal character, manipulative, and doesn't sing. Darker characters are always more fun to play.

How does the production concept for Passion at Signature Theatre differ from the previous productions you have performed in?

Much of what makes it so wonderful is how it isn't different from Broadway. We have the original orchestrations with the same full orchestra. The biggest difference is that the first two productions were staged in proscenium. Matt [Gardiner, the director] chose to stage us on an "alley" stage, a long stage with the audience on either side. It's very intimate and romantic.

What were the biggest pieces of advice James Lapine gave you and the Broadway company of Passion when you started rehearsing the show?

James Lapine was both book writer and director, which is very difficult. The first day, he told us he would be too busy to give much attention to the soldiers and could we "help him out" by flushing out own characters, giving them some life and story. That cast was amazing in that every single actor had played a lead on Broadway and Lapine had worked with most of them before. So, he trusted them - being given that freedom to play with our characters on our own was pretty wonderful.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with John Leslie Wolfe
John Leslie Wolfe's previous appearances at Signature Theatre. L-R West Side Story. Photo by Christopher Mueller. With Florence Lacey in Titanic. Photo by C. Stanley Photography. With Sean Fri in The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Margot Schulman.

You have performed at Signature Theatre a few times. What do you like most about performing there?

First of all, they do musicals and they do them very well. And that's my first love. But, they also produce original works. It's a very creative place. They provide opportunities to new writers for new works. New shows, especially musicals, are very difficult and they need a space in which to grow. Finally, it feels like family. People like each other and they want to be in the room together.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional photo assistance provided by Signature Theatre's Director of Marketing Jennifer Buzzell and Kennedy Center's Senior Press Represenetive Brendan Padgett.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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