Shear and cast-mates Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman play 17 roles in the play, directed by James Lapine. Chamberlin's central character is a shy librarian named Charlie with an obsession with all things West, including her wardrobe. He also plays a boxer, a bodybuilder, and W.C. Fields. As an actor, though, he is the real thing, as the Tony and Drama Desk nominations he received this season prove. His performances in Wise Guys, Triumph of Love, One Touch of Venus, and many others have been nothing short of spectacular. Later this year, he'll trade obsession for obseussion when he stars as Horton the Elephant in Lynn Ahrens' and Stephen Flaherty's Seussical - The Musical.
TheaterMania: Congratulations on your Tony and Drama Desk nominations! This must be such an amazing time for you.
Kevin Chamberlin: It's overwhelming, to say the least.
TM: Who called you to give you the Tony news?
Chamberlin: I actually read it over the Internet! I had the live Sardi's feed from tony.org. It was a very 21st Century way to find out.
TM: Who's the first person you called after you found out?
Chamberlin: Well, my agent called me right away, because he was at Sardi's, and then I hung up and immediately called my brother in South Jersey.
TM: When you were a kid, did you ever dream you'd be a Tony nominee?
Chamberlin: The first time I remember seeing the Tonys on TV was when they did a big production number from Annie. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be an actor. It was all so thrilling! I haven't missed them on TV ever since.
TM: Did you practice winning and giving your acceptance speech in front of a mirror like I did?
Chamberlin: I definitely did some thank you speeches while staring in the mirror as a kid. I used to say, "Last year I was just sitting at home watching this on TV commenting on how everyone was dressed, and now I'm here and everyone is judging my wardrobe!"
TM: Me too! So what ARE you going to wear?
Chamberlin: We're hoping a designer will give me a tux for the evening.
TM: That should be easy...get Donna Karan on the horn now! Let's talk about Dirty Blonde. How aware were you of Mae West before your involvement with the show?
Chamberlin: I really didn't know anything about her. I was a fan of W.C. Fields, so I suppose peripherally, I knew a little about Mae. I had worked with James Lapine in the workshop of a musical called Muscle, and we really hit it off. He was actually looking for projects for me, and commissioned this play through the Playwright Developing Program. He told Claudia Shear that he wanted it to be a two-person show--and that I should be the other character! Then, of course, Bob Stillman came on board as the musical director, which led to several roles. It's been so fascinating to play something written specifically for me.
Chamberlin: Well, of course I watched all her movies, and read every biography. One came out right when we started working on the piece: Emily Leider's book, The Coming Mae. It's really more about the concept of Mae West--a scholarly kind of thing.
TM: Your character has such an obsession with Mae West. Have you ever had any kind of similar obsession with a celebrity?
Chamberlin: I've never been truly obsessed with a specific celebrity, although I was a surrogate member of the Lee Majors Fan Club; The Six Million Dollar Man was it! My friends and I would run around in slow motion making that weird "doot-doot-doot" noise.
TM: Have you met any "overly enthusiastic" fans of yours waiting at the stage door?
Chamberlin: Only online. Another 21st century issue!
TM: Is everyone asking you about the drag portion of the show? How do you feel about it?
Chamberlin: The play is much more about bringing Mae back to life--the power of Mae. That tough girl persona. But the drag issue does come up a lot. We specifically made the play not about that. A lot of people regard men dressing like women as a sexual thing. In the case of my character, it was most definitely not. A lot of the cross-dressers in the world are happily married with families. They just like the clothes and how it all makes them feel. It doesn't seem to be about being pretty. Sometimes it can be very "Karl Malden in a sundress."
TM: That being said, your dress is incredible!
Chamberlin: I know--I wish I had pants that fit that well! (Laughter)
TM: Maybe for the Tonys!
Chamberlin: The weight of the gown I wear is amazing, because of all the heavy beading. I can only empathize with women and all they go through to look pretty.
TM: Speaking of costumes, I know you're playing Horton, the Elephant in Seussical--give me some dirt on the show!
Chamberlin: Well, I have a photo shoot on Monday, with none other than David LaChappelle. He's photographing the whole ad campaign. No one knows that yet--there's a scoop for you.
TM: How perfect for Seuss. LaChapelle's colors are so vivid.
Chamberlin: The show is terrific. It's all about Horton and his dust speck that has a planet on it. It's basically Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches an Egg with 12 other books colliding into his story. The play is very Into the Woods that way. In the jungle where Horton lives, the music is all Motown-inspired. Down in Whoville, though, it's all very Randy Newman-sounding. It's so cool!
TM: Well it's only spring and it's already been a spectacular year for you.
Chamberlin: I never could have planned this in a million years. I kissed Hollywood good-bye when I was asked to do both of these projects. I just felt that they were career-defining roles. I'm so happy that it all worked out! You and I both know it rarely does.