Paul Vogt is getting a rare do-over. Upon stepping into the big shoes of Chicago's Amos Hart for the second time in June, he realized the poignancy in the fact that exactly one year before he had been standing on the Ambassador Theatre stage for the first time. Vogt had to leave Chicago slightly earlier than scheduled in October 2013 when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The comedian and actor (MADtv, The Rerun Show), who is best known for playing two Ednas — Mrs. Edna Garrett from The Facts of Life and Hairspray's Edna Turnblad — now gets to don pants once again as Amos Hart, the naïve, sorely overlooked husband of murderess Roxie Hart. The multifaceted actor recently shared his empowering story of fighting cancer and discussed the effect that the experience has had on him.
Tell us about what happens when you discover you have cancer while still facing the demands of a Broadway show.
I thought I had an ear and nose infection, and the doctor gave me some antibiotics, after which my neck started to swell. He said, "Oh, it's just your immune system coming back strong." Then he thought maybe it was mono, then Lyme disease, and finally I went to an ear-nose-and-throat guy, and he did a biopsy. That's the only day of Chicago that I missed — the day after my biopsy. I was still under anesthesia. A week after that on a Friday at six p.m., he told me the news in a message on my phone! It was Columbus Day weekend. I couldn't get anyone to cover the show that night, and I still had to get through the long weekend before calling doctors on Tuesday. The following Friday was my last night, and we didn't tell the cast. If everybody had known, I would never have gotten through the show. I had to forget that I was singing "Mister Cellophane" for the last time, or I might have broken down like a blubbering idiot. I went back to L.A., and a few weeks later I was getting my first round of chemo. The producers stayed in touch with me and even called when they found out. I didn't make any sort of big announcement until I was finished, which was just a couple of months ago.
What has it been like revisiting Amos and Chicago after having had this experience?
This is a gift from the lord above. Thank you, Kander and Ebb! I don't know any other show on Broadway right now where I could do this. It's such a good part, and it's so fulfilling. I muster all my energy for "Mr. Cellophane," and then a really beautiful scene at the end, and I'm done. For somebody trying to get back into everything, this is like physical therapy, and thank god it exists.
As a character, Amos is so different from you — how do you get inside his head?
One of the things I loved about doing MADtv is playing people [who] are as far away from me as I can get…which is why I always played women on the show. Amos is interesting because on the surface it seems like there's not much going on, but there's so much going on. I originally did "Mister Cellophane" as an angry song. [Chicago's director] Walter Bobbie said, "He's not angry. This is more of an awakening, an epiphany, an acceptance." You can't be too big and flashy, because then it doesn't make sense, but you also can't be too milquetoasty because you don't want people to feel bad. It's interesting, but I keep trying to get it right!
What would you most like other people to learn from your experiences with battling and overcoming cancer?
My experience was kind of unique and ridiculous. I want people to realize that if they're going through it, they'll probably get through it. There's still the fear that it's there, that it's coming back, but so far it has not. I had to make a decision: Do I live with the fear of it coming, or do I live with the fact that it's not? If it does come back, I'll start dealing with it then. I want to tell people about it, because if one person is like, "Oh, I can get through this," it would be nice. There's a family that I know whose son has leukemia, and they post on Facebook that he's back in the hospital for the 900th time, but he's smiling and he's throwing a basketball. I wrote to them and said, "You don't know how much you're helping me without even knowing that you're helping."