André Garner ''hams'' it up in a return engagement of Little Ham.
Almost immediately, rumors began to fly of a spring Broadway transfer. "It was different after that," Garner tells me as we sit at a midtown coffee shop. "Every performance seemed like an audition, since there were always backers in the house."
But, theater economics being as they are, the transfer took a couple of detours. On September 12, Little Ham finally resumes performances -- this time at the John Houseman Theatre, an Off-Broadway venue on West 42nd Street. Once more, Garner will be strutting his stuff as Hamilton Hitchock Jones, a low-level numbers runner and self-styled ladies' man who, despite his diminutive stature, becomes a big man in 1920s Harlem by saving the neighborhood from a group of (white) gangsters.
Based on a play by Langston Hughes, Little Ham has a clever book by Dan Owens and a superb, toe-tapping score by Judd Woldin and Richard Engquist; like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray, it's "feel-good" musical. Yet, in some respects, Garner is glad that the piece didn't end up on the Main Stem. "First, I didn't know, if we went to Broadway, if I would get to stay with the show. Not that I can think of anyone who can do everything I can do," he says. "I also think it really is an intimate piece that lends itself to a smaller venue."
Garner sees the lengthy delay in the transfer as a mixed blessing. "In some ways," he says, "it was unfortunate that there was this eight-month lull which led to the departure of some of the cast" -- most notably the sensational Carmen Ruby Floyd, who will be appearing in Regina Taylor's Crowns at Second Stage this fall. "But I also feel that I am much more in touch with the character than I was back in January."
While Garner isn't playing the field romantically (he's seriously involved with actress Erin Coakley) or gambling on anything bigger than Lotto, he does see numerous similarities between himself and Ham. "Well, I am a ham first of all," he laughs. "But more than that, when it comes to acting, I want to be an integral part of the show -- to be the driving force behind the plot." That ambition prompted him to leave his steady, well paying job in the ensemble of the Broadway revival of The Music Man and take on Ham, originally scheduled for an Off-Broadway run of only four weeks. "I thought about staying in Music Man for about half an hour; it is hard to give up that kind of contract," he says. "But I wanted to show what I can do, which is hard when you're doing little more than pushing an ice cream cart [on stage] every night. And I was lucky that all my family and friends, and especially Erin, were supportive of my decision."
It also helped that Garner really believed in Little Ham, which had first been produced in New Jersey in 1987. "We're not reinventing the wheel here," he says. "This is just a good, old-fashioned musical comedy that works. You come and have a ball for two hours." That said, Garner hopes the public doesn't see the show strictly as a "black musical" -- especially in light of the recent failures of One Mo' Time and Thunder Knocking on the Door. "Labels get you in trouble," he remarks. "They don't serve the piece and they don't serve the audience. I think the music and story [of the show] are universal; it's really about a group of 'little people' coming together as a community. It's not just about black people."
Indeed, any sort of racial distinctions make Garner slightly uncomfortable. He has found life in the theater, and later New York City, to be a welcome respite from his southern Virginia upbringing, "where everything was literally black and white." Nor did he come from a theatrical background. To please his parents -- his dad was a shipyard worker -- Garner entered Virginia Tech as a business major. But his plans changed once he joined The New Virginians, an Up With People-like singing group that toured the country. "We did this big show every spring and, the first time I did it, I felt like a celebrity," he recalls. "I even won my first award: Best New Soloist."
Though he took time off from school to tour, Garner completed college. After graduation, he performed in shows at Busch Gardens and EPCOT before heading to L.A. to try to get into the movies or land a recording contract. Finding little success, he reverted to theater and quickly nabbed a role in the national tour of Miss Saigon. Then, big break number one happened: He was signed to play Teen Angel for the final three months of the Broadway revival of Grease. Audiences were slim but Garner loved every minute of the experience, including the chance to meet leading lady Linda Blair. "We were never onstage together but, offstage, she was as sweet as can be," he says of The Exorcist star.
After Grease folded, work in an industrial show led Garner to the Chicago production of Jason Robert Brown's Songs For A New World, which earned him a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination. And then came big break number two: An ensemble role in Marie Christine, starring Audra McDonald. "Before we opened, we were sure we were set for years," he says. "After all, everything Audra had touched seemed to turn to gold. Obviously, the mood changed once the reviews came out." Press was so negative, in fact, that Lincoln Center shut down the show after just 42 performances. Still, Garner has nothing bad to say to about Marie Christine: "I loved working with Graciela Daniele; she gave me such good ideas. And it was a challenge to sing those songs. Sometimes, it's important to fail while trying to do something new. And it was such a great cast, especially Audra and Mary Testa."