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INTERVIEW: Alexander Gemignani Gets Headstrong

The Broadway veteran discusses his role as a sports researcher in Patrick Link's new Off-Broadway play. logo
Alexander Gemignani
(© Tristan Fuge)
Alexander Gemignani has made his name in musical theater, with memorable turns in such Broadway shows as Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Les Miserables, and The People in the Picture. He's currently taking a break from the musical world, however, starring in the world premiere production of Patrick Link's play, Headstrong, at Ensemble Studio Theatre as part of its Alfred P. Sloan project.

In the show, he plays Nick Merritt, a researcher and former athlete who confronts the family of a former pro footballer who has died under strange circumstances years after suffering brain injuries during his career. TheaterMania recently spoke to Gemignani about the play and his career.

THEATERMANIA: What made you want to do this play?
ALEXANDER GEMIGNANI: I read about the play happening and I pursued it. First of all, a play is something I've wanted to do for a while, and EST is so respected. And the part of Nick really appealed to me; he's an ex-athlete from Harvard, and I felt he sort of looked like me. While I am more of a baseball fan than a football fan, I understand what it's like to be a sports fan, as well.

TM: Your character is based on a real person, Chris Nowinski. Did you meet or talk to him?
AG: No. But after I got the part, I read his book, Head Games, which is very troubling. There are a lot of similarities between Chris and Nick; like Chris, Nick became a professional wrestler for a while, and they both also share the idea of getting information out there about the dangers of head injuries and how to find a way to play football on safer circumstances. Chris doesn't want to get rid of the game of football. But his big thing is prevention and education, especially on the high school level, where a lot of players aren't viewed as tough unless they go back into a game after they're hurt. The whole idea of playing through pain for a greater cause is tremendously sad and tremendously powerful, and very understandable. There are already lawsuits people are filing, and hopefully his work will influence how the game of football is played in the future.

TM: As an actor, do you relate to the concept of working through pain?
AG: Sometimes, we work through pain; there's that feeling of "the show must go on." But, if you act too much one night, it's not like you're not going to be able act again at 40. Vocal rest and dementia are not the same thing.

TM: Are you finding it very different doing a play than a musical?
AG: Yes, doing a play uses a different part of the brain. For example, a song gives you four counts to do this part of a sentence, while in a play, no one is telling you to do that, and I find that very liberating. Also, the book in a musical is very different than a play script -- it has a different purpose. What's really special about a play like this one is that it has to educate as well as dramatize. It could feel like 80-minutes of lecturing, but it doesn't. That's a hard thing to accomplish.

TM: You've done some directing lately, including Broadway By the Year and Aaron Lazar's recent concert as Joe's Pub. Are you considering switching careers?
AG: I like to do multiple things. I write as well; I went though the BMI musical writing program. What I've realized is that I am a real lover of live theater, and I really want to be a theater artist. So yes, I want to do more directing, but it's not something I'm actively pursuing right now.

TM: Did you consider following in the footsteps of your father, the great musical director and conductor Paul Gemignani?
AG: I did consider it, and I've done my dad's job. I was a musical director in college and I'm still a vocal coach. And I do like it. But without getting on too much of soapbox, I don't think the job gets the respect it deserves as an art form. The art of conducting and musical direction has really changed -- not enough people realize that the primary goal is to communicate with actors. And, let's face it, nobody does it the way my dad does.

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