TheaterMania chats with Billy Elliot's Will Chase, Rock of Ages' Tom Lenk, and Shrek's Ben Crawford.
THEATERMANIA: Had you seen Billy Elliot before you joined the cast?
WILL CHASE: When I got the call asking if I wanted to replace Santino Fontana, I hadn't actually seen the show yet. . I knew it was a big fat hit but that doesn't always mean great theater. So I went and sat in the third row, and I was blown away. For me, the show is not slick in that traditional Broadway way.
TM: What attracted you to the role of Tony?
WC: There's no singing! When I was watching it I was thinking it was just a great acting role. After you've been doing musical theatre for fifteen years and singing your face off -- and don't get me wrong, I love to sing -- it was great to have this meaty acting role that is a catalyst for Billy.
TM: Do you feel welcome to bring your own take to the role as a replacement?
WC: It can be weird, because when you first start doing the show you do the essence of what the person before you was doing. Then, depending on the show and the director, it becomes your own thing over time. Of course I have my own take on things, every actor should. This role has been the easiest coming in to replace; the hardest was probably replacing Patrick Wilson in The Full Monty because that was such a tight group of guys who relied so much on each other. There was a long while when I didn't want to replace anyone, but seeing this show pumped me up. I want to see theater that moves me and I want to be in theater that moves people.
TM: Was it a challenge to learn the Northern English dialect?
WC: That accent is literally one of the hardest things I've had to do. It's close to the Liverpoolian that I did for Lennon. The thing is that it doesn't always follow the rules that we actors have for British accents. There's a little bit of Scottish in there for instance.
TM: Does your performance change depending on who is playing Billy?
WC: Yes, a bit, because they each have different sensibilities. It forces me to do what we do as actors, to listen and to react. For me, it's the fun of the show - listening, breathing, reacting to whoever is on as Billy that day. And I think those kids are all amazing.
THEATERMANIA: Was it tough to originate the role of Franz in Los Angeles and then not open the show in New York?
TOM LENK:. It was hard, because I thought I was saying goodbye to the show forever. Wesley Taylor is so talented and such a sweet guy, and I think it's really cool that he got the opportunity.
TM: Do you play Franz differently than you did in L.A.?
TL: I didn't want to just do what I did before. The show is a lot different so it wouldn't have been appropriate. When I came in there was a conversation: "Will I be able to do the performance that I want to do?" Some of the things in the script were ad libs that I did in L.A. but Wesley's approach was totally different and I liked it. So it was a challenge to throw out everything that I had been comfortable with. It's been an interesting combination of things I liked from before and things that Wesley did that I enjoyed. Plus, the show has become much tighter and funnier after the really good cuts they made. The other characters have become so fun that I had to bring it up a notch.
TM: Does that mean that you had to make Franz more larger than life?
TL: I don't even have to think about that. Before this, I did a show with Kristin (Hanggi, the director) playing a German fashion designer, and I was doing a German character who was the world's biggest Star Trek. This silly outrageous German thing is so ingrained that it really isn't any effort at all.
TM: How are you enjoying life in New York?
TL: I've never lived here before, and New York's been kinda brutal. I've had a series of crazy events and apartment traumas. I'm also discovering that it's hard to see people outside the show; the schedule is not really conducive to hanging out with friends, falling in love or finding a life partner. I thought I would get in shape, reveal my newly svelte body in a leotard on stage and all that would happen immediately.
TM: Has the stage door experience at the show been anything like interacting with your fans from Buffy The Vampire Slayer?
TL: First of all, getting to go around the world to meet Buffy fans has been one of the best experiences of my life. That said, sometimes you have to take some bad with the good when people go too far. Really, this stage door at Rock of Ages is charming. The only thing is that sometimes there will be someone who doesn't realize that the compliment they are giving you is back-handed. Someone told me I had really big shoes to fill. I just smiled and didn't tell then I had worn them before.
THEATERMANIA: Do you play Shrek differently than your predecessor Brian D'Arcy James did?
BEN CRAWFORD: We do play the role differently. I would say my Shrek is a little more cynical, a little grumpier, and more short with Donkey. It's an exciting part to play - in that Act I finale where Shrek pours his heart out, it's fun to be able to show the audience that he's really a sweet little ogre.
TM: Did you watch the movie to help you with the character?
BC: I watched the movie a lot. I don't know if I would say that I relate to the character, but I understand where he's coming from and his situation. I mean, if people are just going to be yelling at you and frightened of you your whole life why would anyone live with you? It makes sense that he lives alone and he's forced to go on this trip. When he falls in love with this Princess, it's kind of like the nerd falling in love with the homecoming queen -- but the nerd finds out that the homecoming queen is also a nerd. Shrek has a line at the end of the show: "Beauty ain't always pretty." I think that's a really good thing to take from the show. It's a great message to cast off stereotypes.
TM: What's been your experience with your castmates?
BC: First of all I adore everybody in the cast. The first time I went on I was freaking out because I was gonna be on stage with Sutton Foster. She came in and said "I know you're ready. Let's just have fun!" She's so good at what she does she should be in the dictionary. Chris Sieber could tell you the most depressing news but you'd still laugh because he's so funny. Daniel Breaker is so quick and so smart. As an actor you hope you're not delivering the same performance every night and with people like Daniel and Sutton, you're not going to; they're so good at what they do that we can relax and give a great show to the audience but also keep ourselves engaged.
BC: No. And sometimes the people who have been waiting are a little awkward. They ask me: "Did I just see you play Shrek? Because I'm not sure."