Stephen Collins, Derek Keeling, and Aaron Tveit discuss taking over the lead roles in Spamalot, Grease, and Wicked.
While Collins began his career as a New York theater actor, his role on the long-running TV drama Seventh Heaven has kept him in LA and off the stage for over a dozen years. So he was pleased as punch when he heard director Mike Nichols was interested in having him audition -- yes, audition -- for the role of Arthur. "You never get used to auditioning, but I was interested in working with Mike, so I agreed." he says. " I watched the movie [Monty Python and the Holy Grail] and madly prepared to sing Arthur's number 'I'm All Alone' and read three scenes. When I got to the Shubert Theatre, Mike greeted me warmly on the stage and we talked, and after I sang -- but before I did any of the scenes -- he just said 'so why don't you just do this.'"
Once he got the coveted role, Collins also turned to Nichols for inspiration. "He said this wonderful thing to me, that Arthur hasn't been king for very long and really loves it," says Collins. "So my take on the part is that when the Lady of the Lake gave him Excalibur, he decided to take this job very seriously and his focus is to find the grail. Admittedly, he's not the brightest bulb, which may be why no one treats him with the proper respect. But I find the more seriously I take Arthur, the better the show works. And since he's also sort of the straight man of the piece, a lot of the laughs land because of Arthur's reactions, so I've been working a lot on finding the right reactions."
Collins joined the cast the same day as pop singer Drew Lachey, who plays Arthur's manservant, Patsy. "I think the cast was glad that we came in together, in part because they all got to rehearse with Mike again," he says. "But more important, it gave us a bond we might not have had otherwise. I have to say this is a great group of people to work with, and it's just amazing to be in a show that the audience expects to love before it even starts."
To say that Keeling was prepared to play Grease's Danny Zuko is to be guilty of understatement. "I think I've already done the show over 600 times," he says. "It was my first professional job in a dinner theater in Battle Creek, Michigan. I was 22 and I remember calling my mom and telling her I didn't think I was cool enough to play the part. In high school, I was both the track jock and a big nerd -- I took school really seriously. And I've watched tapes of that performance, and I was not good. It looked like I had 20 cups of coffee before I went on stage. But I survived it, and then Grease was my first Equity job and my first national tour."
Given his experience, it seemed quite likely that Keeling would nab the Broadway role when he was part of the cast of the NBC reality series Grease: You're the One That I Want -- but ended up losing to fan favorite Crumm. And that, he thought, was that -- until he got a call a few weeks ago about coming to Broadway. "I definitely no longer had any aspirations that this part would come my way, and I didn't quite know how to react," he admits. "I had been doing A Tale of Two Cities in Florida, and I really had to think about it."
So what was the deciding factor? "I just couldn't pass up the chance to do to the show on Broadway; in fact, New York is one of the only places I never did the show," he says. "And it's great to be doing it with Ashley Spencer as Sandy. While we were on the TV show together, we never performed. But we have been roommates, which is definitely different for cast members before they start!"
Keeling says he will bring his own energy to the role. "They're not going to superimpose me on what Max did, and that's great. You don't always get that luxury when you're a replacement," he says. "And I'm really excited that fans from all over the country have gone to my web site to tell me they're coming to New York to see the show. They are really so devoted to me and to the show."
Perhaps the best thing about playing Fiyero in Wicked for Tveit is that this is the first time in six months he's only had to worry about playing in one role. "I've basically been doing double duty since January, with Next to Normal, Hairspray, Saved, and the reading of Catch Me If You Can," he says. "And while I'm the kind of person who can only focus when there are 50 things going on at once, I'm enjoying having the time to go back to acting class, play softball, and spend time with my girlfriend. I'm really looking forward to spending the next eight months in just one place."
Tveit's first encounter with Wicked was an audience member five years ago, when he was in college, and even then he had dreams of playing Fiyero. "I love that he goes on this learning journey, where he goes from this privileged, sort of spoiled prince and ends up being this changed person with a better outlook on life because of his relationship with Elphaba," he says.
Having originated roles in his last few gigs, Wicked has been something of a transition for the rising star. "It's been a different sort of creative process stepping into this role as opposed to all the new shows I've done," he adds. "You have to connect the dots backward and find what you want to bring to it, and then once you've settled in, you take the time to find new things every day. And this show in particular has so much technically going on; it was kind of daunting to watch how everything worked. There's a lot of off-stage choreography."