Hello, Dolly! Calls on Santino Fontana

The ”Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star returns to Broadway to fill in for a recovering Gavin Creel.

Santino Fontana and Bernadette Peters star in Hello, Dolly! at Broadway's Shubert Theatre.
Santino Fontana and Bernadette Peters star in Hello, Dolly! at Broadway's Shubert Theatre.
(© Timmy Blupé)

Audiences have gotten to know Santino Fontana through a variety of platforms over the last several years: He was the voice of Prince Hans in Disney's Frozen, he played Greg on TV's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and he has even become a prolific narrator of audiobooks. But devotees of the theater will always think of him as a Broadway baby, which is why it feels like Fontana is back where he belongs now that he's appearing at the Shubert Theatre eight times a week in Hello, Dolly!

Fontana plays Yonkers store clerk Cornelius Hackl, a role he has briefly assumed from Tony Award winner Gavin Creel. Fontana will be in the show until at least May 6 while Creel recovers from back surgery.

This brief stint on Broadway opens what promises to be a very theatrical year for Fontana, who has recently been cast in the musical adaptation of Tootsie, which is set to open at Broadway in Chicago's Cadillac Palace on September 11 before an anticipated Broadway run next spring. Fontana plays Michael Dorsey, a temperamental actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a role. Fontana has a lot of thoughts about the show, but right now it's all about Dolly:

Santino Fontana joins Kate Baldwin, Molly Griggs, and Charlie Stemp in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway.
Santino Fontana joins Kate Baldwin, Molly Griggs, and Charlie Stemp in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway.
(© Timmy Blupé)

How did you end up jumping into Hello, Dolly?
A month ago I got a phone call asking if I was available for a short stint because Gavin Creel had to step out and take care of his back. And randomly, it worked out. There was this perfect little window where I had nothing to do. I came and saw the show and loved it. I had a lot of friends in the cast already, so why not?

Had you seen the show before you were asked to join?
No. I had actually never seen a production of Hello, Dolly! I didn't know the show at all. I know a lot of the music, but I'd never seen the show or the movie.

So you really went in with no preconceived notions about how Cornelius is played. How much time did you have to find your performance in rehearsal?
I had 10 days of rehearsal. The more I think about it, it sounds insane. Everybody behind the scenes was very helpful. My first time singing with the orchestra was during my first performance. It was intense, but really fun.

What's your favorite thing about this role?
I like how much happens to him in a single day. He takes a trip, meets a girl, kisses a girl, stands up for himself, and decides to open his own business all in one day. That's exciting! It's fun to live in that for a while. Luckily, this is working out perfectly, because Tootsie doesn't start until the end of July.

Santino Fontana poses with his wife, Jessica Hershberg.
Santino Fontana poses with his wife, Jessica Hershberg.
(© David Gordon)

What are you looking forward to most about Tootsie?
Robert Horn's script is great, and so is David Yazbek's score. I also like the director, Scott Ellis, a lot. I'm looking forward to working with them and creating something new…or new-ish.

The conversation around gender expectations has changed so radically since the movie debuted in 1982. How is the show addressing that?
They've updated it, so the story is taking place in 2018, not 1982. But it's still a story about a man who learns how to be a better man while living as a woman. Suddenly, he sees all of this injustice: What do you mean I don't get paid as much? What do you mean I have to shave my legs? And he becomes radicalized. He becomes a radical feminist! That's a great lesson for everybody. The way that women are treated in the world isn't a woman's problem. It's a man's problem, yet women are the ones who have to deal with it. It's great to be a part of a show that says, "Hey, men: We're being assholes to women. Stop it."

Your character, Michael Dorsey, is a difficult type of actor. Are you basing your portrayal on anyone you know?
There may be little snippets of things I'm grabbing from people I've encountered. It's fun behave badly like that, but that's really just the setup. Once he's in the wig and dress, all of that goes away and he has to learn fast.

Will this be your first time performing in drag?
One hundred percent. The costume designer, William Ivey Long, brought me down to his studio a couple of weeks ago and he's on it. He's done this before, so I feel like I'm in great hands. I'm going to do whatever he tells me to do.

Have you been watching RuPaul's Drag Race?
My wife has definitely gotten me to watch it. I went to Interlochen with Alexis Michelle [of season 9], so that's how Jess got me interested. And after I started watching, I got hooked. I recently did a reading of To Wong Foo, which is all about drag queens. But here's the thing about Tootsie: A man trying to pass as a woman is a very different thing than a drag queen. Michael Dorsey is trying to fool people into believing he's a woman. Drag queens are looking to make fun of gender norms and explode them, so that we have to look at them in a new way. Reading Tootsie and To Wong Foo back-to-back was a great reminder of that.

We haven't seen you on a Broadway stage since 2014's Act One. What did you miss most about performing on Broadway these last four years?
The audiences. I have never seen audiences react the way they react to Dolly, and that's so much fun. Also, acting onstage forces actors to use every skill they have. And you can't hide. You are your own editor, which sometimes is better. Then you feel like you have ownership over what happens. It reminds me why I became an actor.

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