With his preppy, guy-next-door looks and all-American lifestyle (wife, two kids, closing on a house in suburban Jersey), Gregg Edelman doesn't exactly strike one as the oddball type. But in our early September phone interview conducted while he was driving home from rehearsals, one aspect of his personality the actor kept stressing was goofiness, an untapped nutty streak. It's an aspect of his mien that'll come in handy for this constantly-working performer's latest role: master of ceremonies for the campy musical spoof, Reefer Madness, starting previews Sept. 15 at the Variety Arts Theatre. Considering his previous roles have included Les Miz's dour Javert, Falsettos' pained Marvin and Cabaret's naive-to-jaded Clifford, taking a puff on fluff should give Edelman just the opportunity he wants to get high on musical comedy.
Keanu Reeves, Sean Penn, Tommy Chong...Gregg Edelman? How on earth?
Gregg Edelman: I was doing Thief River at the Signature Theatre. Jim Carnahan, the casting director for Reefer Madness, is a friend, and he said, "Are you interested in auditioning?" I read the script and loved it. It's just as crazy as I am; it touched my funny bone and I thought, "I gotta do this show; I hope they offer it to me." And they gave me the offer. It's a part of me I don't get to use very often, the silly part... My character's the lecturer, the master of ceremonies for the evening. A rather severe fellow.
PBOL: Since you've been accustomed to doing more traditional musical theatre, does the pop-rock make any different demands on your vocals or performance?
GE: Well, the character calls for a sort of big, boomy baritone voice. And all the real rock stuff comes from the band, the instrumentation. All [the actors] are doing what our characters would do. It's the band that puts this fabulous spin on it — electric guitars, drums, synthesizers. It's really fun because of that. Zany.
PBOL: Have you ever inhaled?
GE: I do not partake of the herb. But I have no problem with anyone that feels they can handle it responsibly. The director keeps telling us, "Remember this is not a pro- or con- marijuana show. It's not about that." It takes this 65-70-year-old film, a very "serious," government-type film about the horrors of what can happen if you smoke marijuana. It's so heavy handed, there's no way you could take it seriously. So it's ripe for the picking.
PBOL: Though many of your roles have been serious, doing a musical that spoofs teen culture actually take you "full circle" back to your first big theatre experience as a kid.
GE: I never really thought about performing at all. But when I was a freshman at Niles North High School in Chicago, I went to see my high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. At the time I was on the swim and track team and not dating any girls. But seeing the show, the guy playing Conrad Birdie had the girls in the audience SCREAMING for him. I was thinking, "I could do this. I might even get a girl or something." And I figured it was gonna be a lot more fun than high jumping. PBOL: But you were bitten by the theatre bug even earlier.
GE: When I was a kid... It was that very cliched story of sitting on your mom's knee while she pays a record album. I would listen to musical theatre recordings with my mom. We bonded that way. They were kind of cool. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up. But we listened to Gypsy, Mame, Gigi, Flower Drum Song. I'm one of the few people who goes around singing "Chop Suey" and "Grant Avenue."
PBOL: Sounds like it's a good thing you made it as an actor. What do you think you would've done if things didn't work out?
GE: You know, I'll say this, and my wife will read it and say, "Really?" But I think...an architect. Something creative and also important to people's lives. Not like being a priest or a doctor. I don't think I would've had the patience to go through law school or med school. But something really creative with lots of hands-on interaction with people... My wife [actress Carolee Carmello, currently in Kiss Me, Kate] and I are closing on a house and readying to put an addition on it. I'm totally involved. My wife keeps cutting out pages of decorating magazines. I'm always slipping pieces of paper in front of her with floor plans and exterior walls.
PBOL: With architecture, once you've got the blueprints down, you pretty much know what you're going to get (hopefully). With theatre, very often you don't know until the day after opening whether you've struck gold or quicksand. In 1990, you got a Tony nomination for playing Stine in City of Angels. Three years later, you got another nomination for Anna Karenina. The first was a palpable hit, the second was a commercial disaster that nearly put Circle in the Square permanently out of business. Did you have any kind of inkling during rehearsals and previews for both shows, which way either would go?
GE: Well, City of Angels was a real pure pedigree. The talent, from the composers, directors, the author, all the designers. The producers had earned their pedigree doing tons of musicals. Because of that, they sort of knew how to deal with the many-headed dragon that is the creation of a new musical. It takes a lot of patience as you take on one head of the dragon at a time and then move on. At circle in the Square, there was a lot of talent there, but not a lot of experience with Broadway musicals. I think we struggled a bit. I think that, if anything, City of Angels was so smooth because of so much experience. Anna Karenina would have benefitted from more experience (though choreographer Pat Birch was attached to Karenina, and she was fabulous; I love her and would do anything for her). Funnily enough, City of Angels wasn't getting great response in previews. It was touch and go. Michael Blakemore was very committed to the script we had. We did tiny cuts and adjustments here and there, all the while him saying, "It's gonna be fine if you do what I'm saying." Opening night, it worked. But City of Angels alums still tell tales of producers thinking of jumping ship opening night. The theatre owners were entertaining other offers. We had no advance; they thought we were gonna close five days later. But when the New York Times gave us a great review, that sold $250,000 worth of seats the very next day. When you've done enough shows reviewed by the New York press, you really can't guess what the press will say about your show. There's no way to know. You cross your fingers with every show. You hope what you're selling they're buying. I guess that with Anna Karenina, you weren't able to look around and see Cy Coleman or Michael Blakemore saying, "It's gonna be good." Instead, they'd look at you and say, "What do ya think, is it gonna be good?" But as an actor, when you decide to do a show, you commit to it. You don't get into the criticism department because that's the job of the writer and director to view what you're presenting and rewrite, edit, whatever. What's so great about Reefer Madness is that although it had a really successful run in L.A., Andy [Fickman], our director, is saying, "Listen, I know we had a really successful production in L.A. But everybody here is free to create this show from scratch." That makes you very comfortable with coming into a project that had another life. You don't want to feel that you're just being plugged in. For example, today I came up with some sort of pratfall; they were laughing hysterically and so happy I'd come up with something that funny. It brings the whole company closer together.
PBOL: Speaking of pratfalls, any real-life onstage moments you recall that are funny — in retrospect?
GE: I did a show at Goodspeed, playing opposite Beth Fowler in Georgia Avenue. At end of Act One, I supposedly finished building this big building onstage. She was supposed to step back and "ooh" and "ahh" at it. And in my head I'm thinking, "I don't think she knows where the edge of the stage is." Well, she stepped right off the edge of the stage. I just let it happen. And the audience were aghast that I let my leading lady step into the orchestra pit. Luckily she fell on the pianist. He caught her and she sang the finale.
PBOL: Moving from memorable moments to memorable roles: any that stand out as your favorites?
GE: I did She Loves Me off-Broadway on the Upper East Side. I loved that part. I did Falsettos and loved playing Marvin. That is such an incredibly, beautifully modulated show. You get to see what all the characters are feeling at some point. They're all funny, but you also see what makes them human. That is just rare. I really enjoy that. Also, I replaced Howard McGillin in Anything Goes. I love physical humor, and there I could do a lot of physical stuff. I played Javert in Les Miz recently. He's not much for laughs. Nor is Rutledge in 1776. My soul's pretty silly.
PBOL: Did you receive any serious — or silly — advice as a performer that you'd like to share with other actors making their way in the business?
GE: One great line was from Joe Masteroff [Cabaret, She Loves Me], who told me, "Never confuse your salary with your income." Meaning, if you're earning $5000 bucks a week, don't blow it. I really held on to that. Another time, I was working with David McCallum on Camelot twenty years ago in Chicago. We were playing a scene one night. I was still in college (and the difference between collegiate and pro theater is SO vast, it's hard to enumerate the differences). He was Arthur and I was Lancelot. I saw a look on his face each and every night that just touched me deeply. It made me feel so sad for Arthur at that moment. One night I asked, "What are you thinking when you have that moment on stage? This incredibly sad face." "At that moment," he told me, "I'm thinking of what sandwich I'll be eating after the show is done." And at that moment I realized there's a lot that goes into acting beyond the academic side of it. And it's not a bad thing to learn. If you put yourself through hell every night in a play, it'll be torture, you won't enjoy it.
PBOL: So having fun is crucial to what you do?
GE: Oh yeah. I was readying to audition for the Cincinnati Playhouse when they were doing Randy Newman's Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong. My acting teacher said, lovingly, "You're really a very weird person. But you're playing it very safe. You're standing in the middle of the room rather than going into the corners of the room." I took that advice and got that part. You have to hold onto your individuality. Your individuality is not only what people want to see on stage, it's what casting directors search for when they're casting shows. You're not gonna get cast 95 percent of the time (unless you're that rare breed of actor with a guardian angel). The only thing you really have to hold onto is who you are, and all the wonderful kooky and wonderfully dark things that make you who you are and what make you a great artist.