NYTimes: On Fictional Broadway, and Then the Real One

By DAVE ITZKOFF | Published: April 12, 2012

CHRISTIAN Borle knows what people think about “Smash,” his popular if picked-apart NBC drama about the making of a Broadway musical. Not because he goes online to see what they are saying about his performance — he learned to stop doing that long ago — but because, having recently wrapped his first season of the series, he is headed back to a Broadway stage, to a world in which everyone seems to have a thing or two to say about the on-screen depiction of the New York theater industry.

“If I wasn’t in it,” he said in an interview last Friday, “I would be watching too and saying, ‘That’s so not how it happens.’ But it gets some things emotionally right.”

On Sunday Mr. Borle, a Tony Award nominee for “Legally Blonde,” will open in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the Rick Elice play that provides a fanciful origin story for Peter Pan and his Neverland cohort.

For Mr. Borle, who plays a familiarly nefarious (if two-handed) pirate named Black Stache, the production is intrinsically tied to his burgeoning television career: it is a role he nearly had to give up because of “Smash,” and one he is returning to a bit overwhelmed by the attention NBC has generated for that series.

“I think they wanted to get it to a point where you at least had to have an opinion about ‘Smash,’ ” he said. With a laugh, he added, “Which people do.”

Let’s start with the wholly good news for Mr. Borle, 38, a wide-eyed performer with floppy hair and an elastic build, and who furnishes his dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theater with geeky totems like comic books and the board game Settlers of Catan.

He received enthusiastic notices for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and based on a 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, when it was presented Off Broadway last year at New York Theater Workshop. Portraying the bombastic buccaneer who will become Captain Hook, Mr. Borle is given license to play a living cartoon while sharing in the obligations of the ensemble cast, whose members double as doors, cabin walls and other human scenery, as needed.

In a review in The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that Mr. Borle “perhaps best captures the show’s knowing innocence and culture-mixing wizardry,” describing him as “a blend of Groucho Marx, Peter Allen and the ultimate Shakespearean ham.”

The new production of “Starcatcher” (a play in which Mr. Borle also performed in 2009 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California) will be his first Broadway role since 2008. He rapidly ascended in shows like “Spamalot,” “Mary Poppins” and “Legally Blonde,” and married his “Thoroughly Modern Millie” co-star Sutton Foster. (The two are no longer together.)

But when “Starcatcher” came to New York Theater Workshop, Mr. Borle learned he was up for a part in “Smash” as Tom Levitt, a Broadway composer working on a Marilyn Monroe musical with his longtime writing partner, Julia Houston (played by Debra Messing).

Ms. Messing, a veteran of the NBC comedy “Will & Grace,” said Mr. Borle’s physical approach to his “Smash” character was crucial to their chemistry, starting from their first meeting, when Mr. Borle was one of three finalists for the role.

“Tom and Julia have their own kind of a marriage, and you had to believe from the very first moment you meet them that they have a history,” Ms. Messing said in a phone interview.

Throughout the season, Ms. Messing said, “I’d read what’s written for him on the page, and he always had some sort of flip or twist. I’ve seen him just do a facial response to something, and I’ll laugh five different times because the tic has evolved in five different ways.”

After a run as Prior Walter, a man ill with AIDS, in Signature Theater Company’s production of “Angels in America,” Mr. Borle spent early 2011 among “Starcatcher,” “Smash” and saying goodbye to his dying father in Florida.

“He died on March 4,” Mr. Borle said, “and I got the news that I got ‘Smash’ a week before that. It was a very potent time.”

While he shot the “Smash” pilot, Mr. Borle had to alternate in the role of Black Stache with Steve Rosen, a former “Spamalot” co-star. And when the Broadway transfer of “Starcatcher” was announced, it appeared for a time that Mr. Borle’s commitment to “Smash” would keep him out of it entirely.

Mr. Rees said in a phone interview that the “Starcatcher” team was “devastated” to have lost Mr. Borle for the periods he was unavailable, but could not stand in the way, given the pedigree of the “Smash” producers.

“I suppose everyone’s going to drop everything if Steven Spielberg phones up,” Mr. Rees said. “It’s what you dream of, really.”

Getting Mr. Borle back in the role he helped define and which now fits him “like a beautifully, screamingly funny glove,” Mr. Rees said, has been essential to the show, which also stars Adam Chanler-Berat as an urchin given the fateful name Peter, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as his young love interest.

“Everyone in the play gets to be the protagonist,” Mr. Rees said, “but, boy, does the chemistry take off when Christian’s there. It’s alchemy, really, which is chemistry plus something magical which we’ll never know.”

“Smash” has brought Mr. Borle national recognition, but also exposed him to the frequent criticism that the show oversimplifies the process behind Broadway musicals. (Mr. Borle’s lively if romantic stint from Monday’s episode, as he leaps from the writers’ table to fill in as a singing, dancing Darryl F. Zanuck in his own musical, can be seen online.)

“We fight for the things that we know are true and accurate,” Mr. Borle said, “and you win some and you lose some on that front.”

For example, Mr. Borle said he could not push back against the speed with which the show moved from its Feb. 6 debut to the first workshop of the Monroe musical.

But, he said, “You can at least say, like: ‘This is where everybody would be sitting. We would actually go, soprano, alto, tenor, bass. You can’t just mix up the people.’ ”

Mr. Borle said he had also become closely attuned to television ratings for “Smash,” which has drawn between six and seven million viewers for recent episodes, and which was recently renewed for a second season.

The series, however, will be coming back without its creator, Theresa Rebeck, the playwright behind “Seminar” and “Mauritius,” an announcement that Mr. Borle said surprised him.

“One of Theresa’s great strengths is that she shielded us, her actors, from a lot of the politics that happened behind the scenes,” Mr. Borle said. “Because there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen on television.”

(Ms. Rebeck wrote in an e-mail that, though she could not recall specifically discussing this subject with Mr. Borle, protecting her cast was an “essential” part of her duties. “Actors need to know what is being asked of them,” she wrote. “And they need to feel safe, and the set needs to be a safe place.”)

Regardless of what he called “the details that people so lovingly nitpick,” Mr. Borle said what was most important about “Smash” was that it provided “a shining, nationally televised spotlight on our industry.”

Mr. Borle said he was not sure what direction “Smash” might take in its second season, when NBC would begin showing it or even when he would start filming it, and he did his best to make his new line of work sound unglamorous.

“TV’s a lot about waiting,” he said. “Waiting to hear if you get the job. Waiting to hear if the pilot’s going to get picked up. Waiting to hear how many it’s going to be. Waiting to see if you’re going to get renewed.”

But Mr. Borle said he would be ready when “Smash” next called upon him, which brought him to the single most important lesson he’d learned about his new profession: “TV waits for no man.”

Source: NYTimes (Original title of article was: Pirate Today, Composer Tomorrow, Actor Always)

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