The lusty Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon has a wonderful score, but it's not a show you see revived every day, which makes it a perfect choice for the City Center Encores! series. Keith Carradine, Alexandra Socha, and Justin Guarini lead the cast of the March 18-22 Encores! presentation, directed by Marc Bruni, with Rob Berman as music director.
I recently met and spoke with Justin, a really smart and sweet guy who, despite his relative youth, has one of the most interesting bios of all the company members. Here's what he had to say. [For more information on Paint Your Wagon or to purchase tickets, click here.]
BROADWAYSTARS: How are you enjoying your first Encores! experience?
JUSTIN GUARINI: It's a challenge to put together any musical in 10 days, let alone something as rich as this. During the read-through, Marc Bruni said it's "like summer stock for the A-team." But we're in very good hands.
STARS: Have you ever done stock or been in other situations where shows are put together with a very brief rehearsal period?
JUSTIN: I did the MUNY. They have such a system over there; they're able to crank out massive shows with a hundred people. I'm not kidding, it's insane. This is my first time at Encores! and my first time doing a Lerner and Loewe musical. But we have an amazing cast and creative team, so it's going smoothly.
STARS: What shows did you do at the MUNY?
JUSTIN: I did Chicago, where I played Billy Flynn, and I did Joseph in Joseph... Singing "Close Every Door" on that stage -- it was my first time being completely alone on a stage of that size, where you have acres of space around you. I had these plastic cuffs on, and I was shirtless...
STARS: And in a loincloth?
JUSTIN: No, I was wearing white pants. There was no loincloth, unfortunately!
STARS: I see that you were raised in Doylestown, PA. You probably know that town's major significance to musical theater?
JUSTIN: Of course, Oscar Hammerstein. Right now, we're tying to get a Hammerstein museum set up on the farm where he wrote [his musicals]. It's such a process, but I really hope it does get put through, because it's an amazing piece of history. In that area, you have not only, hopefully, the Oscar Hammerstein Museum, but also the Bucks County Playhouse, a phenomenal regional theater.
STARS: I've read about your musical theater roles in high school.
JUSTIN: Yeah! I think Pirates of Penzance was my first high school show, at Central Bucks East -- I played Frederic, and my best friend played the Pirate King. It was really awesome. I also did Drood in high school. In college, I was Daniel in Once on This Island, I think in 1999. They had to have an understudy for me, because I was approached by The Lion King to come work with them in New York, so I had to miss some of the rehearsals. I was all of 18 or 19 when I came to New York for the Lion King master classes. It was a really cool entree into the Broadway world.
STARS: So you took those master classes, but then you didn't go into the show?
JUSTIN: No, they didn't have a role for me at that time, but they stayed in touch. A few years later, I got a call from Jay Binder's office, and they offered me an ensemble role in the show. I said, "Well, there's this thing...I have to go out to L.A. for this TV show called American Idol, but I may get cut. Can I call you in a week?" And the rest is history. So I called Jay's office and said, "Thank you so much, I've always wanted to be in The Lion King, but I think I'm going to take this other opportunity. Please keep me in mind for the future." About 10 years later, the opening night party of Women on the Verge [of a Nervous Breakdown] -- my first Broadway show -- was held at the Millennium Broadway hotel in one of the rooms where I had auditioned for American Idol in a cattle call. So it was full circle.
STARS: You were excellent in Women on the Verge....
JUSTIN: Thanks. It was an amazing experience: Patti LuPone as my mother, Brian Stokes Mitchell as my father, not to mention Laura Benanti, Sherie Rene Scott, Danny Burstein. There were so many people I got to learn from. It was a great group of people, and it really started to wear on us when the reviews came in. It was just one of those things where it didn't work out, and it may be that the show just needed more time to marinate. But whether a show is successful or not, I always have my eyes and ears open. In Women on the Verge..., I learned theater etiquette at a high level from the old-school folks -- the proper way to go about asking for what you want on stage. It was a really beautiful, old-school Broadway initiation that I got. And then my next Broadway show was American Idiot, which was straight-up modern, nothing like you'd ever seen on the stage before, with all those very young people in the cast.
STARS: You may have a different perspective on this, but I would say you dodged a bullet with Good Vibrations.
JUSTIN: Oh, I TOTALLY dodged a bullet with Good Vibrations. I still have friends I love and adore from that cast -- Sebastian Arcelus, Krysta Rodriguez, Dave Larsen. I just realized at one point that the show was not for me, and also, there was another project that came up, so I had to bow out as gracefully as possible. It hurt my heart a little, because I believe in a cast being a family, and you never want to abandon your family. The show ended up not doing well, but a lot of really wonderful people got their first show out of it, so that's a plus.
STARS: I should ask you briefly about Romeo and Juliet.
JUSTIN: That was interesting because, again, you had these amazing people in the cast -- Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, Jane Houdyshell. David Leveaux's direction of the show was beautiful and stark. It's so hard when you believe in something and it just doesn't come across the footlights. But I was so honored to be cast in a play on Broadway; I love Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is my and my wife's favorite story. [He shows me a ring hanging on a chain around his neck] This is a copy of the ring Romeo gives to Juliet in the Baz Luhrmann movie version. We got someone to make an exact replica for us.
STARS: I think it's great that you've done so many different types of shows already in your career.
JUSTIN: Yes! And now I get to play Julio Federico Juan Valenzuelo Valveras in Paint Your Wagon.
STARS: Did you know the show at all before you got the job? Have you seen the movie?
JUSTIN: I did not want to see the movie, because I've read that it's wildly different from the show, and I didn't want to get that in my head. But I listened to Julio's songs.
STARS: As sung by Clint Eastwood on the movie soundtrack album?
JUSTIN: No, I listened to the original Broadway cast recording. Not Clint Eastwood. Everybody's got their sweet spot, right? Alexandra and Keith and I started rehearsing a few days before everybody else, and it wasn't until the rest of the cast came in and I heard everything in context that I realized how beautiful this score is, and how funny the book is.
STARS: If I'm correct, there are at least two versions of the show.
JUSTIN: Yes. We're working from the Broadway version, and they're making some edits and changes in the book while maintaining the integrity of the story. We're doing a few songs that are not on the cast album, so there will be some surprises. I think the wonderful thing that's been done with this piece is that it's been modernized in a way that's respectful to all parties, but without losing the flavor of the time period and the original version. It's a very respectful and conscientious adaptation. And I'm excited to get the audience in, because I hear the Encores! audience is absolutely engaged. That's always a pleasure.
Published on Saturday, March 14, 2015
Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at email@example.com
The last five Michael Portantiere articles:
Randy Skinner Gets Together With the Gershwins and Tommy Tune at Encores!
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For an archive of all the Michael Portantiere articles, click here.