Sunday, October 4, 2009

On New York Musical Theatre Festival: Installment 1

On Friday I spoke on the phone with Colin Hanlon, who’s starring as Charlie in New York Musical Theatre Festival’s Whatever Man. The show is about an uncommitted, directionless 30-something who, upon suggestion from his girlfriend, begins attending group therapy sessions. The catch is that his fellow support group members are all disturbed Superheros, and Charlie is thrown into the business of saving lives and salvaging relationships.

Whatever Man is one of 30 full productions in this year’s festival, which runs through Oct. 18. As it turns out, I actually saw Hanlon perform one summer ago in an anniversary performance of I Love You Because at the Cherry Lane Theatre. We’re also both O’Neill alums. The following are excerpts from our interview:

Stage Synapses (SS): While you’ve performed in other festivals, this is your first time doing NYMF. What's that like?
Colin Hanlon: NYMF is interesting because there’s been a lot of positives and negatives. [Whatever Man], you know, it’s really not ready to have a full production. We were making changes up until the last day, and they were changes that needed to happen. Somehow, if it was possible with the Union and NYMF, I wish that we could be on book doing this. It shouldn’t be about the actors, or reviews, or awards. Ultimately, it’s about the writers.

Besides that, though, it’s been really good. I love my cast; I think everyone is really talented. The festival brings artists together, and that’s what it should be about. People shouldn’t be in it to make money because no one makes money in the theater.

SS:I’ve read that you like to originate characters. What was it like creating the role of Charlie in such a short amount of time?
Colin Hanlon: I put more energy into this piece that I’ve put into some full productions. You want to try to make it as good as possible. I just completed the Fringe, and I had never gone to Fringe before either. And I just thought, Do I want to do another one? Am I ready?

Ultimately, though, it’s been good. I think my character has come a long way since we started. Hilary [our director] and Ben [the writer] have been really open to ideas that I’ve had, and I prefer to be doing what I’m doing now. I’ve been offered ensemble parts in Broadway shows—I did Rent for a couple of years—but I need to go get roles and originate a character.

I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been brought in for new projects. I may not have made as great of a financial living as some of my friends who’ve been doing the same Broadway role for years. But it’s hard to replace someone because the audience is always going to compare you to whoever that last person was.

SS: So, how’d you land the NYMF gig?
Colin Hanlon: They just asked me to do it. I don’t know who in the creative team knew who I was. I know the casting director pretty well - I think it’s probably got something to do with that. I’ve been pretty lucky – I haven’t had to audition for a lot of these festival things for some time now. I’ve come out pretty unscathed both critically and artistically.

SS: How’s the schedule been? Are you happy with your showtimes?
Colin Hanlon: The schedule’s been really weird, but it hasn’t been so bad. We have a show on Sunday and then not another one till Thursday—they can’t rehearse us in between, though. I just hope we remember everything for our last show.

SS: What publications have come to review your festival shows?
Colin Hanlon: Well, I was shocked when I did the Fringe. I have a Google alert on my name – it’s the only narcissistic thing that I do. One day it came up and it said, Colin Hanlon: New York Times Fringe review. And I was like, "Oh My God!" I was on the cover of the Arts Section of the New York Times.

With regards to this show, our composer, lyricist and book writer, Ben Strouse, is the son of Charles Strouse, who wrote Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Ben’s a very different writer than his dad. I really hope that the critics judge him on his own merits and not for what his Dad has done.

SS: So, I read in your bio that you spent two summers at the O’Neill. I loved it there. What were your experiences like?
Colin Hanlon: I did the musical theater conference, and then I did the cabaret conference. But we actually did a musical within the cabaret conference, which was Amanda Green’s new project with Tom Kitt.

It really is summer camp for theater professionals. My first time there was three years ago, and I didn’t go this past summer. In 2006 I performed in Triangle by Curtis Moore and Tom Mizer. That was probably one of the best musicals I’ve done in a while. It was directed by Bobby Longbottom, who’s currently directing the Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie.

This year I was supposed to do Picnic at Hanging Rock. The director, Joe Calarco, is a good friend of mine. But I was already doing tick, tick ... boom! [in Westport, CT]. I guess, when it rains it pours.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I saw Picnic at the O’Neill, I found it to be hauntingly beautiful. Click here to listen to some of the songs by composer/lyricist Daniel Zaitchik.]

Whatever Man features music, lyrics and book by Benjamin Strouse, and is directed by Hillary Adams. The next show is tonight, Oct. 4 @ 8 PM. The final performance will be on Thursday, Oct. 8 @ 1 PM.

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