Tony Shalhoub’s starring role in the Broadway revival of Lend Me a Tenor represents a “full-circle” moment in more ways than one: He’s back on the Great White Way for the first time since the early 90s, when he earned a Tony nomination for Conversations with My Father, and he’s sharing the stage with wife Brooke Adams, his Broadway co-star two decades ago in The Heidi Chronicles. In the interim, Shalhoub starred in two TV series (Wings and the iconic Monk) and stole scenes in movies such as Big Night, Galaxy Quest and Men in Black. Welcoming Broadway.com into his dressing room at the Music Box Theatre, Shalhoub couldn’t be less like the histrionic opera manager he plays in Ken Ludwig’s crazy farce. Soft-spoken and serious, the three-time Emmy winner shrugs off questions about his comedic gifts while speaking warmly of his co-stars and family, particularly Adams (to whom he is obviously devoted) and their daughters, aspiring actress Josie and high-schooler Sophie.
As Lend Me a Tenor’s excitable opera manager, do you feel like the ringmaster of this onstage circus?
My role may be more of the motor of the play. Justin [Bartha as Shalhoub’s assistant] is really the ringmaster, because he almost never leaves the stage. My character is sort of a manic-depressive maniac who either thinks things are falling apart or is on top of the world. He’s never right about anything!
You’ve been friends with [Tenor director] Stanley Tucci for years. Did he have the idea of casting you and your wife [Brooke Adams, who plays a wealthy matron] together?
Stanley and I had a conversation about how to make it work for Brooke and me to relocate [from Los Angeles], and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for both of us. Of course, we had to talk Brooke into doing the part. She’s used to playing leads, but she really loved the material, and it just felt right.
I read the sweetest quote from you—that you love knowing that Brooke is standing on the other side of the door before her entrance in Act One.
It’s fantastic. Here I am onstage, going crazy—I’m sweating like madman, breathing really hard—and when I get to the moment when I know she’s there and I’m going to open the door and see her, I get a resurgence of energy. Even sweeter is having that moment with one of our children in the audience—seeing the two of us up there in what is essentially a clown show, having this joyous time together. I hope they hold that memory for a long, long time.
This experience brings you full circle, since you and Brooke got together on Broadway 20 years ago [in The Heidi Chronicles].
Right across the street [at the Schoenfeld Theatre]. Amazing. I shouldn’t say we “got together” at that time; that’s where we met. It started out as a friendship.
It wasn’t a showmance. I mean, it nearly was, but not quite. But it definitely laid the groundwork for a year or so later when we reconnected in Los Angeles.
Brooke was already a mom when you started dating, right?
Yes, she adopted Josie on her own—in fact, she was in the room when Josie was born—and when I met them, Josie was 13 months old. When we got married, she was three and a half. [Two years later, Shalhoub and Adams adopted daughter Sophie.] Now Josie is starting her own career—she just graduated from the acting program at Cal Arts. Our younger daughter is in boarding school, but right now she’s in Ghana working in an orphanage. A group of 16- and 17-year-old girls have gone over, so she’s having her own life-changing experience there.
You and Brooke are so devoted to each other. What’s your secret?
I’m just the luckiest of men. As with all happily married couples, there’s a mutual respect and a desire to be there for the other person and to give more than you receive. I think that’s what it’s about. People get into trouble in relationships when their expectations are distorted and when they stop giving. I’m also a great believer in not having a television in the bedroom. That’s something we insist on. It’s not having to do with any sexual thing, it’s just that the bedroom becomes this sacred ground where things get dealt with. The other person is the focus there. That’s the one place we don’t need screens.
Audiences have loved Lend Me a Tenor, and most reviewers did, too, with one notable exception [Charles Isherwood in The New York Times]. Did that take the wind out of anybody’s sails?
Certainly not mine, because I haven’t read reviews for 25 years. Frankly I’ve never been in anything—whether it was a play, a movie or a television show—that didn’t get contradictory, contrasting reviews. Never! When the Monk TV pilot came out, there were some glowing reviews and some that were not, according to what people told me. I’m sure if I had read all my reviews, I would have quit the business long ago. The artist’s task has so little to do with people writing about it. For me, it’s about meeting the challenge of doing this incredibly intricate and challenging and exhilarating play eight times a week. How are you executing your job? And how do the audiences receive it?
Is it a fun play to perform?
Every show changes you—at least, that has been my experience. In this play, for example, I’ve lost 24 pounds since I started rehearsing. It’s altered me in terms of what I thought I was capable of vocally and physically; I’ve had to change my diet and my exercise patterns. And that’s a good thing! Every play I’ve ever done has cost me something emotionally or psychologically or, in this case, physically. But it’s not a negative cost, and it gives you something in return. These plays become part of you for the time that you’re doing them, and I love that.
Was it a difficult transition to give up Monk after eight seasons?
No, because I knew for two years that it was going to end then, so I was ready. The writers and I mutually decided to wrap it up while the audience was still interested and while it still had a following. It was the right time, and now I want to move into whatever the next chapter will be. That’s the main reason I wanted to do this play, so that people would be reminded I’m not just Monk.
When did you realize you were really, really funny?
Boy, I don’t know. I’m from a large family, the second youngest of 10 children, and I think you learn to be funny early on to get recognition.
Everybody in the family doted on you?
I suppose so. I got doted on and abused and picked on, alternately. It was a great family, and we’re still a very close-knit group.
You’ve done some interesting, little-known things off-Broadway—for instance, a play in 1988 co-starring Jennifer Aniston!
Yes, at the Public, a play called For Dear Life. She was about 17 at the time. She played the girlfriend of my son, played by Stephen Mailer [son of novelist Norman Mailer]. She only had one or two scenes, but I remember her being adorable, and a very strong presence on the stage.
You also were directed twice in the same summer by [Public Theater founder] Joseph Papp in Central Park [in Henry IV Part I and Richard II in 1987]. What was that like?
Hot! I had always dreamed of doing Shakespeare in the Park, but it was a challenge on nights when it was humid and raining, but not raining enough to call the show off. Also, it was the 80s, so it was weird in Central Park. Now you can walk through the park at midnight, but then it was dicier.
Any interest in doing more classics? What plays are on your wish list?
Stanley [Tucci] and I have been kicking around the idea of doing [Tom Stoppard’s] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I would love to do something onstage with him. I would love to do Shakespeare again, and Chekhov, off-Broadway or in regional theater. I don’t see myself going back to TV in the near term. I say that now, but talk to me in three or four months and I might be crawling on my knees! [Laughs.]
Maybe we’ll see you onstage with your daughter! You and Brooke have set a good example.
People say, “Don’t you worry about her going into the business?” but there are a lot more boring professions to get into. All careers have their ups and downs, but she could do a lot worse.
See Tony Shalhoub in Lend Me a Tenor at the Music Box Theatre.