After a steady climb to Broadway’s A-list, including a Tony-nominated performance in Legally Blonde and a scene-stealing comic turn (“I am not dead yet!”) in Spamalot, Christian Borle kicked his career into high gear in the past year. On stage, Borle dared to take on the iconic role of Prior Walter in the off-Broadway revival of Angels in America, winning excellent reviews before doing a 180 to create the role of Black Stache (forerunner of Captain Hook) in the off-Broadway premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher. As he reprises his swashbuckling, Drama Desk-nominated star turn in Peter’s Broadway premiere, Borle is also getting used to being gushed over by fans of NBC’s Smash, in which he stars as composer Tom Levitt. Over a pre-matinee lunch at Cafe Edison (interrupted once for an impromptu photo session with female admirers), Borle reflected on his current hot streak, his friendship with ex-wife Sutton Foster, the 2012 Tonys, and lots more.
How great does it feel to be on TV in Smash and on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher at the same time?
My mother is very, very excited [laughs]. It’s been a year of incredible highs tempered by events that keep things grounded. I lost my father last year—he died right around the time that all this crazy stuff was happening—and my sweet Aunt Betty just had a massive stroke and has only a couple of days to live. I don’t mean to be morbid; I’m not a religious or even a magical mystical person, but it seems like I’ve had every major event, which gives everything perspective.
Let’s talk about Peter first. Is the cast excited that the show made it to Broadway?
None of us can believe it’s happening! This group of actors, first of all, is the funniest, sweetest group I’ve ever worked with. Some are having their Broadway debuts, and the atmosphere is so joyous; it doesn’t feel like work. The big question was how the show would fit in a bigger space, and we’re finding out, happily, that it fits really, really well. I’m so proud of this show. It’s my most favorite thing I’ve ever done.
The show is such an unusual hybrid. How do you describe it?
Part of the fun of it is that it’s hard to describe; when you see it, you get a sense very quickly for what it is. But [castmate] Dave Rossmer, who is trying to hammer home the perfect marketing sentence, said, “It’s a Peter Pan prequel as written by Monty Python by way of Indiana Jones.” Which is close! The adults are rewarded with Proust and Philip Glass references, and everybody is rewarded with fart jokes [laughs].
How did you create the character of Black Stache? Were you an adventure fan growing up?
Majorly. I was a comic book nut and grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Black Stache was this weird alchemy: I started doing the voice. Roger [Rees, co-director] and Rick [Elice, author] wanted to make him this pathetic guy, so the first idea I came up with is that he’s a sea captain who is seasick. His entrance is puking in a bucket, and after that, nothing can go right.
You received a Drama Desk Award nomination for the off-Broadway premiere of Peter. Are you thinking about the Tony Awards?
Inasmuch as every actor does, yeah. And having been nominated [in 2007, for Legally Blonde], which was one of the great thrills of my life, of course you think, “Wouldn’t that be fun?” Obviously, having been with Sutton [Foster, Borle’s ex-wife] around Millie time and later, you wake up at 8:25 and watch the announcements on TV. I’m always mesmerized by actors who say, “Oh, I didn’t even realize it was today.” Well, I do! [Laughs.] Even when I’m not in a show, I still wake up and turn on NY1, because it’s fun and exciting. It’s a celebration of our business and everything we do.
Smash has become the most talked about new show. Are you getting used to seeing yourself on TV?
It was an adjustment. I compare it to someone handing you a stack of 100 photographs of yourself. In 95 of them, you’re like, “Oh no, the chin. I’m squinting. The eye!” And there are five photos where you’re like, “I look OK.” What it’s done is just kind of make me realize, “OK, that’s what I look like when I laugh. That’s what I look like when I’m on the verge of tears.” And there’s nothing I can do about it.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether the show is truthful in portraying how a Broadway musical comes together.
I think what it gets very, very right is the emotion behind it. Some of the facts have been fudged for the television schedule. It’s fun to read what’s driving people nuts in terms of the details; people are passionate about it. If I were not on the show, I would be taking it apart too, but in general, we care a great deal about getting it right.
You have played your share of gay characters, including Tom on Smash. Did you ask anyone for advice?
I talked to Billy Porter about it. We became very close when we did Angels in America. I've had to do a couple of love scenes, and you certainly can’t show gay sex anywhere near as explicitly as they do straight sex on our show. You see Jack Davenport and Megan Hilty having simulated sex, but you would never see my character “in the throes.” I had a couple of post-coital scenes, and I asked Billy how to communicate certain things from a storytelling standpoint. He also gave me the advice to treat other scenes, such as cooking for my boyfriend, like a love scene. But for the most part, I don’t think about playing a gay character. Tom is a certain guy who is different from me. I say the lines that are on the page, and it happens to be opposite a boy rather than a girl.
How did you feel about being part of a joke mentioning Sutton?
I took great care to make that right. One of the first things I said to the show runner was that I wanted my character to say, at some point, “Can’t we just get Sutton Foster? She can sing, she can dance, she can act. Why are we fooling around?” Just to make it positive. They mention my agent, Joe Machota, twice an episode, which is very funny. So, in the episode in which the workshop has gone less well than hoped, the line was, “Joe Machota from CAA represents Scarlett Johansson, Sutton Foster and Michelle Williams,” and my character was supposed to say, “No, no, no, Ivy was great.” I felt strongly that it needed to be, “He represents Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Sutton Foster,” to which my character would say, “Stop! Ivy was great.” To me, that gave it a “meta” aspect. I think it came out well.
You and Sutton are friends, now, right?
Yeah, I finally got to see Anything Goes her final weekend. She was unbelievable. And she came to see [Peter] before heading out to Los Angeles for her amazing new adventure [starring in TV’s Bunheads]. That was important for us. What I will ultimately say, without getting too much into the personal part of it, is there’s a reason we got divorced, but there’s a reason we got married. She’s an unbelievable woman. She’s the best.
Do you want to have a family? Is it hard to think about that with the kind of career you’re having?
My parents waited to have me and my sister—my dad was 43 when my mother had me, and my mom was 38. They purposefully waited until they had had their adventures in life so that we wouldn’t represent the end of their freedom. I feel that way, too. In no way, shape or form can I imagine myself having a family right now. I’m still figuring myself out.
When you came to New York 15 years ago, what kind of career did you picture?
I was hoping to work steadily on Broadway, and I wanted to work with [composer] Bill Finn. And that happened incredibly fast and in a dreamlike way with Elegies. In college [at Carnegie Mellon], he was, for my singing voice, the sweet spot. Everybody in my class got very sick of me singing all the Falsettos material, so Elegies was a dream come true. I want to do another show with him.
It’s past time for a Broadway revival of Falsettos.
I agree with you. It’s time.
Angels in America [in which Borle played AIDS patient Prior Walter] was a game-changer for you, wasn’t it?
It was, both as an acting challenge and as an emotional challenge. In school, my biggest fear was that I couldn’t produce emotion on cue. There are certain actors with a deep well of pain in their lives that they’re able to tap into. I had a happy upbringing, I had friends, my parents were really supportive, so it was conquering that fear, because Prior weeps in almost every scenes. Also, the amount of material, the exposure literally of having to stand naked every night, plus moving to a play from working primarily in musicals—it’s a cliche, but the difficulty of that is real. Musical theater is often seen as a lesser form of acting, although I don’t see it that way. So it was a coup in many ways to go from Mary Poppins to Angels in America.
The roles you’ve played in Spamalot, Legally Blonde, Angels in America and now Peter and the Starcatcher seem so different.
In my senior year of college, I had a moment of foreshadowing. I desperately wanted to be the Emcee in Cabaret, and I didn’t get it. I ended up being the headwaiter, the gorilla, all these different parts, in the same way I did in Spamalot, and that taught me to take pride in being able to play different kinds of characters. When you’re in college, you always want to be the leading man, but there was a moment when I took a class [focused on] seeing who you really are and what you have to offer. I had to realistically say to myself, “It’s OK that I’m not going to get cast as Billy Bigelow. There are other things to do.”
Yes, but you played the romantic lead in Legally Blonde and got a Tony nomination for it.
But I was called “the unlikely love interest.” For two years! [Laughs.] It’s a good ego check.
Well, it seems like you're meeting your career goals.
I can’t believe it. I’m working on good things with good people; that’s what I pinch myself about. It’s been everything I wanted to do since I was a kid listening to cast recordings in my bedroom.
See Christian Borle in Peter and the Starcatcher at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.