Anthony Warlow is one of the most acclaimed and preeminent stage actors in his native Australia. His extensive body of work there includes originating roles in Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Secret Garden, Doctor Zhivago and Jekyll & Hyde, as well as leading revivals of My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, Man of La Mancha and The Pirates of Penzance. At age 50, this theatrical legend is finally making his Broadway debut as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks in James Lapine’s revival of Annie. Warlow, who has played the role twice in Australia, shares the stage at the Palace Theatre with two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran and up-and-coming child star Lilla Crawford. Below, Warlow explains what it means make it to Broadway, how this Annie is different from any other production and how his battle with cancer changed his career and his life.
Welcome to Broadway! Was getting here the final hurdle in your illustrious career?
It kind of was. I have been invited to work here in the past, but they’ve all seemed to be pipe dreams. It’s really getting over that major hurdle of being allowed to come into the country and work. For a little boy from Wollongong, New South Wales, which is a long way away, the dream of coming here was always looming in the ether, and it’s come to fruition, which is lovely.
Does leading a Broadway musical feel different than you expected?
Here I find that you’re a small fish in a very large pond, whereas I’m a pretty big fish in Australia. I’ve come over here with a lot of respect for the community I’ve entered, and I think that’s vital. I was a little concerned about literally taking over a local actor’s job, but the community has actually embraced me beautifully. It’s a really lovely experience.
Let’s talk about Warbucks. Having done it twice before, how do you keep the role fresh?
I had the basics under my belt, but this has been a very different situation. With the direction of James Lapine, [Annie] has been quite different, and very challenging and very wonderful at the same time.
You bring so much humor to the character. Why is that important?
I personally like to indulge in...I’ll say the word "histrionics," but it’s really the history of the character. I’ve gone through a lot of versions of why he could possibly be the way he was. I think the essence of this production—and also from James’ point of view—is that Warbucks is really the heart of the show. [James] has pulled things back, even with Katie [Finneran], into a realism state, and I think the journey of the character makes a lot more sense when you don’t have a blustering, cantankerous character all the way through, who suddenly falls in love with a little girl and then starts singing and dancing with her. I think it’s important to follow the essence of the humor, the softness and the warmth that this man has been covering up all these years because of his work ethic.
You’ve worked with a lot of young actresses as Annie. What’s special about Lilla?
Lilla’s an extraordinarily talented actress, and she’s an extraordinary young woman. In her, you have this innate ability to just take in what’s being said and live it in the moment. We’ve had a wonderful relationship, and it’s a very caring—even offstage. She’s just everything that you would expect in a very interesting 11-year-old, and she brings those qualities to the role. It’s wonderful to watch and be part of.
How did it feel to be elected a Living National Treasure? What does that mean to you?
Well, because we aren’t in a situation in Australia where we can be knighted, it’s the closest to a gong [the symbol of knighthood] that I have had, and it’s a really lovely honor. I was doing Phantom at the time, and there were major, major faces there. For instance, there were David Williamson, who’s a wonderful playwright, and Margaret Olley, who was a wonderful painter, and the Prime Minister presided over the ceremony. It was a really, very special, very moving night for me.
What do you miss most about Australia?
Well, my daughter, to be honest. She’s finishing school there [and] she’s coming over in the middle of November, after we’ve opened and all of the dust has settled. She’ll spend some time with me here, which will be fantastic.
Even though the characters are very different on the surface, how is Warbucks similar to the Phantom, Zhivago and Enjolras?
In every role I do, I try to bring out or enhance some part of the vocal quality of the character that touches the heartstrings. For instance, Enjolras [from Les Miserables] had a very heroic sound, which gave a thrilling essence to the character. When I first did the Phantom in 1990, it was all about creating a character that could woo and destroy through vocals. Zhivago was really about the blue collar sound in the core of my baritone, which is every man’s voice. With Warbucks it’s exactly the same—this gruffness in the voice, which bleeds into the vocals, particularly for “NYC.” Then, I’m trying to deliver the essence of the soul of the character in “Something Was Missing,” where you get more beautiful sounds from him. Hopefully, that touches the audiences in an emotional way.
What do you consider your fondest time on stage?
Well, oddly The Secret Garden. Maybe it’s because my daughter was just born, but something about the theme of that show really touched me. The character I played [Archibald Craven] was in some regards a sad character, because of his deformity, but the enlightenment that comes to him…I think that’s something I look for in most of the characters that I try to play. And I enjoyed the vocals of that show.
What was your favorite experience while in Phantom of the Opera?
Phantom is a very tough role; it’s very cathartic. I think this last time around it was about creating a character that I could really put my teeth into and just discover. I was able to find areas in it that I could visualize, and I’ve had a life since [1990, his first stint in the show]. I had 17 years between drinks, as it were. I’ve had my cancer and I discovered what that loss of confidence and fear of losing one’s life is like. Even though it was hard physically and vocally, it made the role a lot easier to execute, because of that knowledge I had.
How did your experience battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma affect the choices you’ve made professionally since then?
I used to be a “yes” man; I didn’t like to upset people, so I would try to placate people, and that was probably the worst thing I could have done, as far as my health was concerned. So I started to say “no” as a self-preservation method. Also, it made me want to do roles that I felt I could imbue with a signature that was mine—that I could put something of myself into this that would remind people that the emotional value of each performance is something to really savor.
And personally? Did you gain a new outlook on life?
I did. When you have a second chance at life, things change. The simple fact that I thought, “Yes, I’m going to pack my bags and come to New York and live here for a year.” Twenty years ago, I probably would have been like a rabbit in the headlights and think, “Oh my God, I could never do it.” But now I feel as if the planets were aligned, and I’m taking each day as it comes and enjoying it with relish.
What are your plans after Annie?
While my visa lasts I’ll be here, and I’ll go back to Australia to have a little rest there. I’ve a number of projects on the boiler at home that I’m considering. But my dream would be to be accepted here, and to be asked to come back and do something else, because I love the community here. I love your theaters—the Palace is an icon. Swimming in this environment is fantastic.
See Anthony Warlow making his Broadway debut as Daddy Warbucks in Annie at the Palace Theatre.