Santino Fontana is bringing in a new kind of charm to Cinderella’s Prince Topher in the first Broadway staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical. Starring opposite Laura Osnes, Fontana plays an unsure young monarch who discovers the man he wants to be through the love of Cinderella. Since his New York stage debut almost seven years ago in The Fantasticks, Fontana has demonstrated his range in musicals (the original cast of Billy Elliot), comedies (The Importance of Being Earnest) and dramas (Sons of the Prophet). There have also been challenges along the way, and Fontana talked about all that, as well as the lure of Cinderella and his best birthday present ever, in a recent chat with Broadway.com.
Let’s start at the beginning: You get a call about playing Prince Charming in Cinderella. What’s your reaction?
At first, I was like, “I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like a good idea.” [Laughs.] Then I read the script, and I totally understood why they thought of me. And then I was really excited by the idea.
What do you like about the character of Topher and the way he’s been reimagined?
I like that he’s fleshed out. I like that he is in a bit of a crisis—he doesn’t know what kind of king he wants to be. It’s fun playing somebody who has the best intentions and wants to get everything right but doesn’t quite know how. For him, it’s kind of a coming-of-age story.
What do you love most about working with Laura Osnes?
We get along really, really, really great. She’s funny and she’s a great friend.
You got rave reviews for Sons of the Prophet. Did that give you any pause about doing Cinderella next, as opposed to another meaty drama?
I want to continually play characters that speak to me, but also are different than what I’ve just done. Last year, I was the opposite of this guy, so that spoke to me. And I would get to sing [in Cinderella], which spoke to me. So I felt like this was the right thing to do next. It was time to mix it up. I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to do this.
Did you have any idea that Sons of the Prophet would become so acclaimed?
No, not at all. We thought it would be good, but I don’t think we thought it would be as well received as it was. Stephen [Karam] is a brilliant writer, the story he wanted to tell was a really specific one, and he stuck to his convictions. That’s rare. I mean, it’s about two gay Lebanese brothers whose father died, one of whom thinks he’s dying —it’s not like a blockbuster. I think it just came into [the cast members’] lives at the right time. It was also a part that I really connected to because I’ve been in a somewhat similar situation, being injured and trying to… deal [laughs]. We were all extremely proud of it. We still are.
Do you hope it finds its way back to New York? Maybe on Broadway?
Yeah, I do. I think that would be great. I know that Stephen has ideas for using those same characters in creating another play, like a trilogy. I don’t know if he’s still doing that; I hope he does. The idea was tossed out that if he wrote the second one, they could be done in rep. I would love that.
You were so funny as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. Was there any disappointment that you weren’t recognized with a Tony nomination?
No no no. Not at all. I didn’t–No. [Laughs.] I think it’s nice if it happens. But no, it literally did not cross my mind. I never thought that that part was big enough.
You've created some clever online videos. Do you have interest in writing a longer piece? Maybe even a musical?
Yeah. Acting is my first focus, but at the core, I’m a storyteller, and however that comes out is fine with me. At [Guthrie/University of Minnesota’s Actor Training Program], they stressed that we’re artists first, not just actors. Our job is to create and also at the same time not limit ourselves. The world is going to limit you. I don’t want to limit me.
Are you happy with the trajectory your career has taken so far?
Oh God, yes!
Do you want to be more famous? TV? Film?
No, my whole goal when I started was to be a regional theater actor. I would have been thrilled if I could make my living as an actor, and I didn’t care really where. So no, I don’t have any kind of grand plan of where I want to be.
What did you learn from your hardships in A View From the Bridge [which he left after suffering a concussion] and Brighton Beach Memoirs [which closed after only nine performances]?
We have no control over anything. I only have control over what I do. I was in a show that closed in a week after having really great reviews, and then I was in a show where I got hurt and was sidelined for a long time. I dealt with the variables of how crazy life could be. And those two events were back-to-back. It was an extremely powerful time.
Was there a feeling of “Oh god, where am I going to go from here?”
Oh yeah, I re-envisioned my life teaching P.E. in Montana. It was like, “Okay this is a sign. I shouldn’t be doing this.” But now I’m at a place where I feel like, “I could go teach P.E. in Montana, and I’d probably be ok because I’d still be doing plays in the gym.” I haven’t fooled myself though. I think that could happen again tomorrow: I could be in a show that closes and then get seriously injured. I’m ready for that. It won’t faze me. I’ll keep going.
If you weren’t in a show and it was a Saturday night, what would you be doing?
I’d be home with my girlfriend [actress Jessica Hershberg] watching reality TV. We do a pool for The Bachelor; I watch all the Road Rules/Real World challenges, and also Top Chef. I’m a big fan of Intervention—I cry at the same point every episode, 48 minutes in when the dad reads the letter [laughs].
So, how did you meet Jessica?
We met at a concert at Birdland on my birthday two years ago. Sam Davis had a bunch of his friends sing songs, and I sang a song and she sang a song, and we met.
So I see you’ve joined Twitter, you added a photo, but no tweets yet. What are you waiting for?
I don’t even know how to use it! Laura [Osnes] is very intent on teaching me how to Tweet. I haven’t tweeted yet because I want it to be good. Laura and Ann Harada are coaching me on it— Laura’s kind of pushing me. I’m waiting for the right words. [Note: Fontana has since tweeted, at the behest of Osnes.]
Check out Santino Fontana as Prince Topher in Cinderella at the Broadway Theatre.