Eric Anderson is channeling universal love in his first major Broadway role, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in Soul Doctor. The new bio musical about the “Rock Star Rabbi” and his relationship with singer and activist Nina Simone has just begun previews at Circle in the Square Theatre, where it's set to open on August 15. Anderson already received a Best Actor Drama Desk nomination for his performance in the show’s buzzed-about off-Broadway debut last season at New York Theatre Workshop. An acclaimed regional theater actor with an impressive resume, Anderson previously appeared on the Great White Way in the Tony-winning productions of Kinky Boots and South Pacific. Broadway.com recently caught up with the actor to get the scoop on who the soul doctor really is, his unique tribute band and how he fell in love with Jersey Boys cast member Jessica Rush.
How does it feel to be leading the cast of a Broadway musical for the first time?
To quote the Sondheim lyric, I’m “excited and scared.” It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s also completely thrilling. I’ve lucked out.
You’ve played some terrific roles regionally. Are there any you wish New York audiences could have seen?
I was very proud I got to play Burrs in the L.A. premieres of both [Andrew] Lippa and [Michael John] LaChiusa’s The Wild Party—and in the same year, too! That was pretty mind-blowing. [Also in L.A.] there's the Troubadour Theater Company, which does mash-ups of Shakespearean shows and rock artists, so we did Much a Doobie Brothers About Nothing and Hamlet the Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Denmark, and I got to play Ophelia in that. I pride myself on being able to literally disappear into a role.
On your website, your tagline is "chameleon actor." When did you discover you had a knack for disguise?
Part of what keeps character men alive in this business is the ability to do something that people aren’t going to expect, and growing up I had a vast amount of opportunities to do that. I’ve had a beard for the past couple of years, so that’s limited me a little bit to playing rabbis, pirates and factory workers [laughs].
What do you love about Soul Doctor?
The success of any theatrical experience comes from the heart of those involved in creating it, and I think an audience can feel if there’s real heart in something or if somebody’s trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Shlomo is all about family, and the show Soul Doctor is about bringing people together in a healing manner through music—it’s about saying that no matter what our differences are, we’re all brothers and sister with a common heart. Shlomo is one of those characters that's a pleasure to bring home every night.
What was the biggest surprise when you did research on Shlomo Carlebach?
When I auditioned for this show, I didn’t know who Shlomo was. But while doing my research, I found that Shlomo’s true purpose in life was to treat everybody like a best friend. The producers flew me out to Israel to get hands-on experience in the world of people who really knew him. You could pretty much ask any cab driver in Israel if they knew Shlomo Carlebach, and they would have a personal story about him. A lot of them said that he was their best friend. [Even at the show], I come out of the stage door, and there will be people who knew Shlomo who have stories for me, people crying because they loved him and because we were able to capture so much in the performance. He was funny, he was sweet, and he had the ability to be able to really stir people up with an unconventional love.
Tell us more about your trip to Israel. What was that experience like for you?
It was undeniably deep. I spent Shabbos with his actual followers from the House of Love and Prayer, and sitting with the rabbis, you would hear his music come up and we would all dance around the Torah together. On my last day there, the rabbis gave me their blessing, gave my wife and my future children their blessing, with the hope that this show would go well and that I would gain a lot from being able to play Shlomo.
How has Soul Doctor changed since the off-Broadway production? Are you performing it in the round?
We’re doing the three quarter thrust, so we have a little more audience wrapping around us, but for the most part it plays like it’s a little arena. It’s such a beautiful space for this show; to be able to have the feeling that the audience is so close and so reachable is so beneficial for this piece, because we want people to be able to dance in their heads and hearts, if not on their feet.
Shlomo had an unusual friendship with singer Nina Simone. What's it like to work with newcomer Amber Iman?
She is a force to be reckoned with. This is a star turn. She couldn’t have a more perfect Broadway debut. She is nailing Nina— talk about channeling! We have such a special relationship on stage; it feels something even deeper is at the root of it.
I need to hear more about your Shel Silverstein tribute band, The Freakers Ball. How did that come about?
I grew up loving Shel Silverstein and having a kindred heart for his poetry and just for who he was. Later in life, I came to learn that he also wrote tons of songs, for like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, so I thought it would be really interesting to assemble a tribute band to Shel Silverstein by just covering his music. I also was able to take some of his poems, like from Where the Sidewalk Ends and Light in the Attic, and put music to them, so “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” is a song and “Someone Ate the Baby.” We’re already talking about a reunion concert. A comeback concert, if you will, although we’ve only done a few concerts in the first place.
Let’s talk about your beautiful and talented wife, Jessica Rush. Did you meet starring as Jamie and Cathy in The Last Five Years?
No, but The Last Five Years really sealed the deal. We were in a show together in L.A. called Pilgrim where she played the heroine and I played the villain, and we developed a great friendship before anything else. Right after that, we ended up doing Last Five Years in Sacramento for a few months, and we fell madly in love there.
How do you juggle two busy Broadway careers?
Knock on wood, one of us has had a Broadway show since we moved here five years ago. It’s ideal to be able to be on the same schedule because we’re at least able to spend our mornings and nights together, and an occasional lunch, as well. We’ve lucked out being able to literally work a block away from each other with this show [and Jersey Boys], and that’s crazy.
Is there any other show you guys would love to do together?
I know she’d like to do Ragtime. I’ve played Tateh all over California, and I know she’d like to play Mother to my Tateh. Singing Our Children together would be just absurd.
Check out Eric Anderson in Broadway’s Soul Doctor at Circle in the Square Theatre.