Douglas Hodge won Olivier and Tony Awards for his flamboyant yet poignant turn in La Cage aux Folles, catapulting this veteran of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Pinter into the musical theater pantheon. He returned to the classics last fall in a Broadway revival of Cyrano de Bergerac. Now, the 53-year-old Englishman is back on the West End as a singularly dapper yet mysterious Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the musical extravaganza with a score from the Hairspray team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Director Sam Mendes’ lavish production delays Hodge’s entrance until well into the first act, but better late than never, as Hodge was the first to agree in a conversation held prior to a recent Friday night show.
Was accepting the role of Willy Wonka a no-brainer for you?
No, not in any shape or form. I had already been offered [the musical revival] Barnum. Then there was the trap that came from having two fantastic films [of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] and also the question of what the [musical] book was going to be like: Would it move people and stay with them as opposed to just being the story we all know?
What swayed you?
Sam [Mendes as director] was a tremendous reason, and the fact that this was something entirely new. Yes, the story and the books already exist, but not in this version, and there’s nothing more exciting as an actor than making something from scratch—putting something into the world that didn’t exist before.
Nothing more challenging, either: Sam has said that spearheading a new musical is the most daunting directorial task.
Of course, otherwise we’d have a new musical every five minutes [laughs]. There’s always a greater element of risk and anxiety, but at the same time there’s nothing more thrilling than saying, “I just had this idea, and I want to see if it can work.” The prominence of the people enrolled on Charlie meant that there was an enormous amount of ideas in the room; everyone wanted to make a brilliant family show.
By contrast with the revivals you’ve done, like Guys and Dolls and La Cage aux Folles, you can’t gauge the effect of a new piece until you do it.
There’s a never-ending honing. I’m still thinking, “Can I lose this line or do this bit quicker, and can we give that a little more breathing space?” There are things you think are surefire that don’t register at all, so you’re constantly discovering where the focus of the show is and whether or not it’s hitting home. I find it a fascinating adventure.
So, what happened with you and Barnum?
I chose this over that. [Barnum was recently mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre with Christopher Fitzgerald in the title role.]
Willy Wonka is open to such diverse interpretation. Gene Wilder could not be more different from Johnny Depp in the two film adaptations.
That’s right: The character exists without a back story, which is left up to the actor to sort for himself. The Tim Burton film tried to fill in the gaps. I can see why they may have felt they needed to do that, but I’m not certain it’s necessary.
How did you see the role?
Willy is essentially a child—someone who has the same enthusiasm and ideas and lack of cynicism as Charlie but who has been disillusioned by the world and put himself on the scrapheap. In thinking about the part, I certainly looked at Michael Jackson as far as someone who had a separateness and an innocence and a childishness, and David Bowie has emerged out of the shadows as a very enigmatic, almost reclusive man.
Did you receive any feedback from Roald Dahl’s family?
I got a marvelous letter from his widow that said my Willy Wonka in her view “was frightening enough but still had a heart.” The last line was that she knew Roald would be so pleased and that finally he would be understood. That thrilled me to the core, I have to say.
What did you think about the fact that the show was compared to Matilda, another British musical inspired by Roald Dahl?
I sort of knew it was coming. I thought Matilda was wonderful, but it’s a very different kind of thing that grew organically through the Royal Shakespeare Company system. With our show, there was no doubt that it had to achieve certain things, like Oompa Loompas the size of small people and squirrels that dance under the nut room and a great glass elevator that takes off. Spectacular things are required, and it’s no good doing it in tights in a black box [laughs]. I’m pleased that Warner Bros. has thrown everything at it, and so has Sam.
What’s your future commitment to the show?
I’ve done over 90 performances and played to more than 150,000 people, and I’ve got another nine months to go through May 2014. Hopefully, I’ll be back on Broadway with it—probably not next year, but the year after, though that is just a guess. Don’t forget, Sam [who directed Skyfall and is committed to the next James Bond film] has to do all his Bond stuff. But I certainly think that’s the intention.
Your mid-career immersion in musicals must come as a surprise, given your origins as a classical actor.
Yes, sometimes I think this is all happening to another person since it seems such another road to go down. But I’m deriving as much joy and depth and interest from doing these kinds of pieces as I did with Betrayal and The Caretaker. There’s very little difference in the amount of oxygen you need to burn between Shakespeare soliloquies and the songs in a musical.
Is Willy Wonka taxing in the way that playing Zaza/Albin was in La Cage aux Folles?
I’ve got five big songs in this, so there’s more to sing, and the character essentially comes in at the end of the first act and never leaves the stage. But this is a lighter piece with a lighter tone, and I certainly don’t have the kind of high heels conundrum and massive nose I had to deal with on La Cage and Cyrano [laughs].
Has your La Cage co-star and pal Kelsey Grammer gotten to see Charlie?
I’m praying he comes over, but Kelsey’s life is one long complicated web of things. He’s out in L.A. with a new baby, and I never seem to get much further in America than New York. He asked me to be in the Boss TV series with him but I couldn’t do it. I miss him and would love to work him again—and I miss New York like crazy!
What about your own musical, the one you have written that is awaiting a production?
Yes, it’s called Meantime, and is set in the arrivals and departures lounge of Heathrow Terminal 5, though I love the idea of starting it in America, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t set it at JFK. We did a full workshop for two weeks at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but I think we all felt, because it’s set at an airport, that it was too big for that space. At the moment, everything’s on hold while I’ve got this behemoth of a musical.
Are there any roles for you in Meantime?
There is one, actually, but I’ll probably get pipped to the post by someone like Matthew Morrison!