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Chicago’s Christopher Fitzgerald on Star Turns in Young Frankenstein, Barnum & More

Chicago’s Christopher Fitzgerald on Star Turns in Young Frankenstein, Barnum & More
Christopher Fitzgerald
Christopher Fitzgerald has taken on iconic roles in 'Barnum,' 'Forum' & more.

Christopher Fitzgerald has the skills and energy of an old-fashioned Broadway headliner: great voice, impressive comedy chops and a willingness to hop on a tightrope or don a gorilla suit if the role demands it. A Tony nominee for Young Frankenstein and Finian’s Rainbow (as the colorfully named Igor and Og, respectively), Fitzgerald is currently singing “Mister Cellophane” as unloved husband Amos Hart in Chicago. His Role Call includes a pair of collaborations with his wife, actress and director Jessica Stone, and his recent star turn in Barnum in Chichester, England.

Role That Was My Biggest Break
“I had done a bunch of shows before being cast in Young Frankenstein [2007, as humpbacked sidekick Igor; Best Featured Actor Tony nomination], but Igor was my first big role in a huge new musical. Boq in Wicked was a much smaller part; in Young Frankenstein, a responsibility was put on my shoulders, and watching it all take shape was fascinating. The reception the show got didn’t really matter as much as the way everyone worked together. The movie was a departure point for me, with the knowledge that there was no way I could get close to what Marty Feldman did, which was so original and perfect. It was a place to find inspiration, then I used my own skills to let the character emerge. Having Mel Brooks there was a total gift. I tried to channel his spirit and his energy every time I stepped on stage.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
“This past summer, I did Barnum at the Chichester Festival [in southeast England], a great experience but mainly a really challenging one. I had to learn circus skills, the hardest one being walking a tightrope. I have a facility for that kind of stuff, but not to the degree of doing it in a show for 1,500 people! I was also dealing with people’s memories of iconic performances by Jim Dale [on Broadway] and Michael Crawford [in the West End]. P.T. Barnum is a classic American character—a showman, a huckster and a dreamer, and our production added songs and material to try to find more of the pathos in the man. Barnum is touring in England now, which I wasn’t interested in doing, and with Pippin already running, I think it’s a hard sell [for Broadway]. They would probably want to put a big star in it, as opposed to little old interesting me, but I’m glad I got to do it. It pushed me to my limit on a variety of levels.”

Role That Changed My Life
“In many respects, Babes in Arms at Encores! [1999, as Gus Fielding] was the greatest job I ever had because I met my wife [Jessica Stone, who played Dolores]. We’re still together and have two kids, so it’s basically responsible for my life! At the audition, [director/choreographer] Kathleen Marshall asked me to do a dance call; I was so embarrassingly bad next to these amazing dancers that I pulled my shirt over my head and started acting goofy. Somehow that endeared me to her, and they gave me the part. On my first day of rehearsal with Jessica, Kathleen proceeded to choreograph our first number, ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again,’ and asked us to kiss—make out, basically—for three counts of eight. We’ve been together ever since. My sweetest memory was holding Jessie’s hand on closing night, singing ‘My Funny Valentine’ on stage at City Center with that incredible orchestra. I realized what a profound moment it was.”

Role That Was the Most Fun
“The most fun I’ve had on stage was playing Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Williamstown Theatre Festival [2010], directed by my wife in a cast of dear friends. It’s a brilliantly constructed book, but a lot of the humor is about ogling women, which is not as fresh as it once was! Jessica had the idea of casting an all-male troupe, with men playing the courtesans and female characters as well as male roles. This had never been tried, and it worked like gangbusters. The actors didn’t do it as camp; it was earnestly played, and it took the show to an even crazier level. Pseudolus is an iconic role, so I wanted to nod to Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane and but also make it fresh for myself. Jessica’s ensemble approach made that happen, and it felt like a party. There was talk about the production being done at Roundabout; we’ll see.”

Role That Required the Most Versatility
Stairway to Paradise [2007] at Encores! was a fun show that allowed me to use all my skills. It was a retrospective of vaudeville and burlesque sketches put together by Jack Viertel and Jerry Zaks, and I got to sing in a variety of styles and do some silly bits like wearing a gorilla costume and doing a sneezing sketch with Kristin Chenoweth and Kevin Chamberlin—there was room for different voices and physicalities. One of my favorite numbers was ‘Josephine, Please No Lean on the Bell,’ an Eddie Cantor song written 100 years ago that was right in my wheelhouse. I was auditioning for Young Frankenstein while doing Stairway to Paradise, and I think that helped me get the role; Igor lives in a vaudeville world, and I understand and love that style.”

Role That Was the Most Controversial
“It was fascinating to be part of Corpus Christi [1998, as Doubting Thomas]. The play was a simple retelling of Jesus’ life from Terrence McNally’s perspective. There was nothing salacious about it, but the idea of it was so scary to some people that the controversy became almost larger than the play itself. What was too bad was that the people protesting the play hadn’t even read it. It’s rare these days for a piece of storytelling to have such a dynamic impact. [Director] Joe Mantello wanted the [production to] grow from the performers—we were charged with giving the script life and shape. That was another amazing group of guys, many of whom are still my close friends. “

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