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Sublimely Ridiculous

Date: Oct 29, 2007


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One week back in 2005, Jonathan Hadary had a pair of auditions for roles that couldn't have been more different: Myron, a submissive Jewish husband in Clifford Odets' 1935 drama Awake and Sing, and King Arthur, the clueless straight man in the Monty Python confection Spamalot.

"I couldn't imagine two more completely opposite parts, in almost every way, aside from their being intended for a theatre audience," says Hadary from his modest dressing room at the Shubert Theatre, where his armor hangs on the costume rack and an empty Spam container holds his pens and eyeglasses. "Then to hit for both was wild."

It all ran as if on schedule: When the hugely acclaimed limited run of Awake and Sing closed, Hadary was free to replace Harry Groener, who had taken over for Tim Curry's original Arthur, in Spamalot.

"The way it worked out, I couldn't have come up with a better plan," Hadary marvels. "Talk about sublime to ridiculous!"

If comedy is hard, as every actor will tell you, being ridiculous, particularly in the Python way, can be harder.

"This is a wackier kind of musical than anything I've done," says Hadary, who replaced Nathan Lane in the 1990s revival of Guys and Dolls and was nominated for a Tony as Herbie in the Tyne Daly-headlined Gypsy. "It's hard in its own peculiar way." One of his castmates has compared it to "hosting a party--the kind of energy and exhaustion that comes from that, from just intentionally being happy and engaged and making sure everyone's having a good time."

Hadary expands on this idea with a contrast.

"When a play is loaded with story and character, it doesn't matter as much how the audience responds orally--they're listening, and if they laugh, they laugh, and if they don't, you're still going to kill the king or whatever," Hadary explains. "In something where the chief and perhaps exclusive objective is to make them laugh, repeatedly, and more and more, and they're just not in the mood, or not in the mood you think they should be in, it makes it harder."

On top of that hurdle, there's the musical challenge of being inserted into a musical that's already running.

"That in itself is hair-raising," says Hadary. "In a play, if you're a replacement, there's no unison, there's no conductor, there's no beat. If you slow down a little bit, everyone waits for you to finish your line. But musicals are these big machines, and you have to hit the ground running at the same speed as everyone else. They're daunting."

Lest he sound like he's complaining, Hadary is quick to add: "The way this show bubbles over as it goes along, it turns into this whole other thing. Whatever mood I'm in now, in three hours the elation will be high. It's a delight to have as your job."

Hadary has had a rich and varied career, crossing freely from musicals to dramas. He toured for 20 months as Roy Cohn in the national tour of Angels in America, and he originated the role of Charles Guiteau in Sondheim's Assassins.

He reserves a special place in his heart, though, for Herbie, the put-upon partner of Mama Rose in Gypsy. His audition so endeared him to writer/director Arthur Laurents that Herbie's vocal part was expanded.

"They didn't write any additional music, but in some of the duet material, they gave Herbie a little more to sing, and a real nice key change in 'Small World,' " Hadary recalls. And though he calls that 1989 Tony winner "a real straightforward production of a pretty straightforward play," Hadary goes on to laud its complexity: "The tension between all the departments--music and singing and dancing and book--are constant the whole time. There isn't a song in that show that gets sung straight through; there's always dialogue or dance. It's always feasible that you'll need to express yourself in another way."

The demands of Spamalot keep Hadary on his toes, too.

"There are sequences that are built to look improvisational," Hadary says. "It's like the acrobat who fakes almost falling, or on the old Carol Burnett show, where they would sort of dependably crack each other up, and then you watch them try to hold it together--it's a whole other drama."

It's a drama that lets us laugh at the end, and that's all for the best, Hadary believes.

"It's good for you, they now say--it's good for all of us to laugh," Hadary continues. "There was a thing in the paper that said that bonding with other laughers is really what it's about. It's like an animal thing. I've come to think that it's like birds--that we're just like that. We make these preposterous rhythmic noises that we don't make otherwise, and we don't think twice about them."

When a king tells you it's OK to laugh, that's practically an order, isn't it?

For tickets to Spamalot, go here.