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Tom Before the Storm

Date: Jun 06, 2008


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Tom Wopat is a long way from Hazzard County, thanks very much. Playing Tom Hurley, the beaten-down Bronx cab driver in the gentle, elegiac Broadway musical A Catered Affair, the versatile Wopat has once and for all transcended the swaggering leading roles he once assayed--not just on the kitschy TV classic The Dukes of Hazzard but on Broadway, in Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls and Chicago.

Now, after a series of meaty character roles, including one in the 2005 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, Wopat muses that it might be time for him to return to Chicago--only this time to play not the slickster lawyer Billy Flynn but the pitiable cuckold Amos, "Mr. Cellophane" himself.

"I joked with John Schneider recently that we should do Chicago together," Wopat says, half-seriously, after a matinee of A Catered Affair. He's still good friends with former Dukes co-star Schneider, who recently wrapped up a Broadway turn as Billy Flynn.

That Wopat--whose work in Affair has nabbed him his second Tony nom, his first having been for the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun--feels more like Amos than Billy is as good a sign as any of the direction his career has taken.

"I'd like to think that we change as we get older," Wopat says. "I had a great deal of fun being the leading man in musicals, the hero type of guy. I can't think of anything that would be more fun to keep doing. On the other hand, with these more dramatic roles I've been doing, there's a lot more to sink your teeth into."

A Catered Affair, adapted from a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay, is a hard-to-classify mix of gritty kitchen-sink drama and Broadway musical craft. Wopat delivers perhaps the show's most bracing breakout moment: a fierce musical number in which Tom Hurley reminds his hectoring wife, played by Faith Prince, that whatever his flaws may be, "I Stayed."

"That comes from such a point of frustration, rage and shame," Wopat says. "That song, and the scene leading up to it, are pretty much the reason I did the show."

It's not just one scene that leads to this outburst, though: From the show's start, Wopat's character must bite his tongue as he suffers his wife's insinuation that he's somehow to blame for their son's combat death in Korea, not to mention endure the stress of ponying up for their daughter's wedding.

"The director, John Doyle, made a point of telling me, ‘The more still you can be until that moment, the better,' " Wopat says of the long buildup to the release of "I Stayed." "So I just keep my head down, stay out of the family controversy. I kept wanting to react more in rehearsal to what was going on, but Doyle kept reminding me to hold back, so that when I did finally react in the song, it would be both shocking and arresting."

Indeed, the shock of his outpouring is something he feels every time he performs it.

"When I face the audience and start the song, it's stunning," Wopat says. "There is no song in the show with that kind of passion and anger--I've just taken all I can, I can't take anymore." Amid the rage, though, is a redeeming layer that keeps the audience with him, Wopat believes: "Above all, he wants to tell her that she shouldn't assume that he doesn't love her."

Despite Tony nominations for him and Prince, and for Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, Wopat feels that John Bucchino's score has been "overlooked. This score is among the best I've ever been involved with. The melding of the songs and dialogue, the lyrics and melodies--it's amazing stuff to perform." Indeed, he feels that "I Stayed" in particular deserves a future: "It will be a great musical theatre audition piece, for guys who don't have time to do the entire ‘Soliloquy' from Carousel. This is like ‘Soliloquy' crossed with ‘Rose's Turn.' He's got a lot to say and he doesn't take that long to say it."

Wopat played a pent-up, put-upon character at least once before: the meek, awkward mark of salesman Ricky Roma in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Wopat may have ventured far from Hazzard, but this kind of middle-class forgotten-man character isn't far from his memory of his hometown of Lodi, Wisc.

"Those hardworking dads, they were all around me when I was growing up," Wopat recalls. "My father was a dairy farmer. Tom Hurley is like a lot of those people--people who stayed and kept their nose the grindstone, so to speak."

Indeed, if Wopat was once best known as a character who could enter and exit a car without using the door handle, he's now justly earned the recognition of his peers for playing the kind of hard-working hack who sits behind the wheel and keeps his eye on the meter.

Click here for more information about A Catered Affair.