by Patricia Grandjean
Apr 1, 2013
05:24 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Marc Kudisch
Marc Kudisch, 46, is an accomplished and well-regarded actor in Broadway musicals, having earned three Tony nominations in the last 10 years for 9 to 5, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Thoroughly Modern Millie. But if you think that's the limit of his skills and aspirations, you're sorely mistaken. Kudisch is currently co-starring in Hamlet—as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father—at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, through April 13. For more info, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.
This play seems like something of a departure for you, because you've done a lot of musicals.
It’s not a departure. It’s what I was trained to do; I was not trained to do music theater. I didn’t start singing until I was 25. When I moved to New York all I did was plays; and this is how I was trained. I got into music theater sort of haphazardly, I think partly because I thought it was great, and I really loved it. I was working off-Broadway in New York City, but I also found that I was auditioning against people who I’d seen in TV and film, and I thought, “I’ve got to broaden myself,” so I can make a career on stage this way.
I had friends who were doing music theater, and I enjoyed it. I just thought, well, “Hell, I can do that.” At that time I thought music theater was for people who couldn’t act. So they would dance and sing a lot to cover that fact. And I thought, “Shit, all I have to learn to do is sing or maybe dance a little bit, ‘cause I can act.” But I was 23 or 24; what did I know? Nothing. So I learned on my feet. I learned to sing on my feet, then I found a great voice teacher who I trained with operatically. I got into it that way, but I always approached doing music theater the same way I approached doing plays. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve had the success I’ve had in music theater, and it’s also the reason I’m able to step away from it for awhile.
Is this the first time you've done Hamlet?
No, but it’s the first time I’ve played Claudius, or the ghost, for that matter. I’ve played Laertes twice. That was like a past life: I’ve taken a 20-plus year tangent from what I do. So, I know the play and I love the play; the great thing about Hamlet is you can revisit it throughout your entire life and there’s always going to be something else. When you’re a 24-year-old guy and you play Laertes, you see the world from that perspective and it makes sense in a particular way. Twice that lifetime later, you see the play in a very different way. Which is why it’s so much fun playing Claudius, because I know those scenes with Laertes.
Tell us about this production. It seems like Paul Giamatti is an older Hamlet than we're used to seeing.
Actually, he's not. More often than not, Hamlets have been in their early 40s. Think about it: Jude Law just did the role on Broadway; how old is he? Older than people think he is. But what Jude has is a boyishness and a bit of the live-wire energy that is his own, that is appropriate to the role. When Olivier did it on film, he was in his 40s. When Branagh did the film, how old was he? In his late 30s, I think. You know, it’s interesting: I gather with naturalism in film, we’re more focused on issues of age. But it used to be, if you were a great actor, you played a role and your age was, actually, really on the back burner.
What do you think this production adds to the legacy of the play?
One thing is, Paul’s a really good actor. But he’s an actor of a particular ilk; there’s an energy he carries that’s uniquely his own. I think that’s great for the character of Hamlet, because now you can come and you’ll get a fresh perspective on the character from an actor we appreciate who is very bold in his performances with his perspective. Any time you take a really great play that stands the test of time, then there are obvious truths there that resonate in any era. It’s why we all love Hamlet; it’s why we talk about it till we’re blue in the face. But the fact of it is, we can talk and talk and talk about it, but it’s not meant to be talked about, it’s meant to be done. Hamlet is truly a play of action. For an actor, Shakespeare’s done his job; he’s done it pretty well. It gives you the opportunity to get out of your head, and be in the space and be present with other actors who are doing the same. I can tell you that it will be a very present production. I enjoy watching Paul because he doesn’t wax poetic. He gets to it; he moves through it. Know what I mean? And this is just my opinion, but I have seen Hamlets where it’s easy to become indulgent.
What drew you to playing Claudius?
I’ve always wanted to play Claudius. It’s considered one of the great roles of the Shakespearian canon. There are a few roles I’ve always wanted to play. I’ve always wanted to play Henry V. I worked on him a lot in college; I had great teachers when I was in college. I studied with Zoe Caldwell for a year; we worked on that role. I want to play Richard III, that will come. And I want to play Bolingbroke. But in my opinion, Claudius is the most interesting character in Hamlet. He can be played in so many different directions. There’s really a wide berth with that character. Hamlet has a clear task ahead of him, even though he's facing a complicated road. Claudius had a clear task; it happened offstage and he did it. So now, he’s a man in the immediate fruits of his labor, facing the consequences he did not expect. How does someone like that react? There’s a vanity, an optimism, an ambition that to me is peppered with the absolutism of a higher ideal.
That's why you can play that role in so many ways. I believe he did what he did with the best intentions, for the good of his country. I have to go to the logic of my own character. There’s a difference between calling something murder and assassination. When it happens to a king or a president, that's assassination. It comes with a whole other point of view.
You could also argue that he killed his brother out of jealousy . . .
But that, to me, is such a simple answer. I think that the play is so much more complex politically than that. And Shakespeare was writing for the theater, where in many ways he could get away with it. But he was writing very politically. If you read and re-read Hamlet, I don’t think he was a big fan of the religion of the day. I think he takes Protestantism and Catholicism and really screws around with both of them. He shows the hypocrisy on both sides.
The play begins with Claudius making a speech to the inner circle of the court. Everyone seems really happy. A couple of months after the murder, nobody seems to be questioning Claudius being king and not Hamlet, the father. Everything seems pretty cool. That must mean something, because Denmark is a warlike state that’s been at war for years, with a very absentee king that has kept them in an environment of tension. In comes this younger man, the brother, who’s a politician. A man of words, not of action. The first thing he does is stop Fortinbras in his tracks, with words. Let’s be honest, Claudius might be a better king. He gets Fortinbras under control to the point where he has to ask permission to cross Denmark in order to invade Poland. He's developed a relationship that has not existed for years. All these things are happening and then there’s this moody guy in court. So think about it: Publicly, who’s the problem? It’s not Claudius.
But isn't there also a moral issue?
Oh no, no, don't do that. Don’t go to the moral place—if you do that, you have to be prepared to look at your own morals. This summer, I did Tartuffe at the Westport Country Playhouse. The joy of that role, another one I’ve always wanted to play—I’ve played other roles in that play before as well—is that Molière called the play Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite. And my first question to the director and the company was, “Who’s he talking about?” It’s very easy to think he’s talking about Tartuffe, but is he? He doesn’t name the hypocrite. Again, we can go to morality, but I can defend Tartuffe’s morality within an inch of my life. And I can defend Claudius' morality. Obama has invaded other countries; we killed Osama bin Laden. Are we bad for this? A lot of people thought he was a great leader—they lived there, and we didn't. Listen, I think we did the right thing, of course. But when you invite the idea of morality into the argument, you also sort of invite a judgment that can be linear. It doesn't mean that there isn't truth to it. I'm just saying that anyone who plays a character has to play it through the truth of that character and the reasoning behind it, and I think Claudius had a lot of good reasons to do what he did, that made great sense to him at the time.
But he also has a moment of his own when he questions whether it was right.
Well, yeah, don't get me wrong—at the end of the day he realizes his own selfishness, and that is the beginning of his fall. But he had a higher intention to start with, and that’s not wrong either. life's funny; it's gray, not black and white. To point to Claudius and say he's the villain is to do him an injustice. To point to Hamlet and say he's the hero is to again, do him an injustice. Look at Gertrude; we could talk for hours about Gertrude. I mean, she married Claudius. Ultimately Claudius realizes that he does not feel sorry for what he did, and he would do it again, so there’s going to be no forgiveness in heaven for him. That's the chess game.
This marks your debut at Yale Rep. Your're also a Beinecke Fellow this term—what does that entail?
I'm going to do some master class work with the Yale School of Drama students; also in the graduate music theater program. I teach at the University of Maryland every year, actually in the school of business school. I've also taught at other universities. I enjoy teaching a lot. It’s the absolute best.
What have been your most rewarding roles in theater?
The only time I’ve ever gotten to play a classic role—the kind of role you aspire to in your career—has been in straight plays. At Hartford Stage, I finally got to do Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. Williams and George Bernard Shaw are really like, my authors, I love them both dearly. In music theater, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been more of a builder than a reviver. I love that that’s been a great part of my career. Assassins is something I’m very proud of, because what I did in that show didn’t exist on the page. My character, the Proprieter, did not exist in that way, and that was an exploration of director Joe Mantello and I, with permission from the writers, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. There was the joy of discovering that there was another character who could exist in that play. I just love that play, I love what it stands for, I was very proud to be a part of it and part of that voice, because I believed in what that show has to say.
I'm pleased to see that the musicals I've done have life after Broadway, and particularly that 9 to 5 is getting done everywhere. Not that I didn't think it would. I don't believe we had the run we should have had with that show, for many reasons. But I'm very happy to see it existing healthily outside of New York City. Again, I think there are things said in that play that are important. I know it’s music theater, but you know, I think music theater can get a bad rap and lately, in the city, it’s just become lowest common denominator much of the time. I don't think people realize that doing music theater is a lot of work. Not only is there spoken word, but there’s sung word and physicalized word. You’ve got three vernaculars happening all the time, a lot of moving parts.
That’s why I like Shakespeare. Shakespeare is musical. There’s is rhythm, there is flow. So is Shaw. But I remember working with a young director on his first big musical; he was primarily a director of plays, specifically Shakespeare. And he was very much out of his depth. Just because you have all this experience with Shakespeare—which is wonderful—doesn't mean you have the skill set to take on a piece of musical theater. So be careful not to look down on it, because you’ll realize quickly that you're the one under water. It has just as much structure and detail as a play. There's a difference between reviving something that already has that structure and building it from the ground up. If there's anything I've learned from musical theater, it's that: It’s storytelling, it’s art.
You also have your own cabaret act.
Well, yeah. I hate that word, I'm sorry. And only because I know how it can be misinterpreted. But I have a one-man show that I've done around that way; it was fun and I enjoyed doing it. I love talking to an audience. I stayed away from that stuff for the longest time until I started to feel like musical theater had gotten so loud, and it was talking at an audience, not to an audience. So I just wanted to do something where I felt like it was one-on-one. I’ve written a piece about the history of the baritone voice that's being produced through Arts Emerson of Boston; we have a co-producer in Chicago. We just did a private presentation in NYC, just before I started Hamlet. It’s three guys and a grand piano. It’s a concert, it’s a show, but it’s not a play. It’s an evening of art but at it’s heart, it’s a cabaret. I’ve been exploring that middle ground that nobody talks about between a play and cabaret. I did a holiday show last year, "Happy Merry Hanu-mas," with a buddy of mine [Jeffry Denman] that we’ve been working on for a couple of years. We did a couple of weeks out of town and a couple off-Broadway. I'm really proud of it; it's all holiday music arranged the way we like to do stuff.
What do you hope audiences will get from Hamlet?
I hope people will come and see Hamlet, put aside their preconceptions, and just be present. As actors go, it’s going to be a fun Hamlet to watch, and not one people have seen.Front Row Q&A: Marc Kudisch