What can you say about a man whose career has spanned over four decades with no end in sight? Walter Charles is a rare breed! He’s charming, is constantly working, and is respected so much by his peers. DC theatergoers were fortunate to see Walter’s work as Herr Schultz in his Helen Hayes Award nominated performance in Arena Stage’s 2006 production of Cabaret. His rendition of “The Pineapple Song” has found a permanent home in my heart.
I first saw Walter as Old Deuteronomy in Cats in 1982, but it was his heart-breaking performance as Albin in La Cage aux Folles that made me a fan-for-life. I have seen dozens of his performances, including his sinister Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd at the 2002 Kennedy Center Celebration, that starred Brian Stokes Mitchell as Sweeney Todd, and Christine Baranski as Mrs. Lovett. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role. And I loved Walter as Scrooge in Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken’s A Christmas Carol, which played at The Theatre at Madison Square Garden. I listen to that cast CD a lot.
It was gratifying watching Walter draw so many laughs on May 30th when he appeared with DC favorite Sherri L. Edelen as “Mr. and Mrs.” in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George, and how wonderful it was to hear his gorgeous voice envelope the theatre. I was ecstatic when Walter agreed to interview with me once again.
Happy 40th anniversary Walter! Let’s do this again on your Golden Anniversary!
Joel: Congratulations on recently celebrating your 40th year in professional theatre!
Walter: Thank you very much. I love the stage. For me, there’s nothing like a live audience. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. And, after I had some success, I knew that I could make it my life’s work, and my life’s passion.
Joel: Why do you think you have had and continue to have such a prestigious career on the stage?
Walter: I have been so lucky in the people I’ve worked with, and the people I’ve learned from. I first worked with George Hearn in 1970 in the 1st National Company of 1776. I watched his every move because I loved his work. For me, it was always the work. And Angela Lansbury, and Robert Preston – I could go on and on. These were the people I admired as artists, the people I wanted to emulate as much as possible. My relationships with other actors, my relationships with directors, producers, etc., was learned at thefeet of the very best the theatre had to offer, so I count myself very fortunate to have been exposed to all that.
Joel: What is it about Walter Charles that makes directors keep hiring you?
Walter: I respect directors, and I think I’ve learned how to work WITH them, never AGAINST them. I believe the theatre thrives when work is collaborative – director, producer, every member of the cast & crew. We’re all in it together, and when we respect and love each other, Then we’ll have the best product on the stage for the audience to share in.
Joel: Your voice has sustained its beauty and power over the many years that you have performed on the stage. What’s your secret?
Walter: There’s no secret. I had excellent classical training at Boston University and New York. I always tried to do things that suited my voice type, and I always, in rehearsal, was careful to work things out technically first, before performance. I always tried to really know what I was doing all the time.
Joel: Looking over the past 40 years, who were your heroes in the theatre?
Walter: Oh, there are so many! I’ve mentioned some already: George Hearn, Angela Lansbury, Robert Preston, Tyne Daley, and Constance Towers. Now that I think about it, almost anyone who loves the theatre, who dedicates themselves to doing the work, to living this kind of life – they’re all heroes.
Joel: What are your favorite roles of all-time, and which roles that you haven’t yet played – do you still want to play?
Walter: This is always a tough question. Okay, here it goes: Sweeney Todd. I’ve played that role only as an understudy to George Hearn, but it taught me so much, and I had the thrill of playing opposite Angela Lansbury for almost 2 weeks. Those weeks changed my career, and my life. And of course, Albin in La Cage Aux Folles. That’s the role that changed everything for me. I have a special spot in my heart for Ben Stone in Follies (such a fantastic score!), Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, and Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly.I revisited Don Quixote in Man Of La Mancha, and had a great success with it. I love that part so! Now, I’ve played Judge Turpin in several productions of Sweeney Todd, and I love playing that role, too.
Joel: Which roles over the past 40 years did you turn down – and wish you would have said, “YES!”
Walter: You know, I’ll be perfectly honest: I can’t think of any! I’ve rarely turned down roles offered to me. The only one I can think of off-hand is the lead in a musical called Into The Light – I think that was the name of it. It was a musical about the Shroud Of Turin. I just didn’t like the script. But I’m still not sorry I turned it down.
Joel: What was your first professional role in the theatre?
Walter: My first professional job was in the chorus of a summer stock company in 1969. During that season, they took me out of the chorus and gave me the part of Hillaire Jussac, the art critic, in Can-Can starring Patrice Munsel. Years later, I co-starred with her again in a production of Kismet, and we shared some happy memories together of that 1st season!
Joel: Like many others, your career has had your ups and downs. Which show(s) did better than you ever expected, and what show(s) that you thought would be a hit- were not and were major disappointments?
Walter: I guess the one show that did better than expected was Aspects Of Love, an Andrew Lloyd Webber show. The reviews were terrible, but the show had a huge advance – I think it was his first after Phantom of the Opera, and everybody wanted to see it. It ran longer than I ever thought it would because of that advance! And another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, The Woman in White, was not a success, and I thought that should have had a run. It was a beautiful score, an engaging story, and was innovative technically, in terms of set, lighting, etc. That was a disappointment. But maybe my biggest disappointment was when the Deaf West production of Big River did not transfer from a limited engagement at the American Airlines Theatre to a Broadway venue. It was one of the most beautiful and emotionally moving productions I’ve ever been a part of. Roundabout Theatre did it, and I’ll always think it should’ve moved.
Joel: Tell us about Mr. and Charles Redmond, who you play in Arden Theatre Company’s Sunday in the Park with George, and how you relate to these characters?
Walter: “Mr.” is a comic character, and I’ll say at the start I would be nothing in this role without Sherry Edelen as my wife, “Mrs.”! Charles Redmond is a museum curator who wants to sign up the latest hot prospect. He’s like many a producer I’ve known over the years!
Joel: What is it about the score in Sunday in the Park with George that makes this Sondheim score so different from his other works?
Walter: Every Sondheim score is different form anything else he’s done, that’s why he’s so brilliant and why he’s had such a profound effect on the musical theatre. There are moments of frenetic musical activity, with many things happening at once; then, suddenly, a moment of such exquisite beauty, it takes your breath away. The score to Sunday… has been a revelation! Wonderful.”
Joel: What is your favorite song in the show?
Walter: My favorites are “Children And Art”, the title of which sort of speaks for itself, and “Beautiful”, and “Move On”, which I think is sort of the Artist’s mantra.
Joel: Last year you made your Arden Theatre debut in Bruce Graham’s Something Intangible, and you earned a Barrymore Award nomination.
Walter: I played my two roles as honestly as I could, I had a superb director and superb cast to work with: Scott Greer, Ian Merrill Peakes, Doug Hara, and Sally Mercer, and it was one of the happiest artistic collaborations I’ve had in my career.
Joel: How did you get involved in this production?
Walter: I’m involved in this production because Terry Nolan called, and wanted me to do it, and I leaped at the opportunity to come back to the Arden. This theatre is unique in my experience, and I never stop talking it up to friends and colleagues. It’s unique in many ways. It does so much to promote new work. Something Intangible was, I believe, the theatre’s 30th world premiere work. There is a collaborative spirit at this theatre unlike any other. I understand the theatre served as the impetus to revive the Old City section of Philadelphia. It has dedicated patrons. The production values are as good as you’ll find anywhere, and the Philadelphia acting community takes a back seat to NO ONE. They’re some of the finest artists I’ve ever worked with.
Joel: We last talked in DC when you were playing Herr Schultz at Arena Stage. Back then, you were not so optimistic about the state of musical theatre on Broadway. Have you changed your mind? Have you seen any shows or performances years which has given you hope for the future?
Walter: I have to confess, I have not seen much of the new musical works on Broadway. My life has taken some interesting new directions in the last 3 years or so I prefer to see straight plays. But I’m confident that the musical theatre will continue to thrive in the hands of another generation of talented artists. Box office receipts are holding steady even in these recessionary times, so, yes, I think there is always hope for the “fabulous invalid”!
Joel: You played Albin in the original production of La Cage aux Folles, and recently in the London production on Broadway, Douglas Hodge has the role. Why is La Cage aux Folles still so popular?
Walter: I have not seen the new production, so I can’t comment on it, but the heart and soul of La Cage has always been not that it’s a drag show, but that it is a love story. With a twist! But that love story is what resonates with audiences, and that’s why they identify with the characters. Its honesty is its strong suit.
Joel: What’s next for you after Sunday in the Park with George?
Walter: I’ve been doing some concert work recently. I’ve done concerts of Kristina, the musical by the ABBA folks, and the 2 CD set of the Carnegie Hall concerts has recently been released. We just did a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and other concerts are now in the planning stages. I’ll be doing a concert performance of Hello Dolly with Leslie Uggams in October, I think it is, and then in February will do The Music Man in Costa Mesa, California.
Joel: After looking back on 40 years on the professional stage, what advice would you give students and young actors who are considering making acting their career?
Walter: There is no magic formula for “making it”. You have to find your own way. But, the preparation is all important. Train, learn from the best, watch and learn. And above all, you have to learn how to roll with the punches. There will be many! In my career, I’ve lost far more jobs than I’ve landed. But if you truly love it, and if it makes you happy to be on a stage in any capacity, whether it’s a lead or a small supporting role – if you’re happy, then that’s the whole ball game.”
Joel: What do you want theatergoers to take with them after seeing Sunday in the Park with George?
Walter: I hope they take with them the knowledge that they’ve seen a musical unlike any other; that they’ve seen the mature work of a theatre artist at the height of his powers, and that they’ll have a new appreciation of what Stephen Sondheim has meant to the musical theatre. I believe he reinvented the art form, and Sunday in the Park with George is one of the prime examples. And by all means, have a good time!
Sunday in the Park with George plays through July 4th at Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 922-1122, or purchase them on their website here.
Download the Arden studyguide for Sunday in the Park with George here.