Christopher Fitzgerald on working with Stephen Sondheim and how the pandemic changed ‘Company’
Christopher Fitzgerald has made a career out of playing the "nice guy." From the delightful oddball Ogie in Waitress (which earned him a Tony Award nomination) to the charming munchkin Boq in Wicked to now, David in Marianne Elliott's gender-flipped revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival and is playing through July 31.
"It's nice to evolve from playing creatures, and playing weird fantasy characters, like munchkins and leprechauns, to playing actual human men," Fitzgerald says with a laugh. "I always gravitate to characters who are working something out and have a sense of joy in what they're trying to uncover for themselves. I think a lot of people can identify with characters that are that open. And that's what our job is really in the theatre, to let that shine."
In the revival, the leading singleton played by Katrina Lenk becomes Bobbie, instead of the traditional male Bobby, but she's not the only updated character. Fitzgerald plays David to Nikki Renee Daniels's Jenny, and in Elliott's take, this pair swaps arcs. So what was traditionally a scene between two men, David and Bobby, making fun of a woman for trying marijuana for the first time, adopts a new dynamic with Fitzgerald's David testing out the weed waters.
New York Theatre Guide chatted with Christopher Fitzgerald about what it means to get in touch with his emotions, balancing Broadway as a working parent, and how the late great Stephen Sondheim changed his life.
How did you approach this new take and embrace the gender swap?
The initial challenge was, "Okay, so we're going to change the gender of the character. We're also going to change the time period." So, it was written for and in the late '60s. Now we're going to put it to today. So, those were two things that felt like they had to shift simultaneously. It blew my mind a little bit. I was like, "Okay, how is this going to be believable, and relevant, and make sense?"
I started to try to investigate who David is. What's already interesting, is the dynamic in my relationship with my wife, is that we are really co-partners and we collaborate together. But we also are co-parents and very co-status in terms of the way we work, and how we work. So, already, there's more of a dialogue just in my life, about the roles that we play as a couple. That definitely played a part too.
What is it like balancing being a parent and working on Broadway?
Nikki, my partner in Company, has two daughters. And so we just have a shorthand that we share about just what it has meant to just do the job, and also how we approach our characters, and all of it. It's cool that we share that in common. It's helped our chemistry and all of that.
You have circus and physical comedy training as well. How did you bring that to Company?
My little secret that I have for myself, is that everything has to come from some sense of joy for myself. What's fun about David is he smokes marijuana and he opens. It's that innocence that I just really love. But with David, he also then closes. David opens up, and then sees the world for a minute, and then is like, "You know what, I'm actually much more comfortable being in more control." What's so fun is losing control. Watching people lose control. But as an actor, doing that, but being in control.
Physical comedy, that's my go-to because it unlocks that part of me, of losing control, and that sense of joy. It tickles me. Whatever tickles me, I just do. That's how I rehearse. So, all those little ideas.
You've done a few Sondheim musicals. What was working with him like and what did he teach you?
I did this production of Saturday Night, which was the first musical he ever wrote, at Second Stage. It was the New York premiere of that show. It was all about a bunch of young kids in Brooklyn finding themselves right before the Depression. And I sang this song, "Exhibit A' and it was great and funny, with great turns of phrase. When I did the recording of it, after I sang through the song once, here comes Steve walking towards me. And I was like, "What's he going to say?" And as he got close to me, I said, "What do you got for me, Steve?" That was what I thought would be a great opener.
And he went, "Oh, well, you're not singing the notes that I wrote. You've been singing it wrong the whole time." And he started to describe to me, and I was like, "Okay, all right. So, I think I can adjust that." And he was like, "Yes, you should adjust that." I was like, "Could you plunk it out on a piano for me, so I could hear it?" And he goes, "No." And then he turned around and he walked away, leaving me there. And I was like, "Oh my god." So, that was one of my great Steve moments. But he's great.
What was it like working with him on Company?
He came to see the show before the pandemic. He stopped by rehearsals a little bit. Also, we were trying to figure out some of these terms like "grass." Terms that we don't really use anymore. And I was like, "Can we update some of these?" We were sharing notes about stuff like that. And he was really open to trying other things. And then he came to a rehearsal or two, and sat in, and you could feel everybody just like so tense, wanting him to love it. And of course he just howled with laughter, and was really supportive, and I just think was really grateful to be there.
Then of course, he came after we reopened, to that historic night where he was there, and we all got to hang with him afterward on that night too. And he was so happy. Which was really, really amazing. And just beaming that it was back, and that he just loves the production, and loved all of us. And then it was a week later when he passed.
You were doing the show briefly before theatres shut down in March 2020. What was it like to come back?
There was just a richness to how we came back to work. It just felt like no one else could tell the story, and that we had lived the story. I thought about the play Our Town a lot during the pandemic. In the play, Emily dies and she gets an opportunity from the Stage Manager to come back, and the Stage Manager says, "You could go back, but I don't recommend it." And she's like, "I have no idea why. Why wouldn't you recommend going back? I just want to see one day."
And she goes back and she sees one day, and she's just like, "Oh my God. The smell of bacon. And there's my brother, and my mom, and my dad, and oh my God, everyone's so hilarious. And oh God, they're so wonderful, and beautiful, and rich, and all of that. Don't they see it? Don't they see it?" And the Stage Manager's like, "They can't see it, because they're living it."
You can't see how gorgeous life is in every moment. It just doesn't work that way. It felt so profound to come back. Because, we were doing the show. We were living the thing. And then we died. But we got to come back and be born again. And it was the richness of it. It was so rich, and so vibrant. It reminded me of what Emily saw.
Photo credit: Katrina Lenk, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Nikki Renee Daniels in Company on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
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