The first question I ask John Sanders is, "How much fun are you having?"
He doesn't hesitate. "The most," he begins, talking by phone on Friday about his role as the Black Stache in "Peter and the Starcatcher," the whimsical, inventive play at Heinz Hall this week.
The winner of five Tony Awards, this "Peter Pan" prequel arrives Tuesday as the finale to the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh season and the final stop of a yearlong national tour.
The not-so-spoiler of the Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson story, adapted for the stage by Rick Elice, is who everyone will become. There's the lost Boy with no name about to take flight as one of literature and theater's most beloved characters and the goofy pirate who has both hands when we meet him, before he becomes … well, you know.
Before embarking on the tour, Sanders (above and far right, with Luke Smith) appeared on Broadway as Black Stache (the role that earned a Tony for Christian Borle), Aster, Bumbrake and Capt. Scott. He left to play Sergei in the original Broadway cast of "Matilda the Musical," but Stache had him hooked.
Here's our conversation (read more in Sunday Magazine and post-gazette.com):
Question: How much fun are you having?
Sanders: Pretty much the most of my life. This is an amazing role. i was able to play it on Broadway for a short period of time and also to play a couple of other roles as an off-stage cover, and so I got to know the show really well. And then when I went away to play [Sergei] in 'Matilda,' I would lay awake thinking about this bit or that bit [from 'Peter'] and my wife would say, 'Shut up, go to sleep.' She's laughing now. So when the offer came for the tour, I thought, 'Wow, what a great way to let it out of my system.' But also, what a great way to be with something for a while and let it go.
To be in a place where it's like, 'Oh, maybe that's how I should have done it,' and then to be able to go back to it is such an amazing thing.This guy is such a cool, weird, fun, arcane, elusive guy to find every night. I've really enjoyed it.
Q: This might be a spoiler, but I have to ask about "The Scene," the one where the Black Stache is transformed to the character we know from the J.M. Barrie "Peter Pan." It's a pantomime, really …
A: It's the most fun and daunting thing I get to do every night. It's the most direct way of communicating to the audience. There's not this next line to go to; it's open improvisation. At times in the run, we're at the end of the run now, Pittsburgh is our final city. I've been doing this for almost a year, and lately here, at least in Baltimore -- I mean it's always different -- but lately I've been going off the rails with it because it needs that scary, frightened, off-the-precipice feeling. Maybe I'll screw this up. Maybe it will go on way too long. Maybe people will be looking at me agape, just know idea what's happening. And that does go on for a little while. But there's this bell curve and hopefully people come along for the ride. It's a fun time.
Q: Is there a limit to the time for doing the scene?
A: I've never received a single note on that. I was around during rehearsals when Christian Borle was working on it for Broadway so I kind of understood the idea behind, even though the script just says, 'Oh. My. God.' There's this expectation that there's so much more to it. I just go with my interpretation of what that means.
Q: Compared to what else you've done, did you have to reach down and find something else in yourself, or is this the role every actor dreams will come along.
A: It is both of those things. This is the role I'd always dreamed of and never knew it. It's such a wonderfully written role because there are so many holes in it, I have to find something in myself every single night in order to do it. And that's why it's never gotten old. Never. It's kind of like a WIllie Wonka, if Willie didn't already have his factory and was in complete control of it. Willis Wonka is scary because he's a little crazy, but he's in complete control, so we kind of let ourselves enter the magic. But the Stache is scary and crazy but he's not in control. His surroundings are constantly in flux and he's barely hanging on to whatever authority he's got. And that kind of wild character is a fun thing to do.
Q: What's it like dealing with the found-object props?
A: Figuring that all out happened in WIlliamstown, when the play was being developed, and in La Jolla. When we got together to put the tour together, it was like, take the rope and put it on the spike and, 'This looks amazing.' The fun in doing it every night and is knowing what you are doing is a celebration of those times when you were a kid, and you'd grab a chair leg and a stick, and suddenly you could say, 'I'm the captain and you're a pirate.'.
Q: So, with this tour coming to an end, have you got this character out of your system?
A: There's a guy who was in the Broadway production, Matt D'Amico who played Slank, and he came to Baltimore to see the tour. We were having drinks afterward, and he said as Act Two begins -- it's almost like this song, but it's this chant -- he realized he still knew it; it will not go away. I believe it will be like that with me in that way for a long time.
It does feel like it's ending at the right time. It's a hard show to do; its hard on our bodies. This group has been wonderful; we've been to the trenches together, and now it's time.
Q: This is a "Peter Pan story that not too many people know. How has it played around the country.
A: That's the story of this tour, because it's not a musical, we don't spend a lot of time singing, which makes a show accessible — at least if there's a song, [people can leave saying] we've had our theatrical experience. This is a play. And it's a comedy at that. Different people laugh in different ways. This country is so vast and so amazing and people have different ways of expressing themselves. We were in East Lansing, Mich., and we were thinking, 'Oh my God, they hate us.' And at the end, they stood up every night and everyone was as so effusive about the show. We started in Texas and after a month and a half in Texas, we went to Seattle and we were like rock stars. …
We've been talking about Pittsburgh a lot … we were just in Charlotte, which is a very old town that has this new energy and we sold really well there and the audiences were great. That's why we are so eager to come to Pittsburgh. From what I understand, the city has undergone a renewal and its a similar thing.This show, as you know, is a show all audiences love and that people who love theater adore.
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson