John Leslie Wolfe is currently portraying the corrupt police chief Tiger Brown in Signature Theatre’s production of The Threepenny Opera. John has been seen onstage in NY in an eclectic mix of hits, misses and shows that deserved better on Broadway. They include the under appreciated musicals Parade and Passion, the hit musical Evita and the show with the commercial that just wouldn’t stop, Sarava. Also in NY, John has been seen in the NYCO productions of Brigadoon and The Most Happy Fella. Touring credits include The Phantom of the Opera (Las Vegas), Parade, Martin Guerre, Evita and Cabaret. His area theatre credits include Kennedy Center: Passion, Golden Child; Ford’s Theatre: 1776, Elmer Gantry, Captains Courageous, To Kill a Mockingbird and Christmas Carol; Round House Theatre: Our Town and Olney Theatre Center: Oh Coward. Select regional credits include Goodspeed Opera House: Heartbeats; Austin Musicals: Annie; Penn Center Stage: Sweeney Todd and Syracuse Stage: Closer Than Ever. On screen John has appeared in The Invasion, Invincible, Step Up, Distinguished Gentleman and on TV in Netflix’s House of Cards; HBO’s Something The Lord Made, The Wire and Homicide and NBC’s The West Wing. As you can see John has had a long career in the theatre and has worked all around the country doing what he loves. I enjoyed his performance very much in The Threepenny Opera and any performer that still lists Sarava in his bio is alright with me. Get to Signature Theatre before June 1st to hear some wonderful Kurt Weill music and see John Leslie Wolfe and company in The Threepenny Opera.
What was your first professional job in the theatre?
I was hired to be a part of the singing chorus at Kansas City Starlight Theater, an 8,000 seat outdoor theater in Kansas City. It was the summer after my freshman year of college at Kansas University. They hired a company of singers and dancers to provide the chorus for 8 musicals per season. Stars such as Shirley Jones, Harvey Korman, Florence Henderson, John Davidson, Ethel Merman, and Vicki Carr, would come in to play the leads. We rehearsed in the daytime, and performed seven nights per week, for eleven weeks. The dress rehearsal was on Saturday night from midnight to 5am since they needed to see the show under the lights. It was a great job for a young aspiring actor/singer. I learned so many shows, gained the discipline to be able sing seven nights a week, and worked with amazing people. I returned to that job for three years. Many of the chorus went on to be familiar faces in theater.
There are several adaptations of The Threepenny Opera. What makes the McDonald and Sams translation different from the earlier Blitzstein and Feingold versions?
This version of the script is more contemporary than others. It’s less flowery, darkly funny, very abrasive, and the social commentary is perhaps more relevant than ever. We are also able to set it in our version of present day, maybe even a few days into the future, and I think the addition of contemporary props and set pieces adds to the impact of the commentary.
What do you enjoy most about singing the music of Kurt Weill?
This should be called a play with music, rather than a musical, but, the musical comparisons are really interesting. The music is presentational, delivered to the audience, and because it’s Brecht, it is delivered directly TO the audience. A lot of Brecht’s commentary is in the songs, and breaking the wall between audience and actor serves to underline those points. That said, I approach all songs the same way. They are stories, put to music. But, the songs in a typical musical come out of the story, are part of the scene. They come out of the thoughts of that character. They are also probably prettier to most people’s ears, and have a form that includes some sort of musical ending. I don’t want to say we don’t try to make a beautiful sound as we sing, but perhaps vocal quality is less important. More than once, our musical director asked us to not sound as pretty in some of the group songs, probably to underscore the commentary. It’s a really active form of singing, and that’s where the fun comes in.
You were part of the original Broadway cast of Parade and then went out with it on tour. The show has a cult following now, but in my opinion, the original production did not run as long as it should have. Do you think there was any particular reason for that and what was the experience like for you in putting that show together?
Parade is one of the highlights of my career, one of four shows I’ve done that were directed by Hal Prince. My character was Tom Watson, the presence of evil in the story, a very dark character. Dark is very fun to play. I was a part of it from the development workshop in Toronto, and I completely agree with you that it should have run longer on Broadway. It was third in a series, produced by Garth Drabinsky’s company, Livent, that portrayed life in America around the turn of the century into the 1900’s. Show Boat, Ragtime, and Parade. Hal Prince directed Show Boat and Parade. Livent ran into legal troubles, and was not able to bring Parade to Broadway. Happily, Lincoln Center picked us up for Broadway, but as a nonprofit, they were limited in their abilities to advertise and promote the show.
But, it was also a difficult subject matter, based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man wrongly convicted and hung for killing a young girl in the bigoted deep South of the early 1900’s. It was a beautifully acted love story, with spectacular music by Jason Robert Brown. Yet, the harsh bigotry portrayed toward blacks and Jews of that time, and the less than happy ending, Leo being hung onstage, made it a tough sell as a musical for many people. Mr. Prince also said later, when we rehearsed the tour, that he thought he made a mistake to not let the audience like Leo more in the Broadway run. He had wanted to let the audience make up its own mind as to Leo’s innocence or guilt, but it alienated them from his character. Hal adjusted that direction for the tour, and audiences were happier. It may have been less accurate, the real Leo Frank was apparently not likeable, but it made for a better musical. The audience had a hero.
For me, Parade was a wonderful experience. I had a long history of work with Hal Prince, including companies of Evita and Cabaret. There is no director I admire more. The first day of rehearsal, he said to me, “Well kid, you’re playing the Devil. Are you ok with that?” I was! My character was a very nasty redneck politician, based on a real Georgia newspaper publisher and single term U.S. congressman. His editorials at the time constantly called for Leo’s conviction and hanging, based on his own religious fervor. He became a passionate enemy of the governor of Georgia, causing his ouster, when the governor sympathized with Leo. Singing the lament over the child victim’s grave, and the fiery confrontations I had with the governor were very satisfying scenes to play.
Parade was a huge show on Broadway, a very big cast and orchestra. I think that to make it easier for smaller theaters to produce the show, the authors later rewrote it for a smaller cast. Some characters were changed to allow actors to play more than one character. I think some characters suffered, especially Tom Watson. But, the show remains a favorite among young actors and audiences. It is constantly produced in colleges, which couldn’t have happened if they had not made the show smaller.
What is next for you after The Threepenny Opera concludes its run?
I don’t have my next theater job. But, shows happen fast, and that could change tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to being able to audition for film and television again. Film work has to go on hold when I’m doing a play, because of the long shooting days in film work. Musicals will always be my first love as an actor, but, film work is very exciting on its own, and it will be fun to do more.