'Don't give up!' Broadway actor Christopher Fitzgerald on performing musicals and acting for TV

Christopher Fitzgerald is an American Broadway and television actor and singer who has earned critical acclaim for playing Boq in the musical Wicked and Igor in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. He is currently appearing in the Broadway musical adaptation of Adrienne Shelly's film Waitress, for which he enjoyed a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical.

22nd March 2018
/ By James Collins

Chris Fitzgerald and Caitlin Houlahan in Waitress on Broadway JEREMYDANIEL

Here he talks to Mandy News about how he got started, what led to him bagging the role of Ogie Anhorn in Waitress and what actors can do to stay inspired in the face of rejection.

Christopher, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the industry?
I'm Christopher Fitzgerald, I live in Brooklyn, New York. I'm married and have two children, two boys aged eight and ten. I grew up in Portland, Maine. It's a very beautiful state but growing up I was a very crazy guy and I had trouble staying seated. I just had a lot of energy I guess. My mother put me in a clown class aged five where I learned balancing objects on my face, juggling and all that various stuff and it kind of grew from there. 

I've always had varied interests in singing and performing and doing silly things so that's how I began!

Did you go on to study or did you take it from there yourself?
I did a lot of different kinds of performing as I was growing up. I did storytelling and a lot of physical comedy, like the clowning stuff. That kind of morphed into more traditional stuff. I did community theatre and found a real home for my spirit on stage. When I was in high school I played scores and sang and was in a little acapella group. Then I went to college and continued studying. I think, at that point, in college I was still more of a performer as opposed to an actor. I think there's a difference. 

It was really in college that I began to read material and began to understand different sides of myself. I went to grad school in San Francisco and during that time I began working at this really great theatre festival in Massachusetts called the Rain Stomp Theatre Festival. It's just a big, amazing place with lots of fun stuff going on. And I spent many, many summers continuing to go back there and began to grow a community of people that I shared a sensibility and aesthetic with. 

Then I moved to New York and I just started. I've always been a singer but I never really thought I would do musical theatre per se but it's kind of an amalgamation of a lot of weird things that created this strange, small man that does all sorts of crazy things I suppose – on Broadway and now on television and everywhere!

Wow! So how did you get involved with Waitress, how did that come about?
It's actually an interesting story that involved Chichester. I did Barnum there several years ago. You can check that out, I'm sure there's some information about it. Cameron Mackintosh was producing Barnum and came to New York and found me and brought me over there to play the role and it was a really invigorating challenging incredible experience to try to pull that off! I think they were doing a big renovation there so they built this giant tent that the show was in. It was just very, very ambitious. I had a fantastic time and the show – I think a lot of people really enjoyed it – had a mixed critical response but I made a lot of dear friends and really got to work on a lot of those crazy shows I was talking about earlier. 

Anyway, I did Barnum and I came back to the States and a producer from New York happened to have been over there and had seen it and he called me into his office to talk about working together. As I was leaving the room after the meeting, he casually said "I was just reading this new musical that I'm thinking about working on" and he gave me the DVD of the movie Waitress. He said, "take a look and see if there's anything in there that interests you? I think there's this part of a funny poet-guy that I think you'd be great as but let me know?" 

Thus began that whole next chapter. You never know where and how it comes from but, there it is!

Did you have to still audition for the show?
No, not at that point, because I did several readings of it and it all seemed like a really good fit and so I feel like the auditions were us all working together on the material anyway. There was no real need to see what my stake was, because they were seeing what my stake was as we went along.

Talk us through what a normal day would be in the theatre, the prep for it - how does that normally work out?
So the play is really fun, I come in about 50 minutes into the show and am introduced at that point. You've heard of me and then I finally arrive like a bolt of lightning who is basically madly in love with this woman that he's met for five minutes. I come in and do this scene and do a song, professing my love and my understanding that we're meant to be together and this is just the greatest thing that's ever happened! 

There's this really great song that Sara Bareilles wrote and it was a really fun challenge trying to figure out how to make that happen quickly and to fill it with charm and with heart and love and not creepiness and weirdness. It was really fun to kind of come up with all sorts of ideas how to make that work. The departure point for me was watching a documentary of birds, fluffing up their plume in a field, in mating dances.

What is a normal day on the show like?
Well, now that I'm a middle-aged father of two, a lot of my day is really about my home life, I don't really think about it until I'm on my way there but part of my process, I believe, is that I get to the theatre and I check in with my mates and then I've got to get myself in an available fun place. I believe that energy in a company has an effect on the kind of energy on stage so I just try to have a good time and bring some levity to the backstage experience.

We do eight shows a week, I don't really do anything other than arrive, warm up, fool around, check in with everybody. Once I enter, I'm starting to play with my partner Caitlin Houlahan – the sparks just begin and the audience is on board and it just kind of takes care of itself. It's truly a joy to do and it gives so much back to me.

How long has the show been running, how long have you got left to go and what have you got planned beyond 2018?
Yeh, well it started in April and it will celebrate two years on Broadway which is crazy. I've been there since the beginning. I've taken certain chunks of time off to do some other projects here and there but basically I've been involved with it from the beginning. That's two years! It's been fun and I don't know if the same thing holds over there in the West End but one great thing about my experience doing Waitress is that it also has some flexibility. I think it's the size of the part but to do some film and TV projects and other things as well has been amazing. 

Coming up, I'm working on this crazy TV show here called Happy! It really is a nutty, crazy thing and I was able to shoot that this past year. It just got picked up for another season so I think we start shooting in the Summer for that.

Does that shoot in New York as well?
It shoots in New York which is fantastic, so great. So we'll see how this affects my work in Waitress, I don't know if I'll be able to do both things, but we'll see.

Do you have a preference for theatre or television? People consider them to be the same sort of industry but they're very different mediums in terms of connectivity with your audience and with delivery etc.
I don't know if I have a preference. Probably the theatre is where my heart lies. I think that when I've done television or film and I come back to the theatre, I marvel at how much control I have over what's happening. Also the relationship with the audience provides so much fuel and energy. There's nothing quite like being in a room with a group of people, telling a story and having them - in real time - experience the story, nothing can match that in my mind. 

However, I really love the intimacy of television. I love how fearless sometimes I can be in television because there is the ability to edit and craft. There's this show I'm on, I play this crazy character who's a demented children’s performer, world famous, who moonlights - I became the villain of the whole series. Each week the character is going in new directions and it's always re-birthing the story so that's what's fun about that kind of work.

But nothing beats the theatre!

Do you have different directors every week?
There have been several different directors on this project but there really is a nucleus creative force. Brian Taylor is the director and Grant Morrison who is a famous amazing graphic novelist, is the creator of it and they're the nucleus and all the crazy weird ideas spring from them! We have a 10-episode season so it is shorter. 

I can't believe some of our networks create 22 or 24 episodes per season. That's nuts. I think that model is starting to shift. You see it a lot with Netflix and with different networks shortening seasons. This will be a show that will be streamed for years to come and I feel like it will live on in that way. 

It's very well produced, it's got a lot of bells and whistles, a lot of killing, blood, violence and craziness - it's wild. Check it out!

What advice do you have for those trying to get into the West End or Broadway, or trying to move into TV?
Don't give up! Just put one foot in front of the other, be in the moment, as present as you can but, really, have a relationship with the word "no" because you're going to hear it a lot! Figure out how you can love the word no. I mean love it, embrace it, don't let it diminish you. I try to remember that. 

That is, being rejected is just a part of what we do, so you have to have a relationship with that and figure out how your emotional make-up can not let that diminish you and let yourself move forward. That's my advice and I still struggle with that! It's something I return to in my head when the chips are down 'cos they go down and they go up, for sure!

Find this interview useful? Check out our interview with British Broadway actor Liam Lane.