As fan favorite Tom Levitt on NBC’s musical dramedy Smash, Christian Borle is one of a handful of Broadway veterans lending real theatre experience to the much-buzzed about freshman show. Borle’s a true Broadway native with an impressive history of originating roles, including memorable turns in Monty Python’s Spamalot and Legally Blonde (which earned him a Tony Award nomination in 2007).
Presently, he’s Broadway’s golden boy, balancing an exciting gig on Smash with his leading role as Peter Pan’s scenery-chewing adversary Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, which opened on April 15 to positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly caught up with Borle to talk his raucous, scene-stealing interpretation of Captain Hook, his relationship with Smash costar Debra Messing and his thoughts on the show’s most polarizing character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve come a long way since being the eBay guy!
CHRISTIAN BORLE: [laughs] It literally has been a decade! That is a long way.
Tell me about Peter and the Starcatcher. Was this a passion project for you?
It became a passion project very, very quickly. It was this random thing that happened several years ago. They were going out to La Jolla to do it for their Page To Stage program, and the actor that they had playing Black Stache got a Broadway show, and so they were scrambling to find somebody. Rick Elice, the author, had seen me do a reading of some random thing—these readings that you do, on the ground floor of shows—and they brought me in and I met him and [co-director] Roger Rees and I quickly realized that these were going to be amazing people in my life. And lo and behold, here we are! It seems surreal, almost, that we’re on Broadway now. It’s very exciting.
And this is your first technically non-musical on Broadway. Do you count it as a straight play, or do you give it a half-point for having some music?
It definitely feels like a play. The songs are kind of organically woven in a British musical kind of way. I think of the end of the first act, and it feels different from a traditional musical. It’s not about people singing their feelings, you know? So it feels like a full-on play to me. It’s so technical with all of the elements, and the sound department is so… I actually have to say, I’ve never experienced a better technically-proficient sound [crew]. So good are they [that] we’re all miked, and I don’t think people realize that we’re miked. But it’s a thriller.
What elements go into the character of Black Stache? I can see a little Dustin Hoffman from Hook, and there’s definitely some Cyril Ritchard in there, right?
Oh yes! Well, Black Stache is the ultimate amalgam, I think. He is a man who is so lost that he basically takes bits and pieces from everybody else, and I as the actor have done that as well. I think a lot of it is just subconsciously channeling all the different people who have played Hook, and the idea that we have of Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon. Now it’s kind of this unbridled id.
And every night, you get to have a showstopping breakdown in the middle of act two.
The best word I can think of, just in terms of how it’s paced and the musicality of it, is that it’s an aria. And I look forward to it every day. It’s so beautifully constructed, over the years. The directors and Rick and I have tried to kind of distill it into only the A moments. It’s ebbed and flowed over the years a lot. It has been thematically different, and within the last incarnation, Rick latched onto the idea that this is truly about Black Stache finding his hero to make him feel whole. So it’s that joyous revelation, as opposed to the defeat, and that’s really fun to play. I just get to torture Adam Chanler-Berat every single night.
Half the fun is watching your facial expressions when you mug to Adam!
Yes, the word is mugging! I try to sleep well at night thinking that it’s character-based, but I think at the end of the day it really is total mugging.
Everything is so well-choreographed in the show – the lights, the sound, the movement. Has anything ever gone wrong?
Little things do, but there’s some strange alchemy built into the show where I think we all kind of feel that nothing can really go wrong, because at the end of the day, we could just turn to the audience as a narrator and say, “Something has just gone horribly wrong,” and they would probably just roll with it.
NEXT: Christian on Peter Pan, Smash and Tyrannosaurus Rex
How does the ensemble function together in this show?
It is the most ensemble-y of ensemble pieces I’ve ever done. The trust that is required onstage, we have to be absolutely in sync and focused because it’s actually somewhat dangerous as we kind of throw each other about. It’s a very unique and exciting thing to be able to step forward and stand in the spotlight and chew the scenery as this crazy character, and then immediately turn around and focus on somebody else’s shining moment. It’s incredibly humbling and gratifying and wonderful. It’s certainly dude-heavy, but I will say that it’s the opposite of a cast full of bullies. It is a very sweet, sensitive, hilarious troupe of guys. It’s the most non-dramatic work environment I’ve ever been in, and we spend a lot of time laughing at each other and supporting each other, just like we do on stage. It really is just a laugh riot. One of the reasons that I can’t believe we’re doing it again is that they’re basically paying us a very healthy Broadway wage to just laugh our asses off onstage.
Were you ever in Peter Pan as a kid?
I never was! And Peter Pan was never huge in my household. But inasmuch as we are all kind of enamored with Peter Pan as a society, I was on that level.
The props, costumes and sets in Starcatcher are all so intricate and creative. What’s your favorite detail that the audience doesn’t necessarily get to notice?
Randomly—and there are so many details, we could go on and on and talk all afternoon about it—one of the beer cans on my mermaid tail is an old pull-tab Stella Artois, without the pull tab pulled. So they punched a hole out of the bottom to empty it and crinkle it up. But the idea that they could even find a vintage beer can, it boggles the mind, the work that went into it. I also like the little toy Tyrannosaurus Rex on the proscenium. You really could just spend an hour looking at that and see something new every time.
Have any of your Smash co-stars come to see the show?
Will Chase and Debra Messing came on opening night, which was lovely. Some of my compatriots came last year to the New York Theatre Workshop and hopefully they’ll be back again this time.
Let me officially kick it over to Smash. Who do you model Tom after? Are there any Broadway personalities that you’ve infused into the character?
It’s a lot of me, because that’s the easiest thing to draw from, but I’ve known many, many composers over the years, and I’ve gotten to know them working intimately. I think of Larry O’Keefe from Legally Blonde, I think of my friend Matt Sklar, I think of Lynn Flaherty and Stephen Ahrens, whom I know very well and who are sweet, lovely, open-hearted, passionate artists with opinions, and I think the common thread amongst all the composers that I’ve met and gotten to know is their intelligence. There’s something about the musician’s brain, particularly a musician that composes and creates music. Their mind works in a very specific and very smart way, usually with a very, very sharp sense of humor, and a lot of it is in the writing as well. Tom is a very smart, sensitive guy.
Are there ever any moments that you’ll say to the producers or the director, “Hey, this isn’t how this would happen?” What kind of responsibility do you feel to make sure Broadway is represented well on the show?
I think it must be noted that across the board, the people who are creating the show and whose responsibility it is to make it seem true, love, love this world and want to show it to the broader world as accurately as possible, so there’s a huge focus on that. I think moving forward, we’re going to try to, again, just get everything as right as we possibly can. The economy of television and the time that you have to tell a story is a challenge, so it’s one that we try to navigate.
NEXT: On working with Debra Messing and the ‘conniving, lurking’ Ellis
Tell me about your relationship working with Debra. One of the best parts of the show is watching you two interact.
Well, it’s really not acting, in terms of our dynamic! I genuinely adore her and respect her and learn from her. She was the person I was working with closest when we started, of course, and I had very little experience in this medium, and I was just watching her like a hawk. And she has an incredible work ethic–she cares so much about her own work and the show. We get together, and she thinks I’m funny, I think she’s funny, and she is boundlessly creative and we have a good time getting ourselves into trouble until they tell us to calm down for a second.
Were you starstruck during your screen test with her? Were you a big Will & Grace fan?
I was, of course! One of her great qualities is how humble and down to Earth she is, and so there was a split second when I walked into the room to test with her where I thought, oh my God, there she is. And she was immediately warm and engaged and present and all of that kind of went away and then I found myself looking at my new collaborator.
It’s also a blast to watch you when you get a chance to sing. How about that Zanuck number?
The Zanuck number went very, very fast. They rehearsed with the guys a lot more, and then I came in and we had two rehearsals and then we just shot it, over and over again. The thing that must be said is Josh Bergasse, who is the choreographer… I don’t know, he literally must have some kind of a time machine or a cloning machine, because on any given day he is creating a number, rehearsing a number or shooting a number. Three different numbers in one day, he’s doing three different things. It’s unbelievable. And those girls, Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, who have a number in almost every episode—not only do they have a regular filming workload, but they are also rehearsing and singing and laying down recordings and demos. It’s so grueling, I don’t know how they do it and come out smiling, but they do.
Will we get to see more of Tom singing before the season ends?
Yeah! I have another little in-context ditty in two weeks, episode 13.
So what can we expect of Tom before the season is up, in terms of both his relationship with Sam as well as with Bombshell?
I think what we saw [in the last episode, “The Movie Star”] is Sam calling Tom out on his quirks, shall we say, when it comes to looking for love. I think Tom’s going to be a little bit more introspective and take a good, strong look at himself. And because it’s a drama, Tom’s relationship with Julia is going to be tested a little bit, as it gets down to the wire with Marilyn and tensions flare up; their friendship is not immune. But it must also be said, we have a really, really strong, decades-long friendship. In real life I like to be able to say blunt and honest things to my true friends.
That’s scary news for fans of Tom and Julia!
Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.
And where’s Tom headed in season two?
No idea! I’m so excited to find out.
What sort of new dynamic might the new showrunner bring?
I’m very curious to see what’s in store. As a kind of newbie to the form [of television], my role is to kind of sit back and watch this all swirl around me. But I’m just thrilled to see what direction this is going to head in.
Give me some thoughts on Ellis. The most diplomatic thing to say is that he definitely gets a lot of people talking.
He does! He really is, in many ways, a very, very useful dramatic engine. He kickstarts a lot of things on the show by being his conniving, lurking self, and I really think it’s a testament to somebody as sweet and lovely as Jaime Cepero that he can create a character that people love to hate in the way that they do. I think Ellis’s function is to stir things up.
What would happen if Black Stache and Tom were to meet?
I think the universe would implode, wouldn’t it?
Peter and the Starcatcher is currently running at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre; Smash airs on Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.