Theatre Kibbitz: An Interview with Jeff McCarthy About ‘You Nero,’ ‘A Fox on the Fairway,’ ‘Side Show’, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and ‘Southern Comfort’

I have been a fan of Jeff McCarthy’s since I saw him in Side Show in 1997, and I was thrilled when I heard he was coming into the cast of You, Nero at Arena Stage. But as you will see below, it wasn’t an easy task to come in and re-learn the role and the new Fischandler staging in such a short time. But on Press Night when I saw You, Nero, Jeff gave a wonderful performance. So let’s hear from Jeff about what he went through to prepare to step into the role of Scribonius.

Joel: You replaced Mark Vietor in the Arena Stage production of You, Nero. When did you get the call that you were needed? Take us through the journey of getting the call, coming to D.C. and rehearsing, and your first performance.

Jeff: I was coming home from a film job when my phone rang at 7:30 p.m. I was here in D.C. sitting with the cast at 3 p.m. the next day. Two days later, I was in front of an audience with script in hand. Truly, the actor’s nightmare. With the kind help of dramaturg fellow Aaron Malkin, I was learning words every waking minute that we weren’t rehearsing or performing. By the afternoon performance the day before opening, after three previews of carrying the script – I set it aside and went for it! A few little glitches but within a few days I had fairly found my way. A healthy experience, all in all, when the rubber hits the road at that speed!

How would you describe this play?

A cautionary tale. Mankind’s ravenous appetite for the exploitation and humiliation of others just never goes out of style.

Tell us about Scribonis, who you play.

A playwright and idealist with blinders for love and glory.

You played the role in the 2009 Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of You, Nero. How is this production different from the Berkeley one?

Well, in both cases I learned the role in a somewhat strained situation. Learning it quickly. Prior to Berkeley, there had been a previous production at South Coast Rep and most of the cast had been part of that. Our production here differs from the Berkeley version mostly in that it is in the round. But I think the coliseum-type setting is appropriate and exciting for this play. Nero loves being surrounded by his adoring fans, and poor Scribonius has nowhere to hide.

What are the challenges for you in playing in The Fichandler [in the round]?

Well, the obvious is landing jokes to maximum effect. A lot of Amy’s stuff is probably best suited to proscenium delivery. But, in Scribonius’ case, a fair amount of the humor is based in his terror, so I have enjoyed exploring the expression of that in 3D.

How has your performance changed here at Arena?

I think everyone’s work in the Arena production is more grounded. I’ve found it often to be a positive thing to do a production – then have the opportunity to put it away for awhile and come back to it later. The second time around often allows a more intuitive experience.

What do you do to keep your energy up in this fast-moving play?  

Sleep, stretching, eat well, hot baths, and take long walks in the sunshine.

Your characters interact a lot during the play. How would you describe the relationship between Nero and Scribonius? Does the relationship change during the course of the play?  

Oh yes. When Scribonius is summoned, he sees an opportunity to kick-start a career that has been floundering for some time. But his ambition is, sadly, his undoing as it becomes clear that Nero is, well, one mean little son of a b***h. I suspect that phrase may have been coined with Nero in mind.

Andrew Long, Holly Twyford, and Jeff McCarthy on ‘Fox on the Fairway’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You appeared in Ken Ludwig’s golf play A Fox on the Fairway at Signature Theatre. You had to run around that stage too. What that experience was like for you?

We all had a great time working with Ken and my old friend, the director, John Rando. Competition was the undoing of that eccentric group of characters. It is kind of amazing that the world of golf is one of the rarely, if ever, touched upon settings for the stage. A very silly play with a really fun group of people.

I saw Side Show 8 times and like you and the talented cast – I was saddened when it closed so quickly. Now the show is ‘hot’ and hundreds of productions are popping up around the country and especially in schools. Why do you think it closed so quickly? 

Jeff   McCarthy, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, and Hugh Panaro in ‘Side Show.’ Photo by Joan Marcus. 

Side Show got great reviews way back for the original Broadway production in 1997.  What wasn’t anticipated were two productions with very, very deep pockets that opened that same season: Ragtime and The Lion King. We were just basically blown out of the water when it came time to market our show. But I saw a college production of Side Show a couple years back and it really is a beautiful piece. There was talk of a Roundabout revival. I don’t know what happened to that but I’m sure Side Show will once again have its time in the sun. Until then, yes, productions abound all over the country.

You played Sweeney Todd with two amazing Mrs. Lovetts – Harriet Harris and Emily Skinner. Which Mrs. Lovett was your favorite?

I loved doing that show with them both – thoroughly. Brilliant artists. Both productions happened within the course of a great, if somewhat tiring, year. Revenge can be exhausting.

Jeff McCarthy as Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

And how would you describe how you played Sweeney in these productions? 

I found it interesting to think of him as a very unfortunate man living in oppressive times.  We didn’t go in so much, in either production, for the Grand Guignol – but found it more interesting to keep it grounded in real people. The productions were a little less high theatrics for a more psychological take on the story.

I saw you play Javert, ‘The Beast,’ and Officer Lockstock in Urinetown: The Musical several times. You have this incredibly gorgeous voice, and I wish you would do more musicals. How would you describe your voice and where did you get your vocal and theatre training?

Jeff McCarthy as Officer Lockstock in ‘Unrinetown: The Musical.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

My formal training was with ACT out in San Francisco back in the 70s. This was back in the years when I wasn’t known as a singer. I have had the great fortune to play a lot of the great musical theater roles, and in NYC that is one way to actually make a somewhat grown-up living. I’m basically what they call a lyric baritone (DO they call it that??) with a fairly wide range. The big noisy singing voice has truly been a gift. I suppose I could have even gone the classical route – opera and such – but, I’ll be honest and say a lot of that stuff pretty much bores me. Musicals very often do too, to be honest. I feel there are really only eight or 10 of them that are truly great musical theater creations. But since I moved to NYC in 1980 they have, for a large part, paid the bills and for that I am very grateful.

L to R: Jeff McCarthy and Annette O’Toole in ‘Southern Comfort.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What’s next for you after You, Nero?

Annette O’Toole and I, and a fantastic group of dear new friends, put up a new show this fall in NYC called Southern Comfort by Julianee Wick Davis and Dan Collins. A musical based on a documentary of the same name about three transgender couples living down in rural Georgia. The limited run was a big success and there is talk of it moving to The Public next fall. We are all very proud of this beautiful and very original new musical.

What advice would you give a young singer or actor who is considering singing and/or theatre as a career?

Go to a good school and get a well-rounded education. The odds in this business are insane. Generally speaking – if you aren’t getting a lot of positive feedback in the early years – take a hint and find something else. The world is enormous.

What do you want audiences to take home with them after seeing You, Nero?

Hopefully, a few laughs.

Afterwards, go home and turn off reality TV. Just kidding. NOT.

You, Nero plays through January 1, 2012, in Arena Stage’s Fichlander Theatre at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington DC. For tickets call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.