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by Michael Portantiere

Andrew Samonsky, From Show to Show

  • Andrew-Samonsky.jpgIf an actor works almost constantly, it's a given that that he's held in high esteem by directors and other colleagues. Case in point: Andrew Samonsky, who has made his mark in several productions of new and classic musicals over the space of just a few years.

    I first became aware of Andrew when he replaced Matthew Morrison as Lt. Cable for the latter part of the run of Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific and got to play the role in the live TV broadcast of that beautiful production. Since then, he has impressed in two shows that respectively represent the pinnacle and the nadir of musical theater achievement: the Off-Broadway gem Queen of the Mist, and the huge Broadway flop Scandalous. His major credits outside of NYC include tick, tick...boom! for the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA (his hometown) and the world premiere production of the musical Little Miss Sunshine at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Our interview was planned in conjunction with Andrew's forthcoming appearance as law clerk Neil in the City Center Encores! presentation of Fiorello! A few days after we chatted, it was announced that as of Feb. 12 he'll be replacing Andy Karl as Neville Landless/Mr. Victor Grinstead in the wonderful Roundabout production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (Karl is decamping to rejoin the cast of Jersey Boys.) Here are some highlights of our chat in a rehearsal room at City Center.


    BROADWAYSTARS: This is your second Encores! experience, correct?

    ANDREW SAMONSKY: Yes, I did Merrily We Roll Along last year at the same time. It's amazing what you can get done in 10 days. The experience pulls everyone together so quickly; I think it frees you up, in a way, because there's no time to be stressed.

    STARS: The first Encores! production of Fiorello! -- the series debut -- was 20 years ago, so I don't suppose you saw it.

    ANDREW: No, I was living at home in Ventura. I had never seen the show, and I didn't know it at all until we started rehearsing. But I just recently watched the 20-hour Ric Burns documentary on New York City, and that has a lot of really interesting information on LaGuardia.

    STARS: It seems he was quite a personality.

    ANDREW: Oh, my gosh.

    STARS: And we wouldn't be sitting here in this room if it weren't for him, because he almost single-handedly saved this building from the wrecking ball and turned it into City Center.

    ANDREW: I know, right? I didn't know that either. Fiorello! is a fascinating story about a politician fighting corruption. I think that speaks to the current climate. I play LaGuardia's law clerk when he begins his career as a young attorney. We start the show with "On the Side of the Angels."

    STARS: Gregg Edelman played your role in the first Encores! production.

    ANDREW: It's funny, I've had so many intersections with him lately -- people telling me I sing like him, and other things. I'll take that compliment. He's always been one of my favorite performers, and he's fantastic in Drood.

    STARS: I'd love it if you could talk about Queen of the Mist for a bit, because it was the best new musical I've seen in a long time.

    ANDREW: It was very special. Here you had this show about a 65-year-old woman who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive, but Michael John [LaChiusa] turned it into this almost spiritual journey for the character. To play opposite Mary Testa was incredible -- to play her alcoholic, exploiting agent, who forms a bond with her over this life-or-death situation, even though they're kind of using each other. It was a unique relationship that we got to explore. Michael John wrote one hell of a show. They don't come along like that very often. It's about a woman who was so flawed but who tried to do something really great with her life. I think we can all relate to that, to some degree. I just wish more people had gotten to see the show, but the recording came out beautifully.

    STARS: I was truly moved at the end of the show, and it seemed most of the audience had the same reaction. There was a lot sniffling and dabbing of eyes.

    ANDREW: The cast was crying, too -- every night, in the final number, when Mary's character relives going over the falls. It's one of the greatest pieces of musical theater ever written.

    STARS: I agree. Now, at the other end of the scale...

    ANDREW: I know what you're going to bring up.

    STARS: Scandalous was quite the disaster in many respects, but I thought your performance was excellent. You played two of the men in Aimee Semple McPherson's life, and your role of Kenneth Ormiston in particular seemed better written than the rest of the show.

    ANDREW: Yes, he was another interesting chap. Carolee Carmello was so great as Aimee, and I think her relationship with [Ormiston] was the only reality she had after she became famous, her chance to get away from all the hoopla. Here was someone who was her equal, and for that reason, I think our scenes were on a different plane.

    STARS: Is it very difficult to be in a show that's perceived as terribly troubled, to go on and do it night after night for as long as the run lasts?

    ANDREW: People can react to those situations differently. Our cast just decided to make the best of it. We knew the show needed work, and there were some incredible improvements made in rehearsal and during previews. We had a great group of people; it was such a happy family. Of course, when everyone in the company gets along, that's when the show doesn't run...

    STARS: And sometimes, when people don't get along, that's when you have a long run?

    ANDREW: Right!

    STARS: You got to appear as Lt. Cable in the live telecast of South Pacific because Matthew Morrison had long since left the show to do Glee, but I recall there was some attempt to get him back for the broadcast. Were you on tenterhooks about that?

    ANDREW: Well, I think it was clear that they wanted to have the entire original cast do it for TV, and that's understandable. Fortunately for me, Matt became a big TV star, and they just couldn't make the scheduling work.

    STARS: When you were in Little Miss Sunshine in La Jolla, you blogged about your experience in the show for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    ANDREW: That was fun. I guess it's something they do at La Jolla, have someone involved in the show blog about the process. I just took it as a creative writing opportunity.

    STARS: Do you think that show will have a further life?

    ANDREW: I've heard that James [Lapine] and Bill [Finn] are still working on it. It's a gorgeous show, really. It has a great script, and the music that Bill wrote is lovely. I had a small part as the ex-boyfriend that Olive's uncle Frank runs into in a gas station. It was a whole scene with a duet, and I also played some other ensemble roles.

    STARS: In one of your blog entries, you told a wonderful story about how great it was to get to work with Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson.

    ANDREW: It's true. When I was in grad school at U.C. Irvine, I came to New York and saw Urinetown a couple of times. It was my favorite show of the season, and I played out the CD with Hunter and Jennifer singing. And then, about 10 years later, there I was performing with both of them in Little Miss Sunshine. For those of us who are lucky enough to do this for a living, those moments are really cool.

    Published on Saturday, January 26, 2013

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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