(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: West Side Stephen

“You are speaking indeed to the legend himself!”

With an introduction like that, you know that you are in for a great interview. Stephen DeRosa, a talented Broadway veteran and television actor, did not disappoint. The New York City native will be coming to a town near you in the West Side Story tour in the role of Gladhand, the male authority figure who tries to pacify the warring student gangs at the high school dance. “If you blink, you’ll miss me,” DeRosa joked. “I’m on for three minutes but I try to chew as much scenery as I possibly can.”

DeRosa, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, was born and raised in Queens. “Don’t say it,” he exclaimed. “The joke’s already built in!” He went to school at Georgetown for politics, “but it involved too much acting.” Recently, DeRosa became an indelible part of the hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire, playing the role of comedian Eddie Cantor for director Martin Scorcese and Sopranos writer Terry Winter. He feels very fortunate to have parlayed a one-time role into three appearances, since the real Eddie Cantor was a friend of lead character Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi.

West Side Story is celebrating more than fifty years of exciting audiences with the battle between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in New York’s Upper East Side. Most of the songs have become standards that everyone knows, such as “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty” and the satirical immigrant anthem “America”. This latest revival directed by David Saint, based on Tony Winner Arthur Laurents’ original work, is innovative in that the Spanish-speaking characters do speak in Spanish much of the time. DeRosa loves the production, and says that you will not have any trouble understanding the scenes where this happens. “That’s part of the fun of my character, he tries to speak Spanish.”

(Stephen) Sondheim and Laurents always hoped that the show could be a little more authentic. You need to read the book Original Story by Arthur Laurents, because it’s delicious. It’s his autobiography. It is such a good read for anyone who’s gay and anyone who loves the theater. You will devour it. It’s about being gay in the 40s and 50s, it’s about the creative process, it’s about trying to have integrity in Hollywood and all of the crazy backstage drama that happened on Broadway.” DeRosa explained that Laurents and Sondheim got the chance to tinker with the show’s book and lyrics, and that audiences will enjoy it. “It’s a very timely piece, and Arthur wanted it to be even more timeless. He wanted it to be about “Us vs. Them”. There’s always an “Us vs. Them” mentality and usually one of the main things that gets in the way is language, communication. “

“David (Saint) has given the show a real pace, he’s really infused the show with younger actors who have more passion and more energy. And there’s a playfulness, too. The “Officer Krupke” number’s just going to blow your mind, it’s so much fun. And it’s surprisingly homoerotic, which came from the text and from giving the actors the freedom to be as stupid as they wanted to be. It’s amazing how when you get a bunch of (mostly straight) boys together to fool around, inevitably, weird gayish, fratty kind of shit comes up. It’s very interesting.”

Based on the immortal story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents moved the action to the disaffected youth in the Big Apple, where rival gangs of immigrants and those who used to be immigrants battle each other for turf, and a boy and a girl from opposite sides have little chance of finding love. Tony and Maria give it their best shot, even as all of their friends and relatives try to tear them apart.

DeRosa made his first big Off-Broadway splash in a historic revival of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, playing opposite Everett Quinton (Devil Boys from Beyond) in the multiple roles that Quinton had originated. DeRosa also played opposite Vanessa Williams as the Baker in the revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

“It’s a great job, this job,” DeRosa exclaimed. “I got to work with the late, great Arthur Laurents who was so loving and generous and who rewrote some of my role, to try and bring a little more humor. It’s a great show and audiences love it. Plus, you get to go to work and be surrounded by gorgeous men in various states of undress. It’s a good job, I’m lucky. I’ll take it,” he said laughing.

“The bottom line is, it’s West Side Story. The score just blows your mind how beautiful it is, and the dancing... these kids are doing the original choreography and they’re all in their early twenties and strong enough and agile enough to (do it). It’s really exciting.”

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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