When the house lights go down at the St. James Theatre, André Ward is the first person to appear on stage. With a lute in his hand, he invites the audience to go back in time to the Renaissance and witness the plight of Nick and Nigel Bottom in Something Rotten!. Although the show celebrated its one-year anniversary on March 23, Ward has only been a member of the brilliant cast since February 2.
Stage Door Dish spoke with Ward about the warm welcome he received from his new cast, why nerves aren’t always detrimental, and the ingenious wit in Something Rotten!
You joined the cast of Something Rotten! just a little over a month ago. How are you settling in?
When I first joined, I sort of felt like, ‘Oh, okay, I’m away on vacation. Like I’m somewhere really cool on vacation.’ And now that I’ve been there for a little over a month, now I’m starting to feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, this actually is my new home. I just moved in.’ And it’s so nice. Everybody is so welcoming. It’s such a great seasoned group of people, and a lot of people there I’ve worked with before years ago, and there’s a lot of new people, but everyone’s so welcoming and so supportive. It’s been a really great group to work with and get comfortable with. I’m starting to feel more in my body. It’s nice.
It was a little daunting. I had seen the show in the studio and then I had also seen their opening night. So I was already in awe of the show and I have been in awe of the group of people in the show for a long time. I’ve been such a fan of Brian d’Arcy James. I’d never met him before but he is so wonderfully welcoming. He carries the show so beautifully and he’s just as nice offstage as on. And he does it with such an ease and such a grace. That’s really beautiful. And I was so nervous, but immediately I was put at ease. He just said, ‘Hey André, how are you today? Are you breathing well?’ And that made all the difference.
Heidi and I have known each other for a lot of years. We did one of our first professional jobs together years and years ago so it felt like a return to home to see her again every day. She is such a magnificent person. It’s a pleasure to hear her sing every day.
And Christian, just to be onstage with him and see him feel an audience, is like a master class in comedy for me. He’s such a beautiful vocalist and a wonderful actor. It’s beautiful for me to look and learn.
You kick off the show alone on stage. Can you describe what’s running through your mind at that moment?
After seeing Michael James Scott, who was so masterful at doing it, it was such a treat to get a chance to do it myself. All I do before I go on is say a little prayer to myself and I pray to be present, to just be in the moment, and be present and know that we’re all there to have a good time. It’s such a treat, and what a joy. The first time before I ever went on, my lute was shaking in my hand because I was so nervous. But it’s so fun. I still get nervous but now it’s so, so joyful. If you don’t get a little nervous, it’s time to look for something else, because I feel like the nerves really help. They let you know you have something at stake.
What is your personal favorite moment of the show?
There are so many. Actually, one of my favorite things is in Omelette. It’s when the show’s beginning and all the musical theatre references are happening, and I come in with Tom Snout’s character. He’s saying lines, but my character is coming in right behind him and I’m looking very concerned, but under my breath I’m sort of mouthing the lines with him. But I don’t realize I’m mouthing the lines with him, and it’s so great. It’s such a little thing but it’s one of those internal things that’s so fun to do every night. But you’d never think you’d get a chance to do something like that onstage in a Broadway show, and the show is so masterful and clever. It’s so, so fun.
It’s the little details like that that make it so clever.
That’s what’s so great about this show, because it’s so broad and big, but it’s the little moments, and everyone has it. Everyone has such specificity in the show, and that’s what makes the show so great, I think.
This show has become known for often receiving mid-show standing ovations after ‘A Musical.’ What’s it like to perform for audiences who give you that kind of energy?
It’s like being at a rock concert. Years and years and years ago I was a backup dancer for the opening act of the NSYNC concert. You go into an arena and there are 10,000 people, and I had never felt that kind of energy before. It just fuels you. Even if you have no energy, that gives you energy. And in ‘A Musical’, when the audience gives you that kind of energy, it sends you into another dimension. It’s so amazing and thrilling. I can’t say enough wonderful things about Brad Oscar. I worked with him years ago; we did the tour of The Producers together. He couldn’t be sweeter, kinder, nicer, and he’s a master of comedy. I am so fortunate and grateful.
You were also in The Producers on Broadway, which also played at the St. James Theatre. What’s it like to perform a different musical on the same stage, and do you have the same dressing room?
I do have the same dressing room, I believe. It’s on the sixth floor. And it’s really cool to perform on the same stage again. There are a lot of the same people on the crew and in the house that were there when I performed here, and the first thing they said when I walked into the theatre was, ‘Welcome home.’
It’s like a breath of fresh air, and you immediately feel comfortable. I have been very, very lucky. I’ve worked a lot on 44th Street. I did two shows at the Helen Hayes, so that theatre feels like a family as well for me. So to perform at the Helen Hayes and then go right next door to be at the St. James again – it’s really, really glorious.
Something Rotten! is directed by Tony Award-winning director Casey Nicholaw, with whom you also starred with in Saturday Night Fever. Could you describe what it’s like to have him as a director now after acting alongside him?
It’s really, really cool. Saturday Night Fever was my Broadway debut and Casey already had an extensive Broadway career so he was the person to look up to. And then I worked with him right before he did Spamalot; I did a show where he was the choreographer. He’s so smart and so brilliant about how he approaches the piece, and you feel so comfortable and cared for when you work with him. It was really great to go into the audition for this show and see him because I wasn’t nervous. I was like, ‘Casey only wants the best for me and the best for the piece. I feel like I can just go in and do my best, and if the job is for me, it’ll be for me. And if it’s not, that’s okay too, because I know it’s nothing personal.’ He’s a great man, a great director, a great choreographer, and a really, really caring, creative person.
He’s so adept at comedy as well.
It’s really remarkable. I try to learn something wherever I go, and this is the first time I had ever just rehearsed with a dance captain and then gone into the show, so this was a very unique process for me. Everybody else has been there for a year and you go in and you’re trying to find your way. You can’t be comfortable before you’re comfortable. You have to let yourself be where you are, and then you find your way. And that’s what’s been so great with this company. I was so cared for that the being comfortable came really quickly, which is nice. It’s such a great show, and it’s such a great part. Singing ‘Welcome to the Renaissance’ every night is an absolute thrill.
You also played the Leading Player in the national tour of Pippin. What is it that attracts you to the role of the storyteller?
I have been a storyteller my whole life. Even in Saturday Night Fever, there was a time in the show when I had about 40 minutes between the end of act one and the time I went on in act two. If you ask most people who were in that show, ‘What was André doing during that 40 minutes?’ I was in the green room telling stories. I like telling stories. I like creating images for people. It’s really fun for me. So it’s been a really great way in which to integrate the way I tell stories in my regular everyday life offstage with people and in a green room or around the water cooler. I’m able to translate that into using other people’s words to create and craft as the minstrel in Something Rotten! and also the Leading Player; creating a theme, setting the stage.
This score was nominated for both a Tony and a Grammy Award. What’s your favorite song from the show?
Well, I love ‘A Musical’. But because I love Heidi’s voice so much, ‘Right Hand Man’ is also great. Christian’s so funny; I love ‘Will Power’. That’s such a great number for him. It’s fun to do with him every night. At the end Brian sings ‘To Thine Own Self’ again, and I’m in the courtroom scene, so I get to watch him do it every night. It’s not hard to feel weepy. That’s the thing about really good comedy. It’s not just about the laughs, because I think really good comedy has to have a heart and Nick is the heart of the show. Brian has so much heart and he brings so much of it to the role. Everybody in the show is so remarkably present. To have seen the show opening night the way I did and then to come in to the show and find everyone still as present a year later is pretty spectacular.
I could not agree more that good comedy always needs to have an emotional center and without that, it kind of falls flat. But this musical is so hilarious and incredibly original and fresh; is there one scene or line in particular that never fails to make you laugh?
Christian does it at the very end in the courtroom scene. It’s in the iambic pentameter that he does at the end when we have to look serious in the courtroom, and I always sort of have to bite my lip. And then when David Beach [who plays Brother Jeremiah] says, ‘I will have you tied to a post,’ and he’s saying all these sexual innuendos, and we have to look straight-faced while he does that.
There are so many great moments in this show, and so many of them involve Christian. He is so effortlessly funny.
Effortlessly – that’s the perfect way to say it. Effortlessly funny.
Costume designer Gregg Barnes has made some really beautiful clothing for this show. What’s the best part of stepping into those blue puffy pants every night?
First of all, they hold me in all the right places, and it’s really fun. Sometimes if you’re having trouble finding your character, you put the costume on and it just gives you that extra something that makes you say, ‘Ah! I have it. I feel it now.’ Gregg Barnes’s costumes really, really did that for me. It gives me just the effervescence that I need. It’s just the right riff on the Renaissance. It’s so great. I worked with him years ago too when he designed a show that I did out of town. I feel so fortunate and blessed.
If you were in Nick’s place and trying to write a show that would top all of Shakespeare’s work, what would you write about? Probably not breakfast food, I’m guessing.
Probably not. Oh goodness. That’s a great question. They always say to write what you know, so probably The Many Lives of André, I suppose. I’m like a cat; I keep coming back. I’ve got a lot of lives.
If you could trade places with anyone else who’s currently on Broadway, who would that be?
Shuffle Along just started previews, so I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to be in that if I could. It just seems like a cool piece, a fun piece, and a new piece as well. But I really love what I’m doing, and I’m so new in this role. I think I’ve got the best gig. This is such a good place to be and I love to laugh. There’s nothing like hearing 1,600 people laugh. It’s like food to your soul.
Who do you agree more with in regards to Shakespeare, Nick or Nigel?
Nigel, I think. I was a musical theatre major, but they offered a Shakespeare program and I studied a bit of Shakespeare. It’s just so beautiful. The language is very musical in a way.
What’s your favorite play by Shakespeare?
Hamlet is just remarkable. I did Measure for Measure in college, and it was one of those things that lives on in my brain. I did Much Ado and I did Measure for Measure, and Measure for Measure was so challenging. Dissecting it all was really a feat, and we all had such a great time doing it, so I have remarkable memories of doing that. I haven’t seen Hamlet on stage in a long time but that’s one of the greatest.
Which Shakespearean character would you most like to portray?
I remember being in class and at the time it was like, ‘André, you’re going to read the Othello scene’, but I would love to be Iago.
The Renaissance introduced us to so many people who have had such an influence on our culture: artists, playwrights, and scientists. Who’s your favorite Renaissance ‘celebrity’?
Da Vinci, probably.
In the spirit of the ending of the show, if you had to be exiled to any place of your choosing, where would you choose?
If I had to live in one place for the rest of my life and I didn’t have to worry about working, probably somewhere in the south of France where I could be near the sun and the sand. I’ve only ever visited through there, but it’s such a beautiful, exotic place. But I can’t really imagine living anywhere but New York. I was the only kid on my block that played ‘high-rise apartment’; I didn’t play ‘house’ growing up.
What’s one thing you would like people to know about you?
I love television and I love old TV show theme songs. People would play a game backstage with me where they would quiz me on old 80’s TV show theme songs. I was so sad when TV show theme songs kind of went out of fashion. And also, you could just start a line from The Golden Girls with me and I could probably tell you what episode it is and I could probably do the whole thing for you.
Why should people go see Something Rotten! if they haven’t already?
If you haven’t seen Something Rotten!, give yourself a gift of heartwarming laughter, because you won’t get a bigger laugh in the theatre. It’s such a great show. It is as fun to do as it was for me to see and it’s not often you can say that. It’s one of the best times you’re ever going to have in the theatre.