John Bolton discusses physical comedy and honoring history, film and theatre in Anastasia

Caroline O'Connor and John Bolton in Anastasia.

Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton in Anastasia.

When John Bolton steps onstage, it can be assured that it won’t be long before the audience is in peals of laughter.

In Hartford Stage’s Broadway-bound production of Anastasia, Bolton portrays Vlad, the role originally played by Kelsey Grammer in the 1997 animated film. Vlad is the lovable con man who, along with his sidekick Dmitry [played by Derek Klena], seek to find a girl who can convincingly portray the Grand Duchess Anastasia for their own gain.

Bolton has plenty of experience in stage comedy to help him in this new role. From his Broadway debut in Damn Yankees to Spamalot to his latest tap-happy role in the short-lived revival of Dames at Sea, Bolton has developed the perfect comedic chops to bring this beloved animated character to the stage.

In several of his past roles, Bolton has seemed to become a kind of animated character himself, perhaps most notably as “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story. In another interview with Stage Door Dish, Bolton’s Anastasia co-star Klena said that seeing Bolton in this role “blew him away.”

Bolton took time out of preparing this new musical to talk with Stage Door Dish about his infusing comedy with humanity, his personal experience with the original Anastasia movie, and the advice he would give his younger self.

I want to talk about physical comedy because you are so good at it. What attracts you to that genre?

The joy of it. It’s something I saw my heroes do so well – people like Dick Van Dyke, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman – there’s such a freedom in it. It’s just a stupid human trick when all of the sudden you did this thing and people are laughing. And it takes the right role to be able to do it. Everybody has their bag of tricks and I try not to do the same schtick but Vlad has this physicality to him – he’s a little older and a little more out of shape so it’s been fun to explore what Vlad’s physical comedy is.

I was going to ask about this later but I want to talk about the ‘Countess and the Common Man.’ I was looking around the theatre during the song and people were just enamored with it. What’s it like to do this number that’s such a showstopper?

Caroline [O’Connor] and I speak the same language. We are from the same sort of old school musical theatre style and just being with someone who knows how to toss the ball like that to set ‘em up and knock ‘em down is such a great opportunity. To get to work with her on two shows, especially in this one, is a thrill and a true honor because she’s just the greatest. That number is new to the show and in rehearsal our wonderful choreographer Peggy Hickey was doing another production at the time so when it came to that number, Caroline and I would just stand at the music stands and do our parts back and forth. And people were laughing and, all of the sudden, other than the dance break in the middle, our number was staged. Peggy added the wonderful little tango we do but we haven’t touched it since.

Because the show hasn’t moved to Broadway and things about it are tight-lipped, what can you tell me about ‘Countess and the Common Man’ that I can write about?

The song comes when we’re about to have a lot of wonderful, soaring, beautiful ballads sung by the young couple and we need a comedy number in there to help set those up. We talk about Lily all through Act 1 and whether I love her or using her to get access to the Dowager Empress. They smartly put that number there to give each of us a payoff plot-wise – I need something from her but also romantically she’s my reward in the end. Lily, who is the Sophie character from the movie, had a relationship with my character long ago. And after all these years since they have seen each other, Vlad still carries a torch for her. He had been a scammer who tried to get into the court in Russia and Vlad and Lily had a torrid affair before he stole from her. I love that you’ve got this middle-aged couple full-on making out on stage, I talk about how my back hurts and she does as well, and the two of us just get together and go for it.

How much influence did you have on the development of Vlad?

Well he is already there since the animated film Anastasia exists and people have expectations. I can’t show up and play Vlad too differently from the film, but I’m me and the physical interpretation of the role is different. I didn’t know if they would put me in a fat suit but it seems to work without that. I try to hit the flavor of Vlad from the movie but this whole show is not a slavish adaptation of the 1997 movie that people love. We’re doing the animated film but we’re also doing the play that Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the movie adaptation and we’ve put more of the actual history of the [Romanov] family in it. I feel like people have expectations of Vlad so I try to bring the flavor of it but also make it my own.

I do want to talk about the movie Anastasia. Were you familiar with it?

At the time it came out I was opening Titanic on Broadway so I was a busy man. It was on my radar but I didn’t see it, but I was familiar with the real history. The story of Nicholas and Alexandra was always fascinating to me as a young person. Even though it was a very sad story, it was real and there were kids in it, so it interested me. I remember doing a couple of reports on it in high school and I always loved the hope of ‘maybe one of them got away.’ It was a brutal execution of the family and I think all of Russia and the world held onto the hope that maybe one of those young people was able to get away, which helped perpetuate the myth. It was too brutal and too real if they all were killed. So I think that perpetuated the film and the play and the musical – it all came from the idea that maybe that grim story could have a happier ending.

When I got my audition I watched it twice and thought it was a good movie. The people at the stage door in their late 20s and early 30s go on about how much they loved that movie. I think we’ve done a fantastic adaptation that keeps everybody happy from the history buffs to the animated film fans to musical theatre fans. We have these gorgeous songs and Terrence McNally’s beautiful book. Because of the care he takes with words, I feel like we’re doing a play even though there’s music. He can cram like five things into five words. The beautiful music that Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have written is just so seamless and the underscoring is just like a symphony. I can’t wait for people to see it and to hear this score.

I want to talk about director Darko Tresnjak. He’s such an interesting director. What have you gained from this experience working with him?

Trust Darko! Not that you wouldn’t trust a director, but every time he gives a note it’s like ‘he’s brilliant, he just made it better’ through his astute, bright, brilliant, creative direction. From a visual and story standpoint it’s very Hitchcock-ian. He’s brilliant and has never given any of us reason to question his brilliance. I saw Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and it was perfect. Every performance was brilliant, top to bottom, and it was so perfectly etched. He has skyrocketed to the top of my favorite directors list, along with Jack O’Brien. He has taken this beautiful theatre and turned it into something even more special. He’s a wonderful guy.

So this show is not on Broadway but it’s already huge on Broadway. People are so excited about it. What’s it like to be a part of this huge momentum?

It’s an absolute thrill. We’re the cool kids! Anyone who is part of a new show coming to Broadway is a cool kid but this one especially just feels like it has such momentum behind it and being on the inside, I know that it’s a good one. It’s just so brilliant and we can’t wait for all of New York and the country to see it. I think people are going to go bananas.

Derek Klena, Christy Altomare and John Bolton in Anastasia.

Derek Klena, Christy Altomare and John Bolton in Anastasia.

What do you think resonates so deeply with people and what has with you?

With the fans, the ‘Fanastasias’ the score is just so emotional and it just gives you chills. Christy Altomare and Derek Klena are perfect, on and off stage. There’s nothing entitled or arrogant about them on or off stage. I’m attached at the hip with both of them for Act 1 and I couldn’t be prouder that I get to share that experience with Christy and Derek who are so perfect and wonderful human beings. I trust them both and hope they trust me as well on stage. It’s a joy and an honor.

Funny story: I was sitting in auditions and Christy was one of the last people to read and she wasn’t in costume but she just looked like Anastasia. She was standing outside the room, her beautiful self, just focusing and I was across the room focusing on my own stuff. I looked at her and thought ‘there she is, she has to get this part’ and I hadn’t even heard her sing yet. There were other young girls there and young guys reading for Dmitry and what entered my mind was that I didn’t know any of them and I bet none of them know me. And I wondered if I should be there, but I felt confident that I could go in and do a good job, knowing that once in a while you get the job. So Christy auditioned and came out and our eyes met and we smiled. I said ‘how’d it go?’ and she came over to me and said, ‘I saw you in A Christmas Story and I think you are so brilliant,’ and I almost burst into tears, thinking one of these kids knows who I am. And then a few other kids came up and complimented me and it was like ‘I needed that you guys’ and I hugged Christy. It was a sort of sweet, serendipitous moment.

You’ve worked with a lot of innovative young people – including composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

They are just so brilliant. They came into A Christmas Story and were stuck with me because the producers had already hired me before they changed to Benj and Justin to write the score. They are magic. I just love them both and we get along really well. We worked really hard at shaping my first number, ‘Genius on Cleveland Street’, and wound up with the perfect microcosm about a lifetime of frustrations with this guy whose frustrations come out while he’s doing a puzzle. They’re just so brilliant and I hope that score is appreciated, but I do wish we had recorded the final version of the score. They’re sensitive in all the right ways, they get musical theatre and they get actors. There’s confidence there but they are all about teamwork and what’s best for the show.

And Dear Evan Hansen is brilliant, spectacularly smart, heartbreaking. It’s full of gorgeous moments and exquisite acting and they made that. I sobbed through the whole thing and the fact that my friends made that is amazing. I hope I’m lucky enough to work with them again because they are the future.

You work with a lot of brilliant, funny, smart women. Namely, your last two leading ladies, Lesli Margherita and now Caroline O’Connor.

Yes, and Erin Dilly and Rachel Bay Jones and Haley Podschun. The warmth and love with Erin Dilly… she is just perfect and I hope that I’m lucky enough to get to work with Erin again because I learned so much from her every night.

These women are all so smart and feminist and on their game. What’s it like to work with them and feed off each other’s energy?

They’re obviously different kinds of brilliant. Lesli is a complete and total cyclone of a smart, devastatingly funny woman. I loved getting to work with her. She was truly a force of nature and different than a lot of women I’ve worked with in wonderful, thrilling ways. I never felt like the cyclone was in any way smothering me. I felt like ‘wow, look what I get to do … I get to dance around this amazing cyclone of a person,’ and I loved every second of it. She made me laugh and I hope I made her laugh. I don’t think there was ever a night we could get through our number without laughing out loud.

And Caroline, I can’t say enough good things about. We’re just such good friends and we became friends during A Christmas Story. Every night I stood in the wings and watched her sing ‘You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out’ because she’s this amazing performer. And then I noticed during [my song] ‘A Major Award’ that she was standing in the wings watching me every night! So there’s this mutual appreciation of what the other does. To play with her is a thrill.

And Dames at Sea got remembered with a Tony nomination for choreography. What was that like?

Well that choreography was just perfect so that’s what we should be remembered for. Our run was sadly short but we were really proud of our show and I was so proud of the six of us to carry that show – we were the chorus, the supporting characters and the leading characters and we did all the dancing. [Choreographer and director] Randy Skinner has been so vocal about how appreciative he is of us and I’m so proud that I got to tap dance on Broadway. I’m so proud to have been part of that little band of six and the people who came enjoyed it and they can’t take that away from us. If we were going to be nominated for a Tony they picked the right one because Randy’s work is so great it feels like we all got acknowledged in a way.

John Bolton with the wanted poster for Vlad and Dimitry used in Anastasia.

John Bolton with the wanted poster for Vlad and Dimitri used in Anastasia.

After nine Broadway shows what is the one thing you’ve carried or kept in mind through all of them?

How lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. Never underestimate how lucky you are to walk in that stage door every night and do that show, no matter how tired you are or how big or small or loud or quiet the house is. It’s still someone’s first time seeing a show. You are still the luckiest man you know and don’t ever forget that. I think about that when I leave the stage door and walk home. 

I want to ask about the online parody videos, which are so funny. Where do the ideas come from and how do you get the talent to do them?

Well it’s mainly our wonderful leader John Walton West, the director and main think-tank behind it. He has gathered an amazing group of people around him – Kevin Duda, Jason Michael Snow, Greg Monteith, Simon Pearl, Cody Williams, David McCall – it’s this core seven of us who get the ideas going and bounce them off each other. It’s very equal as to whose ideas make the cut. Someone will come up with an idea or a one liner and we run with it. We put it all together and work on each other’s stuff. A lot of it’s done on our feet in the moment with the amazing casts we get. People are starting to come to us now saying they want to be in it and we get an instant ‘yes’ from 99% of the people we ask. Republicats now has like a million views on Facebook and  The Broadway Debate is doing well. I’m proud of all of them.

Some of your more recent roles are based on movies. What’s it like to be taking a classic film, like A Christmas Story, Anastasia or even Dames at Sea, which is based on several movies, and putting it on stage. Do you study the film?

With A Christmas Story I had seen the film a million times but as soon as I booked it I thought, ‘I can’t watch this anymore.’ I knew Darren McGavin’s performance and what was brilliant about it. I thought [if I watched it] I would slavishly try to do every little thing he did, so instead I tried to bring my memory of his performance to my work. The same was true for Dames at Sea. And with Anastasia I watched it many times and again tried to honor Vlad, but not imitate him because I’d be short-changing myself.

You’ve done nine Broadway shows. When did you realize that you had made it on Broadway?

My first show. It was Damn Yankees and I was a replacement. The amazing dance captain Cynthia Onrubia put me into the show in one week and that was it, I was on Broadway at the Marquee Theatre. Previously I had been in a show called Paper Moon, which had a great run out-of-town and they announced us and put up the marquee at the Marquee Theatre and suddenly they said, ‘nope you’re not coming to Broadway,’ and I was so disappointed. But then Damn Yankees moved in and all of the sudden I was there on the same stage. It was amazing. I was almost 30 years old and I had worked hard for it and I did think, as we were singing the finale, that this was right and I felt lucky but also felt like sometimes the system works. Just that moment and that curtain call on August 5, 1994.

You’re always talking about what a fan of classic Broadway you are, but you’re often in new and innovative works. Is that something you seek out?

I love classic Broadway, I think Guys and Dolls is about the most perfect piece of theatre ever written in the history of time, with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare. But I like creating something new. Revivals are fun and it can be thrilling to revisit a show but I love being involved in a new piece of theatre. Someone told me once, ‘you’re old Broadway, you’ll do a lot of revivals but you’ll be working.’ And they pointed to someone younger and hotter than me and said, ‘he’s new Broadway.’ I remember thinking, well at least I’ll work but every time I get a new show I think ‘yeah, I broke the mold!’ But with new shows there are lots of rewrites and figuring out if it works. It’s scarier but it’s more rewarding.

If you could go back to any of your roles, which would you choose? And who do you think most reflects you as a person?

I hope I bring a little bit of me to every part. I have blood and guts in A Christmas Story and it was a five-year trek that I wouldn’t take a moment away from for a second. So maybe that because it was a lengthy investment. I think any actor should bring part of themselves to a role and hopefully you like the person, but even with villains you have to find something likable about them.

Can you tell me about bringing humanity to very funny roles, like Vlad?

If you can’t bring humanity to a funny role, you’re not going to get one laugh all night. There were lines earlier in Anastasia where I was thinking, ‘how do I get a laugh on that?’ but finally I gave up and I just said the line and I got a laugh. It’s a lesson I’m still learning; don’t ever ask for the laugh. You have to bring humanity to a comedic role because that’s what people really relate to – the universality of people’s frustrations.

What are you most looking forward to in the months as you build the Broadway production of Anastasia?

The ride. Just getting to experience it and being part of a new show coming to town that has a lot of excitement around it. And just the appreciation of how lucky we are to get to do it. And the giddiness of knowing we have something that people are excited about.

What would you say to a younger version of yourself?

It’s going to be okay. Just be you and know that you don’t have to imitate or compare yourself to others. You didn’t just graduate from college and get a show like some people are lucky enough to. Mine has been a really gratifying progression. My first Broadway show didn’t happen. In my next show I was a replacement in the chorus and thrilled to be there. Then I was in the chorus but understudied the lead and got to play the lead. Then I had a nice little small part in the show and understudied other parts. The next one I understudied only the starring role and was on for it tons of times. Then I understudied three starring roles and then replaced. It’s like everything has been a forward progression. The train is going and I’m going to ride it until it’s time to retire. And I’m loving every second of it – I’m so lucky. I was the kid with the cast albums who would imagine that I got to do this some day and now I get to do it. Sometimes the system works and I am a lucky recipient of that.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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