Interview: Marc Kudisch on Broadway’s ‘Hand to God’, His Early Years in New York and How Musical Theater is “Exhausting”

"As actors, you have to constantly work to redefine yourself. So, lately I’ve been redefining myself as just that, an actor" - Marc Kudisch

Marc Kudisch Interview

Marc Kudisch has, unbeknownst to him, been a part of two big firsts in my life. He was in the first big time musical I’ve ever seen, the touring production of Bye, Bye Birdie that also starred the great Tommy Tune. The other was my first Broadway show, Thoroughly Modern Millie, where he starred alongside Sutton Foster. Both shows had a huge impact on me so, getting a chance to talk with him was a total thrill. And I have to say, talking to him didn’t disappoint.

Marc is a 3-time Tony Nominee who is now starring in his 12th Broadway show, Hand to God. The show is about a “shy, inquisitive student named Jason, who finds an outlet for his burgeoning creativity at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the devoutly religious, relatively quiet small town of Cypress, Texas.” Everything I’ve heard about the show –  It’s incredibly funny and unlike anything you’ve ever seen on Broadway – makes me want to see it.

I talked with Marc about coming back to Broadway in Hand to God and how he got involved in the show, his early years in New York, how musical theater is “exhausting” and much, much more!

I actually have to thank you for something.

Marc Kudisch: Sure.

Years ago, the very first, big deal musical I ever saw was Bye, Bye Birdie.

Marc Kudisch: Oh my God.

I brought my then girlfriend. We loved it. A couple months later, a local theater in my hometown had auditions for the show. I auditioned for Conrad Birdie and I stole everything that you did in the show and I got the part. So, thank you.

Marc Kudisch: Where’s my 10%, bro! Where’s my money!

I’ll gladly send you the check.

Marc Kudisch: It’s funny, Birdie is so long ago. Literally almost half my life now. A lot of times when people say, “Oh, I saw Bye, Bye Birdie. It was the first Broadway show I ever saw.” And they were like 6 or 7 and of course, they’re like adults now. It just makes me go, “I’m old.”

And the very first Broadway show I ever saw was Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Marc Kudisch: Aw wow, dude. That’s nice. That’s a great compliment. Seriously, though.

There’s a present, that’s what there is. That’s what we live in. We’re all these gerbils in Habitrails and we’re hauling ass but there’s only one place we can ultimately be, which is in the present. And it’s just interesting how, we’re talking now, obviously, but that it’s kinda cool and it’s easy to forget. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe it. I’ve been going through it with this play for some reason or another. Like, I’m being reminded with this play; I’m just being deeply reminded of the past. It’s just interesting to me.

But I appreciate the fact that they had impact on you that way. It’s kinda cool that the first big show you ever saw and the first Broadway show, I just happened to be there both times. And you know what? You’re writing about the theater now so if I had anything to do with you getting involved in the theater, there’s no better compliment that I could be paid. I mean that. I mean that genuinely.

But that’s sort of what I’ve always hoped I would be able to have an influence in the business with is just that you inspire other people and that you really do affect others people’s lives. Because the product is present. Is that weird to say that?

Not at all.

Marc Kudisch: But that’s what I mean being in the present. The product is literally being in the present of something. If you have an audience, if I have you for 2 ½ hours, then in that 2 ½ hours in that present moment of time, hopefully I can offer you something. And then you take whatever that is, that ball and then you run with it and then you offer that. And then we keep sharing this thing and then maybe sometimes we come back together.

Like, you and I have touched each other twice. And I didn’t even know that, right? That’s kinda cool. We have physically been in the same room twice. We have communicated to each other.

And in the same space, yes.

Marc Kudisch: Exactly. In the same space, presently, and at the same time.

That’s why I say you can never take anything for granted in this business because you never know. You never know. You never know who you’re touching, you never know who you’re talking too, you never know who you might be influencing or having an impact on. And that to me is one of the greatest things about this business.

And someone like myself who’s been doing it a really long time, this is my 12th Broadway show. The greatest thing right now in so many ways about this play is that it all feels new again in a lot of ways. And I love that that’s possible after doing it 12 times.

How does it feel new for you?

Marc Kudisch: It’s a completely, totally originally story. It’s a very original voice. Rob Askins is the playwright. No one else writes like Rob. Period. You’ll be hearing a lot of him. This is the first time everyone’s gonna hear him. This is not the last.

There’s a young director who I love. This is his first Broadway show and you’re going to be hearing a lot from Moritz von Stuelpnagel. He’s already working all over the city.

So, there’s this whole generation of people that I have the good fortune to be working with. Not just on this, but there’s this group called the EST, the Ensemble Studio Theatre. They’re a small theater and I don’t know how they’ve amassed the talent that works there but I did a play at the Signature Theatre in New York City, an A.R. Gurney play in the fall with another group of people from the same theater, and they’re like so fucking good and so talented. And young, but smart and passionate. Again, new people with fresh perspective.

It’s easy in this business to get lost in the rhythm and the flow and the grind of 8 shows a week over and over and over again. In this business, you close one show and then go into rehearsals and open another. And seriously, after a while you feel like a gerbil in a habitrail. You just kind of go, “I have to do this again and again”

I’ve been working off Broadway the last couple of years a lot. I sort of took a break from music theater. Just because I was like, I don’t like the direction it was going in. I don’t like the way it’s being produced and or being executed. It’s just not the way I was doing it for so many years and maybe that just means it’s not a pleasure for me, I don’t know. Or maybe that means I just need to take a break and get a fresh perspective.

So then, I’ve just been doing plays for the last couple years, largely off Broadway. Again, you gotta mix it up and you’ve gotta sort of get your battery to juice up again. And this is my first time on Broadway since 9 to 5.

There’s nothing better to come back to Broadway with because Broadway is an old stomping ground for me. But this is such a new voice. And to be part of something so new, when I am actually something that is, let’s just say, is so old in this business. Not in a bad way. I mean, I’ve been around for so long now that to come in with the freshest voice that as a performer, it gives you a whole brand new perspective with this new group of people and it allows you to go out there and go, “There’s still so much to learn. There’s so much to explore.”

With all the experience I have, with all of the shows I’ve done, to be able to say, “I’ve never done this” is really fortunate in my opinion. And I’ve done some good shit, let’s be honest.

How did you get involved in this? Obviously, you’re seeking new, original things to do. But a lot of the times those things aren’t around.

Marc Kudisch: Well, like I said, I’ve been focusing more on being off Broadway. I’m working on plays. Music theater is exhausting. I mean, it’s really, really exhausting because you’re dealing in multiple vernaculars when you’re telling you’re story. What I don’t think people understand or there are a lot of people new to music theater, is that everything is book in a piece of music theater. It’s not just the spoken word. The spoken word is not separated from the sung word. All of it is book. So, you have to know why someone is just talking, someone is singing and why someone needs to dance. Like, you have to know why. Why are these things happening because they are completely unnatural and completely natural at the same time.

So, I just got sort of tired with music theater because I just felt that like a lot of film companies were moving in and a lot of people in LA were coming to New York and wanting to get into the New York production of things but wanted to do things according to the way that they do their business in LA.

And film and theater are so different and the telling of story is so different. You can’t try to drag something to what you want it to be, you have to go to it.

It’s the thing with Shakespeare. You can’t take Shakespeare out of the rhythm of Shakespeare and think that you’re going to bring it to the rhythm of yours. First of all, it doesn’t need your help and second of all, if you’re not willing to go to it and understand it and find your own organic connection to it, then why are you doing it to begin with? You’re wasting everybody’s time. And it’s the same way we do theater, and the way that it’s developed and the way that it’s executed and presented. It gets really tiring.

So, I just wanted to go and work in a space that I felt like people were still doing that thing that I actually feel like I connect to and belong too. In some ways, I felt like I was a dinosaur in music theater. The way I do music theater was going out of style or out of fashion. And I just thought, “Well, ok. That’s cool. Maybe it’s time to do something else.” Because I’m too tired and I’ve been doing it too long and I have too much experience and execution to basically take backward steps with it.

Which is where I found myself working with all these new people. In this play, Moritz, the director, my business partner and I had talked to him about a project that we were producers on that we were interesting in him directing. Because we had seen the off off Broadway version of this play. And we loved what he and Rob, the playwright had done. We thought, we could sure use this energy on our piece. And ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit overall. But when the piece moved off Broadway, I got a call from them saying, “They’re really interested in you doing this piece Hand to God, do you know it?” I was like, “I love that piece.”

We had a conversation about the play and what I had hoped to maybe try to achieve by being part of it and they were like, “That’s exactly why we’re interested in having you.”

You were a Poly Sci major and you switched to a Major in Theater. When you graduated college in Florida, was it your intention to pack up everything and move to New York?

Marc Kudisch: Yeah, always. I had this great mentor when I was going to school, his name was J. Robert Beats. This little, tiny diminutive man who was one of the finest actors and directors I’ve ever met.

I went to school at FAU [Florida Atllantic University], right? And what was interesting was that I was a part of their first four year program because they were originally just a Graduate School. So, I was the first theater student they ever had. So, as they were developing their four-year program, I was taking graduate courses while they were figuring out what the full four year program was going to be because that’s pretty much all they had.

As an undergrad, I was taking graduate programs and by the time I was a junior and they had figured it out, I couldn’t go backwards. So, they were giving me independent study credits for all the work that I’d done and all the work that I was doing in theaters in the summers. Because, you can’t give me an intro class after I’d already done an advanced directing class with Edward Albee, you know what I mean?

But that was my good fortune. The classes were very small. The teachers were all these guys that in the 50’s and 60’s had been lions in the theater in New York or in that region. And my mentor, J. Robert, had worked at Stratford every year. He had actually mentored William Shatner.

But also, we had all these incredible people come through to teach for a year or teach for a full semester. So, Zoe Caldwell was a teacher of mine. Hume Cronyn was a teacher of mine. Joshua Logan, do you know who that is?

No, I don’t.

Marc Kudisch: You should Google him and find out. These are the people that I learned from. I had such an interesting education that way. I was so lucky.

Mind you, no music theater. It was all straight up classic theater. I didn’t start doing musicals till I moved to New York.

You moved up there. How long after that did you get your first acting job?

Marc Kudisch: 4 ½ months after I moved to New York, I got my first off Broadway job, which to me was superfast.

That is quick.

Marc Kudisch: I thought I was gonna have to work out in the region for a while or that I would have to do showcases for a while and I just got super lucky. There was a director who saw me and really liked me and offered me my first job off-Broadway. That and Birdie was the two most exciting moments in my career.

When I got my first job off-Broadway in New York City, I literally had to sit there for like a minute and think, “Oh my God. I have to quit the restaurant.” I just didn’t expect that as quickly as it happened. I didn’t have any credits. I just was like, “I can’t believe that I’m a New York working actor.”

And then when I got Birdie, that was beyond thrilling to me. It was a huge National tour with these huge people connected to the show. And it was the first time I’d ever had a microphone on my body. I remember, they were like, “We’re going to put the microphone on you.” I went, “For what?” My college had a 1,000 seat theater. We never had body microphones. You learned how to project. You just learned how to do that. So, with Birdie, I was like, “Why are you putting a microphone on me? I don’t need a microphone.” And then they walked me out on the stage where we started at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera that seats like 3,500 and literally my jaw hit the ground. I’d never been on a stage that big.

And then, I didn’t really sing so when I was doing Birdie I was losing my voice at the end of every week because I didn’t have any technique. I didn’t really know what I was doing. And then I started to train.

And then honestly, I found my real teacher when I was doing Beauty and the Beast. My dresser Eric, who was an ex-opera singer, I remember one night when he was dressing me, he was like, “You have such a beautiful voice, Marc.” I was like, “Oh thanks, dude.” And then he came out with, “It’s too bad you use only 25% of it.” I just looked at him. He was strapping me into my costume when he said that.

In my mind, I’m thinking, “Fuck you.” But what came out of my mouth was, “So, what do I do?” Because I knew he was right. And I’ll tell you this, there is nothing more sensitive and/or personal to any actor or performer than their singing voice. Nothing. Whether you’re a singer or not. Nothing will hit you to your core more than for someone to say, “That’s not very good. Stop doing that please.” That will destroy people and I’ve watched it happen.

I said the smartest thing I could have said, which was: “Then what do I do?” He smiled at me and he gave me a card and said, “You go to this guy.” Alan Seale, is his name. Best teacher I’ve ever had. I remember the first day I worked with this guy, he had me doing things, I literally walked out of that lesson and I was like, “I cannot believe the sound that I’m creating after a day with him.”

So, I immediately started to apply that sound when I was singing in Beauty and the Beast. By the end of the week, the stage manager sat me down and he said, “Let’s talk about this new voice. You sound like a completely different person.” I said, “Ok. Does it sound bad?” He said, “No, it doesn’t sound bad. But Marc, you were not hired with them hearing this voice. You were hired with that other voice.” And I said, “Well, then have them come in and hear me and tell them they don’t want me to do it because I’m not stopping it.” He said, “Are you ok? Can you do this?” And I said, “Yeah, I can do this.” He’s like, “Ok, keep doing what you’re doing.”

But after two or four shows, my friend Beth Fowler, came up to me and said, “When did you become Opera Drake?” That is not what I sounded like; I just finally met someone who said this is how you use your voice. So, over 10 years, I trained with him operatically.

And then suddenly I became this classic baritone. Before that, I was a 50’s rock ‘n roller and I couldn’t get seen for anything outside of that. And then I really worked hard and I became this classic baritone but then I couldn’t do anything out of that. Because all people see are the moment. Everything is present, right?

As actors, you have to constantly work to redefine yourself. So, lately I’ve been redefining myself as just that, an actor. Someone who’s not singing in shows.

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