With three Best Lead Actor Scenies (two for Hairspray, one for Les Miz) and one for Best Featured (for Oklahoma!), Orange County’s very own Sam Zeller’s return home as an Original Cast member of the First National Tour of the 2013 Best Musical Tony-winning Kinky Boots is big news indeed. Sam took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about being part of a Broadway smash and the shows that have led him back to his naive OC.
Sam, having grown up in neighboring Anaheim and graduated from UC Irvine, you must be especially excited about Kinky Boots’ arrival in Orange County.
I’m very excited that Kinky Boots will be coming to Orange County! Having toured many times before, I have never performed at the Segerstrom Center, and it’ll be close enough that I can spend some time with my Mom in Anaheim and go home to my apartment in West Hollywood and be with my partner Donnie and my new kitties. I know many people, including high school and UC Irvine friends, that are coming to the show. We are ringing in the New Year here.
As Orange County’s Most Outstanding Student Leader during your school days, I imagine you could have had your pick of future careers. What made you choose arguably the riskiest of them all?
I remember being honored by the Irvine Company. Press releases touted that I would be a successful lawyer or politician someday. At the time, I was senior class president, the editor of the high school newspaper, and wrote for the local newspaper. I was also playing minor league baseball with the Minnesota Twins organization, so I was already dabbling in all sorts of career choices, but it wasn’t until college, as a journalism major, that I auditioned for a Kaufman and Ferber play, got the role, and discovered my love of theater.
And that love led you to a professional career.
By the time I graduated college, I’d spent four summers doing summer stock, and decided that my path was to be an actor. Simply, it fed my soul. I loved to perform. I loved stirring people’s emotions. I knew my life had to involve telling stories. I couldn’t find that joy in anything else. I was forewarned by my parents to have “something to fall back on,” but they supported me, and thankfully, I’ve not stopped working as an actor.
How did you get your start as a performer?
Growing up in Orange County, we didn’t have theater or drama programs in the school system, but local community theaters did shows. I was constantly imitating people I saw on television, so my mom took me to an audition she saw advertised in the Pennysaver for kids to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. My audition consisted of cartwheels. I was the youngest member of the cast at 5, and was cast of the Leader of the Lollipop Guild. So despite not having theater for many years after that, I was familiar with the joy of live theater.
What was the first great role that you played?
My first great role was in my third year of school at the Professional Actor’s Conservatory here in Southern California. I played Che in Evita. It was my first musical. I never knew that I could sing, and even told my director, Victor Pappas, that he’d made a mistake. It was one of the greatest discoveries of my life to find out that my home was on stage … any stage … and that I had fallen in love with musical theater.
You’ve been able to travel the world as a performer, including stops in Japan, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Venezuela, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and not so long ago starring as Peter Pan’s Captain Hook opposite Cathy Rigby in Macao. How has it been for you being such a world traveler?
I can’t get over how many places I have lived and visited because of my work. My parents were not travelers, but they got to see the world by coming to see me wherever I was. I lived in Nagasaki, Japan for a year. It was the most amazing experience to be a part of a completely different culture, performing an original Japanese opera, based on the Dutch colonization of Japan in the late 1500’s. It was long before computers and cellphones, so I spoke to my parents once a week, from a pay phone, and explored the world I lived in. I also performed on cruise ships, so I got paid to perform and saw the world at the same time.
Is there a favorite among the many places where you’ve performed?
I have no favorite place; I still have so much more to see and explore, although if I had to pick a favorite destination, it would be on my couch, in my apartment, with the ones I love.
Kinky Boots isn’t your first National Tour, but I imagine it’s a special one given the show’s current hit status and Best Musical Tony. What is it about this musical in particular that made you want to pack your bags once again and tour the country?
Well, I’m a gypsy at heart. I knew nothing of the show when I auditioned for it in L.A. The feedback from my agent was that they “weren’t going any further” with me.
I contacted a friend in the Broadway production and he told me to videotape my audition and send it to him and he would deliver it to Jerry Mitchell himself. Thankfully, Jerry said he wanted to see me. So $2,100 later for airfare and a hotel, I found myself in a callback for the show. The night before my callback, the producers arranged for me to see the show.
And how did you feel once you fully understood what you’d been auditioning for?
The music, the book was so rich, so entertaining, so enlightening. I was choked up from the very beginning, and by the time the show was over, I wanted to see it again, but more importantly, I wanted to be in it.
What is it about Kinky Boots that touched you so deeply?
Its message is so vital and important, and as an avid storyteller, I wanted to be a part of that message and bring that same joy to everyone who saw it.
Can you talk a bit about that audition in New York?
My audition lasted four minutes. It was over before I realized. As I walked out, Cyndi [Lauper] walked around the corner asking me if I was there to audition, and I told her I already had. I could tell she was supposed to have seen my audition, and she told me that I “looked perfect for the part.” I walked away, and within a half an hour, I got a phone call from my agent, asking if I would be in the ensemble and cover three roles in the show. At that time, I had lost my father, my aunt, and my cat and was in need of some joy. It found me with this show.
As an original cast member, can you talk a bit about working with director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell and the legendary Cyndi, who wrote the show’s Tony-winning score?
Jerry and Cyndi were wonderful. I had to remind myself that I was actually in the room with them. Jerry told some amazing stories of performing and directing. and how it relates not only to the show, but to life. His philosophy is that life is “full out,” just like how we perform every single time. When you do that, you find more within your character, you find more in your performance, you tell the story and move your audience.
Tell me more about Cyndi Lauper!
Cyndi would sing a line once in a while, and her voice was so pure and clear. This woman is definitely an artist. Her lyrics are so wonderful. Between her, Jerry, Harvey Fierstein’s book, and Stephen Oremus’s arrangements (Stephen and I had worked together fifteen years ago at Goodspeed), we as a cast were in the presence of greatness … and they were lovely and kind.
What was the rehearsal process like?
DB Bonds and Rusty Mowery are our brilliant resident director and choreographer. We had a month to rehearse, so my life was immersed in Kinky Boots. While they were learning our names, for some reason my nickname in rehearsal was Hagrid, the character from the Harry Potter films. I loved being associated with such a beloved character and they regarded me with such love. We rehearsed at The New 42nd Street Studios, so daily we would ride the elevator with Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones … You know, another day at the office! Wow!
How did you go about learning how to play someone who makes boots for a living?
Since I play a factory worker, Jerry had given us a Dropbox file filled with videos on how shoes were made in these small towns in England. Jerry went to Northampton and filmed factory workers at the various stages of shoemaking. We, as a cast, work at machines throughout the show, so our lives on stage would be complete by taking such care in making these shoes. In the real story, this shoe factory was the town’s livelihood and everyone worked at the factory. They were a family and so were we. We move set pieces like we’re part of the assembly line, use tools, and wear clothing that we would wear in a factory making shoes.
Can you talk a bit about your “track” in the show?
I play various characters including a band member in a pub and a hoodlum that attempts to attack Lola, our lead character, but my main character, Mutt, is a happy, burly factory worker.
Is there any Kinky Boots role you’d love to play but aren’t?
I would love to be an Angel, one of the drag queens in Lola’s show at her club, but I’m happy being their Drag Daddy. You will not believe how amazing these “girls” are!
And what about those “kinky boots” themselves?
The boots were custom made by an actual shoe factory in Manhattan. They took several measurements and these six inch heeled boots are custom fit for my big ‘ol feet. We all get to wear them in the show.
Kinky Boots the movie was a popular cult film, but hardly the smash phenomenon its Broadway adaptation has become. What do you think is the secret of its success?
You can’t deny the music of Cyndi, the brilliant book by Harvey, and Jerry’s commitment to the story with his direction. It truly is a recipe for greatness. The message in the show is so simple, yet powerful. It leaves the audience cheering every single night. How blessed we all are to be a part of it. We have people seeing it multiple times and they fall in love with all of us.
I understand you recently set some kind of record. What was that?
We recently became the highest earning national tour collecting for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. People would donate money, telling me how this show moved them, and even more personal, people would tell me that their loved ones died of AIDS, or a young person would tell me that they had just come out to their parents. This show is a movement of love and acceptance. We need more of that in this world and this show is teaching the masses just that.
Southern California audiences know you from your countless appearances on our stages in roles as diverse as Tevye, Edna Turnblad, and Jean Valjean. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone else playing all three of these roles. What was it like for you to go from one to another and back again?
Well, the truth is, I’m an actor. I’m paid to be emotionally connected and to create a character. Thankfully, I’m also emotionally connected in real life. I’ve been around long enough to establish, I think, a great relationship and reputation throughout my career. I’ve booked roles solely on relationships, even through Facebook, and auditioned for many roles over and over again. I’ve been second choice for roles and strive to prove to be the only choice by the time the job is done.
What’s your preparation process like when you undertake a new role?
I immerse myself in my work and every role is the most important I have ever played. I always study and make my work a continued work in progress. I continue to grow and learn from every experience.
Can you talk more specifically about Tevye, Edna, and Valjean?
I never knew Fiddler, yet I agreed to do it. When I got the script, I realized that I never shut up, nor do I hardly leave the stage. It was cathartic to play this iconic role every night. Edna was a joy to play and would tackle her any time. Valjean had always been a dream role, and to play him night after night … I was so grateful to play him. I became a better human being because I read the novel and wanted to be him. I saw people differently while I played him.
And if you had to choose between these three iconic roles?
I guess if there is a heaven and I got my choice to play one role every night for eternity, I would choose Valjean … but perhaps a matinee or two of Tevye. There are many roles that I have yet to play and hopefully will.
I very much enjoyed your lead performance opposite Melissa Fahn in the indie movie Tick Tock Boom Clap, in which you also played Captain Hook. How did the movie role come about?
This film was one of those gems that was brought to me from a friend of a friend. I had played Hook with Cathy and this screenplay involved a production of Peter Pan. I had introduced the writer/director to Melissa, a dear friend for many years, and to work with her in a film, as opposed to a theater piece, was a joy.
What’s it like for a stage actor like yourself to make a movie?
I have such respect for film and TV actors. You’re learning pages of different dialog and filming them every day, out of sequence, so knowing the story and your character’s circumstances at that moment is so vital to the piece.
That must be a challenge!
It’s hard, but it’s also a joy to see the finished product. To cry on cue, time after time, was a challenge, but it was satisfying to know, as an actor, that I could live in the moment and do it. But I have to say, my final product was the result of many takes put together by an editor to create the best film possible.
Very different from performing live on stage, right?
There is nothing like live theater. The audience reaction that you hear, the applause, the instant moments you create with your fellow actors, is something I hope to experience for the rest of my life.
You’ve achieved so much in your career already. What would you like to see come next?
Well, I hope to go back to Broadway. I loved being there and being a part of a nominated musical revival with Peter Pan, but I think I would love to keep telling stories: new ones, revivals … any chance to move an audience and do my part to make people happy. I would love to do more TV and film, original musicals. I have no plans to settle down or change my career. I know nothing else, continue to strive to be better, and thankfully, I keep getting asked to play!
Thanks so much Sam for taking the time to answer all these questions. I can’t wait to see you on Opening Night!
Kinky Boots plays from December 30 through January 11 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.
Sam’s Kinky Boots bio: Broadway: Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan (also film). Nat. Tours/Reg./Other: Les Miserables (Valjean), Fiddler/Roof (Tevye), Hairspray (Edna), Disney’s Tarzan (Kerchak), Evita (Che), Star Trek: DS9 (Lt. Ch’Targh). Thanks to Eugene, Jerry, Stephen, D.B., Rusty, Mom, Pop, Donnie, and Dipsy!