Affably boyish? Boyishly affable? Such are the terms critics have used to describe actor-singer Gregg Edelman. Ambling across the stage in "City of Angels," "Anything Goes," or "She Loves Me," he invariably proved to be as genial onstage as off.
But critics are now in for a surprise. The good guy has disappeared behind a singularly antagonistic character. Edelman is in "1776," which has just opened at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre Company under Scott Ellis' direction. He plays Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress. As the wealthy, powerful leader of the Southern bloc, Rutledge spearheads the pro-slavery battle. Specifically, he fights to remove the anti-slavery clause from Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.
Now that Edelman is called upon to play against type, how does he handle this metamorphosis from good guy to bad guy?
"You have to let the piece speak to you," said the 38-year-old performer, in a recent interview, "and it can sometimes speak to a dark part of your soul."
"I remember what an experienced actor told me years ago," he continues. "You must play a villain as if he's justified in what he's doing. You have to understand where he's coming from. And that's where I started from--understanding Rutledge's argument."
Rutledge makes his stand in the show-stopping number "Molasses to Rum." An ability to put over a song has always been Edelman's forte, and "Molasses" allows full expression of his gift. At this high point of the show, audience reaction has ranged from stunned silence to quiet clapping to wild applause.
"Rutledge takes it to such a level that it is a terrifying moment," says Edelman. "The audience is taken aback with his argument that the Southerners are not the only ones involved in the slave trade. 'Molasses' is a scathing indictment of the Northerners."
What kind of man is this Edward Rutledge?
"He is a wily man who bides his time. He sits back and waits for his political opportunities," says Edelman. "So it is a fascinating role to play."
"It is amazing how close all the characters are to the real-life people, but Peter Stone [who wrote the book] has dramatically embroidered who they were."
The current production, Edelman says, is true to the original "1776," which opened on Broadway in 1969. "It's a tribute to the original that it still plays just as beautifully."
Rich Roles and Obsessive Auditions
Edelman sees himself foremost as an actor--an actor who sings. He acknowledges that he has been blessed with "a pretty good voice--and I don't discount that." But he finds acting the greater challenge. "I guess we are always taken with the struggle of trying to get better at something in which we're not naturally gifted. Fortunately, I've had rich roles--this one especially."
Like everyone in the show, Edelman auditioned for the part.
"When I was single, I used to obsess about an audition, rehearsing for it all hours of the day and night. I think, looking back, that that obsessiveness precluded enjoying the art of creating, which is so important to a good performance."
This time around, Edelman's audition, and subsequent role, was tempered by another role--that of husband and father.
"There's a wonderful balance," he explains. "I truly love coming to the theatre each day. It's a blessing. But at the beginning and end of the day, there's this little girl and my wife."
Edelman is married to actress Carolee Carmello, and they have a 21-month-old daughter, Zoe. "We first met in 'City of Angels,' but didn't speak to each other much at the time," he recalls. "But a year and a half later we played opposite each other in 'Arthur' at Goodspeed."
Thus one more onstage romance became a reality.
At this point, the Edelmans juggle careers and schedules, with a nanny's help. It is feasible, says Dad, because Mom works days and he works nights. Carmello is currently doing a TV series called "Remember WENN," and has just been cast as the lead in Hal Prince's new musical, "Parade." "Life is about to become more complicated," says Edelman, "but that's okay."
"We lucked out," he continues. "Zoe loves the nanny--and her son. Hopefully Zoe will come through unscathed In my own case, my mother was divorced and a maid took care of me, and I came through okay, I think."
An Early Look at the Biz
Edelman's mother, formerly fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago, exposed her son to theatre early on. "She did all the window displays, and I helped, so lighting and scene design was part of my life." Edelman also experienced live theatre at an early age. "My mother took me to 'Hair' when I was in sixth grade, which left the other parents aghast."
Edelman went on to Northwestern University, where he majored in theatre. Performing in the chorus of "Evita," for the national touring company, he gained his Equity card while still in school, and later made his Broadway debut in that show. There followed stage, film, and television appearances, as well as road shows, with emphasis on musicals. Over the years, there were mentors like writer Joe Masteroff (his daughter's godfather) and acting teacher Alan Savage. James Naughton, Edelman's co-star in "City of Angels," was both big brother and friend, reminding him very much of his own brother.
There have been dry spells and difficult moments, Edelman admits. And though he has never waited tables, he has considered, from time to time, other professions.
"I sometimes think real estate might be the answer. Every so often I write down the 800 number, and my wife finds it and says, 'My God, are you thinking of buying that real estate course again!' "
He recalls one particularly dark moment when "City of Angels" opened: "It was a tense time, with a new show. On opening night I got sick and had absolutely no voice. All my songs had been fashioned to show off my big range and my long notes, and it was just devastating. Later I remember hiding in the bathroom, thinking, 'This is a nightmare!' "
Nonetheless, he went on to gain a Tony nomination for the show.
As to the future, what happens after "1776" closes in November? Edelman hopes that directors will no longer see him as an affable fellow--and that challenging work will come his way.
Meanwhile, there is the joyous present, graced by a show and a family in which he delights. But Gregg Edelman must keep that affability, so instinctive, under control. It dare not surface on stage. q
"You must play a villain as if he's justified in what he's doing.
You have to understand where he's coming