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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 13, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 15
Titanic's unsinkable Edward Watts
Arts & Entertainment
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Titanic's unsinkable Edward Watts

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Titanic
April 13-15
5th Avenue Theatre


You may not know his name, but you'll recognize his face. Depending on which show you saw at the 5th Avenue Theatre, you might even recognize his body. Edward Watts has done theater in New York, across the country and has performed in Seattle on several occasions. The 5th Avenue is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's tragic voyage by putting on a concert version of the 1997 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Playing the role of Barrett, the ship's stoker, is Edward Watts. Taking time between shows in New York, Watts spoke to the Seattle Gay News about The Fantasticks, Titanic, and the roles he'd like to play.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences?

Edward Watts: I came into this business quite late. My first influences were my paternal grandparents. They were big into theater and so I went when I went to visit them in California. I saw Annie Get Your Gun and thought it was a lot of fun. The following year my school did a production of the show and I got the lead. Beyond that, there were never any movie stars that influenced me. It was definitely a family thing.

Andrews-Katz: What was the first professional acting job you had?

Watts: Outside of high school, when I moved to New York, I did a show called Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Me. I was not in the union yet, but it was the first show I did. After I got my Equity card, the first show was Titanic, directed by David Armstrong out in Long Island at the Gateway Playhouse. It was the first regional production of the musical since it closed on Broadway.

Andrews-Katz: Seattle audiences have seen you at the 5th Avenue in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Which makes the transfer easier: stage musical to screen, or movie musical to stage?

Watts: I'd have to say the latter, mainly because so many movie musicals have come to the stage; they seem ready for the stage. Seven Brides is a great example. Everyone knew that musical because of the film. It sort of baffles me why it doesn't have a wider appeal. The audiences are built-in for shows like that after seeing them on screen. More recently, there are many musicals going from stage to screen. I've never been impressed with those. They [movie studios] hire stars who can't necessarily sing. They are lavishly produced but they don't have the same pull. With things that are being produced for the stage first, you are seeing them live, and once you see them that way, the film versions just seem more impersonal.

Andrews-Katz: You've performed on TV (Sopranos, As the World Turns) and on stage. Which do you think holds the bigger challenge for yourself?

Watts: Stage, definitely. I was raised in the theater. My first TV experiences didn't come until later in my career. The toughest part is the waiting around. I've never done any long-term shows on TV, so I don't know if that would make a difference. You have to learn the entire [stage] show by heart from start-to-finish and in chronological order. There's no stopping and restarting. One of the great things about it is that whatever your emotional state is at the time, you get to live it right on stage, and it can be difficult doing a show eight times a week. But for me, that's what makes it a tad bit easier. Once you're there, and you've done the work on stage, you can live it again and again. It's a little more difficult of course, because you have an added factor of an audience, the last character of any show. Every audience will affect your performance differently.

Andrews-Katz: Currently you are playing El Gallo in the classic The Fantasticks. Despite the show's simplicity, what makes it the longest-running off-Broadway musical in American history?

Watts: I actually was lucky to be part of the 50th anniversary production two years ago. The simplicity of the show is a major part, but aside from that I think it is one of the most classic love stories: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, there's turmoil, they grow apart and then come back together again. The language Tom Jones uses in the script is real and very poetic, and they are mingled in such a beautiful way. The music is what so many people remember - I think it touches everyone who ever comes to see the show. I've done the show over 800 times, and it still speaks to me every performance. That's a testament to the language of the script. It's so excellently crafted.

Andrews-Katz: The lead character of The Fantasticks, El Gallo, both helps and hinders the lovers of the show. Is he an antagonist or protagonist character for the musical?

Watts: In the show he's known as 'The Bandit' as well as being a narrator. I see him not in the slightest as an antagonist. He is the vehicle for these two kids to learn maturity and to grow. I've had a few performances where people treat it as melodrama and there's good-natured hissing when I take my bow. But for El Gallo, showing Matt the darker side of life hurts him as well. I choose to see his journey as a way to a good thing. There's always that moment at the end where he knows he's brought about this union of lovers. He recognizes that moment, but he continues his journey alone. It's noble in a way.

Andrews-Katz: Coming up for the 5th Avenue, you are singing in Titanic, the musical concert. What is it about this unfortunate disaster that seems to have captured America's attention for 100 years?

Watts: For me, it's the people involved on the ship. When I did the show 12 years ago, I discovered that most people knew it was a majestic ship - the biggest in the world - and the irony of it being called 'unsinkable.' But for me, it's the stories of all the other people. Not only the good ones - the people who gave up seats on lifeboats for others - but also the sad, noble love story of Mr. and Mrs. Strauss. It touched me every night watching that couple sing their song every night. Then there's the cowardice of the ship's builder Ismay, who took a seat on a lifeboat to escape. The humanity of the stories is what's interesting, and often the most inspiring part of the show. Without those stories it would just be a big boat that sunk.

Andrews-Katz: What was your initial reaction when you first heard the words, 'Titanic, the musical'?

Watts: I'm sure, like many other people, I thought, 'Really? How you gonna do that?' I actually never did see the Broadway production mainly because [had] other things to do and knew no one in the show. I was pretty shocked by it. I knew about the ship, of course, but not much about the stories of those involved.

Andrews-Katz: In preparation for your character - Barrett, the Titanic's stoker - did you do any research into the real-life disaster?

Watts: Over the years I've read about it and learned a few things. I saw the movie, of course, and originally I played a third-class passenger and sang another stoker role. The interesting thing was learning about the class system, that they were so divided on that ship. The rich were taken care of, but the lower classes were down at the bottom of the ship and they were the ones that mostly died because they couldn't get out. That was interesting to know there was such a division line. My current character Barrett comes from the coal mines of Ireland and he finds himself in the same predicament, shoveling coal and never seeing the deck. It's ironic that he goes on the ship to get a better life, and yet it's the same - he's not getting out of his lot in life.

Andrews-Katz: What roles - regardless of gender - would you like to perform?

Watts: I've enjoyed playing a lot of the leading male roles, so I look forward to developing new roles. Someday I'd like to play Phantom [from The Phantom of the Opera], but as an actor to start out a role without being in anyone else's footsteps is like the Holy Grail. You don't get held up to other people's performances. I've performed Harold Hill from The Music Man, but that will always be a role that belongs to Robert Preston.

Titanic opened on Broadway on March 29, 1997, and ran for over 800 performances. Focusing on the true stories of the passengers, the book was written by Peter Stone (1776) and music/lyrics by Maury Yeston (Nine). The 5th Avenue Theatre presents a concert version of the musical - with full orchestra - in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the ship's maiden voyage and sinking.

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