Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to the story of Peter Pan. Told cleverly with a talented cast depicting more than a hundred characters, one performance definitely stands out in the crowd. John Sanders, as Black Stache, almost single-handedly steals the show.
Playing a comical Captain Hook is just one of the many roles Sanders has brought to life. Not only was he an original cast member on Broadway for Starcatcher, but he was also in Matilda the Musical. His Chicago credits include working for some of the top theaters in the city like Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, and Stage Left.
He returns to his roots with the national tour of Peter and the Starcatcher. Windy City Times caught up with him to discuss it while in town.
Windy City Times: Hi, John. I was just reading in the program that a friend of mine from college theater did the sound for Peter. His name is Darron L West.
John Sanders: You know Darron? He won a Tony for doing the sound design for this show.
WCT: I didn't even know that fact!
John Sanders: It is not only for the obvious stuff that you hear like sound effects and musicians but people are surprised that we have mics. The beauty of that accomplishment to make us sound very real and live coming from the stage is something worthy of note.
WCT: Have you been with this show since the beginning?
John Sanders: Not originally. It was commissioned through Roger Rees and his husband Rick Elice based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. They decided to turn it into a play so they got Roger who had done Nicholas Nickleby with sort of the same style.
They just went out to the prop room to figure out how to build some of these sequences. Eight months later they started writing the script. Most of the physical sequences were done first.
I remember I was doing Turn of the Century here at the Goodman Theatre when I first met Roger at the opening night. He randomly told me they were doing a workshop of a play in that conversation. Years later my agent got the call that they wanted me to audition for the Broadway production. I went to New York and was cast in the original Broadway company.
I moved to New York and was in the original company of Matilda the Musical then I was asked to play Stache on the tour. I left Matilda to do this tour and we have been all over the country. It's great to be back in Chicago.
WCT: Matilda was a big hit, also.
John Sanders: It was a great experience. I have been in big musicals before at the Goodman and Drury Lane. I led Mama Mia for a while on the road. Being a part of a 16 million dollar Broadway musical from the beginning of the process and being on the Tonys, Letterman, and The View was really amazing. Starcatcher is the little play that did but Matilda was the Michael Bay of Broadway productions!
I guess Spider-Man was really that being financed at $70 million but the typical Broadway musical was around Matilda's price.
WCT: Did you always want to be in theater?
John Sanders: Yeah, and I always have been in theater. It was in high school where I had an amazing department there in California. They threw a lot of money at the arts and really valued it. I majored in it in Oregon then moved to Chicago. I was here eleven years before moving on to New York.
WCT: How much fun is the big drag number?
John Sanders: You mean the mermaid number? It's amazing. Paloma Young also won a Tony for her costumes, and that is a big part of it. It is great when they design around you. It allows you to be what is intended and not have to do much. That is one of those great opportunities when you walk out on stage and people start applauding. We just look so hilarious!
WCT: Who did you model Black Stache after?
John Sanders: There have been a lot of influences comedically in my life from Leslie Nielsen to Monty Python. One of the films I started watching getting ready for this role was Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I. He is so weird and tortured in that movie. He is convinced that he is surrounded by fools. This guy is on a singular mission that no one else can understand and so is Stache.
WCT: Do you have to reel in your character sometimes?
John Sanders: It is always a balance to strike the right aesthetic tone for the scene. There is a lot of ways to play a character like this either from the outside in or the other way around. There is a Marx Brothers feel to it. There is not always a narrative reason for a bit to exist but the best clowning always has an idea behind it. I hope that is what I accomplish in my time here in Chicago.
WCT: Do you believe your character is really flamboyant or do you think he's gay?
John Sanders: I don't really know. This is the type of person that is open in all of those ways. When he sees Boy for the first time at the very end of act one when they see each other there is a long pause. Stache is open to all of those experiences. I still find it very useful to answer that question.
WCT: People asked the same question when Johnny Depp played a very flamboyant pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean.
John Sanders: You know when J.K. Rowling mentioned that, for her, Dumbledore is gay? It was important because of the movement and gay rights. It was important for her because of the motivation of the character and why things happened in his life the way that they did.
The motivation for me is not Stache's sexuality in terms of the build. I can't speak for the writer. In terms of me being the interpreter I'm more interested in what is happening in the moment. In the moment I find it more useful to be open to everything.
WCT: How many times do you say "Oh, my God" when he loses the hand?
John Sanders: [Laughs] Sometimes the sound guys time me because they find that's funny. They let me know if I have hit a record or not.
The fun part of that bit is having a conversation with the audience. It is like an existential scream of what has happened to me. I have lost an appendage!
WCT: It's the process of your character wrapping his mind around losing a hand then.
John Sanders: Yes, we all have a primal scream inside of us. It is freaking great to let it out! It is really daunting and mountain to climb every night.
WCT: It must be like a roller coaster that you can't get off each night.
John Sanders: You can't. You are paid to ride the whole thing!
WCT: Did you improv with this bit much?
John Sanders: There are only two areas where we have the freedom to say something different than the script. One of them is that and the other one is when the hand gets bandied about. Sometimes it goes offstage! We have to deal with that situation.
The hand bit was originally developed to have a lot to it. I was around on Broadway when it was being developed so I have never been coached through it. It is an opportunity to have a conversation with the audience about this crazy weird thing that happened.
WCT: It is like your solo act.
John Sanders: It is. It's interesting that this show and Once the Musical came out at the same time. They are both very Chicago style shows. Once is a musical that plays like a play and Peter is a play that plays like a musical.
Peter and the Starcatcher flies now through April 13 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. For showtimes and tickets, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com or call 800-775-2000.