Erich Bergen climbs onboard
'Anything Goes' opens at the Golden Gate Theatre
by Richard Dodds
It was 10 a.m., and Anything Goes star Erich Bergen was on the phone from Los Angeles. Before breakfast but with coffee in hand, he was revved up for a conversation. He had already warmed up with a phone chat with his mother. "She said, 'Well, what other things have you gotten yourself into today?' It's been like that my entire life. I'm not good at sitting still."
So far, he's only gotten himself into two extracurricular events during the Jan. 8- Feb. 3 run of Anything Goes at the Golden Gate Theatre, including a benefit concert with the Anything Goes company on Jan. 21 for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation, and the debut of a new cabaret act at the relocated Rrazz Room on Jan. 28. It's a similar pattern to his activities when he helped launch the national tour of Jersey Boys, playing Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio, at the Curran Theatre in 2007.
Just 20 years old when he opened in Jersey Boys, it was his first big-time Broadway musical, playing it here for months before another long run in Las Vegas, where he also found time for high-profile outside endeavors, from performing at the Liberace Museum to organizing a benefit concert following the death of Michael Jackson. "I never paid my dues, like most people do in summer stock and what-not," he said. "I'm sure in my later years I'll work backwards."
Bergen worried at first that Anything Goes might be such a backwards step. "I had no desire to go out on the road again and have it not be the mega-hit that Jersey Boys was. Thank God I said yes, because it's been the time of my life."
In Anything Goes, Bergen plays Billy Crocker, a young Wall Street broker who stows away aboard the S.S. American to pursue the girl of his fantasies, the socialite Hope Harcourt, who is engaged to a titled Englishman. The plot also involves gangsters posing as clergy, and Billy being mistaken for Public Enemy No. 1, though his old friend Reno Sweeney, an evangelist-turned-singer, is also onboard to help Billy in his exploits.
Reno Sweeney was the role created in 1934 by Ethel Merman, for whom Cole Porter wrote such songs as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," and the title song. The touring production, based on the 2011 Broadway revival, stars Broadway veteran Rachel York as Reno Sweeney. "For both Rachel and me, our heroes were the entertainers, people who lived off whatever the audience gave back to them, so when we have scenes together it's literally different each night."
Jersey Boys, a contemporary musical rooted in oldies rock, and Anything Goes, a quintessential example of a very-oldies musical, might seem experiences far apart for both audiences and performers. Bergen has a "yes and no" take on the question.
For the audience, "there are more similarities than I thought," said Bergen, "I think what Jersey Boys did was to introduce audiences again to having a good time in the theater. And even though Anything Goes is very different in terms of style and music, it reminds me as an actor on stage of Jersey Boys. The audience is again like another character in the show, because the jokes are so vaudevillian and set up in a way where we really need that audience's laughter to continue to the next line."
But Anything Goes definitely exercises some different muscles for Bergen as a performer. "With Anything Goes, not only do I have to be on the top of my game with my health, because my voice doesn't go to that old-fashioned Broadway thing as naturally as it does for others, there is the dancing, which is on a completely other level. It's like [the traditional] Anything Goes on steroids."
Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who has specialized in Broadway musical revival, creates demanding choreography that tells a story through dance. "At least it's hard for me," Bergen said. "I've always been a good mover because of being obsessed with Michael Jackson from an early age. I remember freaking out in rehearsal because I wasn't getting the dance numbers right, and Kathleen said to me, 'Stop, we hired you to do what you do, and we hired them to do what they do.'"
Bergen is scheduled to continue with the tour through Feb. 17, after the show has left SF, and he may rejoin it next summer. But he wanted time off to work on songwriting projects, as well as to be available for casting during TV pilot season. He played recurring characters in several episodes of Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girls after his schedule unexpectedly became open when he was fired from the Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys for unclear reasons.
"I wish it hadn't gone down the way it did, but I'm thankful because it gave me a very early show-business punch in the face," he said. "I had gotten all this handed to me on a platter, and I didn't know what I was doing. I hadn't paid my dues, learned how to be a professional."
And yet there is a twist to this story. He signed with a manager (who is still his manager) at age 10, after she saw him in an after-school theater program, and he worked steadily in commercials and voiceovers. "Part of me feels like I've been working straight without a break since I was 10," he said. His parents had nudged him into performing as a way to work off excess energy "that certainly wasn't going into sports."
Having grown up in Manhattan's Chelsea district, above a piano store-turned-sex shop, he was surprised when he headed off to college that there was such a thing as a gay-straight divide. "Gay people have been in my life since I was born. I'm not even one of these people who are like, I'm a straight person for gay rights. I'm coming from it from the opposite way, almost from a Zanna Don't world," referencing the musical about a high school in which gays are in the majority and straights are the outcasts, "so that's why I've always been very – I have no qualms – let's just say that on my iPod, I have both Eminem and Judy Garland."
And so, within his high-torque life and career, has he found time for romance? "I don't want to say anything specific," Bergen said, "but just let me say that when I sing, 'All Through the Night' every night, it definitely brings a new meaning right now."
Anything Goes will run Jan. 8-Feb. 3 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets are $40-$200. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to www.shnsf.com.