Broadway World interviews Paint Your Wagon’s Robert Cuccioli
Kristen Montag, Broadway World Minneapolis 8/8/16
Robert Cuccioli has a long career on stage and an unusual path to get there. He comes to the Ordway stage in an all-new production of Lerner & Loewe’s PAINT YOUR WAGON that the Ordway is collaborating with Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre on, which includes a new book and orchestrations. If you were one who saw the film version or an obscure, little-performed original script version in the past, this musical will surprise you. It’s considerably changed, though it contains many elements of the earlier productions. In this 6 Questions & a Plug, we get to hear a little about the show and lead character from Cuccioli himself.
PAINT YOUR WAGON has not been done much in this area—possibly the last production of it locally was a community theatre production I directed in the late 1990s—so not many will be familiar with the story outside of those who have seen the film. With a new book, or so-called “revisal,” of the show, however, can you start by telling our readers what changes to expect in the story and characters?
I can’t speak to the changes from the original since I have never seen it. I do remember seeing the movie a very long time ago when it first came out, but I don’t remember anything about that either and deliberately did not refresh my memory. This PAINT YOUR WAGON is a completely new script and story, so I wanted to treat it as a new play and didn’t want any influences in creating my character, Ben Rumson.
Whatever people may remember from the original, this story still takes place during the Gold Rush era (1850s) in California. It’s about men and women of every race, religion and creed wanting “The American Dream”… to get rich and to start fresh. It’s a story of how this period of time threw together all different cultures: the challenges they faced together and how they overcame them. It’s a story of greed, grief, race relations, and yes, romance. People may find it remarkable how much things have changed, yet how much things have not. The names of many of the characters may be the same, though who they are is different. People will remember the music, though the arrangements have been given a very new and fresh feel with a touch of Blue Grass in the orchestrations. There have been minor changes to lyrics (with permission and blessings from both the Lerner and Loewe estates), and some music has been used from the film.
Since you’re unfamiliar with the original, in that version, some of it could be considered as potentially racist or insensitive in current times (though it was not seen as such in 1951), however relevant today. Based on your knowledge of the current show, did book writer Jon Marans remove the conflict over interracial romance, religious issues & plural marriage from the early book in this version?
I would not consider this book as racist or insensitive, yet some other same conflicts are still there. It’s is factually true to the period in which this takes place. I think people will be fascinated, not offended, by Jon’s (the book’s author) take on this.
Lerner & Loewe’s music from this musical may be familiar to people despite never having seen the show. Your character, Ben Rumson, sings some of the best-known melodies, such as “They Call the Wind Maria.” Is that your favorite tune in the show, or if it is not, what is the song you most enjoy and why?
In the original story*, Ben Rumson did not sing “They Call the Wind Maria,” so that is one change. I don’t pick out favorite songs or moments when I do shows. I do love singing “Maria” very much, as well as, “I Still See Elisa” and “Wanderin’ Star.” I also enjoy listening to “Another Autumn,” the orchestration to “No Name City,” “Gold Fever,” “Carino Mio” and “I Talk to the Trees.”
Can you tell us a little about who your character, Ben, is and what drives your performance in this show? Did you study up on the Gold Rush?
Ben was a State Senator from Tennessee. He always had a penchant for wandering, but when his wife passed away, he put his daughter (Jennifer) in a Boarding School, shirked society and ran off to be a fur trapper, alone in the wilderness. He is, however, what I like to call an “accidental moralist.” He is a man with a strong sense of “right and wrong” and though he never seeks out injustice, whenever it’s blatantly in front of him he cannot turn away even though he tries. Inadvertently, he gets pulled back into society and the world. And, yes, I did research the Gold Rush, the time period and the people prior to being in and during the previous run of this show.
You’re probably best known for your JEKYLL & HYDE where you received a Tony nomination starring alongside our own Linda Eder (a Minnesotan for the uninformed!). What have you been working on since that show that has lead you to PAINT YOUR WAGON now?
I left JEKYLL & HYDE in 1999. What I’ve worked on since then is just too numerous to mention. I’ve done much in regional theatre from Shakespeare to classic plays, such as Othello, Hamlet, Anthony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Amadeus, School for Scandal and The Seafarer; musical comedies and dramas such as 1776, Nine, Camelot, Phantom, Jesus Christ Superstar, and many more. I made my directorial debut and continue to direct. I also recorded and released my debut solo album in 2012 called, “The Look of Love.” I spent a lot of time working on and developing new pieces, both plays and musicals, such as Bikeman: a 9/11 Play, Cutman, A Moon to Dance By (with Jane Alexander), SCKBSTD (a Bruce Hornsby musical), My Life is a Musical, and many more. 2012 saw my return to Broadway as Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin in SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. This past year, I played Mayer Rothschild in yet another “revisal” off-Broadway. This of the Harnick/Bock musical THE ROTHSCHILDS, entitled ROTHSCHILD AND SONS.
I read that you have a degree in Finance and started out life as a financial consultant. What caused your change in course and where did you get your start in theatre and acting?
I always enjoyed singing, but never thought of doing it as a career. I played in school shows in high school and college, as well as community theatre. I also had a band, but I was guided into a career in finance by my parents and I thought that was what I wanted to do as well. My senior year of college I realized there was another choice. I was performing in GODSPELL at my college, St. John’s University, when a number of people said to me, “You’re really good, did you ever think of going into this as a career?” And that’s when the light bulb went off and I said to myself, “If I don’t try this, I’ll say ‘what if’ all my life!” Though I had no formal training, I decided to try my hand at acting as a career; meanwhile, I worked on Wall Street for E.F. Hutton (some may remember them). A friend of mine from community theatre got me an audition for The Light Opera of Manhattan (L.O.O.M.), which was a repertory company doing Gilbert & Sullivan and operettas 52 weeks out of the year. While performing one, you would rehearse the next and change every 2 weeks. I got a job in the chorus and this became my training ground: working in front of an audience. I did that and continued to work on Wall Street for another year and a half until I quit the finance world. I was at L.O.O.M. a total of 3 years, working my way from the chorus to lead baritone and getting my Equity card. That was in the early 80s and I never looked back and I never stopped working as an actor since.
Do you have a plan for what’s next—will PAINT YOUR WAGON move on to another city or a return to Broadway, or will you tackle another role?
What’s next? Sometimes is never planned, and that usually turns out to be the most exciting thing. I’m convinced that PAINT YOUR WAGON will have a strong life after this run. I know our producing team already has something in the works. They (our producers), our creative team and cast have a strong belief and commitment to this show and its future. I’m excited to see what lies ahead.