“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” playwright and director Moss Hart wrote in Act One, his long-ago bestselling memoir.
“My diagnosis came later,” says Santino Fontana. “I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid.”
Fontana, born more than two decades after Hart died, is one of three actors who portray him at different ages of his life in a stage adaptation of Hart’s memoir at Lincoln Center, written and directed by James Lapine, which opens April 17th.
“This is an iconic book in the theater, at least with the older generations of theater artists,” says Lapine. “It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to share this story with a new generation…and also to celebrate my thirty-plus years working in this world.”
It’s a world that Moss Hart dominated for decades, and one for which he yearned from a very young age. That first look at Broadway that he talks about in his memoir happened when he was 12 years old and finally took the subway from his Bronx home to Times Square: “A swirling mob of happy, laughing people filled the streets, and others hung from the windows of every building…” The air was filled with confetti, noisemakers and paper streamers. His first visit happened to coincide with Election Day, 1916.
“Much of the book feels apocryphal,” Fontana says, taking a break in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont. “Whether it happened that way or not, that’s how he remembered it.”
Fontana’s Broadway is not Moss Hart’s. “So much has changed.” The theater for Hart was a path out of poverty. These days, the theater takes many in the exact opposite direction.
It is true that some still grow up with the Broadway bug, but Fontana says he was not one of them. Born in Stockton, California and raised in a small town in the State of Washington, he says “As a child I didn’t even have any idea what Broadway was. And I don’t really have a first memory of seeing Times Square.”
Still, if there is a marked difference in their life and times, so there are also striking similarities between Moss Hart and the actor who is portraying him as a young man.
That is why Lapine cast him: “Santino is smart, charming and plausible as a great writer.”
In Moss Hart’s day, success in the theater took timing and luck, as Hart writes in Act One. “Timing and luck haven’t changed,” says Fontana, who admits he’s been very lucky. But he can lay legitimate claim to being the unluckiest lucky actor in New York.
A Star Is Born Yesterday
Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater. As a director, he won a Tony for the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along. He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted. As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye, and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.
None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called Act One. The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on an amusing, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit co-written with his mentor George S. Kaufman, Once In A Lifetime, when Hart was 26 years old.
Santino Fontana was 26 years old when he made his Broadway debut, in Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, following up the same year by originating the role of Tony the older brother in Billy Elliott.
“I was knocked out by Santino’s work,” says Lapine. “I think him to be a very unique acting talent. He seems to be able to do everything, from classical material to musicals.”
“Working with Santino has been a humbling and awe-inspiring experience,” says Tony Shalhoub, who plays the older Moss Hart. “He is tremendously skilled, inventive, mercurial and generous as an actor, and what’s even more painful, he makes it all seem effortless…. On breaks, he plops down at the piano and his fingers just fly – worrying me further that perhaps there is nothing he can’t do.”
Act One is the seventh Broadway show featuring Fontana, now 31. His life may seem as charmed as was Hart’s; indeed, his last role on Broadway was playing Prince Charming, in Cinderella. (He played another prince for Disney, voicing Prince Hans in Frozen.)
Fontana was five years old when he first started acting: “It was a Thanksgiving play. I was the turkey. I do remember spearheading the production.” At 6, his mother took him to a production of Grapes of Wrath. At 11, he played the Artful Dodger in a community theater production of Oliver. As student body president in high school, he made announcements every morning, and turned them into three-minute skits. He even performed in some school productions of Kaufman-Hart plays. But it wasn’t until he attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan one summer that he changed his mind about a baseball career. “There was nobody in my hometown that made their living in the arts. But these kids knew about theater; I felt I fit in.”
Once he’d decided on his path, it was a quick ascent. He was accepted as an undergraduate in a joint program of the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater, which hired him as a company member upon graduation. At 22, he got his first job in New York, a workshop with James Lapine. He played Hamlet at the Guthrie at age 23. A few years later, he was on Broadway.
Then his luck took a mischievous turn. He was cast as a lead in the Broadway revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, receiving good reviews for the first show. But Brighton Beach Memoirs closed in a week, and Broadway Bound was canceled. The very next day, he was cast in A View From The Bridge opposite Scarlett Johansson. But then in a preview performance he hit his head against the table during a fight scene. It was a far more serious injury that he at first realized, and he was forced to withdraw from the production. “From an MRI it looked like I had been in a car accident. The doctor flat-out said ‘we don’t know how much your memory will come back.’ I couldn’t get through the alphabet without stopping. I got migraines. I couldn’t use my eyes for three weeks; I had to stay in dark rooms.”
Even when he started to recover, it was a tricky time to try to get a new role. “You don’t want to appear injured – but you don’t want to get re-injured.”
It took him six months before he did a reading. It was for Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet. “I read ‘It’s been a bad year’– that was the character’s last line – and I lost it.” He started sobbing. “They probably thought ‘Oh, we’ve got a really good actor.’” Fontana was cast Off-Broadway in the role, and received solid raves for his performance. Critics compared him to Tom Hanks and Tony Shalhoub, called him a great performer and a star in the making. “I didn’t work for a year after that.” The producers of Cinderella had cast him – but it took a year to get the musical in front of paying customers.
The oddly paired ups-and-downs over the past few years make Fontana appreciate all the more some of Hart’s pointed observations in Act One. “The theatre, strictly speaking, is not a business at all,” Hart wrote, “but a collection of individualized chaos that operates best when it is allowed to flower in its proper medley of disorder, derangement, irregularity and confusion.”
Hart is said to have had deep periods of depression, something unmentioned in his memoir, but detailed in later biographies. Evidence of such despair can arguably be parsed between the lines of Act One. In recounting a particular low point in his efforts to forge a career, Hart wrote, “I wondered ruefully if the theater was really worth it.”
Fontana can relate. “I still do that. It’s hard. There’s no real security.”
Most of Hart’s words in Act One, though, are tinged with humor, and affection, and wonder for his life in the arts.
While working on Once on A Lifetime, Hart recalled his co-writer Kaufman casually inviting him to a party that turned out to have “everyone I had ever read or hero-worshipped from afar”– from George Gershwin to Dorothy Parker to Harpo Marx. Fontana felt the same awe when he was invited, as part of the cast of his first Broadway show to a party being given by Stephen Sondheim.
In the morning of the opening night of Once in a Lifetime, Hart described how he suddenly saw Broadway in a different light:
“The tawdriness and the glitter were gone. It seemed to stand hushed and waiting – as if eager to welcome all the new actors and playwrights struggling to reach it.”
Soon afterward, certifiably rich and famous, Moss Hart made two vows: He would never take the hated subway of his youth again, and he would never get out of bed before noon.
“I take the train,” says Santino Fontana, who is in the Act One of his career, “but I wouldn’t mind getting up past noon.”