Erich Bergen identifies easily with the brash, impetuous character of Billy Crocker, the romantic lead Bergen plays in Cole Porter’s insouciant 1934 musical “Anything Goes,” which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Nov. 28.
“I’m horrible at waiting for auditions,” the 26-year-old actor said during a phone interview from Wilmington, Del., where the show was playing recently as part of the national tour of the 2011 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival production. “I’ve waited outside casting directors’ doors. If someone won’t see me, I’ll finagle an invitation to a party or somehow find a way to get myself in front of that person.”
And when it comes to love, he said, “I don’t really have a middle ground; I have a zero and a 10. I’ve jumped on a plane after a show in Las Vegas and flown to L.A. to surprise my girlfriend at her door and loved that rush. I’ve written and videotaped songs to women. My whole album ‘Vegas Sessions’ is like that.”
The musical’s director, Kathleen Marshall, calls the 6-foot-3 Bergen (best-known for “Jersey Boys”) “tall, dark and handsome,” with “the deft comic touch of a young Cary Grant.”
That comes in handy in his portrayal of Billy, an ambitious stockbroker who stows away on an ocean liner to woo his beloved, Hope (Alex Finke) — never mind that she is already engaged to a wealthy aristocrat. With the help of his gal pal Reno Sweeney (Rachel York, in the role originated by Ethel Merman), Billy eludes the watchful eyes of the ship’s purser by disguising himself as a sailor and a gangster. High jinks on the high seas erupt in Porter’s lavish, Art Deco musical, which was written as escapist fare during the Great Depression and is jam-packed with leggy dancers as well as well as classic Porter standards like “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
Creating his own, distinctive Billy became paramount for Bergen after Marshall cast him earlier this year. The actor had seen his friend Colin Donnell perform the part on Broadway but knew he had to take a different route. “I wish I could be as smooth as Colin is, but I’m not,” he said. “So I just had to figure out a way to make the role something I was comfortable with. What I discovered is that Billy is sort of a street kid, someone who talks his way to the top. He watches how the successful businessmen and playboys around him dress and walk, and he sort of found the right suit and talked his way into this job where he’s making $35 a week, which he’s very proud of.
“Our director was very specific that because the play is a farce — you can’t intentionally go to that place or everyone’s going to become a clown,” Bergen added. “So I’ve tried to keep Billy as real as possible, so he doesn’t become a caricature.”
Erich Bergman and Rachel York in “Anything Goes.” Photo by Joan Marcus
For Bergen, that meant going further than just watching MGM ballroom dancing classics starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He studied photographs of stylish men in Manhattan in the 1930s and envisioned himself walking down those New York City streets.
Bergen also refused to dismiss “Anything Goes” as mere escapist fluff. He notes that Cole Porter was a gay man who married a woman in order to adhere to convention, and that the composer must have brought some of that romantic angst to his lovelorn characters. He thus brings a tangible longing to numbers such as “All Through the Night,” where his character yearns for an unavailable lover. “I remember listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the song and thinking, ‘You can really hear the sadness and the despair,’ ” he said.
Bergen was practically born to perform. His parents met as fellow students at the Actors Institute in Manhattan, and while they went on to practice other professions (his mother was an art director in the fashion industry), Bergen grew up among their theatrical friends in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. At age 3, at his parents’ dinner parties, Erich performed Michael Jackson’s 1980s peace song “We Are the World” — which featured the performances of more than 30 celebrities — doing all of the voices himself. He learned to read by studying the songs and record jackets of the family’s CDs and envisioned himself as King-of-Pop Jackson bursting through the floor (or descending through the roof) at the beginning of every performance. “I still do,” Bergen said.
While his mother is a nonpracticing Catholic, Bergen strongly identified with his father’s Jewish family, lighting the Chanukiyah every year as well as attending synagogue and family Passover gatherings. “I found the seder to be a fun, theatrical, improvisational experience that everyone could take part in,” said the actor, who identifies as Jewish.
He likens theater — including “Anything Goes” — to the Passover experience: “We’re all in one room together witnessing something that people for many years have done before us,” he said. “We are not new to this story, but we are experiencing it for the first time together. To me, that’s what I’ve found in the Jewish religion: that the tradition of keeping the story going is what’s most important — of making sure that everyone knows and is affected by the story.”
The national tour of “Anything Goes” isn’t the first time Bergen has performed in the musical. At 11, he was cast as the ship’s purser in a production at the rigorous performing-arts summer camp Stagedoor Manor, in New York, where child performers were treated like adults and Bergen got in trouble during the dress rehearsal. “There was a mishap where we were using a live dog in the show,” said the actor, who was supposed to carry the canine onstage in one scene but panicked when he discovered that Fido was AWOL. “I walked onstage in the middle of the show and yelled, ‘I can’t find the dog!’ And then I could hear the director screaming at me from the back of the theater. Someone actually had to take him out of the theater to calm him down.” It was Bergen’s first lesson in the old adage, “The show must go on.”
“Thank God we’re using a stuffed dog in this production,” he said.
The Stagedoor experience, however, gave Bergen an appreciation for Porter’s precise, sophisticated style; he still remembers dissecting the complex rhyme and meter in lyrics such as, “When every night, the set that’s smart/is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” “And of course, the songs can be extremely risqué,” he added. “The double entendres in ‘You’re the Top’ alone are scandalous. I don’t know what they were thinking, doing this with 11-year-olds.”
Bergen’s big break came nine years later, when he was cast as Bob Gaudio in the national tour of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” He received kudos for his performance, he said, but, “I let it go to my head and behaved like an ass.” Three years into the run, his contract was terminated, he said, due to “toxic behavior on my part and others. I had been shot out of a cannon on the road at 20 without paying any dues in summer stock or regional theater, and I never learned the real way to behave in that kind of situation. At the end of the day, it was my fault, and I take responsibility for it now. But none of that has impinged on the love I have for the show.”
Nor, apparently, did it impinge on his career: Two weeks after he left “Jersey Boys,” Bergen was cast as a guest star on “Gossip Girls” and went on to appear on “Desperate Housewives” as well as in a film, “How Sweet It Is,” opposite Paul Sorvino and Joe Piscopo, before being cast in “Anything Goes.”
His current gig has come with a lion’s share of challenges: Several of the songs, if sung by rote, can come off as “lists” (“Think: ‘It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious, it’s de-lovely,’ ” Bergen said.) The actor found his way into that ditty by envisioning himself as the suave Cole Porter at a dinner party, pretending to be making up the lyrics on the spot.
Then there’s the five-minute dance break in the middle of “De-Lovely,” “when we’re breathing hard, and we’re just exhausted, and I then have to run up a flight of stairs and start singing again,” he said. “The trick is how to make it look romantic, and that you’re in love with your dance partner. My way in was to just envision myself as Fred Astaire.”
Even so, he said, “Every night, I come off the stage spent. I’ve lost weight since the beginning of the tour: I was 192 pounds, and now I’m 177.”
And yet, Bergen makes it all look effortless, director Marshall said in an e-mail. “Erich is that rarity in theater — a genuine triple-threat leading man. He sings beautifully, dances with style and grace, and he is a wonderful actor.”
Finke said the actor brings an endearing quality to the subversive Billy. “He’s able to create this mischievous character who does some troublemaking but still has such a good heart,” she said in a telephone interview. “He manages to keep the audience rooting for him, despite all of his shenanigans.”
For tickets and information, visit centertheatregroup.org.