Today is Barbra Streisands 72nd birthday! To celebrate, contributor Marcus Scott interviews Buyer & Cellar star, Christopher J. Hanke and dishes about the diva and other theater favorites.
In an episode of Will & Grace, Will gives some helpful advice to Karen’s recently outed cousin Barry: “Liza, Judy, Barbara, Bette, these are names I shan’t forget.” There’s a reason and Barbra, with her volcanic vibrato, always stood out. Just ask anyone who saw her star turns in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Funny Girl. Five decades later, she returns to the New York stage (well, sort of) in Jonathan Tolins’ crowd-pleaser Buyer & Cellar at the Barrow Street Theatre. Taking over for “Ugly Betty” actor Michael Urie, Christopher J. Hanke jumps into the role of Alex, the out of work L.A. actor who lands a gig working in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall, with total abandon. Hanke dished between shows about his career, the challenge of a one-man show, typecasting and his journey with Babs.
Christopher J. Hanke: Sorry, I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Manhattan trying to find a charger and a outlet, like you do when you’re running around Manhattan. I look like a homeless person… So, did you see the show?
Marcus Scott: Yes, I did. You were terrific.
CJH: Thank you. Jonathan Tolins is a comedic genius and I am just so honored to say his words.
MS: Were you familiar with Jonathan’s work before taking on the role?
CJH: I knew he was a TV writer from his work on the sitcom “Partners” that Michael Urie was on because I tested for it. I was down to the very last wire for the part that Brandon Routh ended up playing.
MS: You and Michael Urie have mingled various times professionally. Not long ago, he took over a role you originated—Bud Frump in the recent Broadway revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—and now you’re taking over for a role he originated Off-Broadway.
CJH: I know, we can’t get rid of each other. We joked that we should probably join forces, [drop] our manager and save money on the commission.
MS: You’re hilarious. Do you consider yourself a comedic actor?
CJH: I always joked that New York City thinks I’m funny and L.A. thinks I’m serious because all my TV credits [are] all drama. All of my comic work is in theater. But it’s fun to do the comedy.
MS: Before taking over, did you have any on-the-spot trivia knowledge of Barbra Streisand?
CJH: None. But when I [did research], I discovered this, like, American treasure that was sitting in front of me and I had no idea. It’s been lovely to unearth her archives. I am obsessed with Barbra under 30-years-old!
MS: Now that you do—favorite desert island Barbra Streisand song?
CJH: There is a song that she sings—it was released on this album, Just for the Record. On that album, there is this song called “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and she’s talking about how depressing love is and it’s tragic and it’s beautiful.
MS: And your favorite film?
CJH: Funny Girl, without a doubt. It was her first film; she won the Oscar for it. But it’s how she’s captured. She’s so quirky and so self-conscious and just a free spirit. There’s a line in Buyer & Cellar where they are rehearsing Gypsy in the basement: That she was spontaneous, warm, and hilarious and I was the only person seeing it, and I feel like her performance in Funny Girl was like that. Free. It was before everything, she was just [using] the gift that God gave her.
MS: If you were trapped in an elevator with any Broadway diva for two hours, who would it be?
CJH: I was trapped in an elevator with Kathy Lee Gifford once. I was trapped in an elevator; I kid you not, in her house! I was doing a presentation of a musical reading that she was hosting out of her sprawling home in Connecticut and I got stuck in it with her between floors. But if I were trapped in a fictitious elevator with any Broadway diva… I’m gonna say Elaine Stritch. Talk about raw. That woman splatters the blood on the stage from her heart to her vocal cords. I’d love to pick her brain about her body of work, her years in the city and living out of the Carlyle Hotel, her battle with alcoholism, all of it…
MS: With that, what is the part of the show, Buyer & Cellar that you connect with the most?
CJH: I really love the end of the play. Alex goes through this trajectory of growing up and understanding what’s important: The circle that you make when you spin around is more important than all the stuff you put around it and I love that moment in the play. It also means I’m 10 minutes away from a margarita, as well.
MS: So, if you could choose your next role, what would it be?
CJH: Hmmm… I would love to do The Book Of Mormon on Broadway. It’s just a great show, so fun. But I think that my dream role would be Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus.
MS: Ooh. That’s a good one!
CJH: I mean, he’s so many things: He’s a child, he’s an adult, he’s a lover, he’s a fighter, he’s charming, he’s hilarious, he’s devastating. He’s so many colors and I would love-love-love to play that part. If I had a dream, I would like to do it opposite Tom Hanks.
Buyer & Cellar
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
Through August 31.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.