Life's been good for Luke Duke of Hazzard

CATCHING UP WITH ... TOM WOPAT

The ex-TV star is back where he started, in musical theater, and that's just fine with him.

April 01, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Tom Wopat has "no complaints."

That phrase pops up more than once in the course of an interview, as in: "I've been in a No. 1 TV show; I've gotten a Tony nomination; I've sung at Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry. I have no complaints."

The TV show was, of course, "The Dukes of Hazzard," in which Wopat and co-star John Schneider drove around, wrecking a succession of Dodge Chargers, from 1978 to 1985.

The Tony nomination was for Wopat's portrayal of Frank Butler, love interest and eventual husband of Annie Oakley, in the musical "Annie Get Your Gun." The show opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

Although "Annie Get Your Gun" will be Wopat's first time on stage in Baltimore, he'll be performing here tomorrow when he sings the national anthem at Camden Yards for the Orioles' Opening Day.

"I've done it probably 20 times in different venues -- basketball, baseball, football," he says. Usually it goes without a hitch, but he had what he calls a little "snafu" at Yankee Stadium last August. "In a baseball stadium, you don't really hear your voice until a second and a half after you sing. Some guys wear earphones, some wear earplugs," he explains.

"There I am in Yankee Stadium, enjoying myself and listening to my voice slap back off center field, and all of the sudden I forgot four words. I finished the song in fine fettle, and probably about 20 percent of the people knew what I did. ... There was a big cheer, but there was a little undercurrent of boos. I thought, 'Man, I love New York.' "

Assured that Baltimore fans are more gracious, Wopat nonetheless insists, "I'm going to nail it down there. I've done it a couple times since then."

Luke Duke

Wopat may be best known as Luke Duke (his Web site sells scale replicas of the Dodge Charger, the General Lee, and he says the fully posable 8-inch Luke Duke action figures are being re-issued), but his background is in musical theater.

The Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" isn't the first time he's portrayed Frank Butler in the Irving Berlin musical. In the mid-1970s, he played the role at the Barn Theatre in Michigan, where he got his start as a professional actor.

Frank is described in the show as a "swollen headed stiff," and Wopat admits the character is "arrogant and self-centered and all those things." For this production, however, Peter Stone revised the original book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. "I think we've made him a little more attractive," Wopat says, "to make it believable that [Annie] would fall in love with him."

Wopat deliberately didn't do much research. "There's a couple different ways of doing research for a role, especially when you're reviving a classic musical like this. Sometimes people look at what's been done before. I didn't think it bore much relevance to what we were going to do," he says. He's surprised to learn, for example, that from 1913 to 1917, Oakley and Butler lived on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where she reportedly shot ducks from her bedroom window.

The musical, however, was never intended to be a factual account. "The historical relevance is not that important," the actor says, pointing out that the real Frank Butler was Irish. "Basically, you play cowboys."

Softening Frank's edges isn't the only change affecting Wopat's character. Stone also restructured the musical as a show-within-a-show: "The tempestuous and romantic story of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler," as presented by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. And, Wopat gets to open the show, coming out on stage alone and softly singing one of the hit-laden musical's most famous standards, "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Stage beginnings

Wopat has starred in Broadway musicals before, but always as a replacement. He took over the role of Detective Stone from James Naughton in "City of Angels" and the role of Sky Masterson from Peter Gallagher in "Guys and Dolls." The revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" was the first time he was involved from the beginning.

"It's kind of the difference between being a father and being a stepfather," says the actor, whose original co-star was Bernadette Peters; his current Annie Oakley is Karyn Quackenbush, who also played the role on Broadway. "I had a pretty heavy handprint on my read of the character. It was nice. It was wonderful. It was the best. It's the best Broadway experience I've ever had, and I've loved the Broadway shows I've been in ... but this has really established me, given me more credibility on Broadway."

Being with the show from the start also meant he got to make the cast album. That, in turn, led to his most recent CD, "The Still of the Night," an album of standards by such songwriters as Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Stephen Sondheim.

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