Tom Wopat is late. It's photo call day at Studio 54 and Vanessa Williams and Barbara Cook, Wopat's co-stars in the Roundabout Theatre Company's musical "Sondheim on Sondheim," are primped and ready. He rushes in, whips off his shirt (yes, ladies, at 58, the former teen heartthrob is still pretty dang fit), slicks his hair back with water, jumps into costume and . . . is good to go.
Wopat, one of eight kids raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, made a name for himself in the early '80s playing Luke Duke, one of them hell-raisin' "Dukes of Hazzard."
Fast-forward 20-plus years - past some TV movies and country-music recordings - and Wopat today is . . . busier than ever. Shooting films ("Jonah Hex," with Josh Brolin, due out in June). Recording CDs ("The Still of the Night," a nightclubby set; and "Consider It Swung," a pop-jazz compilation that drops in June). And starring on Broadway (recently in "Annie Get Your Gun" and "A Catered Affair" - nabbing Tony nominations for both). When not with his wife in Manhattan, he takes time to fish - with his trusty cat sidekick - at a log cabin in New Jersey.
His singing voice these days is akin to a fragrant cigar - smoky and surprisingly sweet - and his latest stage venture, a new bio-musical celebrating the work of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, opens Thursday. He took a few moments to grab a Coke (not Diet, please - he's a real dude) and sit down in his dressing room with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
I heard Sondheim was around for some rehearsals. Was that . . . nerve-racking?
The first time I sang "Sweeney" five feet in front of his face, that's a little disconcerting. But then he worked with me on "Finishing the Hat" . He talked about how to . . . intensify the song. It was like a master class. One of the best moments of my life. Like getting a musical comedy lesson from Oscar Hammerstein. Amazing.
And he's with you onstage each night . . . with all those interview video clips. It's like a documentary - but live.
Having the interview material makes the songs more accessible. I've had a couple of people who confessed . . . they're not big Sondheim fans. But that they totally got it once they saw the show. It's kind of a road map - what this stuff's all about.
When were you first onstage?
In junior high. We had quite a fine little school system for a farm town. My dad was president of the school board. Started doing musicals and got voice lessons when I was 12.
So your family really supported the idea.
Oh, sure, they're not a bunch of yokels, actually.
No, no - but didn't they want you to work the farm?
No . . . there were seven boys, so there was [he chuckles] . . . a wide range of guys who were available to take the reins. My parents really wanted us to achieve what we could. I have a brother who's a doctor, a brother who designs computer systems, a brother who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, my sister teaches voice. . . . We all were encouraged to excel. It didn't matter at what.
You know your "Dukes of Hazzard" screen test is on YouTube.
Yeahhh. I haven't seen it.
Could you tell at the time "Dukes" would be a hit?
Well, you can't really be aware of something becoming part of pop culture. It's only later you realize that. Then again, a big deal in those days is not the same as now.
What do you mean?
Well, in the early '80s, that was really the last big surge of network TV. Before cable. The stuff was driven by teen magazines - there was no "ET." Paris Hilton wouldn't have happened back then.
How do you write - plunking things out on the piano?
I'm a guitar player. Not great, but I have enough range to be able to play a few different styles. I made some country records. And down there, writin' songs is a big deal. I had a Top 5 song once, called "Shadow of a Doubt." By an artist named Earl Thomas Conley. That was a trip - got an ASCAP award and everything. Y'know, I've been down' this stuff . . . Broadway shows, movies, playin' with my trio . . . but the last five or six years has been incredibly interesting. One thing after another.
What do you attribute that to?
God only knows! It's like Woody Allen says - showin' up is two-thirds of the gig.
Yeah . . . two-thirds, 80 percent, somewhere in there.
So I keep showin' up.