By Mercedes Vizcaino, Contributing Writer, December 6, 2017
The holiday season is upon us, and this year Madison Square Garden will be dazzling audiences with a new stage adaptation of Elf the Musical. Based on the wildly popular film Elf, starring Will Ferrell, this holiday favorite now ranking with Christmas classics such as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, tells the story of a young orphan boy who accidently crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported back to the North Pole. Unaware that he’s actually human, “Buddy” grows up, but his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face reality—he’s not like the other elves. With Santa’s permission, Buddy embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity, and help New York realize the true meaning of Christmas.
Taking on the lead role of Buddy in Elf the Musical’s national tour is Erik Gratton, a seasoned theater performer currently wrapping up performances of the musical in Boston, is headed for one of the largest performing spaces in New York City—The Theater at Madison Square Garden (seating capacity of 5,500). Joining Gratton in the ensemble cast as Santa is long-time TV/film veteran and beloved actor, George Wendt. ZEALnyc invited Erik Gratton to discuss the demands of playing the role of Buddy, his love for Shakespeare, and why audiences will flock to see Elf the Musical.
ZEALnyc: How did you come to the role of Buddy in ‘Elf the Musical’?
EG: I saw breakdowns (character descriptions) of the production last spring. I’ve also had the music from the movie on my Spotify for a while (laughs). When I saw other versions of the breakdown, I heard they were looking for someone over 6’1″ with physical comedy or circus skills and clowning abilities. That’s been my specialty throughout my career. I call myself a tactful artist. I called my agent to see if he can get me in. He had submitted my name already, and I had an audition in a week. So, I went in on my birthday to audition for the casting director in Los Angeles. It seemed to go well. At the end of it he said “Happy Birthday–you gave a great audition!” I forgot about it. A month later, they called back and I came to New York; a few days later I got the offer.
ZEALnyc: It looks like it pays off to work on your birthday.
EG: Exactly! My girlfriend drove me to the audition and afterwards we spent the day at the beach. It was perfect.
ZEALnyc: In past interviews you’ve said you like to do your own interpretation of Buddy and bring a fresh rendering to the character. Have you had to address critics when playing Will Ferrell’s iconic role? Fans are very vocal about remakes.
EG: Not really. People have been very receptive of what I’ve brought to the role and with Sam’s (Scalamoni, the director) version of the musical. Audiences have fallen in love with bits of previous productions and they have asked me to replicate those situations from past productions. I’m happy to do it. Of course, I try to copy those moments from Will Ferrell’s performance, but I also create stuff that I think is funny with a twist on the lines and jokes. The producers have given me a lot of leeway. So far audiences like it and people who have been possessive of the Will Ferrell jokes have been open and accepting of what we’ve done. You can’t get away from some of the stuff. When the dad says: “You must be from the North Pole?” and Buddy (Will Ferrell) says: “Yes, that’s exaaaactly where I come from.” You can’t improve on what Will Ferrell did with that. So, you kind of do your version of his version of the joke. But, if you try to copy that, it comes off as fake. You do the perfect stuff he did because there’s no better way to do it — as your version in your own body.
ZEALnyc: What have been some of the challenges you’ve endured playing Buddy in ‘Elf the Musical’?
EG: All of it! It comes down to the physical nature of the show and the role. I’m a physical actor, but I certainly would not describe myself as a dancer. It was a pretty dance-heavy character. That was probably the slowest for me — where I had to catch up with the production, in talking with Nancy and Janden, our dance captains. They were extraordinarily patient with me (laughs). The singing is incredibly physically demanding: 9 songs where I’m the soloist and 15 songs total that I sing in. And, that’s such a heavy load. You have to keep your body fresh. After the performance, I’d get to my apartment and stick my face in steam for a while. I sleep as much as possible. When I get up I go right to the gym to keep my body warm. I try not to eat too many fried foods and dairy so that when the curtain comes up I can hit those Fs and Gs – higher than I normally would (laughs). This show has taught me how to improve my voice and body since we started rehearsals.
ZEALnyc: George Wendt has recently signed on to play the role of Santa. What was it like working with him?
EG: It was a dream. I think I was 7 or 8 when Cheers came on. The whole family in Kansas City sat down to watch the show every week. Netflix shows the series and I watch it religiously, while I cook. George has been a hero of mine for 30 years. The first time I went to the theater and met him was a dream come true. Now, I get to hug him 3 times during the show. Every time I turn to Santa he’s right here with these big eyes that are so present and there for anything you need as a scene partner. I can’t say enough wonderful things about him.
ZEALnyc: Veronica Kuehn is reprising the role of Jovie, your love interest in the musical—did you have chemistry?
EG: I think so. The moment you get on stage with Veronica — she’s a lifeline. And, she’s done the show before, like you say. Every time she does the show, it feels new. You can rely on her. I had no time before the show premiered, and it felt like a shot out of a cannon. I don’t have a lot of time to think. I’m jumping, running, screaming and singing. Every time that it’s just Veronica and I on stage, I feel like I have this moment to just rest and relax into the relationship between Buddy and Jovie. And, that’s such a testament to her work. In the second act, I get to watch her number “Don’t fall in love with an elf,” and I’m offstage and just blown away by her talent. She really takes care of me during the ice-skating scenes too. She’s a monster ice-skater, a pro.
ZEALnyc: I read that you’re a professional pastry chef. What made you go from the culinary arts to the performing arts?
EG: From time to time, I still do bake for people. I grew up in my brother’s kitchen. He was an executive chef for all the rock venues in Kansas City, Omaha and Iowa. I started off as a dishwasher in high school, and then became a prep cook in college. The first time he went on tour with Trans Siberian Orchestra in 2004, he called me up and said he needed a pastry chef. I showed up and he handed me a big textbook and I taught myself, along with his help, how to become a pastry chef on the job. For years, that’s how I supported my acting habit in New York. I retired in 2012. I’ve been able to stick with acting and it’s been fantastic.
ZEALnyc: What’s next for Erik Gratton? If you could choose your next starring role, what would it be?
EG: That’s a tough one, wow! If I could have the choice to do anything in the world, I would do Shakespeare with Audra McDonald. If I could go back – something similar with Raul Julia – but he’s not around anymore. My first love is Shakespeare. That’s my training. That’s the beginning of my career. I love musicals, and for the last few years I’ve been doing them. I also love TV and film. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and shuttle back and forth to New York. If Shonda Rhimes came calling, I would happily play anything her or her partners would write. I love all the mediums of acting. I follow Karl Malden’s autobiography: “When do I start?”
Elf the Musical at The Theater at Madison Square Garden begins performances on December 13 and plays through December 29. For more information click here.
Read ZEALnyc‘s feature interview with Sam Scalamoni, the director of Elf the Musical, by clicking here.
Cover: Erik Gratton in ‘Elf the Musical;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.