Broadway star John Bolton has an embarrassing secret: His favorite sweet-indulgence is Lucky Charms cereal. It may be a vocational metaphor however, as this song and dance man has combined his own charms and talent to rise from a replacement in the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees to his current dual comedy role in Broadway’s whimsical Dames At Sea. Here, he plays Hennessy, an all in one writer-producer-director at an ill-fated theater. In the second act, he becomes The Captain who helms the ship where his once doomed show has found a new home. Dames is derived from a combination of three movies: Footlight Parade, 42nd St, and Gold Diggers of 1933. To bring his role(s) to life, Bolton drew inspiration from James Cagney and Warner Baxter (who starred in the first two films, respectively). Bolton was asked to be a part of the production just one day after the show’s workshop was performed about a year and a half ago. Producers waited specifically for the Helen Hayes theater since they wanted to house the cozy musical (which consists of 6 players) in such a cozy space.
Bolton has several Broadway credits under his belt, but this is the first time that he gets to flaunt his tapping prowess. “I learned my tapping chops doing musical theater, but I never had any formal training”, said Bolton in a recent sit down interview. “Randy Skinner, our director, knew that I could tap. Originally the role didn’t require it, but he kept throwing more and more at me and all of a sudden, I was in the number!” Bolton is rightfully proud of his efforts. Those who have seen-or plan to see- the show, will attest to the fact that he’s holding his own in some of the more complex and face paced dance breaks. “I love being funny and I love acting, but if there is one thing I’m most proud of with this show it’s being able to finally tap on Broadway.” He is well aware of the challenges that the show holds, though. “The biggest challenge,” he said, “ is doing it right.” He explained, “A lot of people hold this classic with such high affection. There is a fine line between spoofing and holding it with affection. You have to ride that perfectly. It can’t be too satirical or else it will come across as rude or unkind or overly ‘meta’. We are also doing this for the original writers, who actually never saw their piece come to Broadway.” (The show ran in various venues downtown in the late 1960s/early 1970s and starred a relatively then unknown Bernadette Peters.) For Bolton, the challenge is well worth it. During our talk, he lavished praise on his co-stars citing the joy of working with such a wonderful cast, with whom he occasionally shares a sip or shot of celebratory bourbon following performances. “ I can’t wait for the world to discover some of these young performers we have in the show,” he said, and went on to express gratitude for the opportunity. “This is my eighth Broadway gig, but I never take it for granted. It’s still a thrill.”
The Rochester, New York native acquired the acting bug at the age of twelve. His parents took him to see Annie and The Wiz and the tiny tyke was mesmerized. “When I saw those shows, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it.”, he recalled. As he grew older, he made another trip to Manhattan during his early years of college, where the star struck Bolton saw a life changing performance by Lily Tomlin. “I was only able to see two shows. The first night, I saw Tomlin’s one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It made such an impression on me that I went back to see it again the second night. His list of influences is long and he also credits Ray Bolger ( Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz), Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies), Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show), and legendary personalities like Gene Rayburn (Match Game) and Orson Bean. Bean, who was a prominent fixture on game shows in the 1960s and 70s and has become a friend to Bolton offered him some valuable advice on comedic acting: “Don’t clutter the joke. Don’t put a cherry on a cherry or a hat on a hat. Just get out of the way of the joke and don’t try to make it funny.”
That advice has served the adept funny man quite well, as his acting credits extend past the Broadway stage and onto the small screen. He has also appeared on television in Blue Bloods, The Good Wife, and Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “I’m much more at home on the stage,” he confessed, “But I’ve loved being on television. It’s something I never thought that I’d do, but because some of the casting directors saw my work onstage, they considered me. I’m very lucky that they’ve called and cast me!”
Bolton’s already heavy schedule includes teaching master classes at PACE University, where he used to be a full time faculty member. Since the footlights of Broadway have beckoned, he is now a substitute instructor there. He enjoys his college teaching role , though and believes that he’d likely be doing that as a full time profession if Broadway weren’t banging down his door. The journalism major suggested that writing might be another passion. , “I wanted something more steady, so I chose musical theater.” (Note to readers: After writing this article, this journalist grabbed his tin can and began panhandling on the 1 train.) With such a grueling schedule, Bolton has one daily activity that he favors: “I’ve grown very fond of the 20 minute nap,” he said with a wry smile.
For a musical theatre man, Bolton boasts a broad range of genres from Fats Waller, Dean Martin, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, The Cure (“Always The Cure,” he emphasized), Mozart, and The Beastie Boys. True to his roots, he also admires Cy Coleman’s swinging Broadway score to City of Angels and the Sondheim classic A Little Night Music.
Does the affable actor have any gripes? The din of New York City! “I live in midtown,” he said. “And the sirens and street noise have gotten way out of hand.” He’s also laments the current state of how Broadway is being produced. “It’s become so expensive and is really a money game now,” he confessed “There is not a lot of room for things that are new and exciting. And I think that there should be room for everyone to enjoy theater, not just the ultra-rich.” But he added, with hopeful optimism, “Hopefully shows like Hamilton will open some more doors for producers to take risks.”
While most performers have a dream role, Bolton prefers living in the moment and is just happy “doing what he’s doing.” “Everything I’ve done has led to something else,” he said, “but I suppose that doing something original would be ideal.” For now, he’s happy to be hoofin’ it at the Helen Hayes theatre eight times a week. Whether Divine Intervention or the Lucky Charms elf, it’s clear that John Bolton continues to have a full and “magically delicious” career.
Dames at Sea is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater (West 44th street between 8th and Broadway). For tickets and more information, visit: http://damesatseabroadway.com/ or visit the box office.
Beth Ann Hooker says
So glad you were able to interview one of my favorite former students and a dear friend. John has not changed a bit from when he was the cymbal holder in Fiddlers many moons ago and he deserves all the accolades coinng his way. He earned it the hard way. He continues to make me proud that I had a little to do with his love of the theatre. I wish him continued success and much love.