Christopher Fitzgerald is dressed like an adult Cabbage Patch doll. He’s trying to drive a car, but the costume is so big and ridiculous and cumbersome that he can barely see. The director for the commercial he’s shooting—a Geico ad—keeps shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” but the gigantic Cabbage Patch head he’s wearing is so large it barely fits in the car and he is getting flustered.
He steps out of the car, removes his Cabbage Patch head, and receives a phone call. He’d just been cast as Igor in the Broadway production of Young Frankenstein.
Nearly a decade later, Fitzgerald is reliving the story in all its riotous glory, careening, twitching, and fully inhabiting his inner adult Cabbage Patch doll at a coffee shop near the Empire State Building in New York, where he just finished a photo shoot with his fellow Tony Award nominees.
He’s nominated for his performance as Ogie in the musical production of Waitress, a physical comedy tour de force perhaps only rivaled by Fitzgerald’s coffee shop recreation of driving a car dressed as a Cabbage Patch doll. It’s his third Tony nomination—his status as Broadway’s most reliable scene stealer also earned him bids for Young Frankenstein in 2008 and Finian’s Rainbow in 2010. He won a Drama Desk Award for his performance two nights before.
Fitzgerald arrives on stage near the end of act one of Waitress like a solar flare, reciting poetry and, yes, clogging his way to on-stage paramour Dawn’s (Orange Is the New Black’s Kimiko Glenn) heart—not to mention the audience’s. It’s a role that Fitzgerald spent two years developing. But, in a way, he’s been preparing for it his entire life.
“When I was in high school I used to perform a one-man vaudeville show at kids’ birthday parties,” he starts explaining, with such plain seriousness—as if that’s the most normal thing—that he erupts into laughter immediately.
He really did, though: a 35-minute show in which he’d mime, juggle, storytell, play songs on his ukulele, and—for the big finish—challenge kids to find objects around the house (smaller than a bread box and less than 50 pounds) for him to balance on his face.
“I’d send a contract to the parents being like, ‘I’m not a roving clown. I’m not a balloon animal guy. You have to be present. The kids are going to sit and watch my show,’” he remembers. “So cheeky.” For two years, it’s how he made all his money to buy illegal alcohol. “To support really what it was like to be in high school,” he laughs.
His passion for vaudeville isn’t as unusual as it might seem, he swears.
He grew up in Portland, Maine at a time when the area’s performing arts scene was experiencing what he calls a “new vaudeville revival.” There was even a giant festival celebrating the art every summer that thousands would attend. “I was just a little kid who fell in love with all these weirdos,” he says.
It’s why he feels such a kinship with Ogie in Waitress, a man who wears his atypical passions on his sleeve—in addition to poetry and clogging, an enthusiasm for Revolutionary War reenactments—and has such clarity about the things he wants and loves. (His first number, performed barely a minute after he’s introduced on stage to a woman he just met, is titled “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”)
“He’s a vaudeville guy,” Fitzgerald says of Ogie. “There’s so many slices of his interests in my life that remind me of when I was younger. And he has such unbelievable focus and passion for everything that he does.”
The hilarious, and ultimately refreshing, thing about Ogie is that he also doesn’t think that any of his passions are weird or embarrassing. That, too, is something Fitzgerald, who so fiercely embraced his love for vaudeville that he turned it into a summer job and eventually worked as an apprentice to some more experienced performers, could relate to.
“There’s always the moment when you’re going back to soccer practice with your jock friends,” he says. “They all kind of knew I had these interests. But it was more internally me dealing with the feelings of being an adolescent and being in high school and wondering, ‘Is what I’m doing super dorky?’”
Suffice it to say, he’s come to truly embrace that dorkiness. He begins talking me through some of Ogie’s comedic bits in Waitress with the detail of a physicist working his way through a formula.
He talks about tweaking the degree to which he’s playing out to the crowd when delivering one laugh line that leads to a prop gag—Kimiko Glenn drops a bouquet of flowers with surprise—as if he’s charting a star course. He brings up his character’s funniest moment—breathing in an inhaler after performing his first number—and proudly talks about calibrating the use of the gag so that it doesn’t wear out its comedic welcome.
The clogging came out of an hours-long living room workshop session with his wife, Jessica Stone, who is also a musical theatre actor and director. (In perhaps the most swoon-worthy Broadway story ever, the two fell in love while singing “My Funny Valentine” to each other during a City Center Encores! staging of the musical Babes in Arms in 1999. Years later, he proposed to her on that same stage. Now they live in Brooklyn with their two young boys.)
“It’s like math,” he says. “That seven minutes that I make my debut, I worked really hard on. There’s no moment that I didn’t reexamine 15 times, to the point that my cast was over it.”
It’s a role that he’s clearly relishing, yet one that he almost didn’t take.
For a legion of Wicked fangirls, Fitzgerald is still best known for originating the role of Boq, the adorkable Munchkin with the unrequited crush on Galinda. While Fitzgerald’s work at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts and, recently, playing the lead in Barnum for Cameron Mackintosh in England, speak to a broad range of talent and leading-man capability, his work on Broadway has followed Boq’s lovable footsteps: the scene-stealing second banana.
He’s a master of it, evidenced by his three Tony nominations. But it was something he wary of doing yet again when Waitress rolled around.
“First of all, introducing a character 55 minutes into a story? And having him come out with a scene that’s only maybe a page long before a number? That’s supposed to work? I was convinced it wouldn’t,” he says.
But then he dug deeper into Ogie’s role in the musical. Centered on Jenna (Tony nominee Jessie Mueller), a small-town waitress with an abusive husband who struggles to leave him when she becomes pregnant—it’s still very funny, we swear—the play is riddled with lost souls who keep creating problems for themselves.
“After about an hour, you’re kind of like, ‘God, where’s something to hold onto?’” Fitzgerald says. Then Ogie arrives, so clear about what he wants and excited about feeling love, sharing love, and showing love. It’s what the audience needs at that point in the show, and triggers an evolution in the characters who, for the first time, bear witness to a little bit of joy.
“Feeling the power of that as a character helped,” he says, talking about why he ultimately took on another “second banana” role. “So it doesn’t bother me. He doesn’t feel like a little side character to me. He feels like an essential piece of the story.”
That’s not to say that he’s not self-aware. He understands the duality of his reputation on Broadway, that being known as its most reliable scene-stealer is both an asset and, at times, a limitation.
“There are these stock characters that have been around since we began to tell stories,” he says. “It’s hard to break those molds even today. So me as Georg in She Loves Me is not what people necessarily imagine Georg to be. That sometimes bums me out and is a challenge, but I’m not alone in that challenge.”
Besides, playing characters like these is a bit of destiny.
Long before he was performing his vaudeville act at kids’ birthday parties, his mother actually put him in clowning school. He was just five years old. “I was just a zany, nutty little numskull,” he says. “I also think she saw me searching for something. She had the wherewithal to go, he’s bright, he’s funny, but without boundaries or process it’s wild. How do I help him tame that sense of himself?”
It was just Fitzgerald and his mother for a long time growing up, before his brother Alex, who is 11 years his junior, and his stepfather arrived. “I just remember always really wanting to make her laugh and thus began this experience,” he says. “The amazing gift that she gave me early on is the access to that side of myself, to not judge that side of myself, to enjoy it and even thrive in it.”