Interview: SANTINO FONTANA (appearing in Classic Stage Company’s ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’)

Post image for Interview: SANTINO FONTANA (appearing in Classic Stage Company’s ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’)

by Gregory Fletcher on November 8, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


Twelve years ago, Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher interviewed Santino Fontana for his 2011 performance in Roundabout’s Sons of the Prophet, for which he won a Lucille Lortel, Obie, and Outer Critics Circle Award. The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood raved about Fontana’s “sensitive performance” and introduced him as “one of the most promising young actors to emerge in the New York theater scene in recent years.” Stage and Cinema wrote, “One of the joys of seeing theatre in New York City Off-Broadway is that, every so often, you get to see a special star-of-the-future appear in the firmament and watch his wattage increase with each role. Santino Fontana’s performance as Joseph…offers theatregoers the chance to catch one of America’s best young actors as his career makes an upward trajectory.” And New York Magazine called him “an indispensable stage star.”

Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam - with Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason – at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneSantino Fontana in Sons of the Prophet (Joan Marcus)

Since 2011, he’s received practically every theater acting award in plays and musicals alike. On Broadway, he’s appeared in Sunday in the Park with George, Billy Elliott, Brighton Beach Memoirs, A View from the Bridge, The Importance of Being Earnest, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Act One, Hello Dolly! and Tootsie (for which he received the Tony). Additionally, Fontana has succeeded with many credits in TV, film, Disney animation, symphonic concerts, cabarets, and book recordings.

Recently, Gregory Fletcher caught up with the multi-talented triple-threat Fontana after seeing his indefectible performance in Classic Stage Company’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

Santino Fontana in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Julieta Cervantes)

GREGORY FLETCHER: Does I Can Get It For You Wholesale mark your first return to full-time theater since COVID shut things down?

SANTINO FONTANA: Yes, absolutely.

FLETCHER: What were you doing when things closed? Had Tootsie already ended?

FONTANA: Tootsie closed in January 2020, and, after a vacation, I was recording an audio book when things came to a halt. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. It’s the prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, which has been turned into a movie, soon to be released. I was recording in Midtown. Every building in Midtown had basically shut down. I entered the building through a back door for my last day of recording and never came in contact with anybody. It was a very fitting close to such a dystopian story.

FLETCHER: When did you start recording books? And how many have you done?

FONTANA: My first one was during Cinderella. I’m guessing around twenty.

FLETCHER: How much prep time does it take to prepare for a recording? And, I take it, they work around your performance schedule?

FONTANA: There’s never enough prep time. I recorded the Stephen King book The Institute during Tootsie, which was probably not a smart decision on my part, because it’s so vocally demanding and time consuming. The good thing is you can stop and start and do re-takes as needed. Someone else is editing, and they’re choosing what takes to use, so, in that way, it’s like doing TV and film. If there’s not a lot of prep time, you can figure it out in the moment.

Santino Fontana in Act One (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: Have you configured your own recording studio at home? What a wonderful way to continue working while theater was down.

FONTANA: Exactly, I purchased a really high-end microphone and all this stuff because we didn’t know how long things would be closed. For the first five months of the pandemic, we stayed with my parents, and I turned one of their closets into a sound booth. Then did the same in New York when we returned home. There was a commercial I was able to record and send off, and I’ve been able to record demos for composers who send me tracks. This all came out of the pandemic, which has been really freeing to continue to work, earn money, and stay busy.

FLETCHER: What other books have you recorded?

FONTANA: I’ve done a couple Fredric Backman books, and Tom Perrotta, the guy who wrote Election. The big one that has quite a following is Caroline Kepnes’s book You, which was turned into a TV show on Netflix. It’s a whole series of books. I really like recording them. In some ways, it feels like the purest form of acting.

FLETCHER: When we did our first interview 12 years ago, if you can believe it’s been that long, I asked if you saw yourself being based in New York long term. Your response was, “As soon as the crazy gets too high in the city, and there’s a lot of ways the crazy can get high, I honestly think I could be happy teaching PE in Montana.”

FONTANA: (Laughing) Yeah, I think that’s still rings true. Teaching PE in Montana is always right in the back of my head.

FLETCHER: Have you moved out of the city? Was the pandemic “the crazy that got too high?”

FONTANA: Yes, absolutely. Plus, having kids.

FLETCHER: What a perfect time to have children, with a built-in down time to be with them. An important time, too, I’m sure. How has becoming a father changed your life?

FONTANA: It’s the best. It relentlessly puts everything in perspective.

FLETCHER: Besides the kids, you’ve done a lot of great projects while waiting for theater to get back on its feet. Recording audio books, doing some independent films, and I loved that Country Western Christmas music video you did with your wife, Jessica [Fontana, née Hershberg]. So funny and so wrong. And as things have started opening again, you’ve made lots of appearances doing concerts with symphony orchestras, cabarets, benefit performances—it seems like you’ve been quite busy.

FONTANA: My friends, we still talk about how these last several years were like being in a movie in some ways. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Tootsie was a great rewarding experience with so many friends—

FLETCHER: I loved it, and the audience ate it up, howling with laughter. You won a Tony—and then bam!

FONTANA: Exactly, a very positive, rewarding experience and then the world, as I knew it, crashed and burned. I mean, yes, in terms of staying busy, I was lucky to be with family, to be a father, and I did a season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where we were masked every second we weren’t shooting.

As Boise in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

FLETCHER: Playing the stage manager in the fourth season—so much fun. TV and film opportunities seemed to come back a lot faster than theater.

FONTANA: Yeah, I did a couple film projects: Brenda and Billy (and the Pothos Plant) with Sarah Stiles from Tootsie, which was recently at Tribeca, and Stalking the Bogeyman with Tommy Sadoski about a man who tracks down the guy who raped him as a child. I also did an independent film called Lost & Found in Cleveland with June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Martin Sheen, Dennis Haysbert—an amazing cast; though, I’m not sure when it’s coming out. And the occasional audio recording like Men’s Health, which is on Audible with Laura Benanti, Diane Guerrero, and Tony Shalhoub. I guess you’re right; I’ve been fortunate to work so much. It’s nice to hear because sometimes it feels like—what the hell have I been doing?

With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

FLETCHER: Tell me about the symphonic concerts.

FONTANA: I’ve done a fair amount with the Houston Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, the San Diego Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. I’ll never turn down singing with an orchestra.

FLETCHER: And now theater is getting back to where it was, and you’re back on the boards with this wonderful musical that most of us have never gotten to see. How did this show come about for you?

Joy Woods and Santino Fontana in I Can Get It for You Wholesale
(Julieta Cervantes)

FONTANA: I did the first reading of this around 2016. Producer Jeffrey Richards reached out to John Weidman, the writer of Assassins and Pacific Overtures, the son of Jerome Weidman who wrote the original book for I Can Get It for You Wholesale, based on his first novel. Jeffrey asked John to revisit his dad’s musical [from 1962] to see if he could bring more of the novel into it. And we eventually did two readings, several months apart, the second one at Roundabout. So many great people were involved at one time or another: Nick Cordero, Caissie Levy, Erin Mackey, Beth Leavel, Lindsay Mendez, Chris Fitzgerald. It’s dark, but it’s also really entertaining and funny, and I think, thrilling. Trip Cullman has been directing from the very beginning, and I always wanted to work with him. I loved his production of Punk Rock [at Off-Broadway’s MCC]. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen. Anyway, Jill Rafson moved to Classic Stage Company as its new producing artistic director. And she programmed it in her first season.

FLETCHER: Interesting timing, after Funny Girl on Broadway, highlighting the two roles Barbra Streisand played on stage. And Classic Stage Company must be quite the change for you, working in such a small space with only 199 seats.

The Company of CSC's I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Julieta Cervantes)

FONTANA: And it’s in the thrust where actors are surrounded by audience on three sides, which, actually, I find very comforting because it reminds me of when I was at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. [Where Santino earned a BFA in Acting and got his start playing Hamlet, the youngest American actor to play the role.]

FLETCHER: But I’m guessing you prefer a big Broadway theater that seats over 1000?

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Santino Fontana in CSC's I Can Get It for You Wholesale
(Julieta Cervantes)

FONTANA: I like both! This is more like film work where the camera can be literally next to your face. In Broadway theaters, there’s usually 20 or 30 feet between you and the audience. And with the lighting, you can’t see anyone. But at Classic Stage Company, there’s a moment in the beginning of the show where I’m almost in somebody’s lap. I’m sitting right in front of someone with my head down, inches from their knee. That’s taking a little getting used to, especially when you can see everybody in the audience. Oh, there’s Joe Mantello. That happened the other day. Or, Oh, there’s Susan Stroman. There’s a lot of that, which at first was nerve racking. You have to re-circuit your brain, remembering there’s a play going on.

FLETCHER: Even harder when you speak directly to the audience, which happens a few times throughout.

FONTANA: I think there’s eight times when I speak to the audience directly. I try to make it as much of a conversation as possible. I’m getting used to it, but it’s definitely been an adjustment.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and The Company
of CSC's I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Julieta Cervantes)

FLETCHER: How about going from a star dressing room to one dressing room for all? Is that something you can get used to?

FONTANA: Yes, twelve of us, or so, in the cast all in one dressing room. I sit next to my good friend Greg Hildreth from Cinderella days. Yeah, it’s tight back there, but I knew that going in. When you sign on to do a Broadway show, typically they want you for at least six months to a year. Meaning, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in that space. But for this production, it’s for two months. It’s manageable. Also, I’m not offstage very much. I’m rarely back stuck in the dressing room.

FLETCHER: From the old interview 12 years ago, I asked you about what other roles you’d like to play. And you answered, “I haven’t played a really sexual aggressive, darker character yet.” Careful what you wish for because you’ve played many of them by now. Even with this role in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, he’s definitely darker and aggressive.

FONTANA: But sexually?

FLETCHER: Well, with the female scheming and the two-timing—yeah, definitely. And many other dark roles, too. Fosse/Verdon?

Santino Fontana as Henagen in Fosse/Verdon (FX)

FONTANA: Yeah, I played a rapist.

FLETCHER: The dark Christmas country and western song you did with Jessica? It’s laugh out loud funny, but so very dark. Remind me of the title?

Santino sings the tale of "The Other Christmas Shoes"

FONTANA: “The Other Christmas Shoes.” That was peak pandemic when we were just bored, and these two genius writers, Joe Kinosion and Kellen Blair wrote this hilarious song. We recorded it in my parents’ closet, and filmed it in a day, and edited it on iMovie.

FLETCHER: What’s the name of the short film where you play the magician with the long hair? So dark and hilarious. I love your line, “Brenda? That’s not Ketchup.”

Brenda and Billy (and the Pothos Plant) (TIFF)

FONTANA: Brenda and Billy and the Pothos Plant. Dave Solomon wrote and directed that. He also worked on Tootsie as well as my first Broadway gig, Sunday In The Park With George.

FLETCHER: Is there more?

Santino Fontana as "David Holthouse" in Stalking the Bogeyman

FONTANA: In Stalking the Bogeyman, I confront the guy who raped me as a 7-year-old. And in the TV show Shades of Blue I played a crooked cop opposite J.Lo and Ray Liotta. So quite a few, I guess.

FLETCHER: Because you put it out there in the universe. Alright, let’s break the pattern. What other kind of roles are you looking to play next? Then at our next interview, we’ll be able to list them.

Santino Fontana as Stuart in Shades of Blue "Fall of Man" (NBC)

FONTANA: Something juicy on camera. I’ve been lucky to have a bunch of juicy roles onstage, but it’d be nice to have one on camera. I did this great pilot that didn’t go anywhere a few years ago. Seth Rogen directed, and Sonny Lee wrote, who also wrote that hit show Beef. I played a robot that you discover is plotting to overtake humans. Now, that would’ve been an amazing part. I want to keep mixing it up. I was introduced at a concert job once with, “From Cinderella, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Frozen, Santino Fontana!And I thought, what the hell happened? When did I only become those three credits? I’m in therapy discussing all this. (Laughing) I want to do it all—the 12 Jungian archetypes. I think about those a lot. I want to make sure I’ve played them all by the end of my career. The magician, the caregiver, the lover, the everyman, the innocent, the sage, et cetera. That’s what gets me excited. But sometimes it feels like swimming upstream. Because show business wants to put you in a box: name it, brand it, and sell it as much as they can. But the more complicated that box is, the more complicated it is to sell. I’ve had people in the business tell me, “You’re all over the place. Do you want to do comedy or drama?” It’s frustrating to hear. This, from the people who have the conversations that lead to you getting the job or not. So, on the one hand, I’m heartened to see you agreeing, but then I ask myself, is it also really stupid? Should I just stay in one lane?

FLETCHER: The fact that you can do so many different things is another reason to do them. No one should tie you down to do one thing. Doesn’t variety feed the soul? And fuel us, making life interesting.

FONTANA: Right, the actors I admire, like Philip Seymour Hoffman—I’m sure he didn’t worry about it. He did it all. I did a reading once with Bobby Cannavale, and he’s always been very kind to me. He’d just done The Motherfucker with the Hat, and I asked him how it was going and he was like, “You know, man, you play one fucking drug dealer…” Meaning he got tons of drug dealer offers after that. After Tootsie, I was offered a bunch of charming leading men in big comedies. After The Importance of Being Earnest, I was offered a lot of classical plays, verse plays, a lot of British stuff. So many people only think of you in whatever they just saw you in last. After Crazy Ex-girlfriend, there were TV offers playing the same adorable alcoholic guy, who’s kind of sarcastic. It was the same character. And when you turn it down, they throw more money at you, and then you think, I could do whatever I wanted after this. Or not, you never know.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Robert Voets/The CW)

FLETCHER: You’re not a triple threat for nothing. I think it’s a blessing you can go from musicals to plays, from comedies to dramas, from new plays to classics, from stage to film to TV. You excel in everything you do. I loved that episode in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where the camera followed you singing a song and walking the streets for a long distance, all in one shot. How many times did it take to shoot that all in one?

FONTANA: One take.

FLETCHER: See what I mean? You excel at everything. Thank you for proving my point.

FONTANA: I mean, but we did a few takes to make sure it was all covered. I was up until four in the morning practicing the lip sync. It was terrifying. That was a hard time. I had just gotten married, and I was alone in LA while my wife was doing a play in NYC. I was staying with that generous genius Marc Webb who had directed the pilot and let me stay at his place. It was this massive, gorgeous house. I felt like the beast in Beauty and the Beast. And there I was pacing in the Hollywood Hills trying to not fuck up the lyrics I’d have to sell the next morning on set. But to your point, yes, one long tracking shot. One.

FLETCHER: And because you excel at it all, you’re like a critics’ darling, no? I’m guessing that’s not a term you like, but you’re lucky to be one, wouldn’t you agree?

 As Prince Topher in Cinderella on Broadway (Joan Marcus)

FONTANA: I don’t read reviews, so thank God I don’t know. That said, it’s hard to avoid their comments. First of all, there are ads all over the place. When you walk to the theater, you see them. Secondly, criticism has really changed since I started in the city. Everyone has a blog, a Twitter site, a sub stack, an Instagram post—the power has shifted. I remember when Ben Brantley at The New York Times was a God. After Sunday in the Park with George, I got a call from a casting director who said, “You don’t need to read it, but he likes you.” I had nothing to do in Sunday in the Park. I played the soldier upstage right. That would be amazing if Ben Brantley noticed me because he could move the needle for people like casting people and directors. But I think we’re in a different place now. So many of those critics have retired, and theater departments in publications are gone. There was a review for Tootsie that somebody told me, “If you ever have a really bad day and need to feel good about yourself, read the Rolling Stone review.” And I still haven’t, but I like knowing that it’s there. Plus, you know, it’s all fickle. It could turn on a dime. But you never know—maybe my time is up with the critics, and they’ll feel differently this time.

FLETCHER: Yeah, let’s not put that out there. No, I guarantee your time is not up. I’ll even project that this production will move uptown to Circle in the Square on Broadway. With the three-quarter thrust, it would be the perfect fit.

FONTANA: From your lips…

FLETCHER: It makes sense! It’s the first revival in sixty years. And with the rewrites, it’s got to be even stronger and more relevant than the original. No?

FONTANA: Yes, and I think it’s unlike anything people have seen. But I’m also very aware of the financial realities of Broadway. So, who knows.

Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam - with Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason – at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneJonathan Louis Dent, Chris Perfetti, Santino Fontana, Yusef Bulos
in Sons of the Prophet (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: Another big difference between this interview and the one 12 years ago is celebrityhood. Do you feel that difference today? (silence) Do you feel like a celebrity?

FONTANA: Hell, no. No way.

FLETCHER: You’re humble, how nice. But how many people’s weddings are covered by The New York Times?

FONTANA: “Singles of people recognize me on the street!” That was a line in Tootsie that launched my song at the end of act one called “Unstoppable.” It was in the show for a while, but we felt like the other line was a better launch into the song. And I put it back in at the last performance because Robert [Horn, the book writer of Tootsie] and I loved it. I said to Andy Grotelueschen who played Jeff, my roommate, while bragging about my character’s newfound fame: “Singles of people recognize me on the street!” But to your point, some people know who I am, yes.

As Michael Dorsey in Tootsie. (Matthew Murphy)

FLETCHER: Good, so, you do feel it? (Silence) You don’t? You don’t feel any celebrityhood at all? Where’s the Tony? Where do you keep it? If it’s in a closet, so help me—

FONTANA: It was, but my wife convinced me to bring it out. It’s on a shelf now. In a side room. And not only do I not feel it, I mean…celebrity is on a continuum, right? I’ve hung out with J.Lo. She’s a celebrity. And lovely by the way. I’ve been to dinners with Carol Burnett or Sean Hayes where you see the poor waiter arrive at the table, and a three-act play happens where they realize what their night is about to be. That’s celebrity. I’m two bad decisions away from teaching PE in Montana.

FLETCHER: You’re hilarious and absurd. Not that Montana wouldn’t be thrilled to have you.

FONTANA: There are a couple great young actors in Wholesale who are fairly unknown, right? And it’s so exciting to watch their work, and I think to myself, “Oh my God, look what they can do. I’ve never seen that.” I can’t wait to see where they go and see what they do. They may end up being household names, anything’s possible. I just want to be able to keep playing the roles I want and working with the people I want. And making a living, of course, especially now with having a family. But I know for a fact I’ve lost jobs because I’ve heard, “We need a name” more than once. That has nothing to do with acting, but it’s a reality for an actor. There’s that great line in Sunday in the Park, Dot says, “All you want to be is good, and, George, you’re good.” That’s true of me. I just want to be good. And continue to work. That’s it.

FLETCHER: (In my best Bernadette Peters imitation) “And Santino, you’re good.” But let’s talk about real worries and real disappointments. Why didn’t you return in Frozen II?

Frozen's Hans voiced by Santino Fontana

FONTANA: (laughing) When Disney announced the sequel, they were very honest with me. They said, “Listen, we’re going to try to bring you back, but it’s really hard.” I get it.

FLETCHER: How long did the first film take for you to record?

FONTANA: The first movie took five days to record over two-and-a-half years. And one day—one entire day—was just making noises: coughing, grunting, screaming, and breathing. I have that joke about feeling like a sperm donor to somebody who becomes president. Yes, I was involved, but not that much.

FLETCHER: And it’s still around after all these years. And maybe they’ll figure out a way to bring you back in in Frozen 3, you never know.

Josh Gad and Santino Fontana (Getty Images)

FONTANA: Again, from your lips…Josh Gad said in an interview we gave together that he wouldn’t do another Frozen movie unless I was in it, and I thought, Oh, he’s gonna regret saying that… (laughing)

FLETCHER:  The good thing is Frozen isn’t going anywhere.

FONTANA: I dropped my daughter off at preschool, and there was a girl wearing an Anna costume. I know that kid has heard my voice, but what a crazy thing if I tried to tell her, “Hey, I’m the voice of Hans.” It’s crazy to have been in an experience like that. Judy Kuhn, who plays my mother in Wholesale

FLETCHER: I’ve loved her ever since Chess on Broadway.

Adam Chanler Berat, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Victor de Paula Rocha
and Sarah Steele in CSC's I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Julieta Cervantes)

FONTANA: She’s fantastic. She was the voice of Pocahontas, and we talk about how it’s a weird club to be in. An amazing, cool, secretive club to have a voice in a big Disney movie. And all from working only a few days.

FLETCHER: It is remarkable that you can be such a big part of that movie, the second male lead, for such a small time of commitment.

FONTANA: I remember being so thrilled when I got it. To be a Disney Prince and a Disney Villain all in one? Check. Check. As a kid, I was obsessed with Aladdin. Later, I became friends with Jonathan Freeman who voiced Jafar. You know that great deep singular voice? At a restaurant, after he ordered some tacos, the waiter turned and looked at him like, who the hell are you? He sounded just like Jafar. And of course, the waiter didn’t put it together. After Frozen opened, he called and said, “I loved the movie, and I was shocked at the turn in your character.” But then added, “Welcome to the Villain Club. It’s a lonely one.” Apparently Pat Carroll, who voiced Ursula said the same thing. “The princesses always get everything.”

FLETCHER: (laughing) What are you prepping that will be discussed in our next interview in the coming years?

FONTANA: There are a couple scripts I’ve been sent that I want to help make happen if I can. In terms of writing, there’s a straight play I’m working on and a new book for that musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd. I was commissioned to do that in 2016, and I’m still kicking it around. It takes so much time. There’s a Rodgers and Hart musical that I’m working on that I just got commissioned from Concord Theatricals. I wrote and financed a little film that I want to do called Death Wish about a guy who goes on a killing spree—another dark comedy. There’s a reading of Hay Fever that we’ve done at the Roundabout many times. But they always lose the leading lady to a TV or movie project.

FLETCHER: That’s a lot. Not anything else?

FONTANA: When TV and film start up again after the strike*, I hope for a great role. I need to talk to friends who I want to work with again. [*Editor’s Note: The SAG/AFTRA strike, which ended just after this interview was published.]

FLETCHER: Like Paula Pell? That must’ve been a fun role for you in her film Sisters.

FONTANA: Paula Pell is a comic genius. So funny. And I loved working with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And Renée Elise Goldsberry who’s now doing that show with Paula, Girls5eva. Renée and I met doing a reading of a musical, and we talked about how inspiring Tina and Amy were—actors creating their own opportunities. When I asked if she thought we ought to be doing that too, she said, “Our buffet will always be full.” She meant, we’re always doing readings or workshops or concerts. We’re always busy. It’s hard to create our own thing because when are we going to have the time? And then she went off to star in Hamilton. She’s not wrong. It takes a whole other set of focus and concentration to create something new. And time. When you’re in previews of a newly revised musical, and when you have children, it’s hard to find free time for self-generated stuff. As exciting as it can be, it’s a lot of time.

FLETCHER: Time is so interesting as we get older. The work we want to create and accomplish, how we imagine what’s best for our lives, our careers, and, as we get older, time moves faster and faster, leaving less and less to come. Time. I guess we better not wait another 12 years for our next interview.


I Can Get It For You Wholesale has extended to December 17, 2023 at the Classic Stage Company.

follow Santino at @santinofontana on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads
find Gregory Fletcher at Gregory Fletcher, Facebook, and Instagram

Show poster (Austin Ruffer)

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