Dan Roth: Bart, Let's kick this off by talking about your background. Today you are well known both as an actor and a singer. Did you always want to be an entertainer?
Bart Shatto: Ever since I was two years old, I wanted to be an actor. I was highly influenced by movies. Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Robert Redford was my favorite actor. Musically, I was influenced by singers like Bob Seger, Michael McDonald, and John Cougar Mellencamp. Also Gary Richrath from REO Speedwagon came from my hometown and I loved their music. Most influential though was Dan Fogelberg, who also came from my hometown. My aunt used to babysit him in fact. I am highly influenced by his voice and his songwriting style. Take the albums where he collaborated with flutist Tim Weisberg - they just explored different genres of music, just fantastic stuff. He was someone that I looked up to and felt "I want to be that guy!". I never wanted to be a Broadway actor. I really wanted to act in TV or film and to be a singer fronting a rock band. But then musical theater kind of took over and my aspirations to front a rock band went by the wayside.
DR: I had read that when you were in high school, you were spotted by a talent scout to read for the role of the "The Geek" in the The Breakfast Club.
BS: Yes. I read with John Hughes in Chicago. I was 16 years old and in Chicago with my Aunt, my mom, and my brother for a big combined audition thing for different theaters and I was spotted by a scout for that role. They gave me parts of the script, where the character breaks down and talks about committing suicide. I am sitting there with John Hughes and he is giving me notes and I take a pen off of his desk and start writing down these notes. I read the scene a couple times and I was done, so I go downstairs and my mom asks me how it went. I said, "I don't know, but I think I stole John Hughes' pen." [Laughs]
BS: It was such a surreal thing. It was a cool opportunity.
DR: You got serious with acting in high school and college?
BS: Yeah, I went to college for theater but dropped out after the third year to work professionally.
DR: I know you appeared in such musicals as Cats, Les Miserables, and The Civil War. Was there anything that you considered to be your big break into this world?
BS: I worked with Jim Caruso as part of a musical comedy trio known as Wiseguys. With Wiseguys, we played Carnegie Hall with Rosemary Clooney. This was my entre into the world of Cabaret in New York. That is where I was introduced to people like Michael Feinstein and Liza Minnelli, so Wiseguys was an important step. But my big breaks were The Civil War and Les Miserables.
DR: Do you have a favorite role of all those that you have done?
BS: Valjean would be my favorite.
DR: Which role has been the most musically and physically challenging?
BS: Valjean was definitely the most challenging, every which way. I think Jekyll and Hyde was just as hard though.
DR: What do you look for in a role?
BS: I look for a character who is going on some sort of journey. A journey of finding himself - good, bad, ugly, whatever. I am interested in those characters with an anvil on their back and a dark past, trying to find light.
DR: Do you prefer roles that have a singing component?
BS: Not necessarily.
DR: I was thinking of your role in the recent motion picture, Freedom. Your character is singing "I'm on my way to Canaan's Land".
BS: Yeah. Well, that was a real sacred song that was sung in those days. That was me singing and I also did the high harmonies on that. It was great fun to get to sing and record that song for the movie, but it wasn't essential to my desire for the role.
DR: Carving out three months of the year for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra position must present some real challenges in securing a role in a Broadway show or touring production.
BS: Yes it can. [Laughs] I have lost a couple agents over me being in TSO because they don't like me being gone during pilot and episodic season. The fact that I am gone for such a long period of time makes managers and agents very angry.
DR: I have seen you in plays and musicals during TSO's "off season". Can you describe what the rest of the year is like for you?
BS: I audition for regional theater, television, film, and Broadway.
DR: Now if you get further along in the Broadway call backs...
BS: I have to make a tough decision. This actually came up this year, as the creative team for a show that is coming to Broadway next season wanted to see me and I had to say, "no". So, yes, I have had to make some compromises while working for TSO. It's very difficult in the Broadway world.
DR: Speaking of TSO, let's dive in a bit to your long history with them. We know you came aboard the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour in 2002, joining the West cast and taking over for John Margolis. John sang the original "Old City Bar" on the record and then sang it live. Did you ever get to meet with him?
BS: Never met him.
DR: Did you listen to his original recording before auditioning?
BS: I did. I love "Old City Bar" so much because it reminds me of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" and I love Croce's music.
DR: I know this was early on, but did you go through an audition process to land this role?
BS: I did. They had me sing "Old City Bar "and "Ornament". It was a unique audition for me, as it was held in this dimly lit recording studio. At first, all I had to sing was "Old City Bar". I literally had it in front of me on a music stand with a light shining on it. The only two people there were Paul O'Neill in his dark glasses and Taro Meyer, the other producer that was working there at the time and I could barely even see them. They played the track and I got into the zone and sang the song, loving every moment of this. When I was done, Paul says "That was fucking God" which is an expression he often uses. He says "I believe that your soul just spoke to my soul when you just sang that.". I was like "Who is this guy and what is he saying to me?" [Laughs] I was kind of taken aback by the response. I was just singing the song as Bart, but I was interpreting it. It was by far the strangest audition that I ever had.
DR: Was this when they had a casting director to find talent?
BS: Yes! They had hired Dave Clemmons to be the TSO casting director and he had cast me in my first Broadway musical, The Civil War. Dave was casting a lot of Broadway shows, a lot of Frank Wildhorn's stuff, so Dave had this arsenal of some of the best rock/Broadway singers in New York. He knew all of these singers. They wanted a rock singer who had a sense of theatricality about them and that is why Dave brought me in.
DR: Were you familiar with Trans-Siberian Orchestra before this audition?
BS: I knew the name, but didn't know what it was. I worked with Michael Lanning in The Civil War and he would tell me how he was going on the road with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I remember thinking "What the heck is that? You're going to Transylvania? Siberia? To perform?" [Laughs]. Michael would talk about this thing every year and how much fun he was having. And then my friend Rod Weber tells me that he was going on tour with them too. I am hearing that it's rock music with an orchestra but the music is all Christmas? It sounded like the most ridiculous thing in the world to me, until I got called in for it.
DR: So you had already worked with Michael Lanning and Rod Weber. Were there any other folks from TSO that you had worked with earlier?
BS: I had done a reading of a musical version of Joan of Arc with Rob Evan. I knew of Rob from Jekyll & Hyde and how amazing he was. Rob came up to me during the workshop after hearing me sing and told me, "You're going to play Valjean one of these days". This was in 1997 and at that point I hadn't been seen for Les Mis yet. Three years later I was playing Valjean on Broadway. That's one thing about Rob - he is the most giving and supportive guy. He has climbed that ladder but he is always willing to lend a hand and help people up. I also worked with him in the The Civil War production in Gettysburg.
DR: Margolis used to perform Old City Bar in the tux that everyone was wearing. Did you go right into going method with it and adopting the persona and costume of the character?
BS: No, it didn't start off that way. That came about from my fear of being fired. It was a complete gut reaction of fear. This was back when we were rehearsing in the studios in Connecticut and I was singing it the way Bart would sing it. It wasn't working; it wasn't landing. I knew it wasn't working and no one was happy. Paul finally suggested, "What if we put him in costume?". That's all Paul had to say, so I decided to create this character. He was an old jazz musician that was washed up and now living on the streets. He wasn't schizophrenic but he was homeless and I played him much older as well. After Paul's suggestion, I went to Salvation Army and picked up a coat and some things and dressed as this character and went to catering. I went through the line, got food and everything and no one recognized me. I then got up and sang the song as this character and it finally landed.
|Bart Shatto - December 2010|
Photo Courtesy Cindy Wagner
DR: Was that whole experiment of you going through catering as the character what led you to start going out in the arena for what you guys eventually referred to as the "pre-show"?
BS: Yeah. I would be outside the arena or in the concourses, picking through garbage. It got a little weird when people started giving me money though. I was not accepting money but people would give it to me anyway. My character's goal was to go through the garbage cans and gather up as many bottles as I could, so I get something to eat. Sometimes it was like parting the Red Sea, as the fans would just move to either side of me because they were so disgusted by my appearance. I would often get kicked out of the arenas from the complaints, but I always had my cell phone on me so I could get let back in.
DR: The fans would ask security to throw you out?
BS: Yes. And Michael Lanning of course. [Laughs] Michael used to take great joy in getting me thrown out of the arenas. I would hear him call security over and say "What's that homeless guy doing here? I can't perform with him around here, he smells." and security would completely apprehend me and throw me out. [Laughs] He loved doing that.
But seriously, to be treated like that as a human being was really tough on my soul after a while. I remember calling my wife at the time, telling her that I couldn't handle doing this anymore. She would always tell me what a wonderful thing it was that I was doing, holding a mirror up to society. When I went up on stage and the fans realized who I was, it was a really great lesson. She would always advise me to keep doing what I was doing. It was an interesting human experiment that I was trying to create. It all stopped after a show in Las Vegas where a fan there gave me money, saw me later on stage, and then called the TSO offices complaining that we were pulling a scam. It bothered me because at that time, I would take the money that people would try to give me and we were using it to buy gifts for the kids at St. Jude. Sadly, that all came to an end after that complaint because TSO did not want fans to get the wrong idea, and I totally understand that.
DR: None of this was happening with the East Coast touring troupe, and Steve Broderick who was singing the song for them.
DR: Did you work with Steve Broderick or the others who came after him in developing that character for the East?
BS: I worked a little with Steve in the end days, hoping to impart what I could.
DR: Was it a challenge to get into character for the pre-show and then back into the tux for singing backing vocals, then back into the costume for "Old City Bar"?
BS: Singing backing vocals before "Old City Bar" stopped when I started the pre-show. I started doing the pre-show before the audience started coming into the arenas. I would prep around 6:00 and start the pre-show around 45 minutes before the start of the show. I would be out there until the first or second song and then I would come back in, so they allowed me to stop doing the background singing. So I would literally be doing the pre-show for 45 minutes while in character and then stay in costume until I would come out and do Gerald for "Old City Bar".
DR: There was a tour or two where you sang a portion of the song with Al Pitrelli, harmonizing on a verse. Can you talk about that and why that stopped?
BS: Paul took that away. That went against the template that had been set for this song. I loved singing it with Al. I loved that kind of camaraderie in the song. I thought Gerald was nothing without Al being there and singing with him brought Al as a character into the scene. It gave Al more to do and made him more of an active participant, but Paul changed it one year to being just single solitary me. He wanted the spotlight to be on me and the song. He was going back to his original template and the basics.
|Bart Shatto and Al Pitrelli - December 27, 2005 Minneapolis, MN |
Photo Courtesy Brian Reichow
DR: Do you approach "Old City Bar" as an acting role or vocal performance?
BS: It is one of the only theatrical moments in the show and that's what makes it stand out to be so iconic. I think people want that. I think people are looking for a break in the show and this is the only intimate number. It's a moment where it is just acoustic guitar and very theatrical at the same time. It is a real defining moment because it is such a departure from the rest of the show and that is what makes it so interesting and unique. Could there be more theatricality in the show? Yes. I think that comes in with the flames and the lights.
But as far as that number itself, I will always first and foremost be a singer. That blending of acting and singing is what I do best and is sort of my "super power". I take great pride in commingling the acting and singing - a lot of people can't do it and I take great pride in being able to pull it off so well. That moment is a wonderful opportunity to really display my talents at their best.
DR: Have you ever felt out of place being the only performer dressed in character on the stage?
BS: Yes. I think I have always felt like an outsider within the group and as a performer. I don't think it's a bad thing. In the end, we're all outsiders and I feel like I represent that. The core of people that are attracted to TSO are kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys [Laughs] and Gerald is like the king of them. So it definitely represents how I feel being part of the band - I feel blessed but I feel like an outsider that doesn't really belong. I like to immerse myself in a character so I don't have to be "Bart" because Bart doesn't feel like a star. I like to hide behind the character a bit. Doing "Dream Child" was tough because I was out there as me.
|Bart Shatto - December 2014|
Photo Courtesy Cindy Wagner
I don't feel like a cool rock star when I am on that stage. I let the rock stars act that way. [Laughs] I am a bit starstruck of some of these performers like Jeff Scott Soto who have built their careers as a rock star. We are really a melting pot, blending together all of these "misfits", doing what we do best, mixed together to create something fresh and new and innovative.
Taking that two year hiatus (2012-2013) and returning makes me feel even more blessed. Being able to go on that stage and perform for 8,000 people when most of year I am performing in small black box stages for less than a hundred people is a blessing. They understand the passion that I have for the music and for what I am given to do. Paul is taking this song that he wrote and handing it to me as a gift, basically saying, "Here, I wrote this. Now use your talents to interpret this.".
DR: I understand that over the 11 years that you have toured with the TSO Show, you only missed one.
BS: Yes. I broke my ribs while on tour and I missed a show. Tommy Farese filled in and sang "Old City Bar". To this day, Tommy brings that up with me and reminds me how "his version" was the way to go. [Laughs]
DR: "His version" was done at a quicker tempo than you do.
BS: Well, it is slowed down in concert. All of the music is slowed down in the Show. I think Paul wants that music savored. He wants everyone to listen to every note and for it to be a real live experience, not a carbon copy of what people listen to on the CD. He wants that music slowed down for effect. Everything Paul does has an effect.and has a meaning and you can't question it. It may seem insane to people, but he has a very specific idea of why he is doing it.
DR: You mentioned "Dream Child" earlier, which is the song that you performed on the 2014 tour. Can you talk a bit about that?
BS: I really felt that "Dream Child" was the best song of the set. I don't mean that egotistically; I feel it is one of the best songs that he has written. I really didn't feel that I get the best reaction/result from the song, but I still firmly believe in the song as an integral part of what TSO is. Like "Old City Bar", I love the journey that this man in the song takes. Maybe because it's more of a spiritual journey that I am interested in as an artist and as a person. This song is about making choices that don't serve you and hurting other people, which I can relate to in my personal life. It really came along at an interesting time, as I was going through some things in my life where I was looking at friendships that I have and people that I have hurt in my life, and here is this song that I was asked to do which really tied in to what I was going through.
DR: And once again, you were on stage bringing that character to life. It seemed to evolve as the tour went on, as you added a pseudo military look with the jacket and the pants tucked into combat boots. Even your vocal delivery seemed to evolve a bit.
BS: Yes, I explored that more on the road as Al had suggested that we needed to make the song more interesting from a physicality standpoint. I started watching a Peter Gabriel concert video and drew a lot of influence from that. I know not everyone understood what I was doing, but everything I did - from removing the jacket and taking off the dog tags - all had a meaning.
DR: So you are still given some artistic freedom and leeway to develop the character?
BS: Yes, as long as it's honest. As an actor, you have to be true to the text of the playwright and also true to the character's objective. And in this case you also have to be true to Paul's vision. We get plenty of time at the rehearsals in Omaha to work on things. I love being in a room with Paul, Jon and Al and listening to their stories of where they want this thing to go. You have to find your character within the parameters of that world.
As far as creativity is concerned, yes. It depends on what you are allowed to get away with. I like to push the buttons from a creativity standpoint. I've done strange things with "Old City Bar" where I get out a lawnchair and sit down or I am unpacking a bag, and Paul hated it. [Laughs] I went for comedy bits where I pulled out aerosol spray under the arms and I was pulled back. I am notorious for pushing the parameters and I like pushing the envelope. I always had that bottle with me. Al Pitrelli and I created that little interaction where I would offer him a swig from the bottle. I used to smoke on stage as well, until the fire codes changed and they had to cut that part.
DR: That is sort of ironic. You can't smoke a cigarette on stage but they can shoot these giant flames right behind you. [Laughs]
BS: Exactly. [Laughs]
DR: I understand you were given that song quite some time before the 2014 tour.
BS: Yes. They were looking at that song for the Lost Christmas Eve tours (2012-2013) and I had been working on it for quite some time. There was one incarnation in particular that I did was when I was at the Residence Inn after Hurricane Sandy. We were evacuated from our home, so we were staying at this hotel. I was doing Skype sessions with Danielle Sample, where she would coach me and we would tape my performances. The take that I did in that hotel room on Skype is the one that Paul says is the topography for the perfect "Dream Child". Keep in mind that I am working in this hotel room, wearing sweats and without a mic - but that take is what Paul saw and what he wanted for the show.
DR: So the original thought was to have you performing this song for the Lost Christmas Eve tour?
BS: Yes, but at the last minute they decided that there were too many ballads. I was told just before the tour that they weren't going to be using me or the song. I was disappointed, but I understood. That's when I booked my Broadway show (Hands on a Hardbody) and my film (Freedom) because I suddenly didn't have TSO to lean on and I got to work.
DR: Robin Borneman sang "Dream Child" with the East Coast cast. Did you two work together at all?
BS: Robin had a completely different interpretation than I did, and Paul loved his as well. Our voices are completely different. We rehearsed together side by side in this small studio with Paul, Jon, Al and Danielle. He would get up and do it, then I would get up and do it. I was nervous because here I am singing a new song for the first time in ten years, but I knew my version had set the template. But then I have this other younger guy coming in and singing "my" song - it can get very territorial, but the sense of competition has to go out the window.
With Robin, I fell in love with his gift and his interpretation. We were artists bringing in two completely different interpretations, both musically and acting wise that worked within the template.
DR: As a performer, you certainly want to please the audience as well as pleasing your boss.
BS: The question is "Who do you satisfy?". If you can find an alignment of satisfying Paul, pacifying the fans and appease yourself creatively, you have gold. The problem is that if you satisfy Paul, you may not satisfy the fans. TSO is Paul's baby and his vision. I pushed the parameters with "Dream Child" because he really didn't want me to do a lot of blocking and movement. He stopped me several times, but I still continued to do it and that appeased the fans. That's the risk that I take.
DR: New Years Eve 2013, you made an appearance singing along side Steve Broderick, Chris Pinnella and Jay Pierce at the TSO East performance at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Can you talk about that experience?
BS: After a two year's hiatus from the group, I didn't think I would be back on stage with them. I thought my years with TSO were done. When they called me for this show I had hope that I might still be part of the band. It was great because I got to perform with the East Coast band, who I never got to spend any time with. It was great to spend time with them in this foreign place, even though it was such a short time. We were literally on the plane longer than we were actually in Berlin.
DR: The performance itself was around nine minutes long?
BS: Yes! Everything was so fast-paced and intense. I knew it was going to be something really special.
DR: Did you guys rehearse together at all before being flown over?
BS: No, we had backup tracks to rehearse with. We all knew the song. [Sings Priusquam praesens...]
DR: It had been reported that the music for all of the bands that night was canned. Were the vocals done live?
BS: Oh yes, all of the vocals were live. We were singing our asses off!
DR: Many of your bandmates from those formative years of TSO often bring up the family aspect of the cast back then, how they bonded and really connected with each other. Do you feel the same way? Do you miss that?
BS: Here's the deal: It's a job. Sometimes you love your job, sometimes you hate your job. Sometimes while at work you might connect with a person or two, but you won't always connect with everybody. Is it a family? I guess. I have been with them for twelve years, so I have a "TSO family", but you have a job to do. My job is to do what Paul tells me to do and that is to carry out his vision. He is the head of the family and he sets the parameters. You do what Dad tells you to do. We as recalcitrant teenagers like to push Dad. To the brink. Of Insanity. [Laughs] If we push Dad a little too far, we can find ourselves in trouble with the law. [Laughs]
|Bart Shatto - January 4, 2008 Moline, IL |
Photo Courtesy Brian Reichow
What it comes down to is this: It's a job and its the best job I have ever had. There is a family feel to it and Paul picks his people very wisely and I think the people that he picks belong in the family because of their energy and their essence. We are there to carry out Paul's vision and it is our job to do what Paul tells us without compromising our own creative integrity. I trust Paul's vision and what he is doing is right for the fans and right for the show.
It is also very important to remember that we as performers are representing this brand. TSO is a multi-million dollar corporation, so we need to maintain the integrity of the brand.
DR: TSO has done three non-Winter tours that had a bit more theatricality to them for the Beethoven's Last Night album. I understand that you had worked up a a presentation for the Twist character.
BS: Yes. They approached me about learning material for those tours. I learned the Beethoven songs that Rob Evan eventually sang and I learned the songs for the Twist character. I really wanted to be part of that production. I really am trying to reinvent myself within this organization. I love doing "Old City Bar" but I want to be considered one of the other guys that can get out there in front of the band and do a great job. I am constantly working on my instrument; I am working with an opera teacher to make my voice stronger because that is what Paul wants. I will continue to do that as long as I am with this organization so Paul can see me in a different light.
DR: Do you ever see yourself recording or performing as a solo music act?
BS: Yes! It's always been my dream to do sort of a combination of John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown and a cabaret act. It would be stories of my crazy life and then infused with rock 'n roll and Broadway songs.
DR: What are you thinking for this solo album? Original material? Cover songs?
BS: It would be mostly Broadway material with a couple rock tunes interspersed. I would love to get Al Pitrelli and Jane Mangini to be involved in it and create songs with a rock edge to them, like "Music of the Night" from Phantom or "Bring Him Home" from Les Mis. I want to blend his sensibilities with my musical theater acumen and see what we create. I would also want to record my version of "Old City Bar" and "Dream Child" on there, with hopefully Al playing the guitar. I just love those two songs and they really represent what I have done with TSO.
DR: Nice. Looking forward to that! This past summer you went back to your hometown of Peoria and performed The Secret Garden.
BS: Yes. I did The Secret Garden for four or five weeks, did my cabaret show for two sold-out nights and taught some workshops as well.
DR: Do you feel a bit like a conquering hero, returning to Peoria to perform?
BS: I did! And I feel like I left on a really high note. I did tons of press while there and it was just an incredible experience for me. I had never really felt appreciated in Peoria while on tour with TSO or Les Mis; I would get a lukewarm reception when our tours would come through there. I am very proud of my hometown and for the first time after all of these years, I was really celebrated by being there. I've come full circle.
DR: We talked a little about the Freedom motion picture that you recently appeared in along with Cuba Gooding Jr. Did that come about just from auditioning?
BS: Yes. They brought in all different types of people for that role. Rob Evan auditioned for it as well. I was told that it was offered to Lyle Lovett but he had a conflict and wasn't able to do it. I thought it was cool role, as McGee (the character) had sort of a journey as well. His journey is very similar to the one of the character that Bill Sadler plays. I felt that McGee had been hunting down slaves for a long time and that he decided to do something completely different with his life and and start helping them. Of course he pays a very high price for it at the end. That is the backstory that I created and this character was actually helping other people but had a dark, seedier life before that.
DR: And one other role I wanted to ask about was your voice over work in the Disney cartoon Gaspard and Lisa. You did the voice for Gaspard's Papa. Was that the first time you had done animated voiceovers?
DR: Is that challenging? Do you work with the other voice actors at the same time?
BS: I did it in a studio by myself. In this case, the show was already pre-recorded by British actors. I actually had to overdub English! Usually you have to overdub a foreign language, but they wanted American voices. This was actually more challenging than overdubbing someone speaking a foreign language. The way the British talk, they enunciate certain consonants and stretch them out longer than others. It was very challenging, as I had to watch the animation and match my lines up to the moving mouth of the character and fit my American-isms in with the British-isms; it was painstaking.
DR: Can you tell me something about Bart Shatto that fans would be surprised to learn about you?
BS: Hmmm. Well, I played trumpet for ten years. I could play really high like Herb Alpert. Chuck Mangione was a hero of mine! I love playing those kind of songs.
DR: If you hadn't gone into entertainment, what would you be?
BS: I would be a writer, writing novels or plays. It's solitary work and you're under your own gun. You just create.
DR: Have you ever acted on that at all?
BS: No. I would love to at some point but I am just too busy right now.
DR: Lastly, what is next for you?
BS: The TSO tour of course. Then I want to get this cabaret performance piece up and running. I need to look for a new manager and agent and I also really want to pursue this solo album that we talked about. Something else that a partner and I have been talking about is creating an evening of Phil Collins music show, with myself and some other Broadway singers come in and reinterpret Phil Collins material. I am also taking a standup comedy course at Gotham Comedy Club to hopefully create my own standup show.
DR: Great! Thanks so much for the time, Bart.
BS: My pleasure!
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