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Broadway veteran greets "Hello, Dolly!" with enthusiasm
John Bolton, the actor, does get asked about that John Bolton, the diplomat and most recently national security advisor.
And, the actor says, it's good for a few laughs.
"That's been ongoing, and I try to keep it positive — as best I can," Bolton, 53, says by phone from his home in New York. "But I will say I did have a chance to meet him once — and I turned it down."
When it comes to theater, at least, Bolton — who comes to Detroit's Fisher Theater next week as Horace Vandergelder in "Hello, Dolly!" — has earned the privilege of being selective after a long and accomplished career on stage and television.
The Rochester, N.Y., native has originated roles in Tony Award-winning musicals such as "Titanic," "Spamalot" and "Contact." He also was the first "Old Man" Mr. Parker in "A Christmas Story: The Musical." He's had regular roles on CBS' "Madam Secretary" and The CW's "Gossip Girl," with guest appearances on a slew of other shows and has headlined his own concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
"When I moved to New York I said I just wanted to do one Broadway show and one tour, and it's sort of just kept going," Bolton says. "I marvel at it myself that this kid who loved theater is still at it."
Theater's primary allure to Bolton during his youth was that "it was something that was me and wasn't one of my big brothers." His two elder siblings were both "very into sports," which wasn't Bolton's bailiwick. Raised on Broadway-cast and comedy albums, theater "was my own thing," he says although he didn't pursue it seriously until he was studying journalism at Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., and "sort of double-majored, unofficially."
"I became involved in various and sundry community theaters and directing and choreographing high school shows," Bolton recalls. "Some were very good and some weren't, but I was learning. And I worked with good directors and other actors along the way and paid attention — and was nice to work with, I hope.
"It's always great to work for a good director and be asked back. I was able to do that, somewhat."
Bolton earned his Equity card in Rochester and moved to New York City. He made his debut alongside Jerry Lewis in "Damn Yankees" and soon began his run of original roles. "What I've learned is that when you're learning a role and creating it, make it you," Bolton explains. "Put your stuff in it — to put it coarsely, pee all over it. Make it so they have to hire you again because they can't possibly find anybody to do what you're doing."
He has had to navigate expectations, of course. In "A Christmas Story," for instance, "I certainly had to honor the template the great Darren McGavin created (in the film) or the audience was going to be (angry)." Similarly, as 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller in "Titanic," "I was playing a real person who survived the shipwreck, so you dive in and do your actor homework."
His Broadway work also gave Bolton a chance to meet some of his heroes, and he confesses that "to this day I am so star-struck by anybody that I saw at an impressionable age — 'Omigod, I saw you in' whatever show. I think I freaked out when I met Lily Tomlin. She came to see 'Anastasia' and I almost didn't want to say hello. I was worried I was going to blather — I think I did blather, but she was so sweet."
Bolton has been in "Hello, Dolly!" before, in a summer stock theater shortly after he graduated from college. "It's such a well-written show — there's not an ounce of fat in it," he says. "All these great speeches are taken word for word from the original Thornton Wilder ('The Merchant of Yonkers'), so beautifully put into a script by Michael Stewart that set up those wonderful songs so beautifully."
For playing Vandergelder in the current tour he's drawn on a number of predecessors — including his friend David Hyde Pierce, who was part of the Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway revival along with Bette Midler. Carolee Carmello, a Tony Award nominee, is Dolly Gallagher Levi in the current touring company.
"We get to do our own thing with this," Bolton reports. "We say the words and sing the songs, but they're letting Dolly be Carolee's Dolly and me be my Horace. And it's so much fun to do. It's such a funny musical, and we get the instant gratification of the audience in stitches every night. We leave the show thinking we did a classic American musical right. It's so much fun to ride that ride every night."
Bolton says his commitment to "Hello, Dolly!" makes his next move "a little too far away" to contemplate. But he's always casting an eye toward the future.
"I've started to do more and more television, which I like," he says. "The John Bolton thing was extra funny when I played the U.S. attorney general on 'Madam Secretary.' I was trolling him on Twitter the whole time and CNN picked up on that and used some of the funnier things I said as part of their story. But casting people have started to know me and call me in. There's nothing locked in yet, but I assume there will be some opportunities at some point, probably not too far away."
"Hello, Dolly!" runs Wednesday, Nov. 20, through Dec. 1 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $39 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com. Tickets for the canceled Tuesday, Nov. 19 performance can be exchanged in person at the Fisher Theatre box office for comparable seats, based on availability.
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