Jeff Campanella Getting Familiar With Garry Marshall, Maria Callas & Neil Simon

Jeff Campanella already has earned the distinction of being the only actor to be part of both the recently re-named Garry Marshall Theatre‘s inaugural season’s first and second productions. Jeff goes from ‘stage managing’ Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS to being a vital contributor in Neil Simon’s homage to his beginnings as part of a classic television comedy writing team in LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR. Jeff took the time to give us a little insight to his involvement with MASTER CLASS and now LAUGHTER, which begins previews March 21, opening March 23.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Jeff!
LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR is your second show at the Garry Marshall. Do you have a history with the Falcon Theatre? Or was MASTER CLASS your first Garry Marshall/Falcon project?
MASTER CLASS was my first audition and production at the Falcon/GMT, and could not have been a better experience. Our director, Dimitri Toscas, is truly one of the kindest people I know, and I’m so happy for him that the show got such wonderful reviews.
Did you ever have the opportunity to interact with the late, great Garry Marshall?
No, I wish. I’m a great admirer of his work. Laverne and Shirley is my favorite Garry creation. I love hearing stories about him. He will be remembered not just for his numerous films and TV shows, but now for his beautiful theatre.
I saw you as the “Julliard Stagehand” in MASTER CLASS with the incredible Carolyn Hennesy as Maria Callas. You were most fun in your various entrances and exits interacting with Diva Callas. How would you compare your Stagehand character with the writer you play in LAUGHTER? And, which writer are you playing in LAUGHTER?
I’m playing Ira Stone, a hypochondriac who always shows up late with some new ailment. The characters are similar in that they are the outcasts of their particular worlds. Both oddballs, but in very different styles.
In your research process of getting familiar with your LAUGHTER character, did you watch some of the classic comedians that these characters were originally based on?
My character is based on Mel Brooks, or at least the Mel Brooks off-camera that Neil Simon worked with. Spaceballs was my first favorite comedy. I already watched it a dozen times before I was seven years old. I knew nothing about The Saturday Night Review or Sid Caesar, which our ‘The Max Prince Show’ is an allusion to, but in terms of that time period, I’m a big Jackie Gleason fan. My family loves The Honeymooners.
Have you, by chance, ever seen other theatrical productions of LAUGHTER or the 2001 television version with Nathan Lane?
No, I haven’t. It’s tough when you watch other performances not to at least subconsciously copy them. So, if given the choice, I’d rather not watch a performance of the character I’m going to play. I’ve seen Nathan Lane on Broadway in WAITING FOR GODOT, and my favorite of his films is Birdcage.
Any other Neil Simon project you’ve love to be involved in?
I really like THE ODD COUPLE and THE SUNSHINE BOYS, and the good news is these roles will be waiting for me in fifty years!
You have worked with a number of divas (and, I mean ‘diva’ in the most positive sense!) – the aforementioned Mz. Hennesy, Susan Lucci (Devious Maids), Pauley Paurette (NCIS), Mary McDonnell (Major Crimes), Jeremy Irons (An Actor Prepares). What other ‘diva’ would be on your wish list to work with?
Ooh, probably Maya Rudolph. She’s hilarious!
Tell us some fun incidents you experienced during MASTER CLASS? (practical jokes, gag opening night gifts, spilled pitchers of water, pratfalls)
I would always find new ways to scare Maegan McConnell around the theatre. Also, before each show I would pretend to be a real stagehand and give the 20-10-and-places call to the ladies’ dressing room. I’d find a new way to screw it up each time. But my favorite gag was Joseph Bwarie, the artistic director, would follow me around backstage as if he was my assistant. The Stagehand’s stagehand.
Being raised in Atlanta, Georgia, does your accent reappear easily when you’re around other Georgia folks? Was it easy or difficult to ‘lose’ your Georgia inflections?
Well, my dad’s side is from Brooklyn, so I’m definitely drawing from him more than my mom’s side for this role. I’ve never really had a southern accent, unless I’m being really polite.
What is your affinity to F. Scott Fitzgerald? I believe you dogs’ names are Zelda and Fitzgerald?
You’re good! I think the third dog will have to be named Gatsby!
What 1950’s topic of Neil Simon’s writers’ room would you think will resonate (and possibly seem too relevant to our present times) with the Garry Marshall Theatre audiences.
Carol’s monologue about wanting to not just be seen as a child-bearing woman, but also to be taken seriously as a writer definitely resonates today. Also, the government’s desire to silence those who disagree with the status quo has always been relevant in our country. But, all in all, this is a comedy, aimed more at making one laugh than think. So bring your laugh. Or your fake laugh. I’ll take either one!
Thank you again for doing this, Jeff. I look forward to experiencing your comedy chops in LAUGHTER.
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