- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

NEW YORK — They stand patiently behind the metal barricades by the stage door of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, a byzantine 1920s structure on West 45th Street just west of Eighth Avenue.

Nearly an hour after the curtain has come down on a Wednesday matinee performance, a gaggle of mostly young women still wait, their cell-phone cameras and autograph pens on high alert.

Suddenly, he appears. Dressed in a white T-shirt, tight black jeans and shades, a good-natured Constantine Maroulis obliges his fans.

Welcome to the new world of Broadway celebrity. Mr. Maroulis, late of that TV juggernaut known as “American Idol,” is playing Sammy, best buddy of the hero in “The Wedding Singer,” a musical version of the popular Adam Sandler movie.

Broadway is hungry for new talent, especially new talent that might sell tickets — and what better place to find potential stage stars than “American Idol,” that hugely popular maker and breaker of showbiz dreams.

Mr. Maroulis is only the latest in a string of “American Idol” alums to find their way to Broadway. Several are onstage. Former Howard University student Frenchie Davis has been wailing through “Seasons of Love,” that showstopper of a number in “Rent,” for several years. Diana DeGarmo has rejoined the cast of “Hairspray” as the sweetly nervous Penny Pingleton after an earlier, successful run in the show. Then there’s Josh Strickland, swinging on those vines as the title character in Disney’s “Tarzan.”

Judging from the enthusiastic reception Mr. Maroulis received from his stage-door fans, his celebrity is made even though he didn’t get close to the top prize on season four of the Fox TV series. Viewers loved him even if some of the judges were cool.

“‘American Idol’ is the ultimate democratic experience,” says Margo Lion, producer of both “The Wedding Singer” and “Hairspray.”

“These performers apply — they submit themselves — and then they are voted on by the public. So the public has an interest in whoever wins.”

Or, as casting guru Bernard Telsey, whose company casts “Rent,” “Hairspray” and “The Wedding Singer,” says, “Even if they are runners-up on ‘American Idol,’ it’s still a 10-week gig. It’s like doing 10 weeks on a ‘CSI.’

“They … repeat every week by doing different song styles,” Mr. Telsey notes. “So the audience really gets to see Constantine or Diana DeGarmo sing jazz, rock or whatever. They get invested. And then the audience votes, so it feels as if it has a say in what Diana sings and whether she wins. And then [when she arrives on Broadway] they feel, ‘… I can go see her in another venue.’”

Not all “American Idol” veterans who tried Broadway have found success, although some admittedly went into weak shows. Takoma Park native Tamyra Gray barely registered when she joined “Bombay Dreams” during the last weeks of its money-losing run in 2004. Justin Guarini, signed for a small role in “Good Vibrations,” never got onstage. He left even before preview performances of the short-lived Beach Boys musical began.

The shaggy-haired Mr. Maroulis has a much bigger part in “The Wedding Singer,” which celebrates the music and pop culture of the 1980s, the era in which it is set. Miss Lion hopes his presence will lift the show’s profile and give it a boost at the box office during this particularly lean month, when the tourists have gone home and youngsters are back in school.

“It’s women who buy theater tickets, by and large. And now, it’s these young women who have gotten hooked on theater,” Miss Lion says, citing the success of such shows as “Wicked” and “Hairspray” in attracting girls and young women from 10 to about 20. Both Miss DeGarmo and Haylie Duff, another favorite of teens, who is playing Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray,” gave the show a huge boost at the box office, the producer adds.

Mr. Maroulis seems a natural for “The Wedding Singer.” The musical takes place in New Jersey, which is where the 31-year-old, Brooklyn-born Mr. Maroulis grew up. Although music has been his primary focus, he has theater training — he majored in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory of Music and studied voice at the Berklee College of Music.

“I have never been put into a show before,” Mr. Maroulis says. His only other major stage credit was an international tour of “Rent,” but that was a new company, with everyone in the cast starting at the same time.

Mr. Maroulis went into “The Wedding Singer” with two weeks of rehearsals after observing the show for five or six days and then working with the assistant choreographer, music director and others.

The performer had been at the April opening night of “The Wedding Singer” with his agent and loved the musical.

“We have been actively searching for the right job for a good year now,” Mr. Maroulis recalls. He had traveled with his own band as well as with a big “American Idol” tour. A sitcom that he had in development with Kelsey Grammar for ABC didn’t pan out.

“So I was longing to get back onstage,” he explains. “I grew up in New Jersey as a rock ‘n’ roll guy. And I think Sammy (the character Mr. Maroulis plays) has a strong desire to become a big rock star eventually, even though he’s comfortable in his role as the sort of backbone of the band. Sammy is the rock. I loved what he is about.”

Mr. Telsey says “Rent,” which opened in 1996, galvanized Broadway’s search for young rock singers who had theatrical stage presence, too.

“So we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to put someone like a Kelly Clarkson in a musical?’,” Mr. Telsey says.

The big winners, such as Miss Clarkson, get major attention and haven’t come to Broadway — yet.

However, Mr. Telsey did get Miss DeGarmo, who made it to the finals in the third season of “American Idol.” Between her two gigs in “Hairspray” this year, Miss DeGarmo headlined the national tour of “Brooklyn: The Musical,” playing the title role, a spirited young woman looking for the father she never knew.

“‘American Idol’ opened a lot of doors for me to do different things,” says Miss DeGarmo, 19.

Mr. Telsey says it’s a requirement for his 12-person staff to watch “American Idol.”

“There are a few who are addicted on their own. And it’s big water-cooler talk the next day. Everyone has their personal tastes, but then we are always wearing our casting hats and complaining, ‘Oh, but they don’t sing good enough, so I can’t believe they didn’t get cut.’

“We’re different from the rest of the world that watches ‘American Idol,’” he says. “We basically root for the losers. That means we can put them in a Broadway show.”



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