Don’t let Christian Borle’s guy-next-door appearance and low-key friendliness fool you: When he steps on stage, Borle transforms with ease into a comically villainous pirate or a preening rocker. After creating Tony Award–winning roles in Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten, this versatile star is getting set to play the ultimate larger-than-life hero: candy man Willy Wonka, in the new musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“Christian was my only choice to play Willy Wonka,” declares Jack O’Brien, director of the Broadway production, which will begin previews at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 28, 2017. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else who could bring the right elements of invention, impishness, and childlike enthusiasm. And, of course, he has stunning facility, both physically as a singer/dancer and also in terms of elocution. Once I knew it was going to be Christian, I thought, This is a match made in heaven.”
When O’Brien quips, “I prayed feverishly that the scheduling would work out” for his leading man, he’s not really exaggerating. Before donning Willy Wonka’s top hat and tails, Borle will play bar mitzvah dad Marvin in the fall Broadway revival of William Finn’s Falsettos. “It’s surreal,” the 43-year-old actor says of jumping from a small-scale contemporary musical to the eye-popping extravaganza of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I feel a great sense of responsibility to both of these shows. I’ve loved Falsettos since I saw it in college, and I’ve been doing demo recordings for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the past five years. The fact that everybody is trusting me with this incredible material? I just have to put my head down and do the work.”
Borle laughingly dodges questions about how he will portray the mysterious candy maker, whose five “golden tickets” to tour the chocolate factory change the lives of young Charlie Bucket and the other children who find them. “It’s a puzzle, because here’s someone who has basically been alone for the past 20 years, with only the Oompa Loompas to talk to,” he says, referring to Willy Wonka’s army of diminutive assistants. “What is this guy really like? That’s the balancing act — he’s mischievous and a little strange, but there’s something about Charlie’s decency that he responds to. They both want the world to be a happy, loving place. In a lot of ways, I think he is still a boy who hasn’t grown up.”
Roald Dahl’s enduringly popular 1964 book depicts Willy Wonka as “quick and sharp and full of life,” with a face “alight in fun and laughter.” The simplicity of the late Gene Wilder’s sly performance in the 1971 film version impressed Borle. “What I remember about the movie is Gene Wilder being himself more than ‘putting on’ a character,” he observes. “I want to start as simply as possible, and one of the nice things about being an actor who has worked for more than a decade is that you begin to trust you are interesting enough as a person to take on roles like this. We’ll also have a few tricks up our sleeves!”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory arrives on Broadway a few months after closing night of Matilda, another hit musical based on a book by Roald Dahl. (The Welsh-born author, who died in 1990, is being celebrated worldwide this fall on the centennial of his birth.) “He was kind of like Pixar before there was a Pixar,” Borle says of Dahl’s multigenerational appeal. “He wrote stories for children that adults could relate to on a totally different level. And there’s a bit of darkness to it, which works well in a musical. They’re just stories that people enjoy listening to over and over again.”
Borle’s busy Broadway schedule is the culmination of almost two decades of solid work on stage and, more recently, television. A native of Pittsburgh, he made his Great White Way debut in Footloose in 1998, three years after graduating from drama school at Carnegie Mellon. A natural character actor, Borle parlayed his ability to morph physically and emotionally to develop a genre-busting range. He earned his first Tony nomination in 2007 as the romantic lead in Legally Blonde and played AIDS patient Prior Walter in the 2010 Off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. On TV, he portrayed a Broadway composer in the cult hit Smash and suited up as concert promoter Max Detweiler in the 2013 live TV presentation of The Sound of Music.
These grounded, realistic performances make Borle’s comedic work in musicals — such as Spamalot (juggling multiple roles), Mary Poppins (as chimney sweep Bert), Peter and the Starcatcher (as hapless pirate Black Stache), and Something Rotten (as William Shakespeare, a vain, plagiarist rock star) — even more notable. “When you’re playing someone like Shakespeare or Captain Hook or Willy Wonka, you can layer on the eccentricities and have fun,” he explains. “And for me, there’s safety in going for a laugh. It’s harder to play a character that’s closer to yourself, like Marvin in Falsettos. These iconic roles come with a lot of pressure, but I feel very, very lucky.”
The regular schedule of a Broadway actor suits Borle, though he’s definitely ambitious to continue working in other areas of show business. “I want to do everything — make no mistake,” he says. “I would love to do something fantastic on TV; I would love to do movies. But there is nothing better than sitting in a rehearsal room with generous, brilliant people, getting paid to pretend. If my baseline is that I get to walk to work in New York City and act on Broadway for the rest of my life, I’m happy and grateful.”