Stories

The boy of Steel

TALES FROM A SUPER LIFE

I was born on a glorious summer day in Nashville Tennessee, the second son of Mike and Jo Ann Wagner. I was blessed to be part of a large and loving family, raised in my mother’s ancestral home in Hartsville. I shared an idyllic childhood with my older brother Kurt, my sisters Krista, Kayne and Gretchen and my younger brother Gray.  It was a great beginning.

 On my sixth birthday I donned my first superhero costume and my dreams were already soaring!

My theatrical journey began when I was ten years old. While traveling with my family on vacation at Disneyland (vintage 1968!), I was first inspired by Walt Disney’s Magic and learned the power of “imagineering” (Monsanto’s INNER SPACE, The Dancing Waters, The Monorail and Matterhorn , and especially Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln took my breath away). That autumn in New York I was introduced to Broadway Magic by the original cast of “1776″, (where I first saw the Tony Winning Actor Ron Holgate, who would go on to create the role in which I toured in KISS ME KATE …and where Howard De Silva actually BECAME Ben Franklin!). It was a very good year.

Encouraged throughout school by a string of inspirational teachers, I made my stage debut in the 4th grade as Captain Hook in ADVENTURES IN
STORYBOOKLAND (I still know my line!) and as a sophomore, Mrs. Juliette Guthrie, Gallatin High School’s Drama Teacher, cast me as quite possibly the
youngest Henry Higgins ever in MY FAIR LADY. The next year I played Henry Drummond in INHERIT THE WIND, and then my senior year I was Billy Bigalow in CAROUSEL. A ‘talent scout’ from Nashville attended and I soon got my first my paid gig.

My professional career began right after graduating high school in 1976 in a summer stock production of 1776 (Very Patriotic!) at Jenny Wiley
Summer Music Theatre in Prestonburg, Kentucky. That summer we also did SHOWBOAT, SOUTH PACIFIC and THE GRASS HARP. I helped build sets, paint
costumes, and was even in charge of Luthor Billis’ Tattoo! I was eager to learn and perform. As a freshman at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, my Theatre immersion escalated. My first involvement in a college play became my first touring show, first traveling to the amazing School of the Arts in Chapel
Hill, North Carolina and ultimately to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to compete in the American Collegiate Theatre Festival. We won the Bronze! I was welcomed into the Bachelor’s of Fine Arts program with an emphasis in Drama and reveled in the dance, the stage combat and in the history of the Theatre. I was awarded the Alpha Psi Omega Award as the Outstanding Freshman in Theatre. Highlights of my Alabama Collegiate resume include Judas in GODSPELL, Lancelot in CAMELOT, King Pentheus in THE BACCHAE, and King Ferdinand in LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST.

Thanks to a mass audition known as SETC (The South Eastern Theatre Conference), the two summers of my Alabama sojourn were spent at THE LOST
COLONY, America’s Longest Running Outdoor Drama.

At the time (’77 & ’78) Broadway Director and Choreographer Joe Layton was in charge and he added his
Professional Theatre Workshop to our experience of Paul Green’s HistoricalPageant. In the PTW, we produced, designed, and presented many shows from dance concerts to Spiritual Celebrations, including a Children’s Theatre Musical ALICE! by fellow cast mate Terrence V. Mann, who went on to conquer Broadway and returned to direct THE LOST COLONY for several seasons!

That gorgeous Amphitheater is where Andy Griffith started his career playing Sir Walter Raleigh. Situated on an idyllic island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina overlooking the Sound, it was on the set of THE LOST COLONY that I first met my wife beautiful wife Susan. I played John Borden, the “hero”, and she played Mrs. Manteo, wife of the ‘Good Indian’. It was very romantic. (We are still making magic!)

I transferred as a junior to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Having just finished the COLONY, I still had my long hair and beard and as I walked up to the Callboard in the Theatre Department to sign in on my first day, I overheard a discussion. “We need someone tall who can sing!” said a voice from  within an office. I stuck my head in and said, “I can sing.” The voice belonged to Frank Wildhorn and after singing for hours with him at a piano, I was cast in the title role in the world premiere of Frank’s first musical CHRISTOPHER! .

This was a great way to ‘break in’ to the Department. I became a very busy actor and was awarded the Jack Nicholson Scholarship my Senior year. Full tuition. (Thank you, Jack!) I crossed the sea with the USC\USA troupe for the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, where our production of Sam Shepard’s BURIED CHILD won the Fringe First award. I also played Chauvelin in a musical version of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, in which I had quite a balletic dance solo! I am proud to say I am still a USC Ambassador today!

After finishing my BFA studies in 1980, I was poised to enter Showbiz. En route I was lucky enough to make it on the air as a contestant on the game show PASSWORD PLUS and even got to play with Regis Philbin! I won all week long, but ultimately lost the big money in ‘Alphabetics’! They told us not to say we were actors, so I said I was a freelance masseur! My first on camera gig was as the guest villain Joey Bryan on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, where I had a great chase and fight on a Circus Train. Soon after that I joined the cast of ABC’s GENERAL HOSPITAL as Randall Thompson, ELQ’s Executive Secretary. They called me the ‘Computer Lover’ and I was a bit of comic relief for two years. My biggest TV break to date came when Glen A. Larson cast me as AUTOMAN with Desi Arnaz Jr. This was an excellent adventure. I was immersed in Special Effects and Hollywood Magic. Susan and I were even a Championship Couple on TATTLETALES (I especially liked the Banana section!). AUTOMAN afforded me international recognition and the chance to say, “Hey, I’m an action figure!”

Those toys are very, very rare. I was given a Saturn Award for my work as AUTOMAN, which I treasure for the memory of sitting next to Vincent Price at the ceremony. I’d like to give a special thanks to the SCI-FI channel
for giving AUTOMAN new life in their SUPERHEROLAND, and to BRAVO in England.

In 1984, Broadway beckoned and I was cast as Athos in the Broadway revival of Rudolph Friml’s 1927 Classic THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

Originally directed by Tom O’Horgan, Joe Layton was brought in at the last minute to ‘fix’ the show. It was filled with action and romance, but didn’t really catch on. We opened on a Sunday and closed the next…ouch! Still, it was a glorious
introduction to the Great White Way! Brent Spiner, now immortalized as Star Trek’s Data, was Aramis, and Ron Taylor, the original voice of the Plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was Porthos. Liz Callaway as Constance was a delight.

All for One, Finale at THE BROADWAY THEATRE

Undaunted, I was cast in two unremarkable films, AMERICA 3000 and
THE SISTERHOOD. The first lead me to Israel and the second took me across the
Pacific to the Philippines (In the very footsteps of General MacArthur!)

In the interim, I played Captain Big Jim Warrington in LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, Cliff in CABARET and Tony in WEST SIDE STORY in La Mirada.

Then in the summer of 1986, I played Lancelot in CAMELOT with Noel Harrison at the Sacramento Music Circus, in their famous tent, followed by Curly in OKLAHOMA! at San Diego’s Starlight Bowl.

Fortune smiled doubly on me in 1987. I was cast as the original Rapunzel’s Prince in Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS.

My son, Stewart, was also born that Spring. INTO THE WOODS premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego before bringing me back to Broadway. After an enchanted year in New York with our bouncing baby boy in tow, I was promoted to the role of the Wolf & Cinderella’s Prince in the First National Tour of INTO THE WOODS. Susan, Stewart and I got to travel the U.S. and see America’s most beautiful theatres. INTO THE WOODS is packed with Life Lessons and I am happy to say we are still studying hard! This show resonates even more strongly today than it did all
those years ago.

Soon after my Fairy Tale adventure, I was recalled to CAMELOT, this time with Robert Goulet. It was a thrill to be knighted Lancelot by the original Lancelot!

Immediately following the success of TUTS’ CAMELOT

I was reunited with Frank Wildhorn at Houston’s Alley Theatre, where I originated the
title roles in JEKYLL & HYDE in 1990 and SVENGALI in 1991.

My daughter Paige was born, to the minute, as SVENGALI opened in Houston. My family was complete.

During that time, I was the first to sing the role of Percy on the Original Concept recording of Frank’s THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.

in the studio with Linda Eder, Frank Wildhorn, Nan Knighton and Dave Clemmons

The New York Times sent 400,000 copies of my “Into the Fire” across America to promote that show’s Broadway opening, starring Doug Sills, my brother Prince from the WOODS tour.

During Paige’s first summer, I played the role of Fred/Petruchio in KISS ME KATE at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I fell in love with the show then and still love it today. Stockbridge is the home of Norman Rockwell and we had a truly Rockwell American experience there.

I soon hit the road again as Javert in LES MISERABLES, which after a year brought me again home to Broadway.

Then, my ancient Disney magic kicked in and I was cast as the standby to the Beast and Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast”, which premiered at TUTS in Houston and then took Broadway bystorm. After nearly a year alternating between the two roles I was given the opportunity to open the Canadian Company of BATB where I starred for two years before returning to New York as the Beast of Broadway. Between the two companies I played over 1200 performances as the Beast.

In appreciation, I was invited to sing aboard the Disney Magic in the Caribbean. I am still an active supporter of all things Disney. Our dog Beauty was a living tribute to that time.

While I was reigning in Hair and Horns at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, JEKYLL & HYDE finally opened on Broadway and became a hit. I was invited to
rejoin the Grand Experiment in what they were calling ‘The Broadway Tour’ and I was happy to play.

Our tour won rave reviews across the country and a big thumbs up from the ‘Jekkies’, the ardent fan base that helped make J&H an international phenomenon. To celebrate the tour I recorded my first CD, containing hits from J&H and many of my past Broadway shows. All in all it was a magical year. Thanks to the fervent support of my fans and the magic of the internet, I now have a loyal group of ‘Chuckkies’ who, not only make my job more fun, but have also helped me raise many thousands of dollars for my main charity, JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). I will always look back on The Millennium Tour of JEKYLL & HYDE with a smile.

Following JEKYLL & HYDE, and some much needed time at home with Susan and my children, I was cast as Carl-Magnus in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the
Northshore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts and later I played Edward Rutledge in Fort Worth, Texas in Casa Manana’s 1776….a coming full circle
as a Founding Father.

Then came the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Masterwork, KISS ME KATE, retooled to include- instead of an aging Senator-a spoof of General
Douglas MacArthur.

"I shall return"

I was blessed to be able to join this amazing show in the First National Tour, with Rex Smith and Rachel York. The Producers, Roger Berlind and Roger Horchow, were the epitome of class and working with the Tony-winning Michael Blakemore was an honor. Mr. Blakemore was a teen in Australia when MacArthur was the Hero of the South Pacific, so there was great respect in this teasing look at the braggadocio warrior. The role was designed to soften the misogynist tendency of the show by making Fred seem tame compared to this Ultra Fred! Despite the brevity of my appearance I had a blast being,as Variety generously called me, ‘nicely overblown!”

During the KISS ME KATE tour I had the privilege of participating in Demo recordings of two new musicals, DRACULA: The Musical, by my old friend Frank Wildhorn, and DILLINGER by Paul Aleman.

I launched my solo concert career, singing with the world famous USC Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles and with the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra here at home in an evening entitled “Heroes On Broadway.”

In 2002 I made my highly successful directorial debut of JEKYLL & HYDE at UWF, and it was such a magical experience that I was invited back in ’03 to direct MAN OF LA MANCHA and more! I was hired as the Visiting Artist in Residence at that excellent University, teaching History of the American Musical and helping to expand UWF Division of Drama into a world-class program. It was very rewarding, and I look forward to seeing our department grow.

As if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of all of the UWF excitement, I was invited back to perform aboard the Disney Magic, cruising the Caribbean again with my family. As always it was an amazing cruise, plus we got to ride the new Mission: Space ride at EPCOT on the way home! Magic does happen when you wish upon a star! Go Team Disney!

2004 began with a flourish when I was asked to join the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, once again as the pompously lovable dragoon Carl-Magnus. My Masterclasses continued to spread my love of Theatre around the country, and I was invited to return to Broadway as standby to Count Dracula, Van Helsing and Quincey in Frank Wildhorn’s DRACULA: the musical at the historic Belasco Theatre. I felt a strong spiritual connection with the late, great ‘Bishop of Broadway’ and created a website and am still working on a book entitled “HAUNTING THE BELASCO” to honor David Belasco’s legacy.

My design for our show jacket

Hanging out in David's Apartment

While DRACULA was running in New York, Hurricane Ivan struck theGulf Coast, and my home, Dreamscape, was severely damaged. UWF was also badly
hit, and as 2005 began, my family was virtually homeless, the University was unable to hire me back, and the Insurance companies and FEMA were not coming
through in anything like a timely manner. On top of all of this, our Cocker Spaniel Beauty passed away. This was a tough time, a real test, and thankfully  we came through it together, stronger than ever. I spent the summer at Okaloosa Walton Community College, playing Frank Butler in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and strengthening the bonds between UWF and OWCC that I had cultivated during MAN OF LA MANCHA.

While the funding is still too tight to bring me back into the faculty at present, we still have long term dreams of building UWF’s MusicalTheatre program in the coming years.

Late in 2005, thanks to the Pensacola Humane society, we rescued a fantastic new dog we call Aurora. We believe that she’s mostly an American Eskimo
Dog, and learned that in the 1890′s a troupe of these dogs had performed with The Greatest Show on Earth. The following week I was in New York auditioning, and was cast as the Ringmaster in that same show the RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS!!

In a time when I needed a longterm job I was blessed to be employed by  FELD ENTERTAINMENT for four amazing years leading Blue Unit for the 136th edition CIRCUS OF DREAMS and the 138th edition OVER THE TOP. It was a great adventure and I especially thank the Feld family who many years ago co-produced my Broadway debut THE THREE MUSKETEERS. I see all of these coincidences as magic signposts that let me know I’m still on the blessed track and prospects for the future are very bright. The best is yet to come!

In 2010 I took a brief detour from the Theatre helping to restore my beautiful Pensacola Beach as part of the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill Cleanup Team, helping to coordinate a massive Mechanical Beach Operation to aid in removing the oil and protecting our amazing wildlife. It was an exhilarating experience.

For the last few years I’ve been part of NEIL BERG’s 100 YEARS OF BROADWAY tours and teaching my Masterclasses, sharing  love of Musical Theatre and helping to inspire the Broadway stars of tomorrow.

 2012 and most of 2013 were filled as I played the Captain of the S.S. American in the National Tour of Cole Porter’s classic ANYTHING GOES, once again with the stellar Rachel York.

I was blessed to play Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee

In a miraculous confluence of events I was invited to moderate a discussion at Loyola Marymount University entitled REIMAGINING THE SUPERNATURAL IN POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT with Bob Orci and Matthew Bourne. What a thrill to share the stage with such creative minds.

In March 2014 I returned to the Barricade as Javert with my Broadway Valjean Craig Schulman in Raleigh at the North Carolina Theatre, directed by my National Tour Valjean Dave Clemmons. It was a thrilling production, and such a joy to revisit The World’s Most Popular Musical in such grand style! In May 2014 I’ll reprise Javert in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall. Then in June I’ll reprise Jean Valjean for Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre, with a chorus of 100 voices! I continue to tour with Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway with my friends, ever with an eye toward a very productive future!

I welcome all challenges and am open to much much more!

We live in interesting and challenging times. I pray we use the power of love and laughter to heal our societal wounds, promote illumination and become a more peaceful global community. I give thanks for all of the bounty in my life, and I pledge that I will do all in my power to leave the world a bit better than I found it. I invite you to take your friends and family to see a live show at every opportunity. Revel in the collaborative magic of Theatre.

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