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Joe Mantello talks 'The Last Ship,' 'The Normal Heart'
NUNN ON ONE: THEATER
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2014-06-25

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Sting has launched his musical The Last Ship, debuting first in Chicago before heading to Broadway. It tells the story of the English seafaring town of Wallsend, a shipyard community full of strapping men working day in and day out.

Openly gay actor Joe Mantello directs the show and has an extensive theater resume. He worked on Broadway's Wicked, Take Me Out and Assassins. He directed Terence McNally's The Ritz and was nominated for a Tony with his role Louis in Angels in America. He was also nominated for The Normal Heart for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role that led him to a different part in the recent HBO version of the hit drama.

He directs The Last Ship along with Casa Valentina—productions that were both featured on the Tony Awards recently.

Windy City Times: Hi, Joe. You are originally from Rockford, Illinois?

Joe Mantello: Yes, I am from Rockford.

WCT: You have an Italian background?

Joe Mantello: I do. My father is full Italian and my mother is half. My family is from Calabria.

WCT: Were they conservative growing up?

Joe Mantello: No, actually they were very supportive and encouraging. They drove me to play practice. They were great.

WCT: When did you come out of the closet?

Joe Mantello: When I went away to school when I was 17.

WCT: Was it a challenge to come out in Rockford?

Joe Mantello: I think it was a challenge to be out at that time. I was so fortunate to go to an arts school where it wasn't looked upon to be odd or second class. It was an easy transition.

WCT: Did you always want to be in theater?

Joe Mantello: I was a precocious kid, I think. I don't know if this is still true but at the time I was growing up there were a lot of opportunities to do theater in Rockford. There were several community theaters and a professional theater. My high school did incredible productions. I remember going from play to play for five or six years. I got the bug and went to North Carolina school of the Arts for college then moved to New York.

WCT: You have done so much there it is hard to cover everything.

Joe Mantello: [Laughs] I have been doing this a long time!

WCT: I saw Take Me Out when it was here. Was this show ahead of its time because of athletes coming out of the closet currently?

Joe Mantello: Yes, I think it was ahead of its time. It is time for a revival of it.

WCT: Talk about your journey to The Last Ship.

Joe Mantello: I was invited to come see an early workshop of it when it was still quite long. I spoke to Sting and joined the team.

WCT: How was it working with him?

Joe Mantello: He's the greatest.

WCT: He seems very laid back today.

Joe Mantello: That's exactly what he's like.

WCT: What has been a challenge of directing The Last Ship?

Joe Mantello: I'm hesitating because doing musicals can be quite difficult, but this one has been relatively smooth sailing, if you will. It's been great.

WCT: It seems to be a very butch show, from what I have seen. Are there things especially for LGBT audiences?

Joe Mantello: Well, it depends on if the audience is looking for something that speaks specifically to those issues. I tend to look at things a human being. There are things in our show that are universal about struggle and defining who you are as a community. The subject matter is not specifically our community, it is about a community.

WCT: Talk about Casa Valentina.

Joe Mantello: It is Harvey Fierstein's first new play in over 30 years. It is about a resort that existed in the Catskills in the sixties. It was run by a married couple. He was a [cross-dresser] and she owned a wig store. They opened and ran this resort for heterosexual men who enjoyed cross dressing.

These two antique dealers came across a box of photographs at a flea market a few years ago and it was photographs from this place of these men.

WCT: What did you think of Normal Heart's television debut?

Joe Mantello: I think it's quite a beautiful film. It is different than the play but it's essential in its own way. To me theater is about language and filmmaking is about visual and pictures. There are things that we showed in the film that you can't really do onstage. It is completely different and yet I think it's equally powerful.

WCT: Favorite moment from Angels in America?

Joe Mantello: I think that play hit the world like dynamite going off. To be a interact with an audience that was discovering Tony Kushner's writing for the first time was unforgettable.

WCT: Did you ever think Wicked would go on for this long?

Joe Mantello: I'm always surprised by everything in life so, no, I didn't. I thought it was a good idea for a musical. I thought if we got it right it might run for a few years.

WCT: How is it being back in Chicago?

Joe Mantello: I love it. I am going to do a play at Steppenwolf in November. It's a new play by a playwright named Lisa D'Amour, who wrote a play called Detroit that played a few years ago there at Steppenwolf. This show is extraordinary with a massive cast. It is called Airline Highway.

WCT: I look forward to seeing it.

The Last Ship battens down the hatches at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., until July 13. Visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com or call 800-775-2000 for tickets today.


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