As any Elf aficionado can tell you, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear... and no one knows that statement to be true more than multitalented tour actor Christopher Russo. He may play the grouchy, Grinchy Walter Hobbs in the national mini-tour of Elf the Musical, the splashy stage adaptation of the 2003 smash hit film, but in reality, he's an uber-kind, ever-jubilant anti-Scrooge for whom Christmas could never get “in the way.” In recent years, the hands-on dad of former School of Rock standout Isabella and loving husband to adoring wife Kristi has spent a number of Christmases on the road, as a result of a decade-long tour with the first national company of Wicked. (That’s a fact, not a gripe... he absolutely loved every minute). But for now, he’s happy to be “home for the holidays,” back in New York for a three-week stint at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, the final leg of a three-month journey that’s brought him to cities throughout Virginia, Michigan, Ohio and Toronto, to name a few, allowing him to spread laughter, joy and holiday cheer to the American public at large.
On a break from his packed performance schedule in Boston, we caught up with the longtime Oz veteran, whose credits also include the national tours of Miss Saigon, The Who’s Tommy, and the recent regional production of The Ballad of Little Jo, to talk all about life on the road, family holiday traditions, how playing Walter has changed him as a father, and much, much more.
So, put some cheery fol-de-rol on every wall and every nook, and have a look at Russo’s answers below! Then, book a ticket to see him and the rest of the cast in action through December 29th. You’re sure to have a razzle-dazzle-ring-a-lingly good time!
Throughout your career, you’ve done a fair amount of dramatic work on and off, but more recently, you’ve been involved in more lighter, family-friendly fare. What is it that draws you to this type of material? Do you prefer it to the more “adult” work you’ve done?
I mean, obviously, part of it is being a father. Ever since Isabella was little, we’ve always seen a lot more family-oriented movies, including all those great animated Disney films, and, you know, if we were going to take her to a show, it would always be a family-friendly show that was [appropriate] for her. So, I guess that living in that world, it was just something I gravitated toward. Of course, I’m not against doing more adult-themed plays and musicals (and for that matter, neither is she), but sometimes, it just seems to be what I fall into. I don’t mind them, though. They’re always a lot of fun.
Can you talk about how you became involved with this show? What was it about this show and this role that made you say “yes”?
Like many families, my wife and daughter and I have been watching this movie for years. It’s been an annual tradition... we take it out during Christmas, get the popcorn out, gather on the couch and just laugh at the same dumb jokes you’ve been laughing at for years and years and years.
And then, as far as the musical is concerned, our good friend, Sebastian Arcelus, who was on the Wicked tour with me... he eventually left [the tour] and then a few years later got the [gig as] the original Buddy in the Broadway production. So, I was familiar with the musical from him.
So, I saw the audition and thought, “That would be fun to do.” I’m now at the age where I’ve grown into playing these older parts, so when the opportunity presented itself it was a no-brainer for me. Especially around Christmas… I mean, how could you go wrong?!
And I’ll say, too, that what actually took me by surprise was how much fun it is to do this show. My favorite thing is to just sit backstage and listen to that band every night. Man, those guys are smoking! It’s got such a big band jazzy sound to it… kind of reminiscent of those old musicals. It’s been a real joy to be a part of.
What do you feel you bring to the role that makes it different from the film version or previous stage incarnations?
I tried to make Walter as likable as possible from the start. Of course, everyone’s seen the film and familiar with it enough that I was able to James Caan’s performance as a template, but then, I also tried to find my own moments to show the Walter that Emily married. He’s written as a big grouch, and Emily and Michael’s roles only support that image. So, for me, it was about getting the audience on his side, and making him relatable to other dads.
‘Cause Walter’s relationship with Michael…. I’m sure it’s typical of a lot of working fathers. You put so many hours into work, and sometimes there’s not many [hours] leftover [for family time]. You know, you see your kids a little bit in the morning, then everyone’s off to work, the kids are off to school, and then you see each other a little bit at dinner — but between homework and bedtime, there’s really not a lot of time to spend with the family.
That was kind of like my dad[’s situation]. He was an executive in an insurance business. With Walter, I could relate him to my dad in that way, and think like, “Wow, I’m sure he really wants to spend time with his kid, but the pressures of running his business and everything that goes along with being an executive just [monopolize] that, you know? Using that element really helped me in my ability to create the character from the inside.
Given that the show revolves so much around a father’s relationship with his kid, is there any particular moment or scene in the show that reminds you of a moment or experience you’ve had with Bella? Or vice versa?
Not in this show, no. I can’t speak to that. We’ve always had a very close relationship. Walter’s a working father in the corporate world, who’s completely caught up in his work, and I had the luxury of spending so much time with my daughter when she was young, considering how Wicked came along just after she was born.
When you’re on a show schedule, you generally have your mornings [free], so we’d spend time together, and we got her on my show schedule, so I’d see her when I got home, too. It was a luxury... a real blessing. And it’s so different from Walter’s experience in this show, that in that sense, I can’t really relate the two experiences.
And then, in terms of relating my relationship with Buddy to Bella, I can’t really do that either, ‘cause obviously, I can’t relate to having a kid I never knew existed.... I hope (Laughs).
In recent years, Elf has solidified itself as one of the more classic holiday films of modern times. Which holiday films did you grow up enjoying, and which do you still watch today?
When I was a kid, it was always about those claymation movies — Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, the cartoon Frosty the Snowman…. and then, man, I’ll tell you — we’d wait all year for that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! With the elf who wanted to be a dentist? He killed me!
And my dad was always a real movie buff… so we’d watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year as well.
And now I’ve got Isabella watching all those, too, ‘cause they eventually all came out on DVD, so now, I’m able to share them with her.
And then, there are the newer ones we watch, too, like The Muppet Christmas Carol — that’s a great one — and man, Jim Carrey did such a fantastic job with The Grinch, didn’t he? So, we’ll watch that one too.
And then, of course, Elf — Bella thought that was funny right off the bat. I think that was really the first Christmas movie that we made it an annual tradition to watch together. We really look forward to it every year… which makes this [stage] experience all the more special.
What are some of the other Russo family holiday traditions?
Well, as you know, we toured with Wicked for ten years, so we didn’t have many Christmases at our home — we had one just before Isabella was born, and then her very first Christmas was at home just before we left. But from there, we had ten Christmases on the road. So because we weren’t at our home, we always tried to do things that she would remember every year…. create an annual memory for her… something she could look forward to every year. One thing we’d always do — no matter where we were — was that we would always find a place to go and cut down a Christmas tree.
And it became so routine that... I’ll tell you a funny story. We laugh about this all the time. One year, we were in Detroit, and it was so cold... it must have been in the teens or something. And no matter where I looked, in this particular area, there was just absolutely no Christmas tree farm [in which to cut down a tree].
So we decided, that year, with the chill in the air, that we’d just go to Home Depot and get the tree there. And as we’re pulling into the parking lot — gosh, [my wife] Kristi and I both remember this so vividly — Isabella says, “We’re getting our tree from a store?!” (Laughs). It was such a break in tradition for her… ‘cause she had become so accustomed to, you know, cutting down the live tree.
So, we settled for the next best thing and went to a nursery... a little garden center. But no, every other year, we have always made it tradition to cut down a tree.
The other [tradition] we have is handcrafting a star for the top of the tree. That’s something we began when Bella was just a year old. She’s made one every year, and we’ve saved each one of them. And now that we’re home [for Christmas], we put them out. They’re all along this ledge in our dining room, so we can look at them and reminisce about each year on the road.
[From] D.C. to Toronto to St. Louis, each one is themed and has to do with the most significant or memorable experiences we that year. It’s a real trip. But that’s another really great tradition we have. We’re a very festive family.
Up until he finally turns in the end, Walter’s essentially a Grinch, and almost, for lack of a better word, a villain, in that he despises Christmas so much. Do you enjoy playing the antagonistic character? What about Walter makes it so appealing?
I do. It’s pure fun to play the villain. Anyone who’s ever played a villain will tell you that. But, I have to say, it’s especially fun for me — and it’s the reason I like Walter so much in particular — because there’s redemption for him. Then, as an actor, you have an arc to play with... there’s meat in there, and it’s not just a one-note [character].
I also like playing those characters, as is the case with Walter, that you hear about before you see them. So, it’s built up in the audience’s mind and they’re able to imagine and come up with their own idea of what they think the character might be, based on what’s given, and then you finally meet him and you can see if he compares. So, that aspect’s fun for me, too.
And then, of course, in playing this particular part, there’s the part of me who says obviously he’s not a villain. He’s just your typical working guy who’s under a lot of pressure. I mean, people can relate to that, too. Everyone, no matter what their department is, has that big scary boss that’s coming down on them, like, “you gotta make those numbers, Hobbs.” He’s just dealing with the pressure.
And for me, there’s a lot of comedy in that aspect, too. He’s already under enough pressure at work, and then this giant elf shows up, and it’s just like… “Can’t I catch a break?!” You know? (Laughs). That makes him relatable, too, to loop back to what I was saying earlier.
But again, for me, the key is having the audience experience his redemption, and watching his discovery of “What was [putting in] all that work for if you’re not going to enjoy why you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it for? Why not take time to enjoy this family you have?” ‘Cause at the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about.
It’s safe to say Walter’s career consumes his life and, even before Buddy comes into the picture, it seriously impedes on the family dynamic. Do you feel that way about tour life? How does it affect you as a father and a husband?
Well, of course, Belle and Kristi were on the road with me, so I wouldn’t say it impeded on our dynamic in that way. But especially in the case of Bella, having her on the road for so many of her developmental years, I would often question whether or not we were doing the right thing. Like, [touring] is such an unconventional life. I’d ask myself, “Is she missing out? What is living like this going to do to her long-term? Will she ever be able to settle down in one place?”
It was like we were constantly moving, but also trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for her sake. I didn’t want to deprive her of a “normal childhood” [and of] the life that I felt every other kid was having.
And then, at one point, after all this debate, it was my mother who finally said to me, “Home to Isabella is where you and Kristi are. That’s really what home is… what kids really crave and want.” So, that did much to put me at ease. (Laughs). And, of course, she was right. Mothers always know. (Laughs).
Through the years, what’s been your favorite city to tour in and why?
I don’t have favorites, but I do enjoy looking back at the memories. Chicago, Boston… D.C. pops into mind, just because we were there for several months, and able to take advantage of all the museums and opportunities. I mean, I would never have traveled to D. C. for Fourth of July fireworks on my own, just because of the idea of all the crowds and craziness and all that… but, you know, we happened to be there anyway, so we made our way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and watched right in front our faces what we’d seen on TV for so many years.
A big one, too, was Hawaii, ‘cause Kristi has a lot of family out there. We spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas there one year with Wicked, and that such was a joy. To be able to be employed (laughs), and in a show that was just so popular, especially, again, around the holiday time… and be able to see all of her family that we rarely get to see on a regular basis… it was really special.
We did that also when we toured with Miss Saigon, which was earlier in our careers, but still special. That was a real treat, too.
The role of Walter, as you mentioned earlier, was made famous on film by James Caan. If you could take on another of Caan’s well-known film roles, which would it be and why?
(Laughs) Woah-ho! Another role of James Caan’s? My gosh!
Actually, I remember this great TV movie called Brian’s Song, about Brian Piccolo [played by Caan in the film], the Chicago Bears running back who died of cancer. I remember watching that movie as a kid. I think that was actually the first time I saw James Caan onscreen. I mean, I wasn’t a sports or football fan by any means as a kid, but I remember this film and this character having such an impact [on me].
It was a great story between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, and the friendship they developed, and how they helped each other succeed. [Brian] just stood out to me. It was very tragic that he passed away, but there’s a running theme (and you can see it in the film) that he persevered and stuck it through to the end. And they say at the end, “He’s remembered as he lived, rather than how he died.” It’s very inspirational… I’d love to give that one a try.
And then… come on! What actor wouldn’t want to play Sonny Corleone? (Laughs).
Buddy says that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” Is there any particular song you find yourself singing around holiday time?
Growing up, my dad always played the classics in our house... you know, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. I think, because of that (or maybe not), at this time of year, I always seem to have “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” running through my head.
What would you say is the most “sparklejollytwinklejingley” thing about you?
I have to say, I’m pretty silly. I’m not ashamed... my sense of humor is right up there with the 10-13-year-old age range. Isabella would always call me “Silly Daddy.” And I’m absolutely sure there are times when Kristi thinks she has two kids. (Laughs). But it’s just fun, you know? It adds to the enjoyment of life. So, I embrace it.
Getting back to the main themes of the piece, what’s the best piece of fatherly advice you’ve ever received and, at this present moment, what’s the best piece of fatherly advice you could offer to your daughter?
Ah! (Pause). What my dad always said to me was that you may have failures in life, but you have to pick yourself up, keep moving forward, and always, always stay true to yourself. People will remember you for your perseverance and your character… your tenacity and your courage.
And that’s what I’d say to Isabella as well… you may have failures in life, but if you stay true to who you are — “to thine own elf be true,” as we say in the show — eventually it will be recognized.
Finally, in keeping with the idea of your character: in your opinion, what’s the key to being the “world’s greatest dad”?
Wow! Now, that’s a question! The key to being the world’s greatest dad… (pause) is to listen. (Pause). And to always try to find the fun in life. Find the fun in all the activities you do with your kids... so that you’re able to create good memories that will last them for the rest of their lives. That’s really what it’s all about.
Catch Russo and the cast of Elf the Musical at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden (4 Pennsylvania Plaza) through December 29th. For tickets and more information, visit www.elfmusicaltour.com.