Is Marc Kudisch Broadway's last leading man? "I don't consider myself a leading man," he says, tucking into a hearty breakfast. But isn't that his name in the Playbill for 9 to 5—the one male with top billing, holding his own against Allison Janney as well as Wicked alumni Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block? "I'm not a leading man," Kudisch insists. "I haven't built my career on that. Outside of Bells Are Ringing, name me one show where I was the leading man." Well, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Assassins, The Apple Tree, A Little Night Music… "I'm the foil in those shows, the obstacle," Kudisch demurs matter-of-factly. "I don't care how people think I look. I don't care how people think I sing."
Technically, Kudisch may be right. As Trevor Graydon in Millie, he wound up not with the girl (Sutton Foster) but with a new (male) secretary. In The Apple Tree, he played not Adam but the Snake, opposite the Eve of Kristin Chenoweth (once his fiancée). Chenoweth contradicts him flatly: "Marc is a leading man!" she insists by e-mail. "He's also the foil and support. He's everything Broadway men should be. There's nothing the man cannot do."
Doth Kudisch protest too much? He's built like Paul Bunyan, with the square jaw and bedroom eyes for guest shots on Sex and the City and As the World Turns. And with that dark, gleaming baritone, he could have cut it in opera, had he so chosen. He's a regular on the Town Hall series Broadway Unplugged, dedicated to the human voice au naturel. Some performers would think they were doing their job just by showing off such gifts. Kudisch thinks of them as means to an end.
"There are different kinds of ego in this business," Kudisch muses. "You can't have a career without one. I have a big fat ego. I don't give a shit what anybody says about me. My ego is in telling the story. I'm willing to get my ass kicked." Indeed: In the Dolly Parton–scored 9 to 5, he plays the ultimate sexist boss who gets hog-tied with telephone wire, thrown in the back of a car and hoisted up in the air—all in the first act. "That's this character's journey. I don't care if it's fluff. Do it with honesty and specificity."
This is the gospel as Kudisch learned it back at Boca Raton's Florida Atlantic University in the late 1980s, where his teachers also told him that it was no longer possible to make a career on the stage. It was a much smaller school then. But troupers such as Zoe Caldwell and Hume Cronyn would drop in for a semester, as did the legendary director, producer, writer, performer, choreographer and lyricist Joshua Logan. "Those were his last moments," Kudisch recalls. "Josh Logan! That's what I got in college. I didn't sing a note. I was taught classical, legitimate theater. And once every two or three years, we did a musical to raise some money." Despite the dire predictions, Kudisch has carved out a niche in musical theater. "I'm stubborn," he says. "I was trained to do what I do."
There will be future leading men on Broadway, Kudisch predicts, but the term will mean something different then. "When Stephen Sondheim gets relegated to the Public Theater," he notes, "you know something has changed. Broadway has become big business. In ten years, the price of producing a show has gone from $4 million to $40 million. With so much at stake, people aren't willing to risk. If there's something with dark subject matter, they don't stay with it. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we didn't risk enough. Sure, it was family entertainment. But the brilliant thing about the film was the darkness, the satire. We didn't go there." One detects a note of nostalgia.
How edgy 9 to 5 will be remains to be seen. In any case, Kudisch promises, it won't be a simulacrum of the movie. There will be laughs, of course, but after catching the show out front, his dresser—a woman—told him she had actually cried, overcome with empathy for a character who wouldn't seem to deserve it. "I'm a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot," Kudisch says. "I even say so myself—that's a line from the show."
Yet the dresser cried. "Isn't that what you live for?" Kudisch marvels. "Things that make you go, 'Wow!'?"