In 5-Star Theatricals’ current production o Mamma Mia! the role of Sam Carmichael is played by veteran soap opera star Eric Martsolf. Although he’s known to his fans mainly for the roles he’s played on Passions and Days of Our Lives, his roots are in musical theatre. We spoke to Eric via Zoom prior to the production’s opening.
VCOS: How long has it been for you since you were on stage?
ERIC: I did a show at the Welk two Christmases ago and it was a blast. My roots are in musical theater and whenever I can get my butt on stage, I try to do it. Since the soap opera career has taken over my world, there isn’t a heck of a lot of time to do musical theater so I have to be very careful as to what I commit myself to because soaps never sleep. It’s hard to fit things in. I can barely get to Costco, let alone Mamma Mia!
VCOS: How did you fall into the soap opera trap?
ERIC: Funny you should call it a trap. It’s a golden trap, actually. As a family guy and a father trying to raise twin boys who are now fifteen, it’s a wonderful job for an actor to balance family life and a career. I’m never in Budapest filming a movie for six months, I’m never in a city for longer than a week, I’m at home in Burbank, shoot my show, and I’m home for dinner almost every night. It came upon me in 1999 when the show Passions came along on NBC and I was lucky enough to get an audition for that. I didn’t get the original job, but three years later, the guy playing the character Ethan decided to quit and I was there. I kind of resembled him and I guess I said my words correctly and landed the gig. I’ve been with NBC now for almost twenty years. Passions was a six-year run and I’ve been with Days Of Our Lives for the last fourteen years.
VCOS: Do you feel like you have to exercise different acting muscles work within a different character?
ERIC: It’s interesting, Cary, my whole career in soap operas has been about replacing an existing character. I replaced the actor who played Ethan on Passions and I replaced the guy who was playing my current character, Brady Black so I’m pretty comfortable stepping into shoes that had been already filled so I got the whole “replacement character” thing down. And you know, Kim had to pull up her boots and replace Misty Cotton, who was originally cast as Donna in this show so it’s the same kind of game. You’re given the football and you get to run with it. You preserve and respect what other people have brought to the role but after your name is on the dotted line, it’s your baby.
VCOS: You’re playing Sam Carmichael, who’s a good guy, as we see from the very beginning, but is there something extra of your own that you add to that character?
ERIC: It’s funny, I had a vocal session yesterday with our musical director and I said to him, point blank, “Listen, man, most of the performances of Sam that I’ve seen have been pretty straightforward, pretty legit, and I’m a little more rock ‘n’ roll than the average musical theatre guy. I started with shows like My Fair Lady and took voice lessons but I’ve been in rock bands my whole life as well. I played the Pharoah in Joseph for three-and-a-half or four years on tour so I have a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll in me so I’m going to bring a little more swagger and grit to Sam. I think Adam Pascal would be happy with that. You can only take a character so far, given the words he has to speak, but there’s room to play with it a little. It’s Mamma Mia! It’s a party, so I’m gonna have some fun with the guy. Get him out of his khakis.
VCOS: Tell me about doing this show as your first one in nearly two years.
ERIC: I think everyone in the cast will tell you that this is a show that is needed right now. Joseph was also such a feel-good show. But Mamma Mia! is a party…with heart. It does tug on your heartstrings at times. Our director, Richard Israel, is really focused on that. He believes that this party in a box, with all this ABBA pop music, can be instrumental in moving people at the same time. It’s about relationships. So we’re giving it our best shot. But we’ve had a pandemic and we’ve been stuck in our homes. We want to move, we want to get out, we want to sing, we want to shout, we want to do all these things that we haven’t been able to do with our fellow community members. And I just think this is the best time and the best way to celebrate musical theatre.
VCOS: That word “community” is important here because this show is not just for the actors, it’s a show in which the audience participates through their enthusiasm and recognition of the songs and figuring out how they are going to be shoehorned into the story.
ERIC: That’s a great way to put it. It is a team effort, it really is. Mamma Mia! is really only as good as the audience participation. They drive the show. Their enthusiasm and excitement about the music; their willingness to come and dress up and feel good about a night out will be what will make this show successful. There’s a lot of pent-up happiness and good times that need to supercede stuff we’ve all been dealing with during this pandemic. I’m ready to have fun.
VCOS: Did you do anything during the hiatus?
ERIC: I did a reading of A Christmas Carol but it wasn’t exactly theatre but I didn’t do any virtual theatre. It’s been one Zoom after another. What HAVE I done?
VCOS: Do you find it more challenging to play characters that are more different than yourself?
ERIC: That’s a great question because obviously you get cast a lot in this business from your type and how people stereotypically look at you as. My wife has always called me a giant goofball and has asked me, “When is someone going to let you be funny?” The leading men want to be silly and do comedy and the silly actors want to be leading men. So whenever I get the chance to do something outside of my comfort zone, I go with it. I’ve done over 4,000 episodes of television over the last twenty years, so I’m comfortable portraying characters but if you’re not nervous about doing something as an actor, I don’t see why you would even want to do it, because you’re never going to grow if whatever is ahead of you doesn’t scare the crap out of you. I told Anthony [Lucca], our musical director, “These notes are high. I’m a baritone, living in a tenor world. Can we please take this down a notch?” And he said, “No. Because you can do it, you will do it, and it’s going to scare you. Push it.” And I said, “You know, you’re right!” And that goes along with my philosophy. Don’t take the easy way out. That’s not how you grow in this industry. I mean, look at Kim Huber’s resume and the breadth of work that she has done. I’ve been doing two characters for the last twenty years so it’s time to jump out of my box.
VCOS: The great thing about that is that you can make your range issues work for your character and actually make him more endearing. Plus, you’re following Pierce Brosnan so the bar was set kind of low for you.
ERIC: I know Pierce would be the first guy to say, “I’m no classically trained singer,” but the guy’s a heck of an actor and has had a wonderful career and played the character well and the movie was successful. As I get older, I get a lot less judgmental and I salute people who jump out of their comfort zones, especially in front of 500 to 1,000 people. But, yeah, in Sam’s song, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” he’s showing his vulnerability to his newly-found daughter. He’s giving this girl a lesson by saying, “Look, I went through a messy divorce and I’m gonna show you.” And I don’t think that song is supposed to be a leading-man-standing-in-the-spotlight kind of song. I’m a parent and I know what it’s like to show your vulnerability as a father and I think that the generation of being a superhero dad is over. Kids need to know that we make mistakes, we grow up, but we can bounce back and find happiness. That’s what he’s telling Sophie in that song. But it’s ABBA pop music! It’s hard to find it, but it’s in there! Behind all the synthesizers and electronic drums.
VCOS: What endears audiences to the three “dads” in the show is that they’re not macho types, they’re average Joes, they’re lovable, each in his own way, and having imperfect voices makes them more real, in my opinion.
ERIC: Yeah. I’m not going up there as Soap Opera Guy. I’m going to dress him down, make him a little unsure of himself. He plays with Donna; they do have their chemistry and have fun, because they have a history together. So we have to respect that. They can’t just be two bumbling kids on the playground – “I think I like you again; I think I like you, too.” There’s something there that has always been rock solid.
VCOS: Were you familiar with 5-Star?
ERIC: Actually, I learned about 5-Star from my friend, Patrick Cassidy, who I did the Joseph show with. He was the artistic director at the time. And I ran into him at the gym when I moved to Thousand Oaks about five years ago. And I said, “You live here?” And he said, “Sure!” So we caught up very quickly and a couple of months later he said, “You’re coming to Mamma Mia! You’re going to play Sam for me.” And I said, “Of course I am. Twist my arm. Let’s do it.” And then about three weeks later he calls me up and says, “You’re still doing Mamma Mia! but I’m not gonna be there. I’m moving to Tennessee, I’ve got another job, I’m following my son who is affiliated with a management company and do his career and I’m going with him.” So Patrick got me in and then took off. Now I’m in, I love Cindy [Executive Director Cindy Murray], I love the organization, and boy, did she work her butt off to make sure that there were still some pennies and nickels rolling in. I did a holiday charitable event with her where I got up on stage in a parking lot during the pandemic, I did the drive-through thing with everybody in their cars, and she kept it alive.
Mamma Mia! plays through October 24 at the Fred Kavli Theatre. For tickets, visit http://5startheatricals.com/show-tickets/