Lee Wilkof is happy to be working. He's currently playing a rare non-singing role, The Announcer, in The Met’s new production of Terence Blanchard’s opera Champion. Wilkof has spent decades as one of the stage and screen’s best and prolific character actors—but then COVID-19 happened. “I haven’t worked in three years,” he admits.
But Wilkof’s problem wasn’t just COVID. He got a double whammy: He received a throat cancer diagnosis in late 2020, and got radiation treatment, which compromised his vocal cords. “If it hadn’t been during COVID, I would have been more freaked out. COVID freaked me out so much in the beginning. I was really sensitive to it before anyone else I knew was. I was crazy. When the cancer came, it just felt like one more thing,” says Wilkof, somehow finding a silver lining to getting cancer during a worldwide pandemic. “I was lucky. I didn’t have to have my voice box removed like some people. It was a small bout.”
Wilkof, who’s 71, has been acting on New York stages for almost five decades. He says the pandemic-cancer combo platter made him realize he’s probably in his third act—not nearing the end maybe, but closer to the finish line than otherwise—which sometimes has him spending his days looking back on a long career. He made his Broadway debut in Sweet Charity, singing “I Love to Cry at Weddings” opposite Debbie Allen in the 1986 revival. He’s worked fairly steadily on the Main Stem ever since—Wilkof got a Tony nod for his performance as First Man in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate. He’s arguably had even more success Off-Broadway, where he created his most iconic performances.
“I’ve originated two roles in significant pieces, [Seymour in] Little Shop and [Sam Byk] in Assassins. I don’t feel the same way about Assassins as Little Shop,” Wilkof explains. “With Little Shop, I feel some ownership, because not only was I in it, I made contributions to it. And I did it with Howard [Ashman], who wrote it. I know what Howard wanted. I know how he wanted it done.”
The musical, a campy sci-hi horror tale about a nebbishy skid row florist who unwittingly becomes the owner of a man-eating plant, premiered in 1982 at Off-Off-Broadway’s WPA Theatre before transferring Off-Broadway for a surprise hit run. The pre-Disney success for book writer-lyricist-director Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, Little Shop is the most beloved of the shows Wilkof has helped create. The title continues to be one of the most produced musicals at theatres and schools around the world. An Off-Broadway revival, the show’s second major return to NYC, is currently playing the Westside Theatre.
“It’s so novel. The puppetry, the music, the lyrics—I think it’s almost perfect,” he ruminates, recalling the first time he met Audrey II. “I grew up near Cleveland, and about three times a year they’d show this crazy movie." He's referring to The Little Shop of Horrors, the 1960 B horror film from which the musical is adapted from. "My friends and I just went nuts any time it was on. Then it’s the ‘80s, I’m living in LA and I get sent the script, and I just flipped out because somebody had the wisdom to take this crazy, insane Roger Corman movie and turn it into a musical—and it was so skillfully put together!”
It’s always gratifying to be involved with something that people love passionately, but for Wilkof, it’s much more personal. Wilkof has been married to his wife, Connie Grappo, for 39 years. They met working on Little Shop, where Grappo was Ashman’s assistant and eventually the musical’s resident director as it began to spawn replica productions around the world. In the original auditions, Wilkof famously made it to be one of two final candidates for the lead, the aforementioned nebbishy skid row florist Seymour Krelbourn. His competition? A then-largely unknown Nathan Lane.
READ: Nathan Lane on How He Almost Changed His Name to Norman Lane
“It was Connie that convinced Howard I was the guy,” Wilkof says lovingly. “She said, ‘I think it works better with Lee.’ Whether or not it did, we’ll never know—Nathan never did it. But I always say that’s why I married her.” Wilkof credits his performance in the role to Grappo. “It took me a long time to find the character. I was in trouble and the team was worried about it.” Apparently Wilkof was fixated on Seymour’s nerdiness and the mannerisms that go with that, but Ashman was looking for more authenticity. “Howard asked Connie to work with me, and she got me to work from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Seymour is more complex than just a guy that wears his pants a little too high and his shirt buttoned to the top.”
Wilkof has returned to Little Shop a handful of times over the years, playing Seymour in a hometown production and Mr. Mushnik in a few professional stagings. He says the current Off-Broadway revival has asked him to join as Mushnik too, but he’s turned them down—he’s done with the role for now.
Forty years, one pandemic, and a cancer bout later, things are a little shaky. He’s back on the stage, but in new and uncharted waters: opera. “I feel like a fish out of water,” says Wilkof of making his Met Opera debut in Champion, “primarily because I’m the only non-singing person in the show. Everybody else has either worked here or has been in the opera world for years—they all know each other. The first few days of any job are tricky, but for me it was absolutely terrifying.”
Champion is composed by Terence Blanchard, whose previous opera Fire Shut Up In My Bones, was the first opera by a Black composer to premiere at the Met. The work tells the real-life story of boxer Emile Griffith, a closeted gay man who became world champion and then killed his chief competitor in the ring, minutes after he’d hurled a homophobic epithet at Griffith. Wilkof is sharing the stage with bass-baritone Eric Owens, playing an older Griffith haunted by his memories; soprano Latonia Moore as Griffith’s estranged mother; and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as bar owner Kathy Hagen.
The team isn’t completely outside of Wilkof’s usual stomping grounds, as it happens. Three-time Tony nominee Camille A. Brown—known for her work on Broadway’s Once On This Island and for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, among other productions—is choreographing. The production is Brown's third with The Met, following Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Porgy and Bess.
READ: After the Success of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Terence Blanchard Is Back With a New Opera, Champion
But it’s still a mostly new experience for Wilkof. Though opera and musical theatre are similar artforms, their respective companies tend to operate surprisingly different. The Met, for instance, performs in repertory—and on a massive scale. Tonight might be Champion, but tomorrow night could be La Bohème, each with separate casts and massive, Broadway-sized physical productions.
“There’s probably only one other place in the world that is more complexly run, and that’s the Pentagon,” Wilkof says laughing. “It’s overwhelming how much is going on here, all the operas, all the various departments. I can’t even fathom what it’s like for somebody to do all the scheduling of rehearsals, but they seem to do a pretty great job at it.”
Wilkof says the key to making it all work is a lot of stage management, with near-choreographic precision given to not only the onstage action but everything backstage as well.
“When you’re in your dressing room, you get an announcement. ‘Lee Wilkof, five minutes until your entrance,’” he explains. “I’ve never heard of that before. When you’re on stage, you are queued to make your entrance, which is pretty great. When we got into the theatre, they’d say, ‘Your entrance is in two minutes.’ I go, ‘You know the timing of my entrance?’ ‘It has to be in two minutes or you screw up the orchestra.’ It feels like everything is almost pre-arranged.” Part of those pre-arrangements were set during the production’s technical rehearsals, before the company even started their own rehearsals—one of many shocking differences to anyone accustomed to the Broadway experience.
It's ironic that Wilkof is making his debut on a stage renowned around the world for hosting some of the best singers out there so soon after radiation treatments compromised his vocal cords. Wilkof’s been working since those treatments and says he’s ready to take on another eight-performance-a-week musical, but luckily he doesn’t have to worry about that at all starring in Champion.
Aside from being in a non-singing role, Wilkof has an ace up his sleeve, one that almost no one else at The Met is ever afforded: a microphone. “I’m the announcer, so I have a mic on a stand in this corner, and then I come in the ring and there’s a mic that comes down, so I have zero anxiety.” He doesn’t even have to worry about his lines—though Wilkof wants to make sure everyone knows he does have them memorized. Because his character is always announcing fights, he has cards with all his dialogue on them, just like a real boxing announcer. “I don’t have to worry about going up because they’re right there,” he says.
The performance is part of why Wilkof says his “third act” isn’t a sad place to be. He’s still doing new things, still challenging himself, still finding new ways to get his art into the world. Though he doesn’t see opera necessarily taking over his career going forward, he has started to focus on other new projects separate from his usual stage character actor gig. He directed a film, No Pay Nudity, in 2016 (co-starring his Little Shop competition Nathan Lane, no less). He’s also writing a musical that has some exciting development opportunities on the horizon—though he’s keeping mum on that project for now.
But it is still the third act of three, after all—which might just be why some of his future plans bridge the gap between old and new. “I kind of want to direct Little Shop, to see if I could do it the way I think Howard would have approved,” he says wistfully. “It’s very significant to me. I’ve never been more grateful for anything. I met my wife. It put me on the map, so to speak. And I’m really proud of it.”
See photos of Wilkof as Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors at The Kennedy Center in 2018: