Broadway’s newest home run is Bronx Bombers at the Circle in the Square Theatre! The show follows baseball legend Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) and his wife Carmen through a century of the Yankee’s trials and tribulations, letting generations of New York’s favorite collide. Among the “players” is Chris Henry Coffey who stars as Joe DiMaggio. I spoke with him a few weeks prior to the show’s opening—which was last Thursday night. Not only was Chris incredibly articulate, providing A+ pointers to all aspiring actors out there, but he was also one of the most gracious people I’ve talked to. With all of these attributes in combination with stupendous talent it’s no wonder Chris Henry Coffey has become the newest ace of Broadway!
BMC: When did you catch the theater bug?
CHC: I was interested in theater from an early age but didn’t really pursue it until I was already out of college…so it came late for me in practice. But in theory, I remember seeing my first play in my hometown of Green Bay, WI at a community theater there—Death of a Salesman—as a freshman in high school. It was an intensely powerful experience for me, sitting in the dark, watching real people portray characters in such a moving way. The images and my reaction to the play stuck with me and when I was much older I remember thinking, I’ve always wanted to try acting in a straight play from someone like Arthur Miller…so I started pursuing it. I was living in Boston at the time and the head of acting at Wellesley College, Nora Hussey, took me under her wing and cast me in a number of shows there and gave me my first lessons in acting. I’ve been hooked ever since.
You studied at Yale School of Drama. What training did you receive there that helped set you up for success?
Yeah, one thing led to another. I decided that if I wanted to pursue acting as a career that I had to learn the craft of acting and understand it from an academic standpoint as well as a practical standpoint. I ended up moving to New York for a year and did a completely different program there called The Circle in the Square, which is where, [coincidentally], I’m performing on Broadway. While I was there, I started looking at MFA programs and Yale was very interesting to me based upon the people who came out of the program and things I had heard in New York. Yes, I was accepted to Yale that same year, so I ended up transferring back from New York to New Haven and spending three more years immersed in the study of theater.
The great thing about Yale is that it’s not just actors in a classroom, it’s building fear from the ground up and tearing it down over and over again with a [mix] of great people who are not only just actors, but great designers, directors, playwrights, managers, people who have a love for theater but [approach] it with different mindsets…I did 26 productions in three years, from small workshops to big spectacles, it was a great education. My main acting teacher was Earle Gister who was a celebrated acting guru, he had a love for the craft of acting in a way I’ve rarely seen. Most teachers look at acting from a directorial standpoint, Earl was very much interested in how you communicate between people on stage and what that action is between people. I still use his method and technique as an actor.
You’ve done a bunch of regional theater after school. Now you’re rehearsing a Broadway show at Circle in the Square.
We just started previews last week. I had my official Broadway debut last Friday. It was a great feeling. I wasn’t nervous but had some butterflies. It was one of those moments you have to just take in and enjoy and understand it is a big deal. The cast and I went out afterwards and we celebrated my debut. It was a great night.
You’ve just started previews for Bronx Bombers on Broadway. How did that job come about?
Funny story: You never know where jobs come from. This was a classic example of where the job, ironically, I didn’t have to audition. I did a workshop for the play in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, there’s the Perry Mansfield Theater Festival, one week out of the summer they use it as a platform to develop new plays for major regional theaters throughout the country, so one of those theaters was Primary Stages in New York, and they asked if I wanted to do a reading of Bronx Bombers and develop it over the week. So I continued on with the project from there. One thing led to another, now we’re at the top.
At what point did you know this was the play you were going to Broadway with?
There were rumors going around, and there was hope, but you never know how these things work, so I didn’t want to count my chickens too soon. I kept my fingers crossed, and they announced it after the off-Broadway run closed, so that Monday morning there were texts and emails saying “did you read the paper,” and it was announced, and my name was included in the articles.
Have you ever worked in the round before? How did you just or learn to use the space?
I did in the round in school, but I’ve never done a professional show in the round, but I really like it.
It’s a play about the New York Yankees and all these players from different eras come into this dream sequence in uniforms. You have a lot of big Yankee fans in the audience, which is really fun, a lot of these people have never been to theaters so they’re a different kind of audience, very vocal, and since you’re in Circle in the Square there’s a stadium-type feel like Yankee Stadium.
The show is about various generations of Yankee players coming together. Do you get to mix people from different eras? Like, have Joe DiMaggio who played during the 30s and 40s interact with Derek Jeter who is a player now.
Exactly. I do interact with Derek Jeter on stage, and there’s a moment, kind of comedic, which is documented, the first time Derek Jeter met Joe DiMaggio in the dugout as a player, when DiMaggio was older, retired, in his nineties, he sort of shook Jeter’s hand and moved on, not quite a snub, but we have this little bit in the play. Funny to see the contrast between Jeter, who everyone knows, and DiMaggio who not everyone knows. It’s a cool construct in terms of the play, the way different players from different eras interact, for example, Derek Jeter talks about contracts being millions of dollars and DiMaggio saying he made $8,500 his first season.
What kind of research did you do to play Joe DiMaggio? Did you learn how to play baseball at all?
There’s no baseball playing on stage, it deals with human drama, though we did go to a batting cage in the summer. Mostly the research was starting with Ken Burns who shot 22 hours about the history of baseball, this sweeping epoch about baseball, and during the DiMaggio years I could get a sense of what baseball was to him when he was growing up and when he started playing. There are great biographies about him, great DVDs, excellent documentaries about baseball, the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio. And I also read a book and watched a documentary about Marilyn Monroe who was married to DiMaggio in the 1950s for about a year, and that gave me a different perspective on him from a different point of view.
What’s your pre-show routine?
Get a light but good meal in me, settle into my dressing room, to know there’s good bonding with my cast mates, we’re all close, in tight quarters, the dressing rooms are tiny rooms, so we can all hang out before the show. Once the show starts, I go into the play and go over my lines… If there’s time, I’ll work on a crossword puzzle or read a newspaper, just keep my brain active but not too complicated.
Do you have a favorite Broadway show out now?
Besides my own, I just saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder with Jefferson Mays and my classmate and friend Joanna Glushak is also in the show. Jefferson Mays is just an exquisite actor, fascinating to watch. Glass Menagerie with Cherry Jones is an amazing play and incredible production. I wish I had seen Richard III with Mark Rylance and Twelfth Night, which were supposed to be phenomenal, but I never had a chance to see them.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway actors?
Always keep learning, think in the long term, if something moves you, drives you, and inspires you keep pushing, learning, exploring. Understand there will be huge ups and downs in a long career, especially in a business with no easy answers. Keep the empowerment in your court, there’s no shortage of heartbreak in a business like this so you have to find ways to inspire yourself and keep moving forward. Keep learning and exploring, and expand your horizons in the arts.
Do you have a dream role?
I really enjoy working on new plays and new characters, yes, there are some Shakespeare roles I’d like to play, or some of the great plays, Eugene O’Neil plays, Long Day’s Journey, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but generally I love new plays and exploring new characters. ♦