EXCLUSIVE: Christian Borle Is Busy Finding His Version of Willy Wonka

Photo: Getty Images

Christian Borle, the original William Shakespeare in Broadway’s Something Rotten!, and three-time Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien have spent 45 minutes on the second day of rehearsals for the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical debating a very serious question: Should Borle, who is portraying Willy Wonka, do a somersault?

The question is a serious one for the two, who, like fans, have a long history with the popular 1964 novel by Roald Dahl, which was adapted for the screen in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with the late Gene Wilder taking on the iconic title role. In the film, he famously somersaulted across the screen. “Everyone has some familiarity with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Borle tells ET by phone after his discussion with O’Brien about the production striking a balance with people’s expectations for the show. “There are certain things people are craving to see, but we also want to surprise them. To make this endeavor worth doing, we have to do something new with it.”

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In the film version (ignoring Tim Burton’s 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp), it was Wilder’s decision for Wonka to come out of his factory limping before doing the joyous stunt, a clever moment that became synonymous with his on-screen portrayal of the character. “My question about it was: Is that one of the moments you need?” Borle says, “Because it’s not a surprise anymore.” While a decision hasn’t been formally made about the roll (“We are still in talks and seeing if there are any fun alternatives”), Borle says that, ultimately, the production’s goal is to delight people.

The show, which opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on April 23 with previews starting March 28, is the two-time Tony Award (Peter and the Star Catcher, Something Rotten!) winner’s second major Broadway show of this year -- a rarity for any actor, not to mention an exhausting feat.

Last fall, Borle starred as Marvin, a gay father, in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Falsettos. The groundbreaking musical, which tells the story of a Jewish family in the 1980s dealing with Marvin’s coming out and subsequent divorce from his wife and the onset of the AIDs epidemic, was a surprise hit, resonating among audiences in an unexpected way. “It was almost heartbreaking that some of these lyrics and issues are still here and more precarious,” Borle says, noting that one particular lyric -- “I am tired of all the happy men who rule the world” -- stopped the show on election night.

Photo: LCT

It was announced that Borle would be playing Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before Falsettos had even opened. After a limited run, Falsettos closed on Jan. 8, leaving Borle just enough time to escape New York City’s mild winter for a relaxing vacation in Hawaii.

Tanned and relaxed, the actor is ready to put his mark on the iconic character. On the first day of rehearsals, Borle recalls the thrill of coming together for the first time with the cast and crew. “Everyone with a stake was there,” he says, adding that he was “blown away” by the initial presentation, which includes a book by David Greig, music and lyrics by GRAMMY and Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, Smash) and set design by Mark Thompson. “It’s highly theatrical.”

In addition to Shaiman and Wittman’s original music, key songs from the film -- “The Candy Man,” “(I’ve Got a) Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination” -- will be featured in the Broadway production, the latter of which Borle will sing just like Wilder did. “I am trying to do it as simply as possible because the music speaks for itself,” he says. 

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While there are a lot of expectations surrounding Borle’s performance, especially in the wake of Wilder’s death at 83 last year, the actor says he hasn’t watched the movie in several years, hoping to come at it with a fresh take. “I still carry [Wilder’s] performance and his persona as a gentle giant in my subconscious,” he says. “It’s impossible to get rid of him completely.” Borle, however, doesn’t feel any pressure -- at least from Wilder -- in carrying out the late actor’s legacy. “If he didn’t like it, then I think I would be crushed. And so now I can imagine he would have liked it.”

Surprisingly, the role took Borle several years to land. While working on NBC’s Smash, the short-lived musical series featuring original music composed by Shaiman and Wittman, Borle was asked by the duo to record demos for them “so other powers that be could hear their songs.” When it was announced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was moving from London’s West End to Broadway, Borle jumped at the chance to star in it. “What idiot doesn’t want to play Willy Wonka if they had the chance?” he says.

And now that he’s two days into the part, Borle is just as excited as ever -- even if he has some trepidation. “I have an idea of what I am going to do, but I don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s a bit of a tight rope walk at the moment.” And the rest is up to pure imagination.