June 22, 2006

Christian Hoff’s Road to the Tony

June 22nd, 2006

NCTimes.com staff writer Pam Kragen had a chance to talk to longtime San Diegan Christian Hoff, who just last week won the Tony Award for his breakout performance as tough guy Tommy DeVito in the Tony-winning musical “Jersey Boys.” Hoff originated the role in the show’s 2004 world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, and he made a huge splash in New York when the show opened on Broadway last November.

Although he’s had just over a week to adjust to the news, the 38-year-old Hoff said hearing his name announced from the podium at the Tonys last week was, and still is, a shock. And the tears that flowed during his heartfelt, spontaneous acceptance speech reflected not only on how gratified he was to be recognized by his peers after a 12-year absence from Broadway, but also from the realization of how long and how hard he has worked to get there. Reflecting on the achievement, Hoff stated,

“In one single night I was able to bridge 30 years of commitment as an actor, and it all came together in the blink of an eye. When I heard my name, I was stunned and shocked. I was just so overwhelmed by the encouragement from the crowd, and I’ve always had strong emotions about my life and my career, so it just all came out. This role has given me a great opportunity to grow and to demonstrate my lifelong commitment as an actor in one great shot.”

Since his first stage role three decades ago, Hoff has devoted his life to performing. Growing up in La Jolla, where his late father owned a hair salon, Hoff was given the choice of playing soccer or doing theater as an extracurricular activity.

Cardiff resident Don Ward was running San Diego Junior Theatre when the 8-year-old Hoff arrived for his first drama workshop. Ward said,

“He was totally green, but he was musical, and he was such a precious little boy. He was probably the most polite, stand-up-and-talk-to-an-adult kid I ever met, and he really wanted it.”

Hoff’s first professional role was as Winthrop, the lisping Hoosier boy, in “The Music Man” at Starlight Theatre (co-directed by Don and Bonnie Ward). After about four years performing locally, Hoff moved to L.A. with his mom for a yearlong role in the L.A. production of “Evita” at the Shubert Theatre, then kept busy through his teens attending San Diego’s School of the Creative and Performing Arts and filming TV commercials, sit-coms (he was Shelley Winters’ bratty stepson in her short-lived series), televised specials (he danced with Shirley MacLaine on a television program) and doing cartoon voice-overs (he was the voice of Richie Rich).

Making the transition from child actor to young adult actor was difficult, but Hoff had one quality that helped him persevere. Ward stated,

“What he’s got is fortitude. He’s had plenty of turndowns in his life, but he just gets up off the ground, dusts himself off and tries again. He had a rough go of things for a while, but when Bonnie and I saw him in ‘Jersey Boys’ two years ago, we went backstage and told him ‘This is going to make your career for you.’ So watching him win on the Tonys was a very special night.”

Hoff spent much of his 20s and early 30s in L.A., but he returned to North County frequently for stage work. His local credits include playing Miss Bible Belt in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 2002 production of “Pageant”; he played Dick (for the Wards again) in Moonlight Amphitheatre’s “Dames at Sea” in 2002; and he was a regular at Welk Resort Theatre in the late ’90s/early 2000s, where his roles included Mordred in “Camelot,” George in “George M” and Lt. Billis in “South Pacific.”

But it was Hoff’s work at La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 that would ultimately lead to the biggest break of his career. Playhouse artistic chief Des McAnuff cast the 24-year-old Hoff as the Pinball Lad in “The Who’s Tommy,” and Hoff traveled with the production from La Jolla to Broadway in 2004.

Making a life in New York was difficult, though, especially with his family on the West Coast —- his mom lives in Rancho Bernardo and other family members live in Rancho Penasquitos —- and the desire to start a family of his own (Hoff has two children, 11-year-old son Eli, and 7-year-old daughter Erika, from his first marriage). So he returned to Southern California, did occasional acting jobs, and was busy running his own media company in South Pasadena when the phone rang in late 2003.

McAnuff was on the line insisting that Hoff drive over that afternoon to an L.A. audition for a new musical he was developing about the gritty true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys.” At the time, McAnuff said he wanted Hoff because he could play the guitar as well as sing and dance, and he had a sharp-edged, puckish stage charisma that would fit perfectly in the show.

Hoff raced over to the theatre to audition, first for another character. Then, McAnuff wanted Hoff to read for Tommy. After doing a cold reading, Hoff could tell he nailed the role by the look in McAnuff’s eyes.

The success of “Jersey Boys” is now history. It played to standing-room (and standing-ovation) crowds nightly in an extended run at La Jolla Playhouse before transferring to New York, where it’s now Broadway’s third top-grossing musical behind “Wicked” and “The Lion King.” And it beat out the much-honored “The Drowsy Chaperone” for the “Best Musical” Tony last week.

Since “Jersey Boys” opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Nov. 6, Hoff has gone from near-anonymity in New York to unqualified stardom. Rave reviews for his edgy, dark performance as Tommy Devito helped him land a recurring role as bad guy “Marty” on the ABC soap opera “All My Children,” and he racked up nominations for his “Jersey Boys” role from all four New York awards groups (the Tonys, Drama League, Drama Desk and Outer Critics).

Playing DeVito, the real-life founder of the Four Seasons, whose gambling debts forced him out of the pop supergroup, was a revelation for Hoff, because it was the first time he’d been able to craft a character around a living person.

Since the show’s debut in La Jolla in 2004, Hoff has become good friends with DeVito, even bringing their families together to spend holidays. DeVito was standing in the audience at the Tony Awards, clapping his hands over his head, when Hoff’s name was announced, and when “Jersey Boys” won the Best Musical trophy, the beaming Hoff and Devito could be seen onstage together, arm in arm.

Hoff said he was so busy on the day of the Tony Awards that he hardly had time to get nervous. The cast had an 8 a.m. rehearsal for their song segment on the Tonys telecast, followed by a few hours in costume and makeup, a 2 p.m. matinee performance of “Jersey Boys,” a post-show meet-and-greet with fans, another trip to wardrobe to put on his tux and an hour on the red carpet before the Tonys even began. By the time he and his three “Jersey Boys” co-stars performed on the telecast, he changed back into his tux and sat down in his seat next to wife, Melissa Hoff, his category was being announced by actress Christine Ebersol.

About the announcement, About the tumultuous applause that greeted his name, Hoff said,

“I was on ice the whole evening, just enjoying the ride, and then I saw Christine up there in her beautiful blue dress and she was beaming at me and she said my name and Radio City Music Hall came off its foundation.

Hoff didn’t have a prepared speech because he was afraid to hope for a win, so when he got to the podium, his words spilled out in a sweet, tearful tribute to his late father, Devito, McAnuff, the show’s writers and his wife, who will give birth to another Hoff child in November.

For all the career accolades that have come Hoff’s way in the past year, he admits that it’s also been one of the most difficult periods of his life, because he has had to live on the opposite coast from his two children, who were in L.A. with their mother this past year. Fortunately, Hoff’s children will be able to spend the summer with him in New York. And his actress wife, Melissa, who’s in the ensemble for “Zhivago” at La Jolla Playhouse right now, will join him after the show closes next month.

Meanwhile, the exposure from “Jersey Boys,” the Tony Awards and “All My Children” have made Hoff a red-hot commodity. While he’s committed to “Jersey Boys” for now, he’s mulling other possibilities for the future. His manager, Vincent Cirrincione (whose other clients include Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago), is helping him develop a movie project, and he’s in talks for another Broadway show next season. He also has a team of agents, publicists and his own Web site (www.christianhoff.com). About the future, Hoff said,

“I love a challenge and I’m open to other things. This has definitely been a breakout role for me, and I’d like to use the opportunity as a springboard for bigger and better things. I’ve got a great team working with me right now and the potential is really exciting.”

1 Comment »

  1. Christian deserved his Tony Award, as did John Lloyd young. They are all great!!

    Comment by THEA — June 22, 2006 @ 5:19 pm

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