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Stage Presence

by Peter Proko
Mount Laurel native Phillip Spaeth breaks through on NBC’s Smash.

Growing up in Mount Laurel, Phillip Spaeth was bit by the theater bug at an early age thanks to summers spent at Cherry Hill East’s drama camp. It wasn’t long before he was hopping off the school bus every day onto a Manhattan-bound Greyhound for dance classes and voice lessons. A little more than a decade later, Spaeth has three Broadway shows under his belt, including performing in Wicked at age 18—not to mention a role in the 2007 film remake of Hairspray. No stranger to life on stage, Spaeth found his greatest role yet as Dennis on Smash, NBC’s behind-the-scenes look at life in the Theatre District. We chatted with the 25-year-old to find out how accurate the show really is and what he truly thinks of co-stars Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Tell us about your role on Smash and how it came about.
PHILLIP SPAETH: I play a character named Dennis; he’s really gung-ho and reminds me of when I was 18. When your dream comes true, everything is positive and happy. Dennis is an ensemble member of the show … they have to sing, dance and act. Within that, there’s a lot of politics and Dennis gets kind of stuck in the back page drama as the season goes on.

The Broadway world is really tight knit and the creators really wanted to make it authentic and they held auditions with working people. When I first auditioned for the show, I did a couple of scenes in the pilot and they cut some of them. But when [the show] got picked up, they wanted my character back.

SJM: What was it like working with people like Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing?
PS: People say this about a lot of actors, but they are just the coolest people. [They] take their work very seriously and professionally, but they have so much fun and are so engaging with everyone. We are all just goofballs spending 15 hours together a day, playing dress up and being other people. Sometimes you have that reality check that we do this for a living.

SJM: How many Broadway productions have you been a part of?
PS: Three and they all begin with a W: West Side Story, Wicked and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

SJM: How close does Smash come to telling the true story of life on Broadway?
PS: Obviously it’s dramatized, but it’s pretty true to life. It’s kind of like ER or West Wing, more about the relationships … [it’s] less about the facts and more about the feelings. It is about a girl on Broadway pursuing her dream, but the things that these characters experience, people all around the country can identify with.

SJM: How does the TV schedule differ from what you’re used to?
PS: The schedule is hard work. We are doing a TV show and a Broadway show at the same time. Other shows are a lot of sitting around and then when you’re working, it’s intense. But here, when you’re not working, you are rehearsing a musical number.

This past week we are doing two episodes at once with two different directors. We are going from one scene to another location. It’s like a puzzle, every day is a little piece.

SJM: On stage, you get that instant gratification from the crowd, but you don’t get the same reaction when you’re filming. Was that a big adjustment?
PS: The TV stuff you work on is so far in advance, you have to cross your fingers and hope people love it. We started working on the pilot episode a year ago. That’s a long time to be working on something without feeling the love. You have to trust what you did and find out later. As an actor, you are trying to entertain people and tell a story. On stage, you are telling a story, but you are taking the audience with you.

SJM: How often do you get back to South Jersey?
PS: I get down more frequently now than when I was living in California. My parents still live there, so do all my aunts, uncles and grandparents. I come home for the holidays and when I have random days off.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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