A Singing, Dancing Fonz Hits Houston

The Fonz never seemed much of a song-and-dance man on the TV show that ran for 11 seasons and ended about a quarter century ago. But Broadway has seen some mega successes by adding music to successful TV shows and movies.(Case in point: The Producers and The Full Monty raked in Tony nominations). Alas, there have been a few stumbles as well (High Fidelity, When Harry Met Sally).

But when several someones thought Happy Days, set in the calmer and, well, happier time of 1959, might be worth a shot, they sent out casting calls and in the Broadway national tour that just hit Houston, called upon Joey Sorge to take over Henry Winkler's role in what became: Happy Days -- A New Musical.

It was a role that Sorge says he almost didn't take. Called for an audition, he says, he initially turned it down.
"I was convinced they were going to hire a name, a movie star or something," he tells Hair Balls. "But I came in, they put me on tape" and he got the call.

Other than bearing some resemblance to actor Winkler, who made Arthur Fonzarelli famous, Sorge got the part because he can sing -- something Winkler didn't have to do. With a long list of credits in local and regional theater, the University of Maryland, College Park grad worked his way up to be one of the five original cast members of The Drowsy Chaperone, "the five-time Tony award winning show" when he got the call for the Happy Days role.

As a kid, Sorge says he pretended to be The Fonz, but never thought he'd really get to play the character. "Now when I snap my fingers, the girls really do come running, " he says, laughing. 

Sorge knows there are certain things the audience expects to see: "the swagger, the way he carries himself when he enters the room. I looked at a few episodes to see how he walks, what he does with his hands." But then Sorge says he stepped away from it a bit, to make it more of his own -- and because he's operating on stage with dance steps, not in a TV studio.

Highlight from the present tour. His character, Fonzi, has a tough time saying he's "wrong." At one show as everyone was watching The Fonz struggle with that, "a little girl on the front row called out 'Spit it out already,' And Sandra DeNise, the actress playing Pinky Tuscadero, said 'Thank you.'"

Lowlight: in another city, a set piece hanging from the ceiling that was supposed to be lowered five feet, instead was taken all the way down to the stage by a local union tech. Sorge was walking right under it as it descended and it wasn't until he'd just cleared it as it thudded behind him that he realized what a close call he'd had. "There was a lot of screaming going on right behind me." He said he didn't start shaking till he went backstage.

So why does anyone want to watch a "happy" show set in 1959? Sorge says it has a lot to do with what was going on in the country when the show started in the early `70s. The country was coming off a war then, there was a downturn in the economy, all very similar to today. He knows the older generation wants to see it because it goes back to their childhoods. Young people like it, he says, cause it's kind of like Grease.

Touring has taken Sorge away from his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 1, for much of the tour that started in November, but he says they're coming to visit next week. He hasn't seen much other than Hobby Center ("great") and the Galleria ("I was blown away by all that.") Next week he plans to take his daughters to the downtown Aquarium and the zoo. Then it's on to Dallas for a two-week stretch then back to New Jersey and his garden, he says.

Happy Days - A New Musical, brought here by Theatre Under the Stars, runs at the Hobby Center through May 24.

Monday: A behind the scenes look at what goes on with the crews putting on a musical while they try to make sure the scenery doesn't fall on the lead actor's head. 

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing