Erich Bergen: More than a cabaret
Some actors may fear the dreaded typecasting, but for a performer as diverse and talented as Erich Bergen, it has been easy to avoid.
“It's a balance,” he admits. “I'm someone who is sort of obsessed with working. I'm not very good at vacationing. I've been obsessed with entertainment and show business for as long as I can remember. I'm always working on something.”
But whether that work is playing the loyal assistant Blake Moran in hit TV series Madam Secretary or taking a star turn in Clint Eastwood’s film version of Jersey Boys, Erich approaches each role with obsessive dedication – as they represent part of a world he longed to inhabit from his earliest memories.
“I was obsessed with MTV growing up in the 80's,” he recalls. “I had a lot of energy and not a great ability to focus. All things rock and pop became my world. And I'm talking at 3 years old. My parents brought me to my first concert in 1989 when I was 3, which was Whitney Houston at Madison Square Garden. I remember that night so vividly because of the effect that it had on me. It wasn't until I was about 10 that my Mom brought me to a Broadway show, which was the musical version of the movie BIG. It was a big flop, but when I saw it I fell in love with it because there were kids in the show my age, who were dancing and singing and acting. Just by watching that I immediately became interested.
“My parents sent me to Stagedoor Manor, which was a theatre summer camp in upstate New York, and I went to that summer camp for 7 years. So I always knew that I wanted to be a performer. But what exactly that was has morphed a couple of times over. I thought I was gonna be a rock star, then I thought I was gonna be a boyband guy. And then I discovered theatre, which changed my whole world. I never saw myself on television, that's just something that happened after I went to Los Angeles to start auditioning. So each part of my career is something that's developed in time, I didn't know it all immediately.”
A chance spotting at a youth performance led to signing with a talent manager, who Erich stayed with for the next twenty years. Auditions, the finer points of acting and industry lingo, he admits, were learned on-the-go. Yet while a youth spent in after-school stage clubs and theatre camps fostered a love for the Broadway stage, did he ever worry that the focus on theatre was closing more mainstream doors in TV and film?
“I had that said to me a lot when I was first going out to LA. What I found out was that it didn't end up being true,” he recalls. “I was out in LA for the first time when I was on the national tour of Jersey Boys. At that time we had a Hamilton like buzz around us and I was able to get into a lot of rooms, and I found that the TV executives and casting people all came from the theatre world in New York and loved theatre people. I think the proof is when you look on American TV and see the number of shows filled with people who started out or are currently on Broadway.
While his daring and dedication have led to him treading boards and studio halls across the United States, he remains painfully aware of the harsher aspects of a career in performing. But, he says, the solution is a relatively simple one.
“I have a lot of friends who feel stuck with their careers – can't get auditions and can't get jobs,” he states. “The only piece of advice I've ever been able to give out to people who feel like they are in a rut creatively or professionally in this industry is to create your own work. Write your way out of the situation. I started writing and amazing things happened. As actors, we've put ourselves completely at the mercy of other people to eat. As soon as you can write your own stuff you've immediately given yourself control of that. That's always been the best, and frankly, the only advice I could give.”
With simply following the directions given to him as an actor not enough, Erich began flexing his own creative muscle – by putting together his own act and building up new projects. An entrepreneurial trait shared by fellow New Yorker Christina Bianco [link to her interview] and Something he believes every performer worth their salt should be trying if they want to step themselves up the ladder.
“There's an element of what I do that wasn't being explored – that was as a live concert performer,” he emphasises. “I wasn't finding a way to bridge that world. Jersey Boys was the perfect job for me because it gave me the chance not only to sing that rock and pop music I grew up loving but it also gave me the opportunity to act. It merged all of my worlds together. So I began to create these club acts – I hate the word 'cabaret' – which I always wanted to do. I put together songs and told stories. As soon as you can say 'I have something', with a little bit of pushing people will usually say 'great – let's see it!' Then I started to write music. I was living in Las Vegas and I had just been dumped by my girlfriend at the time. I was feeling so alone, sitting at home completely bored. So I started writing songs as that's how the feelings naturally came out. Because of that, I was able to start putting out albums. One thing led to another.
“Now I've done the same thing with a TV show. I'd always wanted to write a script of some kind. But I never really had the guts to finish one. One day last year, I had a few days off so sat down and started writing. Three days later I finished a pilot script. Now the TV show is in the hands of producers and we’re pitching it to TV networks. So if you just do it and finish it you're so many steps ahead.
“If you're an actor and only an actor you're at the mercy of everyone else – producers, writers, directors, choreographers. You are a tool for them and you're waiting on them to give you a job. So as soon as you add one of those things to your name you get to have a little bit more control.”
Spanning creative disciplines and musical genres with ease, how does he feel about performing his own work compared to that of other composers?
“When it's something I've written I don't have to approach it. It's just there,” he muses. “If I'm performing a song I've written I don't feel that I have to think about anything, because the words and thoughts are already on the tip of my tongue. The opening chords of certain songs will take me back to a particular place. So I don't really have to do that work. Whereas, if I'm singing a song by someone else, I have to take a moment to think 'What does the writer want to accomplish and how do I make this sound the best?'”
But as a performer who enjoys stepping out of character to tell his own stories, I can't help but ask, why the dislike of branding himself as a cabaret act?
“When I think of cabaret I think of a woman wearing a dress with too much shoulder padding singing Sondheim songs very badly,” he laughs. “Also, it has multiple meanings to different people. You say 'cabaret' and to some, that means a strip club. Even for people who think of it as a small club with a mic and a piano – I don't want them to think that's what this is. That is not what I do at all. My concert may be in a cabaret venue, but I bring an 8 piece band and we're doing funk, RnB, rock, pop. Yes, we’re telling stories and doing medleys, but it’s not in any way what people would think of as cabaret. It's a concert, except you don't have to stand all the time.”
It's a philosophy which is reflected well in the performers he idolises – Peter Allen, Barry Manilow, and Donny Osmond. “People who come from a theatre background but aren't necessarily singing theatre music,” he states.
With the strong desire of differentiating himself as an artist and drawing inspiration from his multi-platform past work, Erich looks forward to gracing London with his own unique brand of live concerts. It will, he emphasises, include material to please all ears.
“I keep it eclectic. There's stuff from the musical theatre world but there's stuff from the pop world and from the movies. I cover everyone from Billy Joel to Elton John to Michael Jackson. I approach singing the same way I'd approach a scene on television: from a character place. I don't think of it as a melody line – I think of songs as wherever the character is at that time.”
Yet while he still dreams of playing Bobby in Company or King George in Hamilton, Erich seems most at home when pioneering his own ideas. It's a philosophy he readily passes on to anybody who wishes to follow in his footsteps.
“If you have a thought or an inkling, go do it. Because that's going to be the thing that saves your life and saves your career.”
Come and see theatre's most diverse leading man as he takes to the stage at The Hippodrome Casino. Don't call it cabaret – it's so much more! Buy your tickets now.