Nobody ever thought of the Karate Kid as the next Fred Astaire, or even the next Robert Morse.
Nobody except the Kid himself, Ralph Macchio.
“In high school and junior high, and even before, that’s all I did was musicals,” said Macchio, 34. “I used to dream about being a song-and-dance man as a kid. I never imagined myself as a motion picture actor.”
That’s exactly what he became, at the age of 21. With the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” in 1983 and “The Karate Kid” in 1984, Macchio became a movie star. Since then, he has continued to have a respectable, if lower-profile, career in movies such as “Crossroads,” “Naked In New York” and “My Cousin Vinnie.”
With his role as J. Pierrepont Finch in the national touring company of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Macchio has finally achieved his dream as a songand-dance man. Like Robert Morse, who originated the role in 1961, and Matthew Broderick, who revived it in 1995 on Broadway, Macchio has discovered that this innocent-butsneaky character is the perfect vehicle for a young comic actor.
In four months on the road, the critics have been giving Macchio the thumbs-up.
“Ralph Macchio makes the transition from chop-chop to song-and-dance with ease,” wrote the critic from Variety. “If he sings reasonably well, he glides around the office sets with even more confidence. And he looks pretty good in a dressed-for-success, canary yellow jacket.”
In fact, Macchio has been carrying this big-budget touring production as confidently as Broderick carried the Broadway revival, and having a great deal of fun doing it.
“Between this and movies, right now, I’d rather be doing this,” said Macchio. “Film is a director’s medium, and television is at least a writer’s medium and often the network’s medium. But ultimately, theater is a performer’s medium. When the lights go down, it’s pretty much up to the performers.”
This is Macchio’s first musical comedy role, but not his first theater role. In 1986, he appeared in the drama “Cuba and His Teddy Bear,” a Joseph Papp production in New York. His co-stars were Robert DeNiro and Burt Young.
“That was the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” said Macchio. “It started at the Public Theater as a little play, and then we brought it to Broadway for 10 weeks. It was a standing-room-only, hot ticket in town. And working with DeNiro was just great. I’d love for him to come and see this. If he’s in L.A., I’ll invite him to the opening.”
Actually, Macchio is hoping that a lot of movers and shakers come to see the show in L.A.
“That was a big part of the deal for me, to make sure we were going to play L.A.,” said Macchio. “If that wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t sure I was going to do the whole thing. It could open doors for me, and it’s just another way to be seen.”
Not only is Macchio proud of the production, which is essentially identical to the big-budget revival that played Broadway, he is modestly proud of his own performance. J. Pierrepont Finch may be a light comedy character, but the role has its dramatic challenges.
“He’s deviously charming,” said Macchio. “It’s like, calculated and vulnerable. Dishonest charm. It’s fun to play.”
And Macchio says his film persona, that of the nice, well-meaning young man, actually allows him to have more fun with this role.
“I’ve pretty much played the good guy,” said Macchio. “People think, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a good guy, the Karate Kid.’ With that going in, it affords me the opportunity to be a little sneakier.”
The singing was also a challenge, especially since he had never sung professionally on stage.
“I knew I could sing, but at what level?” said Macchio. “My voice has gotten stronger, and it works well with the show. I don’t know if you’d ever see me do ‘Phantom’ or anything that operatic, but listen, Robert Morse was never the greatest singer. He was a character.”
By the way, that “good guy” persona appears to come naturally to Macchio. He comes across as a modest, down-to-earth family man (his wife and two small children are accompanying him on the tour), gracious and generous to those around him. On this particular day, he is busy sending a bouquet of flowers to a fellow cast member as a morale-building gesture.
He seems to be an even-keel kind of guy, but he admits that he had a bit of trouble keeping the proper perspective at the height of his “Karate Kid” fame.
“It was a hit, and I was in every scene of it,” said Macchio. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a real special time. I was 21, and anyone who says they can take that kind of success in stride at that age, is really … it’s very tough to do. You expect, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here all the time. I’ll be on the cover of US magazine all the time.’ You learn later, you pay your dues.”
Speaking of paying your dues, that’s exactly what young J. Pierrepont Finch does not have to do in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” That is part of its funny but cynical appeal. Finch goes from window-washer to chairman of the board in a matter of weeks. That’s why the show is not strictly a period piece, 35 years later.
“Everybody would love to succeed without really trying,” said Macchio. “Everybody would love to make every move correctly and just fall into everything. It’s like the American dream.”
Sort of like becoming a movie star at age 21.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will be staged at the Spokane Opera House on Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $37 to $43, available at G&B; Select-aSeat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.
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