The (Luke) Duke of Swing

Good ol’ boy from Hazzard, Tom Wopat is now a standards- singin’, Broadway-lovin’ dude

tom-wopat.jpgJust F-I-V-E minutes more.

“Can I call you back?” asks Tom Wopat. “I’m at my psychologist.”

Let him call it a wrap with the shrink. Besides, a brief delay beats the phone tag we’ve played for days. “Sorry I’ve been a pain in the ass,” says the 61-year-old, back on the line. “I’m elusive!”

So are attempts to label the ex-Luke Duke—remember The Dukes of Hazzard?—who, since the series’ 1985 cancellation after seven seasons, has maintained a multipronged career.

Consider his reputation as a Broadway musical mainstay (City of Angels, Guys and Dolls and Tony-nominated turns in A Catered Affair and Annie Get Your Gun). Or his post-Dukes straight acting (the sitcom Cybill, Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, playing a U.S. marshal in Quentin Tarantino’s new Django Unchained).

Or his “saloon-singer” gig—after a long run as a country warbler—interpreting American standards and charming audiences and critics. “Almost every song … felt so lived in that it came across as a spontaneous personal expression,” wrote Stephen Holden of The New York Times, reviewing a 2008 show. “Mr. Wopat, like Sinatra in his glory days, makes it all look easy and perfectly natural.”

Armed with that Sinatra-esque comparison, Wopat debuts at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on January 11:

Why switch from country to Gershwin/Harold Arlen/Jimmy Webb songs?

I recorded country music for 15 years, I had a couple of top-20 songs and I wrote a couple that did pretty well. But I always felt that the standards stuff is a better fit for my voice.

Is country less satisfying to sing?

I’ll have a trio with me, my A-team guys and—not to denigrate country music—but I think it’s a waste for them to play country. There are country songs that are stunningly beautiful and really concise, but that’s not the norm in country music.

Did you ever resent being identified with Luke Duke?

It’s almost ungrateful in that the reason people are talking about you is because of what you had a hit with. To deny that is shortsighted. I surely don’t regret what I did. I had a great time doing Dukes.

Were you worried you’d be typecast and limited in what you could do, post-Dukes?

At the height of my TV success I didn’t know what the hell I was going to be doing. If I hadn’t gotten into television, I probably would have had a bigger Broadway career. Playing leading men in musicals, my voice and stature and whole attitude was built for that. I actually did a Broadway musical before I did television. It was I Love My Wife, in 1978.

Are there roles in musicals you’re still aching to play?

They won’t let me anymore, I’m too old! A part I’d like to do at least one more time is Sweeney [Todd]. I did it in stock, but we did the fuck out of it. When I did Sondheim on Sondheim I sang a little bit of “Epiphany’” from Sweeney. And Stephen said, “You’d be a perfect Sweeney.” That compliment was like Rodgers and Hammerstein saying you’d be a perfect Curly [in Oklahoma!].

You were raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Did you envision ending up on Broadway?

I grew up with six brothers and a sister. It was great. I milked cows twice a day for eight years. Our schools were really good. I got voice training in our little rural high school. I had a really fine music teacher. I started doing musicals when I was 12.

What can we expect at the Vegas show?

It will be like the records I’ve been making. The last one [Consider It Swung] and the new one [I’ve Got Your Number, out next month], they’re about half standards, a quarter pop tunes that we give kind of a jazz treatment, like what Diana Krall does, and a sprinkling of original tunes.

Critics label your style “easygoing.” Is that accurate?

One of the things [Holden] said was about how I approach “That’s Life.” Frank did it as well as it’s going to be done that way. It was killer. Mine was a more laid-back version in that it’s not contentious. Frank takes it on the nose and says, Whatever comes my way I’m gonna fuck it and I’m gonna end up on top—AHHH! And my way was more, Hey, man, that’s how it goes. I’m always gonna land on my feet.

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