Seven Questions for Actor/Singer Erich Bergen

The performer on his backup plan, elegant performances and how he chooses his roles

Erich Bergen | Photo by Benjo Arwas

Erich Bergen | Photo by Benjo Arwas

You are on Madam Secretary, performed in the stage and movie versions of Jersey Boys and getting ready to sing at The Smith Center on New Year’s Eve. How do you see yourself—as an actor or a singer?

I still don’t think of myself as anything other than really wanting to be involved in the performance arts. I was born and raised in New York City. All I knew was that I loved performing and singing and dancing. I guess the music came first. When I was growing up, MTV and Michael Jackson were very important to me. Those were the things a child of the ’80s found when they turned on the TV. And we couldn’t get away from them.

Did you ever think of any other profession?

I didn’t understand other professions. … I thought the dentist, the doctor, well, they did that, but they also put on a show at the end of the day. I thought everyone performed. … I was about 9 or 10 when my parents introduced me to Broadway and musical theater. I also went to [an after-school theater program, Children’s Aid Society,] when I was 9. That’s when I realized you could put the two together, music and acting. In New York, even the school-theater programs are scouted by talent agents. I was scouted by the woman who became my manager for 20 years. I wasn’t a famous child actor. I did attend the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Center (in Loch Sheldrake, New York), but I was just an occasional working child actor. That’s how I spent my teen years. I eventually went to North Carolina School of the Arts [Winston-Salem, North Carolina] and then left and came home to New York, because I wanted to start performing.

Did you have a backup plan in case the performing arts didn’t work out?

It never struck me that it wouldn’t work out. My goal was never to be a Broadway leading man or a pop star. I was just desperate to be involved. When I was in high school and college, I was selling T-shirts for the original Broadway production of Wicked and The Color Purple. Even when I was doing that, I was just so happy to be involved. I was lucky to become an actor, but I am ready to be an usher at any time!

Your parents weren’t performers, but they sent you for training at Stagedoor Manor. Were they resistant when you broached the idea with them?

Stagedoor Manor was their idea. I was not pushed to perform, but I wasn’t held back, either. They knew I wanted to perform … and they wanted to find people who understood what I wanted to do in my life. … I spent seven years there and when I say that group of friends is still my closest group of confidants, that’s no exaggeration. My voice sounds a little deeper than usual today because I was with them until just a few hours ago. We met when we were about 10 years old, most of us still live here, and I know we’ll be friends the rest of our lives.

Was it difficult to decide what songs you wanted to perform at your concerts, which are described as cabaret?

Not really. I co-wrote the majority of them. I have three albums out, but I mix it up. I just want to perform the best songs possible. I’m still a novice songwriter, but I work a lot with Victoria Shaw (Garth Brooks, Faith Hill) and Marty Panzer (Barry Manilow).

Your show sounds very posh,sort of like the days when everyone would dress up to attend a Frank Sinatra show at the Sands.

Absolutely. I want these shows to be occasions where couples dress up and have fun and do romantic things. I want them to feel they look fabulous, have a blast and stay out on the town a bit longer than usual. And I dress up every time. This is show business, and I want it to be elegant.

What keeps you moving among such diverse projects—from Jersey Boys and Madam Secretary to small plays and cabaret?

In the beginning I was just taking the opportunities that were presented. That’s how it starts as you go after the things you really, really want.

I really went after the movie Jersey Boys and then Madam Secretary. I had read the script and … knowing Téa Leoni was in it, I thought “This isn’t not going to end up on TV.” I really worked on getting that job. I knew it would be on for a long run and, plus, the job sounded like fun.

Enjoying the work is very important to me. There was this little musical, Hero, they were doing at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, a suburb of Chicago. I told my agent I wanted it, and he said, “Are you out of your mind? Why?” The reason is that it is a brilliant show, and it is some of the most creative work I’ve ever gotten to do. I had a blast doing it. And now I’m having a blast doing this. I am always excited for the next great thing.

New Year’s Eve at The Smith Center

Hosted by Erich Bergen with Norm Lewis, Capathia Jenkins, Clint Holmes and Patina Miller, 7 p.m., $39-$125,