Virginia’s Signature Theatre is holding its annual Sondheim Award Gala on Monday night.
This year’s ceremony will honor the legendary Carol Burnett at Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia, with a special tribute concert featuring Broadway performances by Tony Award winners like Bernadette Peters (“Annie Get Your Gun”) and Santino Fontana (“Tootsie”).
“She’s an international treasure,” Fontana told WTOP. “As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and watched a lot of ‘Carol Burnett.’ We would watch it over and over and over again. My very first book report in like first grade … was a children’s biography about Carol Burnett, so it’s very special that I get to help celebrate her and perform for her.”
Fontana recently befriended Peters and Burnett, who co-starred in “Annie” (1982).
“I was in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ with Bernadette for a couple months on Broadway,” Fontana said. “As I was leaving the stage, I heard, ‘Santino!’ I turned, and there was Carol Burnett. I was like, ‘How do you know my name?’ She was like, ‘I’m a fan; I’m friends with Bernadette.’ I said, ‘Do you mind if I get a photo with you?’ She said, ‘I would be offended if you didn’t.'”
In addition to Fontana and Peters, you’ll also see local favorites Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton and Bobby Smith accompanied by Mark G. Meadows and Jon Kalbfleisch.
“It’s supposed to be a surprise, but her favorite Sondheim song is ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’ so I’ll be singing that,” Fontana said. “I’m also going to be singing ‘Buddy’s Blues,’ which was from the last show she did on Broadway, ‘Putting It Together’ … also a Sondheim song.”
It’s the first Sondheim Award Gala since the Broadway icon’s death in November.
“Nobody made a bigger impression on theater in the last century,” Fontana said. “I’m friends with John Weidman, who he wrote ‘Assassins’ with as well as ‘Pacific Overtures,'” Fontana said. “I wrote to him right after Sondheim passed. I said, ‘I can’t believe he’s gone. He seemed like he would always be here.’ John’s response was, ‘He will.'”
Fontana is building quite the career on Broadway himself, earning his first Tony Award nomination as Prince Topher in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” (2013) before actually winning the Tony Award as Michael Dorsey in the musical “Tootsie” (2019).
“Going to the Tony Awards when you’re nominated is like going to a wedding where you may end up the groom,” Fontana said. “[In 2013], Billy Porter was the groom, but I was still dressed up in case the bride wanted me, or the groom wanted me, it doesn’t matter.”
He praises playwright Robert Horn, who adapted “Tootsie” from the 1982 film.
“He adapted it, and thank God I didn’t have to do that because there are so many minefields,” Fontana said. “He did a great job reminding us this is a story about a desperate man who makes a terrible decision but an entertaining one and learns a lot about stepping inside someone else’s shoes. It was great to be in a theater with people laughing that regularly.”
His most referenced role might be Prince Hans from Disney’s “Frozen” (2013).
“I’ll be on an airplane, and sitting next to me will be a kid watching ‘Frozen,’ and I’m always tempted to lean over and scare the hell out of them, but I don’t,” Fontana said. “A couple of weeks ago, I was at Carnegie Hall with Kristen Bell and Josh Gad. … It’s such a strange little private club that you’re in where you walk around with this big secret.”
By that, he means that he smiles every time he encounters “Frozen” cosplay.
“You’re walking through Times Square, and there’s a big doll person dressed up as Elsa like a strolling character, or you go to Disneyland, and there are kids dressed up as Anna & Elsa, or it’s Halloween and, ding dong, there’s Anna saying trick-or-treat,” Fontana said.
He still marvels at the pop-culture success considering the limited time commitment.
“I worked five days over two-and-a-half years,” Fontana said. “I liken it to being a sperm donor to a kid who becomes president. I was kind of involved. I was there at the beginning … but I had very little to do with its success. That’s how I feel about ‘Frozen.'”
His TV credits range from “Mozart in the Jungle” to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
“I got to play Mozart in ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ on Amazon opposite Gael García Bernal,” Fontana said. “‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ was great. It was a musical TV show, which at the time was incredibly new. Aside from like ‘Glee,’ no one had ever done that, or ‘Smash.'”
Now he stars in the newest season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (2022).
“I’m in this most recent season of ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ … playing the manager of a strip club,” Fontana said. “It’s weird being an actor because everyone associates you with the last thing you did. … After ‘Crazy Ex,’ people kept expecting me to play depressed alcoholics. After ‘Cinderella,’ people thought, oh, he’ll keep playing charming princes.”
His next role might be his favorite: paying tribute to another TV icon in Carol Burnett.