NEW YORK — At a restaurant one recent night, Anthony Warlow posed a rather strange question to some fans.
A couple from Atlanta who had just seen the new Broadway revival of "Annie" approached the Australian actor's table and complimented him on his skills as Daddy Warbucks.
Warlow smiled large. "That's great," he told them in his naturally singsongy Aussie accent. Then he pressed for more: "I know this is a funny thing to say, but did I sound like a New Yorker?"
"Oh, my God," said the husband, nodding to his wife. "She thought you were a native."
It was the answer Warlow desperately wanted to hear.
"I know I can sing, I know I can act and I can kind of dance, but the one thing I'm really wanting people to believe is that I'm a New Yorker when I'm on that stage," says the actor in his dressing room at the cavernous Palace Theatre. "I know that sounds silly to say, but it means a lot to me."
Warlow, known Down Under as the thinking man's musical theater guy, doesn't leave much to chance and even less uninvestigated. And making his Broadway debut at age 50, he wants every part of it just so.
His arrival is due in part to patience and some luck – he had been angling for a role in "Rebecca," which later collapsed amid questions about its financial backing – so he's savoring this time. "I'm overly flattered by being asked to come here and I'm still kind of living the dream," he says. "I've come in taking baby steps."
Those steps include lots of thinking about accents. Warlow has decided for this more naturalistic "Annie" that Warbucks has a flat mid-Atlantic accent but falls back to his Hell's Kitchen roots when stressed.
He's also imagines Warbucks as a former orphan. "The name gives it away – Oliver," he says, smiling. That makes Warbucks bond even more with Little Orphan Annie, Warlow argues.
"I like to saturate with as much back story or history. My father used to say to me, `Knowledge is power,'" he says. "I try to live the histories of these characters. It makes it so much easier because you're not thinking, `I'm doing this, but I don't know why I'm doing this.'"
This isn't the first time Warlow has tackled the baldheaded billionaire – it's his third. He first played him in 2000 and then again beginning in late 2011, both in Australia.
In fact, he was playing Warbucks when three-time Tony Award-winner James Lapine called late one night in Brisbane to offer him the job on Broadway. It was a unique audition since the two men had never met, although Lapine had watched a lot of YouTube videos of Warlow.
"I'd heard a lot about him over the years but I'd never seen him," says Lapine. "The word on him was so great, I just thought I'd take a flier on him and, boy, I'm glad I did because he is remarkable."
Warlow is as famous in Australia as he is unknown in America. He made his debut with the Australian Opera at 19 in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and began an opera career with credits including "The Magic Flute" and "Tosca."
He jumped to musical theater in 1985 with the London National Theatre's production of "Guys and Dolls" and went on to sing roles in "The Secret Garden," "Man of La Mancha" and "My Fair Lady." He also premiered a musical of "Doctor Zhivago" in 2011, though he blew out his hamstring on opening night. Ever a trooper, he returned three days later.
"Soccer players come back six weeks later," he says, proudly.
`DON'T TAUNT ME'
Over the years, he's taken about half a dozen trips to New York to gorge on theater, and although there has been interest in him coming over, nothing really came of it until now.
"I'm a realist. I get this stuff and I'm very flattered when it comes but I think, `Guys, don't taunt me anymore.' We know the history of people from Australia getting into Broadway is very, very rare."
Warlow, who battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1992, is perhaps best known for playing the masked lead in "The Phantom of the Opera," a role he's done twice – in 1990 and 2007-2009. He chose to tackle it a second time because his daughter – now 18 – wasn't born when he first played it. "For one night, she saw it," he says, laughing. "I carried on for two years after that."
Multiple parts are a theme in Warlow's career – besides three Warbucks and two Phantoms, he's also played Henry Higgins three times and two Papagenos in "The Magic Flute."
"How many artists get a chance to revisit?" he asks. "The reason for it mainly is because I started very young. I was very good at makeup in those days or had to be."
His star turn in "Annie" might not have happened. While mulling over whether to play Warbucks, he also was considering the lead in "Rebecca," but ultimately pulled out after considering himself too old. While in America, he learned of the show's embarrassing collapse, due to alleged fraud that involved fictitious investors and a faked death.
Asked if he feels relief that he didn't jump on that horse, Warlow nods. "A little bit of that, yeah. At the same time I'm sorry that it didn't work out. The more the merrier for me."
These days, he's just soaking up Broadway. At the Palace Theatre, he's learned about the stars who preceded him, such as Judy Garland and Josephine Baker, and he's learned that the elevator to his dressing room was built specifically for Sarah Bernhardt. That appeals to his sense of history.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store," he says.
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