A longtime Broadway actor from Columbus knows that, even without his name in lights, he has found a bit of the big time.
Someone recently recognized Brent Black, a 1976 Columbus North High School graduate, on the New York subway and whispered to a friend, “I forget that they are real people.”
Earlier, a French woman visiting New York City spotted him from a distance in Times Square.
“Excuse me,” she said as she ran to him. “But aren’t you Sam? You know, the Sam (possible father of the female lead) of ‘Mamma Mia’?
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“You are? Oh, you were wonderful!”
Black broke into laughter as he spoke by phone from his New York apartment.
“That is pretty neat, actually,” Black said.
Black, 57, said he has loved his time in the Broadway hit “Mamma Mia!” Fourteen years, to be exact. That constitutes nearly 6,000 performances as the only remaining original cast member since the show began with uncertainty shortly after 9/11.
All that comes to an end Saturday when the production that includes the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA closes at the 1,156-seat Broadhurst Theatre in Manhattan.
“This is pretty rare,” Black said of his longevity in a field where shows can be as dependable as shifting sand. “Nobody can realistically expect a show to run that long, let alone for even one person to be able to stay in it.”
He has played a Greek fisherman in an ensemble role more than 5,000 times. Plus, he has assumed other roles as an understudy — including that of a priest, that of Bill, a possible dad of the female, bride-to-be lead, and that of Sam. In that particular role, he gets to croon two of his favorite ABBA tunes: “SOS” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
Some nights, Black has discovered that he was needed as an understudy only minutes before showtime. Once, a couple of years ago, the overture already had kicked in when Black was dressed for his fisherman role. But then he heard a backstage announcement, “Attention, wardrobe and sound. Brent Black will be playing Sam this evening.’ I thought, ‘He WILL? Well, then, Brent Black needs to go change clothes.’”
Black mentioned that ABBA’s music reigns universally. The show regularly draws ticket buyers from across the globe. Some know little English.
“But they know this music,” he said. “You have to remember that ABBA was huge in places like Europe. I mean, like Beatles-huge, where people were fainting in the street over them.”
Black dabbled in smaller theater roles during his high school days in Columbus, but he showed a measure of promise. During a Columbus North High School rehearsal for “Guys and Dolls” in the mid-1970s, drama department head Joe Tower liked the way the student handled dialogue.
“Now, listen to the way Brent’s talking,” Tower told his group. “That’s the way you should be talking. Haven’t you all ever watched any movies about New York?”
But even after Black was able to find several years of regular work in the Big Apple, a relative asked him the inevitable question during one of his annual home visits: “When are you going to get a real job?”
Others, including Columbus resident Becky Williams, a friend since childhood, have offered overwhelming support. She returned last week from her eighth trip to New York City to see the show.
“It’s always better when Brent’s one of the principals,” said Williams, who especially loves his portrayal of Sam.
She loves other elements of Black, in particular his unassuming ways and the fact that others have taken to him so well. When Williams repeatedly has visited backstage after shows, cast, crew and even a security guard tell Williams that they adore Black.
“I really like the fact that he’ll never be one of those people who’s full of himself,” she said.
While Black, who has acted in commercials, TV soap operas and elsewhere, has acknowledged he will miss the show, his proud, 11-year-old son, Jack, may miss it more.
“He tells new friends, ‘My dad’s on Broadway in ‘Mamma Mia,’” Black said.
Then Black thinks for a moment.
“You know,” he said. “I think I can take a break from ‘Dancing Queen’ for just a bit. We’ve been singing that twice every night.”
Hometown: Columbus. He returns at least yearly to visit family and friends.
Education: Columbus North High School Class of 1976. Two years at Indiana University before graduating from the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama, where he earned a theater scholarship.
Current job: Has played four characters, including a main role of Sam (as an understudy), in the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” since it began in October 2001.
Family: Married to John Sahs, a psychiatrist. They have an 11-year-old son, Jack.
What’s next: Auditioning for potential acting roles.
What: “Mamma Mia!” a spirited musical of 1970s pop group ABBA’s hits. The story is about a bride-to-be simply trying to find her real father so he can walk her down the aisle at her wedding. Her mother never told her details about her father.
When: The show has been on Broadway since October 2001, when it opened at the Winter Garden Theater. It is Broadway’s eighth-longest continuously running show (“Phantom of the Opera” is first).
Performances: Saturday’s closing will mark 5,773 shows.
Audience: Including Broadway, the show that plays globally has been seen by 55 million people worldwide.