John Sanders worked hard at being an actor long before he ever got paid to walk onstage.
He’s now appearing in the first national touring production of the multiple-Tony-winning “Peter and the Starcatcher” at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, carrying the same the presence and authority he had in 1991 as a freshman at Jesuit High School. Back then, Sanders was performing in a still-remembered production of the somber chamber musical “Ten November.”
Sanders, 37, who grew up near Roseville, was part of the original Broadway cast for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” as well as “Matilda the Musical,” another Broadway production, based on the Roald Dahl book. He’s also been in a national tour of “Mamma Mia!”
“Being part of an original Broadway company is something really special,” Sanders said.
In “Starcatcher” Sanders plays Black Stache, the highly intelligent but malapropism-prone pirate chief in the play based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
Sanders is a principal in a company of 12 actors who portray more than 100 characters, creating the world of Peter Pan before J.M. Barrie’s famous story takes place. The production puts a premium on theatricality, ingenuity and old-fashioned story while telling the tale of orphan boys longing for a kind of liberation that only kids can imagine.
“The writer Rick Elice (who adapted the novel) and the directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers really encouraged us to bring our sense of playing and imaginations to our characters,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ mustache is drawn on Groucho-Marx style, which seems appropriate, as the actors described “Starcatcher” “as sort of modern vaudevillian comedy,” adding that it “has some music, but it’s not a musical.”
The play started off-Broadway and Sanders joined the company as it moved to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on West 47th Street, where it played from March 2012 to this past January.
“I was one of the few new faces in the rehearsal room, and was tasked with understudying five of the roles,” Sanders said. “ Christian Borle, who won a Tony for his performance as Black Stache, was gone for much of the rehearsal process shooting his television show ‘Smash,’ so I had to cover for him very early on.
“It was pretty exhilarating being thrown to the wolves like that,” he said. “I really love the high-pressure environment of rehearsing a Broadway show, especially because the people are generally so laid-back about it. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s that combination that makes it so fun.”
After “Starcatcher,” Sanders continued his Broadway run with “Matilda the Musical,” which he then left so he could join the “Starcatcher” tour and perform professionally in his native Northern California for the first time.
“So much of my career has been in Chicago and New York,” he said. “When I joined the ‘Mamma Mia’ tour it had already come through Sacramento.”
Sanders credits Ed Trafton, artistic director of Jesuit drama at Jesuit High School, with helping him develop a love for the stage. It was Trafton who cast him in that significant early role in Steven Dietz’s “Ten November,” which tells the story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, an American Great Lakes freighter that sank in a storm on Nov. 10, 1975. All 29 members of the crew were lost.
“That play and the time we had with it has become a defining moment for me and, I believe, for a number of the people involved,” Sanders said.
“I remember John very vividly,” Trafton said. “There was something about John even as a freshman. ... You could tell he had grace, he was grounded. He had what I think all good performers have – a point of view. Honestly whatever ‘it’ is, John had it.”
Sanders decided to study theater at the University of Oregon and an instructor there suggested Chicago as the next step after college. Sanders spent 12 years of his career in the Windy City and said it was a perfect training ground.
“Something Chicago has that almost no other theater town has is enough theaters and audience members to support an entire industry, but a spotlight small enough to allow for failure,” Sanders said.
“That’s crucial to this business, because so few of us are ready for prime time in our early 20s. I certainly wasn’t.”
Sanders cut his teeth at places such as Writers Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare and the Goodman Theatre – when he was working.
“I suppose I also learned what it’s like to be a struggling actor, waiting tables and doing shows at night,” he said. “That’s not unique to Chicago, but I’m proud of those years just the same.”
In 2008, Sanders was performing in the “Turn of the Century” when Elice told him about another project he was working on that might have something for the actor. That led to a New York audition and eventually “Starcatcher,” “Matilda the Musical” and “Mamma Mia!”
Sanders has done several musicals now, which he finds more than slightly ironic.
“At Jesuit, I’d always have to slog through the musicals to get to the meaty plays I loved,” he said. “My mom put me through a year of singing lessons in high school, because when I sang, as she put it, I sounded like a sick cow. Something must have stuck, though, because now that’s how I pay the rent.”