Jeff McCarthy on Playing Fagin in Arena Stage’s ‘Oliver!’

I was so excited when I heard that Jeff McCarthy had landed the role of Fagin in Arena Stage’s upcoming production of Oliver!, so I jumped at the opportunity to catch up with him while he was in rehearsals.

Jeff McCarthy. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Jeff McCarthy. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Joel: Please tell my readers where they may have seen you on the stage in the DC area.

Jeff: The world premiere of Fox on the Fairway at Signature, directed by my dear old friend, John Rando. Mame at The Kennedy Center opposite the sublime Christine Baranski, directed by Eric Schaeffer. And for Molly Smith: You, Nero – here at Arena Stage four years ago.

So nice to have you back in DC. How did you become involved in Arena Stage’s production of Oliver!, and when were you offered the role of Fagin?  

The role wasn’t really on my radar but my agent called about Molly’s production and I really felt a strong pull, wanting to work with her again. I believe the offer came sometime in the middle of the summer and I’m very glad it did.

How do you relate to Fagin and how much of your own personality are you bringing to your performance? 

Fagin is a rapscallion par excellence. I think he celebrates a fair share of anarchy, but is terrified of death. Always fun and scary to mess around in that mind set – onstage anyway. 100% of who I am is, hopefully, at play with Fagin. However, we accentuate different parts at different situations.

You have played some wonderful characters on the stage. Does Fagin remind you of any of these characters? 

Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote. Photo courtesy of Barrington Stage Company.

Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote. Photo courtesy of Barrington Stage Company.

Well, I played Don Quixote this summer [in Man of La Mancha at Barrington Stage Company] and he too writes his own rules but to a completely different end.

How would you describe Lionel Bart’s score for Oliver!?

Boulevard hummable, if ever there was one, and we are working to bring a certain modern take on it.

Have you ever appeared as Fagin on the stage before or appeared in any other productions of Oliver!

No, this is the first.

Fagin has 3 big numbers: “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Be Back Soon,” and ‘Reviewing the Situation.’ What do we learn about Fagin in these songs?

He loves a good time. He loves, in his own particular way, the kids he champions. And he’s desperate to secure what is left of the rest of his life. 

“Reviewing the Situation” is not an easy song to sing or learn. How hard was it to learn, and what do you enjoy the most about performing it? Are there any other songs that you have performed that were equally challenging or remind you of this song?  

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin. Photo © Tony Powell.

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin. Photo by Tony Powell.

Henry Higgins (I’ve played him twice in the last two years) has two numbers that are humdingers to learn and perform. Fredrick inA Little Night Music has a bunch of tongue twisting lyrics. I’m still learning “Reviewing the Situation.” We haven’t gotten to the staging of it yet. I have a feeling it’s going to be a blast.

What song that you don’t sing in Oliver! is your favorite, and why? 

“Who Will Buy?” is a fabulous number. In the middle of a very dark little universe that the characters in this story inhabit, we have this anthem to sunlight and optimism. Literally a breath of fresh air.

What has impressed you the most about your fellow cast mates’ performances? 

Molly (Smith) lays great store in compassion, kindness, focus and imagination. Our cast has all of these in spades. 

Please describe ‘your look’ in the show and the costumes they have prepared for you.  

This will be a more modern production with a tip of the hat to the Victorian age that the Dickens story originally inhabits. Fagin is fearful of aging but I would say in the design of this production he is still very much a player.

What has Director Molly Smith told you about her vision of your Fagin and her vision for this production? 

She is very much exploring present-day culture and similarities to the inequalities of mid-nineteenth century London. Characters, like Fagin, that exploit the less fortunate are timeless – but he also has a morality that keeps bubbling up that keeps him human. 

Jake Heston Miller (Oliver) (bottom center) with Eleasha Gamble (Nancy), Jeff McCarthy (Fagin), and members of Fagin’s gang. Photo by Tony Powell.

Jake Heston Miller (Oliver) (bottom center) with Eleasha Gamble (Nancy), Jeff McCarthy (Fagin), and members of Fagin’s gang. Photo by Tony Powell.

Why do you think Oliver! is still so popular 55 years after it opened in the West End?  

The hummable score is so very familiar. A vulnerable, lovable, brave little kid at the center of this very dark and dangerous world. A happy ending. Who can resist?

What advice would you give other actors who are preparing to play Fagin in their productions of Oliver!?  

Come see our production and steal till your heart’s content!


Oliver! plays from October 30, 2015 – January 3, 2016 on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

Review of ‘Oliver!’ from Gina Dalfonzo on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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