Actors, reality doesn't bite

Weirdly, the titles of Craig Carnelia's four Broadway musicals all seem to apply to him personally.

"Working"? Steadily, as a respected composer-lyricist and a teacher of acting, singing and songwriting.

"Is There Life After High School"? Yes, though not the life he imagined when he played Freddy in "My Fair Lady" at 15 and believed he had become a stage actor.

"Imaginary Friends"? Every theater person has those when he's writing or composing. And Carnelia has a significant real one: Wife Lisa Brescia, currently playing the lead in "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway.

"Sweet Smell of Success"? Absolutely, with three Tony and two Drama Desk nominations. He'll tell you how to get a whiff of that success Thursday through Saturday, when he comes to UNC Charlotte to teach part of a NATS workshop.

That acronym stands for National Association of Teachers of Singing. Most people who know it associate the name more with classical music. But "Guys and Gals of Broadway" is designed to bring out your inner Phantom or Fantine.

People who enroll will enter sessions titled "Belt & Belt/Mix Repertoire for Music Theater" or "Acting the Song." Carnelia will speak on a couple of panels. But his main session, Thursday at 8 p.m., is "Master Class in Acting and Musical Theater."

"I've asked each student to bring three songs, and we'll work on one," he says. "I'll help with that song, but I also want to help them understand something that resonates beyond that song - and, hopefully, help the audience understand something theoretical or practical that can be applied to all songs in any style."

Carnelia wants actors to put themselves in circumstances that let them feel something real, rather than manufacturing or replicating emotions they've seen.

"The most common thing singers do is pretend a feeling," he says. "I'm about removing that artifice.

"When people make a transition in an exercise from something false to something real, they wonder if they're doing anything at all. Because they have stopped doing the fake thing, and the fake thing takes so much work."

Carnelia has spent almost half a century studying the difference, since seeing his first Broadway show ("No Strings") at 14 in 1963.

He took over the role of The Boy in "The Fantasticks" off-Broadway and dropped out of Hofstra University to concentrate on acting. But he discovered his future in 1978, when he collaborated with Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor and other composer-lyricists in a musical adaptation of Studs Terkel's book "Working."

Seeking the truth

Since then, he has written and taught, including acting classes in New York for two decades. He's a regular at the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project in Chicago; he has made appearances as near to us as Elon College in Greensboro, which is sending some students to the UNCC workshop; and this is the third time NATS has tapped him to explain musical theater performance.

He doesn't try to impose a particular approach: not his own, not the larger-than-life personalities of the stars he grew up watching (Carol Channing, Zero Mostel), not the mannered acting of sprawling epics such as "Phantom" or "Les Miz." He just aims to find reality in any song, any situation, and suit it to the performer.

"If an actor asks, 'Can you make me funny?' the answer is 'No.' I can help you not look in the wrong direction for how to BE funny. I can help you mine the humor in material that is potentially funny. But I can't make an actor who has no gift for (creating) a comedic reality learn to do that.

"Different styles of material (come down to) the same thing: You're telling the truth or telling a lie. If you're telling a lie, it's not going to be very good."

Following the dream

Inevitably, a student will wonder if he should devote himself to a life in theater, or if his dream is a chimera.

"People should always follow their instincts," Carnelia says. "I wouldn't presume to suggest I'd know the moment in anyone's life that could connect those dots. If this workshop makes that connection for anyone, then let it be made.

"If you've chosen early in life not to (become a performer), it's pretty unlikely that you should choose to do it later. Or it may be exactly the right thing, and only you would know. We don't go looking for epiphanies - they happen to us."