The Nashville star relied on his musical background — and his wife’s cooking — to score his first major stage credit.
Early in his career, when he was just another underemployed actor in Los Angeles, Charles Esten went through a demoralizing dry stretch. As the Nashville star recalls: He wasn’t simply not getting gigs. He wasn’t getting all that many auditions for gigs.
So he sat down with Patty Hanson — then his significant other, now his wife of 24 years — for a brainstorming session. Together, they decided it might be a good idea to invite his managers over to their place for a home-cooked meal, some causal conversation — and, oh yes, maybe a mention or two of the time when, while attending The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, he was lead singer for a band called N’est Pas.
During the course of the evening, “Patty served them a delicious Italian dinner while we talked about what I had done, and what I could do. And then I told them about my time with [N’est Pas].”
And then, to seal the deal, he took out his guitar and played a few songs.
“I’m sure they already were pushing me for roles,” Esten says, “but they probably didn't know what it was they were pushing. It's always hard to push an unknown, in any event. But maybe I hadn't been good about letting them know who I really was.” With Patty’s help, “I gave them a better idea.”
Not long after that, Esten was told about — and eventually aced the audition for — Buddy, a upbeat, high-energy jukebox musical staged in London’s West End. In 1991, the year he turned 26, he made his theatrical breakthrough playing, and singing, the demanding lead role as the legendary Buddy Holly.
“That was a huge boon,” Esten says, “in a bunch of different ways. First of all, there was the pure experience of getting to do it. But also, it meant that I got to support what I was learning, which was acting, with what I already knew, which was singing, playing guitar, sitting or standing in front of a microphone.
“And I got to spend so much time on stage that any nerves I might have had about performing in front of a live audience just went away. Like, there was a night on stage [in London] when I just thought, ‘Oh, wow. I'm not nervous at all. This is what I want to be doing.’ Meanwhile, I’m getting to play those unbelievable songs throughout the show — which was very, very cool.”
Over a 2½-year period, Esten appeared in the West End production of Buddy for eight months, took some time off, then toured with the show in the United States for about six months. (“I think,” he says only half-jokingly, “I may have sung ‘That’ll Be the Day’ on stage more times than Buddy Holly actually did.”) Along the way, he performed before the British Royal Family — including Queen Elizabeth II herself — and at the White House for George and Barbara Bush.
“The experience of getting to be the lead, as a young man, in a play like that was invaluable,” Esten says. “You start to just sort of carry yourself differently.”
Better still, it gave him more than sufficient musical and dramatic experience to play — and sing — Deacon Claybourne on TV’s Nashville.
You can read more about cover man Charles Esten in our October issue, which hits newsstands September 1.