Barrett Foa plays a techno-geek on TV, but is never far from his musical theatre roots.
Barrett Foa (BFA ’99) never expected to enjoy the security of anything resembling a nine-to-five job. Like most musical theatre graduates, he lived the “gypsy” lifestyle of a Broadway actor/singer/dancer for the first 10 years of his performance career, which was dominated by live theatre. The work was exciting and fun, and he devoted himself to every role he landed-but he was always keeping an eye out for the next job.
Then, five years ago, Foa was cast in NCIS Los Angeles (NCISLA), a spin-off of the top-rated CBS television series NCIS (the acronym for Naval Criminal Investigative Service). And much to his surprise, he found himself working the same job, 10 months a year, with a remarkably normal Monday-Friday schedule.
“It’s a nice kind of domestic feeling that I never though I’d be afforded,” said Foa. “You can plant roots, and build a nest egg, and buy a house. I even have a dog!”
Becoming a TV star in a hit series surprises Foa all the more because it almost didn’t happen. He had auditioned and been the finalist for the role of an operational psychologist, but it went to an actor with more TV experience. Then, a few weeks later, Foa received a call from the producers; another role had been created for him. “Eric Beale” would be the L.A. team’s technology geek “who has mastered every gadget and computer in the Ops Center,” according to NBC’s description.
It was meant to be an ancillary character, but Foa soon discovered he was doing something very right. After 12 episodes, Eric Beale became a series regular, and five years later is an integral and beloved member of an ensemble that includes Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J, and Linda Hunt. NCISLA recently celebrated the taping of its 100th episode, a major landmark in series television. It is the second-most-watched drama on television, just behind its progenitor.
Like NCIS, the show stands out for combining the high-stakes adrenaline rush of a procedural cop thriller with a quirky workplace comedy, where characters are fully developed and their relationships are allowed to evolve-including the romantic ones.
Charming, smart, funny, hardworking, handsome, bespectacled-the character of Eric Beale shares much with the man who portrays him every week, helping to establish the image of a modern-day hero: the brainy nerd who tracks down bad guys through the masterful use of technology. Foa is quick to point out, however, that he is a geek of a different stripe: “I’m a student of Professor Brent Wagner [chair of the musical theatre department] so I geek out about musical theatre.”
Foa’s passion for musical theatre started early. Born and raised in New York City, he attended the prestigious Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from pre-K through 12th grade, and during his high school summers attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. That training, coupled with his prodigious talent, earned him a place in U-M’s highly selective musical theatre program.
Following graduation, Foa landed a steady succession of roles. He played Jesus in the 30th anniversary Off-Broadway production of Godspell and made his Broadway debut in the original cast of Mamma Mia! He also worked in a spectrum of regional and NYC productions and understudied for the Broadway run of Avenue Q before taking on the lead role in 2005. This was followed in 2006 by one of the leads in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He continued to amass many additional theatre credits, and soon added multiple guest roles on television, including Entourage, The Closer, and Numb3rs.
Since joining NCISLA, however, Foa’s theatre and cabaret work has, necessarily, been dictated by the show’s shooting schedule. “I try to keep sharp and do some benefits during the year to keep my singing up,” he said. “I try to say yes to singing, to get out there to remind people that I’m singer, and remind myself that I’m a singer.”
Foa also tries to fit theatre into his summer breaks. Last year he played one of his dream roles, Harold Hill in The Music Man, at the Connecticut Repertory Theater, which reunited him with fellow alum Courtney Balan. The role marked a turning point. “Before NCIS I always said, ‘I’m the juvenile lead,'” said Foa. “Now I’m graduating into ‘man’ roles, leading man roles. That felt good; it felt right.”
As a singer, Foa is a master of the classic show tune, but is equally adept at a variety of other genres, including pop/rock and even rap, both of which he sang in For the Record: John Hughes, a unique, live musical event that he also co-wrote and produced. Featuring scenes and songs from movies by the legendary ’80s film director, the show played in NYC, L.A., and Chicago.
Foa credits his penchant for observation and mimicry with helping him to be adaptable as both a singer and an actor. “One of the reasons I love New York so much is the great people-watching,” he said, citing the delight of “watching an Upper East Side matron sitting next to a toilet cleaner on the subway.”
“I tend to notice small details about people: physical things, vocal things,” he said. He also credits his performance dexterity to his education at Michigan, which he describes as well-rounded and confidence-instilling, making him into a malleable actor who can disappear into roles.
That skill will be especially helpful this summer when he stars in the Off-Broadway one-man-show Buyer & Cellar. The smash hit comedy by Jonathan Tolins is a fictional imagining of one man’s employment in the Malibu basement of Barbra Streisand, where she has installed a mall of quaint shops, purely for her own amusement. (That part is true). The show has been running for a year, earning rave reviews and winning its star, Michael Urie, a Drama Desk Award for “Outstanding Solo Performance.”
While Urie takes the show on a four-city tour, Foa takes over the role in New York, channeling Streisand, James Brolin, and the other characters he portrays in the course of the 60-page monologue. All of his free time has been spent preparing: research has always been a high priority for him. “I have to immerse myself in this world-there’s a lot of movies and actresses and references that are in the script, so my Netflix list is overflowing with Streisand and James Brolin movies,” he said.
Though he’ll be working extra-hard in this show, his appearance in Buyer & Cellar (May 27-July 31) will allow Foa to visit his hometown, where his family and so many of his friends still live, including many U-M alums. “It’s a very tight network,” he said. “We’re all joined by this amazing four years we had.”
Inspired by that connection, Foa is spearheading the creation of a U-M scholarship fund for musical theatre students, to which he hopes other graduates will contribute. He notes that the department is now in its 30th year, and has graduated more than 600 artists. “We’re starting to not know each other anymore,” he said. He sees the scholarship fund as a way to attract the best students and help them graduate without debt while uniting alumni through a common cause.
“There are more and more musical theatre programs out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition and Michigan has to stay at the forefront to be competitive. Scholarships will be the way that that happens.”
Meanwhile, he’s delighted to see this growth in musical theatre, and the excitement it has generated over the last several years, with young people embracing it in multiple formats, from Frozen and Wicked to Smash and Glee. “Musical theatre is becoming so cool,” said Foa. In other words, it’s decidedly not just for geeks anymore.
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.