March 25, 2017

STRANGERS: Santino & Jessica Fontana
LOCATION: Henry’s, 2745 Broadway, New York City
THEME: Lunch with a married couple of actors to discuss their work-life balance

Santino Fontana vividly recalls the first time he appeared on Broadway with the love of his life.

It was in January 2014 near the end of his run as the prince in the musical Cinderella, and his then-girlfriend and future wife Jessica Hershberg was also part of the cast. They had a brief time performing together, sharing a dance. A minimal moment on stage but much anxiety for Santino. “I was so nervous for her, I imagine it’s how parents are watching their kids in sporting events. Are you prepared? Are you okay?”

Jessica rolled her eyes playfully, laughed, and told me, “He was overbearing.”

Regardless, they said the performances went off without a hitch, and since then the couple — married in 2015 — have been on stage together many times at concerts in their adopted hometown of New York and elsewhere. During a one-and-a-half-hour lunch in Manhattan, they told me about how their differing personalities complement each other and help them cope with balancing their lives in the arts with their growing focus on building a life in the city.

Cinderella is the only Broadway show they’ve performed in together, but they’ve done a host of concerts as a couple. And they love watching each other on stage, though Jessica admitted to also feeling nervous when she sees her husband perform. “I never worry that he’s going to screw up because I have such confidence in his ability, but it’s just nerve-wracking whenever I see him in something for the first time,” she said.

And they both handle the backstage stress of working on the same show differently.

“I talk about my feelings a lot,” said Jessica.

“I don’t,” Santino added quickly with a grin.

While they’re as happy working on separate projects as together, they said there’s something particularly special about being able to get on stage with their partner, whether in concerts, one-off performances at New York clubs, or other events. Referring to their weeks together in Cinderella, Jessica said, “One moment you’re dancing with that person on a Broadway stage, the next you’re going home with them and watching TV in your PJs. It’s a fun, cool, weird crossover.”

I met the Fontanas at Henry’s, a brightly-lit and welcoming restaurant on 105th Street and Broadway. A live three-piece band played pleasant jazz tunes in the background without hindering my conversation with the engaging couple. They’re a great complement for each other, occasionally finishing the other’s thoughts or knowing where an anecdote is going and picking up the thread when the other stops talking.

Santino has a quick wit with hints of self-deprecating humor. And several times he laughed out loud at my jokes, thereby winning me over.

Jessica exudes a quiet confidence and speaks at a quick clip, with great stories, funny asides and an engaging personality. Despite the somewhat unusual idea of getting lunch with a complete stranger, they appeared relaxed and chatty from the start — though they were baffled I’d even reached out.

After I sent my request for the interview, Jessica checked out Dining With Strangers. “You seemed like a lovely and legitimate person, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I wondered, ‘Why us?’”

I told them that after reading a New York Times article about their wedding, I wanted to learn how a couple both working in the arts finds the right work-life balance between achieving their artistic goals and creating a family. They said they were happy to talk about it, and Santino suggested that my career as a reporter and theirs as actors even shared some overlap. “As a reporter, you’re meeting people, telling their stories. That’s what we do. We don’t necessarily write them, but we imagine them, we tell pieces – it’s the same impulse to want to talk to a stranger,” he said.

They moved to New York after college to make it on Broadway, and Jessica’s singing and acting credits include the off-Broadway shows Once Upon a Mattress and Milk and Honey, in addition to Cinderella. She’s also a budding writer and currently producing a satirical podcast with a friend.

Santino found fame in several roles beyond Cinderella, including as Prince Hans in Frozen and as Greg in the television musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He said they’ve both enjoyed success and love their jobs, but their desire to live a happy family life remains the most important.

“Our relationship is a lot stronger than either of our ambitions,” said Santino.

“I think other couples in the business are different, but we try to always be together if we can,” said Jessica. Other actors in relationships might have to tour on their own for a year and be away from the partner in order to pay the bills, but the Fontanas would try to find another way to make it work.

For a while, Santino was based in Los Angeles filming Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the same time that Jessica was performing in Once Upon a Mattress in New York. The time apart made them realize that above all else, they want to be with each other. “It was really fun doing those shows, but the full life experience is the goal, and if we’re not together, it just felt like…” said Jessica.

“…what’s the point? What am I doing?” added Santino, finishing the sentence.

“We have a two-week rule, we don’t go more than two weeks without seeing each other, which we’ve been able to do our entire time together,” he said. Then with a laugh, “But also we are fully co-dependent.” He pointed to Jessica and said, “Her mom calls us Velcro, and it’s true. We do like to be with each other.”

It’s difficult for the duo to schedule things together because they have to keep themselves open for last-minute auditions, and anything they commit to doing has to come with the caveat that they might have to drop it if something professional comes up. “Trying to juggle it is a lot,” Santino said.

“It’s hard, and there’s no secret to it,” added Jessica. They take turns in pitching in to help out with each other’s schedules based off how busy they both are, but have no single system to manage it.

“No Fontana planner?” I asked.

“We need to be better about it,” said Jessica. Once upon a time they tried syncing their iPhone calendars. Santino said he was fine with that approach, but the competing notifications became confusing for Jessica so they dropped that.

Santino said he’s good at being on time to events but “not always the best at communicating, I just show up,” whereas Jessica is great about communication but sometimes runs late. They balance each other out by helping remind the other what they’re working on. “It’s a lot we’re like vaudevillians, traveling from thing to thing and keeping everything up in the air,” said Santino.

“It’s a weird mix, sometimes it feels like we have a lot of free time, or sometimes so much comes up and we’re traveling so much, I can’t even remember where we were in, like, October,” added Jessica.

Santino pondered for a second. “No idea. LA?”

“Then I go back and see pictures and remember, oh, yeah, it was LA,” said Jessica.

When one of the couple has a performance out of town, the other tries to join them on travel if they can. Jessica’s family is from Philadelphia so she’s used to the east coast lifestyle, while Santino’s family is in Washington state but he feels at home in New York City — though a conversation about their time in Los Angeles revealed that one thing Santino misses about the west coast is driving everywhere. “I miss that kind of control, the privacy of that, the mental time to just think through things, I love that and miss that.”

In contrast, Jessica was quickly turned off by the constant sunshine of Los Angeles (she once jokingly left an angry voicemail for a friend in LA shouting, “THE SUN IS OPPRESSIVE!”) and she doesn’t miss driving at all, instead preferring to walk around New York and taking the subway.

But this incredibly charming couple clicks regardless of any differences, and Santino credits Jessica with helping bring some long-term direction to his life. “I could easily have been one of those actors doing a play in a small town in Arkansas just because I love it, and turn 60 and think, ‘What did I do with my life? I just played imaginary person after imaginary person and didn’t figure out how to make that career work or to have a life outside of that.’ I never had a plan beyond just being a working actor, that was it.”

Santino first became interested in acting when his grandfather would babysit him, taking him to the now-defunct Blockbuster video chain and getting old movies for them to watch together. “I think he didn’t know what to do after, so he’d replay them, and I think that power of narrative and storytelling and being transported to another place became a formative experience.”

“I thought it was amazing and I kind of became obsessed with that,” said Santino. As a kid he recalls writing down the scripts from a Who’s On First? audio tape his father had, and even forcing his family and neighbors to be in a Thanksgiving play when he was in pre-school.

Bitten with the acting bug, he went to the University of Minnesota and was among the first 19 students in a new acting training program launched by the Guthrie Theater, where he played Hamlet in his early 20s to great reviews. The school didn’t provide a showcase to meet casting directors or the like, so he had no formal entree into the world of acting. Instead, he officially moved to New York in 2006 and started the nerve-wracking process of auditioning — and asking theater friends he’d met along the way through his various performances to help out if they could.

“There’s something to be said about a hungry, almost verging on desperate, young actor who will do anything, relationships be damned, who keeps working constantly,” he said.

For Jessica, there was never an “a-ha!” moment when she realized that a career in the arts would be her goal. “I didn’t wake up singing show tunes one day,” she joked.

At high school she had a huge interest in ballet and tried that for a while, “but when I realized I didn’t have perfectly arched feet” she shifted to musical theater. With strong support from her choir teacher, she took what was then a minimal interest in singing and developed it into a new passion. “I did musical theater throughout high school, it was fun and I felt great.”

Much like young Santino’s Thanksgiving play with his family and neighbors, Jessica recalls the time she and her friends did their own adaptation of Cinderella, set in the 1970s. “So I guess we both always had these creatives impulses,” she said as he gazed at her husband.

I pitched that they should do a double-header show reviving both the Thanksgiving play and the disco-era fairy tale.

“No. Never. Not going to happen,” Santino said dryly.

After high school, Jessica went to the University of Michigan where she got a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater, including studying for a semester at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London doing Shakespeare. There were 25 people in her class and “I just assumed like everyone else I’d move to New York after university. Maybe two people in the class moved to LA, the rest went to New York.”

Her pathway to the Big Apple was different from Santino’s because her university put on a showcase where the class would perform for talent scouts, and through that Jessica got an agent. So she already had somebody working to get her gigs when she moved to the city in 2008. “I didn’t really like New York when visiting during college, I was stressed out by all the people. But I realized that if I wanted to do this career, I had to be here. Now I love it,” she said.

“Side note: I’m so hungry, I feel like I’m going to get hangry,” said Jessica as she noticed we’d passed the half hour mark with no sign of our waiter to take our order.

The service was pretty hit-or-miss at Henry’s that day. I tried to place an order for a coffee at one point but the waiter either didn’t hear or ignored it and I trailed off mid-sentence. Santino laughed. “That’s what I would have done,” he said with self-effacing humor, then looked to his wife. “She’s very good at asking what she needs — I need to get more like that.”

I’m glad Jessica took the initiative because I was getting hungry as well, and when it arrived I’d say it was worth the wait (plus the extra time let me get through a lot of my questions for the Fontanas).

I had the “Italian Benedict,” a spin on the traditional eggs Benedict dish using San Daniele brand proscuitto, San Marzano tomato and extra herbs in the hollandaise sauce, served over herb focaccia bread. The slightly salty proscuttio was a fantastic substitution for the usual ham, and the freshly-made bread a more flavorful alternative to the typical English muffin. The zesty tomato and herb sauce drizzled across the top was the perfect finish to a wonderful dish.

Jessica had the classic eggs Benedict, except topped with smoked salmon.

For Santino, the four egg omelet with Fra’ Mani ham, herbs and mixed artisanal greens. They both left almost empty plates, so I have to assume they liked the dishes. But instead of quizzing them about their thoughts on lunch, I wanted to learn how they met.

It was in March 2011, when they were both performing at a concert at the Birdland jazz club in New York. Jessica had seen her future husband performing in a web series Submissions Only in which she’d also had a role. “He was smart, funny, and cute, just the kind of guy I should be dating. And before the concert I needed to see a set-list, so I asked to see his set-list…”

“There were set-lists everywhere,” said Santino with a knowing laugh.

They got talking and hit it off immediately, having their first date at an Italian restaurant — where Santino managed to show up 20 minutes late. “She texted me, ‘it’s over’ with like ten Rs, I loved that.”

Fast forward to September 3, 2014 — the day Santino proposed to Jessica. They had talked on and off about getting married, but nothing too serious. Then one night they planned to have a celebratory dinner because Santino just found out he had won his role in the pilot for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Jessica was still in Cinderella and at the theater, but they both had that Wednesday night free. While Jessica was at the theater, Santino’s friend Lauren Gallitelli — his dresser for several Broadway shows, overseeing his costumes — told him he should take advantage of the dinner date and propose that night. She went with him to New York’s Diamond District to help pick out the ring. “She’s the one who made me get it bigger,” he said with a smile.

Jessica and Santino went out to dinner, and that’s where he told her that she’d received some bizarre-looking fan mail back at the apartment. This kind of thing had happened once or twice, so she didn’t think anything too out of the ordinary. And the meal, while nice, was ostensibly to celebrate the new TV show.

Back at the apartment, Jessica found the envelope and opened it to see a blank piece of paper. At the bottom in typed print it said, “Jessica, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“Then I looked up and he was on his knees in front of me” with a ring, said Jessica. She was so taken aback, shocked by the suddenness of it all, that the only words she could manage were “oh my god.”

“It took a long time for you to say yes,” added Santino with a smile.

Their eventual wedding caught the eye of the Times because of the couple’s history performing in Cinderella, a fairy tale romance as the newspaper saw it. Jessica had read an article written in the Times about actress Annaleigh Ashford’s wedding and remarked how that would be great to have for their wedding day. Santino asked his manager whether such a thing would be possible, and the Times quickly said yes to covering their marriage on September 5, 2015, in the Catskills.

“It was very involved,” said Jessica.

“Surprisingly so,” added Santino. They had to answer a lengthy list of written questions from Times reporter Alison Leigh Cowan and the massive number of cameras at the wedding (the couple’s own hire plus those from the newspaper) was almost overwhelming. But they said the experience was worth it, and the glowing piece in the Times is something they said they’ll cherish for their lifetimes.

And no, they didn’t perform at their wedding. “You couldn’t have paid me enough,” said Santino.

Almost two years into married life, they’re still tinkering with balancing arts and their home life.

Jessica has been doing an increasing amount of writing, saying she’s learning to put more focus in that area. One project she’s excited about is a podcast she’s producing with a friend that’s a satirical take on the NPR talk show Fresh Air hosted by Terry Gross. Jessica said, “I’m the Terry Gross character, we write questions for a person we make up and they improvise the answers, that’s been fun.” They’ve recorded a couple of episodes but want to have five or six done before it goes live.

From my brief time dining with Jessica, I could tell she has a great sense of humor — and a quick look at videos online proves it, such as a funny improvised song she performed about soy milk at an event several years ago. “Comedy has always been part of my life,” she said. “My brother’s really funny. Comedy just makes life more fun, it’s also a way to help make myself and other people feel more comfortable.”

She’s also starting on the outlines of writing a play, saying that one of the benefits of traveling sometimes for work is that it means a lot of downtime when living temporarily elsewhere. That’s valuable time for working on such projects, though she noted that self-discipline is important because there are no deadlines — unlike shows that have set rehearsals and planning.

Jessica also still loves to act and sing, and wants to continue with both. “Singing is the thing that I think maybe comes most easily, so I would always yes to singing,” she said. But her next gig is “whatever presents itself. I don’t give myself the illusion of having control over what that is.”

As a fan of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I had to get in a question to Santino about whether his character Greg might return in future episodes (plus it was a way to ask about his future projects).

Santino said he loved his time on the show, the cast, and the crew, but that it was a complicated situation that led to his eventual departure early in the second season. Initially he was signed for a three-month commitment which worked with his desire to make New York his home with Jessica. Then that got extended to six, seven, eight months. But he missed the freedom of working on different shows in different places. “I like the freedom of that, and I didn’t feel it was fair to them or fair to me. They should have somebody there who can be there 12 months of the year.”

On returning, “I would love to,” he said. “I told Aline [Brosh McKenna] the showrunner I would love for Greg to be able to drop in from time to time if that suits the story you guys are trying to tell, and if I’m available,” but he noted his limited availability can make it difficult to work the character back in. “It must be hard for them to try to figure out, ‘We created this character and we know we can’t have him all the time, so should we even bother getting him continually? And I get it.”

He’s worked in a number of other television and film projects, and says that the draw for him is, “I want to just keep playing interesting characters in different worlds, different styles and different situations, and to be able to bound around in television, film and stage.”

I also had to ask whether he’d be back as Hans in the upcoming Frozen 2, and he said that’s a question he’d already had several times earlier that week. “I know they’re working on a script to a sequel but I don’t know anything beyond that,” he said.

The Fontanas both said they enjoyed dabbling with voice over although they haven’t done much of it. For example, Jessica said she did an audition as a rapping puppy for a show — and was able to do the entire thing from the comfort of her home rather than a theater or studio.

Santino said voice over “has a freedom in it, it almost feels like the purest form of what we do because it’s not tethered to any reality, you’re not even reading opposite other people.”

The couple also continues to look for projects to work on together, and have even kicked around ideas about a possible album, perhaps one with a few jazz numbers. That’s Santino’s fall-back favorite genre, while Jessica tends to like standards as well as more popular music.

As lunch came to an end, Jessica said she was heading to a rehearsal.

“I’m going to the gym and then cleaning the apartment, it’s thrilling,” said Santino with a sardonic smile.

While the Fontanas continue to try and find the perfect work-life balance, having children is something they’re both considering albeit not immediately. “Definitely in the future, but not tomorrow. The horizon is ever-changing but biologically it’s going to have to be in the next decade,” said Jessica. “Obviously it’s a huge decision no matter your profession, but it’s a little more complicated for me. Unless you’re playing a pregnant woman or someone who could be pregnant, once you start showing it does sideline you a bit.”

For now, they’ll keep rehearsing, keep performing together when they can, and keep enjoying what appears to be a incredibly playful, happy relationship. They talked at length about finding the right mix of professional and personal success, but from what I can tell they already seem to have achieved it. The Velcro couple seems to have found the perfect match for each other.

“It’s scary to talk about, but knock on wood,” said Santino. “We saw on some reality show the other day someone saying how much hard work relationships are. We looked at each other and didn’t get it. I’m not saying we’re not without our problems, but it’s always been very peaceful.”

Jessica nodded, adding, “I think the key is communicating really well with each other.”

That approach has been just as important in their professional lives, she explained. “I think when we first met I was really good at having a good time but not great at auditioning, and Santino was great at auditioning and working but could use some encouragement to have a good time and enjoy his life a bit more. So I think we helped each other balance things out.”

The “chaos” of moving to New York and trying to make it as actors helped cement their bond, Santino said. “When you do this and come here, you learn a lot of about who you are, and how to communicate with people, and you have to deal with rejection and pain, a lot of that crap right off the bat. So when you find something that makes everything seems easier…” he said, not finishing his thought as he smiled as his wife.

She smiled back. “I remember distinctly when we first starting dating, I was telling him about a bad audition and he was so comforting,” Jessica said, agreeing that they help each other deal with the stress of their careers. “And then I thought, ‘Oh wow, my life is going to be a lot easier now.’”