Excited, honored and terrified is how actor and singer Santino Fontana described his feelings about the opportunity to headline a summer performance titled "A Summer Celebration of Song" with the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.
The packed performances were held on Friday, 18 July, and Saturday, 19 July 2014, in the Conference Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. The evening was highlighted by uplifting songs from Broadway and the movies. People of all ages enjoyed the concert, which ran for a little more than an hour.
The evening opened with the choir and orchestra performing "They, the Builders of the Nation." Video of Mormon pioneers reenacting their westward trek with wagons and hand carts was displayed on the large screens inside the Conference Center.
Fontana collaborated with Mack Wilberg, music director of the choir, to choose the musical selections. “But it all really kind of reflects my personality, I think, in a great way and also I think it will be fun,” he explained. “I didn’t want to come in and be overly serious. I wanted to have a celebration, and kind of a joyful one at that.”
The Broadway star was most excited about pioneering a medley of cheerful songs with the choir that included the Pharrell Williams’ hit "Happy." Other songs included "Faith in Every Footstep" featuring the choir and orchestra, as well as selections from West Side Story, Camelot, Cinderella and classic Disney movies. "Hot Pipes," showcasing organist Richard Elliott and the orchestra, brought audience members to their feet.
Fontana is known by many for his recent roles playing Prince Hans in Disney’s hit movie Frozen and his Broadway performance as Prince Topher in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which garnered him a Tony Award nomination. “Yes, it was two in a row; it was my year of the prince,” he reminisced. “They were both very different princes. It was great, especially because I had done very different things right before that, and I kind of loved that.”
He also received the 2010 Drama Desk Award for his role in Brighton Beach Memoirs and received accolades for originating the role of Tony in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot.
Fontana sang familiar material from Cinderella, including "Ten Minutes Ago," but he opted not to sing any selections from Frozen because he told the audience he wanted them to remember him as a “good guy.” He told the audience he considers himself a storyteller at heart, and he paused to take a couple of “selfies” of the crowd and choir with his cell phone.
The choir sang music from Disney classics such as "Whistle While You Work" and "Heigh Ho!" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with a group of men from the choir whistling to provide the sound effects, and "When You Wish upon a Star" from Pinocchio.
Fontana, who currently lives in New York City, said he is always looking for unique opportunities to perform, but none of his other projects has really prepared him for singing with the world-renowned choir in a hall that holds 21,000 people. “So it was a great opportunity and a great responsibility,” he said. “That’s what I mean when I say that there’s terror involved because there’s nothing to prepare you for singing with a 100-piece orchestra and 360 voices, nothing.”
Many people may wonder where Fontana was raised because of his unique name. “I’m half Italian; I’m a quarter Portuguese and quarter Spanish — very Mediterranean,” he said, describing his heritage, but he grew up in the West.
Fontana was raised in Richland, Washington, located in the southeast portion of the state. Although he is not a Mormon, he lived in close proximity to the Columbia River Washington Temple and many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “There was a huge Mormon population in my hometown,” said Fontana. “My best friend is Mormon.”
His parents and other family members traveled from Washington to see him during Friday night’s performance. “I don’t often get to sing outside of New York City,” he said.
Fontana went to school in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Bachelor of Fine Arts Training Program. “I was in the first class in 2004,” he said. “I really didn’t sing very much; I sang on the side but not in school. That was something I was always trying to keep up on the side.”
Fontana’s training brought him briefly to Utah. “I spent a couple months in Sundance Institute Theatre and then I also spent a day in Salt Lake City once, and that’s it; otherwise, I’m a newbie,” he said.
Fontana maintains a busy schedule, including the filming of a movie that he will finish shooting in August. The Nest with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler is scheduled for release Christmas 2015. “It’s very funny; it’s a great script,” he said.
Fontana hopes to travel back to Utah again to spend more time, perhaps with his girlfriend who is an actress and singer. “I’m happily dating my girlfriend — not married, but not single,” he said.
The summer concerts are held to coincide with community Pioneer Day celebrations to celebrate the arrival of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847.
Other artists who have performed in summer concerts with the choir include Katherine Jenkins, singer Nathan Pacheco, YouTube phenomenon Lindsey Stirling and Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Linda Eder.
“I’m very excited to be a part of that family,” said Fontana.
The entire Pioneer Day concert can be viewed on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s YouTube channel.