“Comedies that work, they’re a rare commodity,’’ muses George Wendt.
Well, he ought to know. Wendt, of course, played the immortal barfly Norm — make that “Norm!’’ — on “Cheers,’’ a Boston-set sitcom that stands as one of the greatest TV comedies of all time.
Now Wendt is heading to the Hub to star in “Elf the Musical’’ as Santa Claus, a role he originated on Broadway seven years ago. “Elf’’ will be at the Wang Theatre Nov. 28-Dec. 10.
“Boston is one of my favorite cities,’’ says Wendt, a Chicago native. “It feels like a second hometown because of ‘Cheers,’ and what a great second hometown to fall back on. I love the Bruins and the Patriots and the Red Sox, though I prefer my Chicago teams winning things. But Boston is amazing. Anyone who doesn’t understand that is clueless.’’
Wendt will appear in “Elf’’ only during its stops in Boston and New York City. “It’s a fun role. I like to keep busy,’’ he says in a telephone interview. “And the holidays in Boston or New York sound like fun.’’
Wendt will perform two songs in “Elf,’’ including the opening number, “Happy All the Time.’’ He also sang when he played Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical “Hairspray.’’ However, he is the first to admit: “I’m not really a proper singer. I do what I’m told. Most of these productions have wonderful musical directors who can sort of coax you into being able to carry a tune. Oddly, I’ve done quite a few musicals, but it’s usually more about the comedy or the character.’’
In a separate interview, Sam Scalamoni, director of the touring production, says he’s delighted that Wendt agreed to return to “Elf,’’ noting, “He’s the original Santa: You can’t do much better than that.’’
“Elf’’ is a musical adaptation of the 2003 Will Ferrell movie that features music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Bob Martin and the late Thomas Meehan. The touring stage version stars Erik Gratton as Buddy the elf, the role Ferrell played in the film.
“Elf’’ tells the story of a young orphan who has been inadvertently transported to the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s bag of toys. When he grows much larger than the other elves and demonstrates little of their toy-making skill, Buddy eventually figures out that he is human. He gets the OK from Santa to travel to New York to find his birth father and figure out who he is.
“Buddy sort of represents this contemporary joyful Christmas spirit,’’ says Scalamoni. “There’s a childlike quality to him that we all like around holiday time.’’
We also like Santa around holiday time. Wendt has played him in a TV movie titled “Santa Baby’’ and also in “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!’’ But what about other roles? How does an actor who began his career at the Second City improv troupe and went on to work in TV, film, and theater go about building a character?
“In the case of Norm Peterson, that was an evolving process,’’ replies Wendt. “An actor can’t just look at a pilot script and come up with all these character nuances. Script by script, episode by episode, the writers learn and the cast learns all these new things about the characters.’’
“I could be self-deprecating and say I’m a lazy actor and it would be somewhat true,’’ Wendt adds. “But you could also put a positive spin on it and say I’m a text-based actor, where you find your keys in the text. I don’t really bring a lot of prepared notions.’’
When Wendt’s Norm Peterson barreled into the titular Boston bar on “Cheers,’’ which ran on NBC from 1982-1993, the bartenders and patrons invariably greeted him by shouting his first name. Asked whether people still holler “Norm!’’ at him on the street, Wendt replied: “It’s way less. I’m so old I don’t look much like Norm anymore.’’
ELF THE MUSICAL
At Boch Center Wang Theatre, Boston, Nov. 28-Dec. 10. Tickets 800-982-2787, www.bochcenter.org