In 1981, I was in my last year of high school in the suburbs of Toronto. I’d done a bunch of musicals in theatre class (Godspell, Pippin, Fantasticks) but never worked professionally. I got a job bussing tables at a brand-new dinner theatre uptown, O’Neill’s. The opening show, starring six young actors in their mid-20’s, was a collection of songs (from other musicals) about making it in show biz. It was called, literally, One Big Break. Five nights a week, for months, I’d clear plates and glasses, then sit at the back, by the spotlight, and watch my new, slightly-older friends perform. After one show, I was washing dishes when I overheard the owners, in a kitchen corner, whispering their concerns about Stephen, one of the actors.
“He could barely sing tonight,” said Sandra O’Neill, the theatre’s namesake. “Well, we don’t have understudies, Sandra,” hissed the other owner, “what would you suggest?”
“I can do it,” I blurted.
They looked over at me, in my apron and my mullet. Sandra smiled, like I was an adorable puppy. “Aww,” she cooed, “thanks, hon. It’s Eric, right? We’ll figure it out, sweetheart.”
The next day, in history class, I got called to the front office. This had never happened in my life. The principal’s secretary handed me the phone. Sandra O’Neill was on the other end.
“Were you… serious?” she asked, with hesitation.
“Absolutely,” I replied, with none. The bravado of eighteen.
I met with the musical director at 4:00 and we ran the numbers. Once. When the actors got there, they looked ashen. Sure, I was their favorite busboy, but…this? We reviewed choreography for about half an hour…then we opened the place for dinner.
And I bussed tables.
At 8:00, the waiters (to the surprise of the patrons) suddenly became the performers. One by one they’d put down their trays and start to sing the opening number. I was the last. The first lines out of my mouth, the first words I ever sang in a professional theatre…
“One good break is really all I need to make the world stand up and cheer…”
It was a pretty good night. I played the role for two more months. I will always have a special place in my heart for Sandra.
And for Stephen McMulkin.
Best known as Will Truman on TV’s Will & Grace, Eric McCormack made his Broadway debut in The Music Man. He appeared as a mystery guest star in The Play What I Wrote, starred off-Broadway in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) and returns to the Main Stem opposite James Earl Jones in the 2012 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
During my Signature season, I discovered I would be missing a producer/artistic director, Jim Houghton, who took a much needed sabbatical. And so I found myself perching in the position of “all hands on board:” parking the car for the habitually late music director on my first show, and apologizing to critics when our electricity went out on critics night (the old signature theatre shared electricity with a medical office that did MRIs so the circuit somehow always tripped on opening nights). There was a director I couldn’t fire, because there was no artistic director, and who refused to quit, so I needed to be at every rehearsal. The women cast members and the stage manager ended up staging the play, and their spirits saw me through. My directors Mark Brokaw and Les Waters saw me through the rest of the season.
And so one night I was keeping vigil in the lobby during “Hot ‘N’ Throbbing.” As we watched through the monitor, the house manager and I saw something…not right. A woman got up from the audience, and tried to make her way up the side aisle, weaving and stumbling. A heart attack? A stroke?
We rushed into the back of the theatre, up a flight of stairs, and caught her at the top of the stairs as she passed out in our arms. We quietly carried her out of the theatre—the audience didn’t even notice. We laid her down on the lobby floor. The house manager ran to the phone and dialed 911, while I stayed with the woman, leaning over her. She suddenly opened her eyes and exclaimed: “Who wrote this play?!”
“Oh!. Are you a professional?”
(I thought she was talking about being a professional playwright). “Yes, I am.”
“I thought so! Only a professional could know this stuff! “. She chatted as she sat up, and we gave her orange juice. “I used to do films, too. But…it got too rough….and when I heard the whir of the camera, the sound effect kinda of….well, I knew I had to get out of there. My John is still inside.”
“Do you want me to get him?”
“Nah! He’s enjoying it.”
She refused to go to the hospital. I insisted on walking her to tenth avenue to get her a cab.
She chatted, happy to find that a professional sex worker was engaged in playwriting. But does it pay? she asked. Not really, I admitted. By this point I realized what she meant by being professional, and I didn’t want to dash her enthusiasm.
“I am so glad you are out of the trade!” she told me as the cab neared. “I’m gonna leave it soon, too.”
With the cab door open, she gave me a hug.
“I’m so proud of you!”
I hope she got out of the trade. One day, I’m gonna leave my trade, too. We all do.
PAULA VOGEL is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose plays include INDECENT (Tony Award for Best Play), HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (Broadway production set for spring 2020; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Lortel Prize, OBIE Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Awards for Best Play), THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME, THE MINEOLA TWINS, THE BALTIMORE WALTZ, HOT’N’THROBBING, DESDEMONA, AND BABY MAKES SEVEN, THE OLDEST PROFESSION and A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS.
2016-2017 is what I would have called my “breakout” season as a young director, I was working on three shows: Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo at NYTW, Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt Again. at Soho Rep and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play War at LCT3. I was thrilled!
So I’m known for being rather enthusiastic in rehearsal rooms, and the energy of this season was apparently really sending that enthusiasm into its extremes – hah!
I’m in rehearsal for Red Speedo at NYTW, a lovely sunny room on the third floor… I’m standing with Lucas Hnath and the actors…essentially hyping them up about the fight scene near the end of the play…..as I’m running around the room I joke that it would be amazing if they bounded off the wall in the stage in epic fight mode and proceeded to run to the wall as if to kick off it to punch my imaginary co partner…but instead of kicking off elegantly in epic style….my foot…. explodes through the other side of the wall.
…I was mortified. Luckily the room erupted in laughter and NYTW was ever so gracious about my overenthusiastic mishap.
Needless to say…I don’t kick walls anymore!
But the memory brings me joy about returning to rehearsal shenanigans.
Lileana Blain-Cruz is a recent recipient of a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award and an Obie Award for Marys Seacole at LCT3. Recent projects include Anatomy of a Suicide at The Atlantic Theater Company, Fefu and Her Friends at Theater For a New Audience, Girlsat Yale Repertory Theater, Faust at Opera Omaha, and The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theater Workshop. She won an Obie Award for her direction of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead at Signature Theater. She also directed Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz for the Spotlight on Plays series which will stream on April 29th.
This may come as a surprise to some, not so much to others, but Othello is a complex role to accept for the 21st century black actor. On one hand, he’s an incredibly deep, densely drawn character and one of the few that are built specifically for actors of color in the Elizabethan canon. On the other hand, he’s been reduced to some pretty nasty stereotyping. The character has a well documented history of blackface, and the optics of a white woman being strangled by a black man brings to mind the gut-dropping feeling we got in those last moments of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (Daniel Kaaluya hands wrapped around the neck of his captor/honeypot/devil in a white dress, Allison Williams, when suddenly red and blue lights wash the screen). So in my second year of graduate school, when I was called into my department chairs office to talk about playing Othello in the spring…I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean sure; in the name of the pedagogical experience, in the name of practice (because inevitably it wouldn’t be my last time playing the character) and well, the thing looks good on the resume, so why not? But does taking the part make me a sellout? Or worse…is it a full on soul sell?
Around this time, I was reckoning with myself, my artistry and this liquid prison I was attempting to construct. Growing inside me was this festering shadow of insecurity, imposter syndrome, and the ever present doom of letting everyone down, one I tried to bar up with Whiskey, Tequila and Rum. Little did I know, this shadow loved a drink, and despite my attempts to drown it, grew gills. I’ll spare you the rest of the bloody details but I can tell you with confidence that some people do indeed crack their skulls open on rock bottom. Others, however, bounce off stones of despair (it’s my band name, you cannot have it) and are given a chance to change direction.
I started writing letters to Othello in between classes, outpatient treatment, rehearsal and AA meetings on cold Sunday mornings (so much coffee and the squeaking of grey slush on the bottoms of winter boots). It’s not a ritual I had experienced before, but one of my Sunday Morning Crew was like “I write letters to myself and found xyz”. I thought that was a corny thing for a person to do, so I wrote letters to the characters I was cast as (a practice I still carry with me and yes, it is a far cornier endeavor).
We all “know” the play, and in that “knowledge” Othello is this larger than life character who looms over the canon/performer. If the past were to be prologue, he “should” be this gravitational force, the embodiment of strength and “manly-ness”. He’s jealous and angry or something along those lines. So rather than fall in lockstep with the mythic barnacles of the play, I re-read it with the fresh young eyes of a curious child at Disneyworld for the first time.
The first Act is the portrait of a man in love, a man with purpose, a man who has a grasp on what he wants the world to look like and how he can nudge the paradigm a bit closer to the shores of that promise. In my letters, I asked Othello to teach me what love was; specifically, to teach me what it was to be in love with oneself and one’s purpose (he later taught me that once you do that, falling in love is relatively easy). I asked him to remind me of what it means to see beyond what “is” into the realm of what “can be”. I asked him to demand my radical honesty. For a time it felt as though the letter went unheeded. Instead of waiting, I worked my ass off. I scanned and rescanned text, I battled tooth and nail for text to be re-entered into the cut, I linked arms with my castmates/peers to honor the work put in to tell the story as written. I fought for the story in the hopes that it would fight for me. And then, out of that big, looming shadow shrank there emerged a man. He looked a bit like me; a little stockier, a whole lot wiser and a generous smile. And we walked side by side through the play and he revealed things to me. Little secrets other people overlook.
Jealousy seems to be a trait oft associated with The Moor of Venice. I ask…where though? He’s one of the highest ranking generals in the nation, he’s got the hand of one of the most sought after bachelorettes in the nation, he talks business, pleasure and war with the Duke. Iago mentions jealousy, sure…but when does Othello? On the page, he wants to be the change he wants to see in the world. He chooses to partner with the only other human who sees him as such: who sees the sensitivity and the vulnerability in Othello, rather than upholding the expectations of manhood set upon him. With this realization, I felt a little hydrophobic daemon, resistant to my attempts to drown him, squeal away in a puff of brimstone and smoke. I dug deeper: when it is made known to him the possibility of deceit on the part of Desdemona, there is no time for jealousy when your heart is shattered. When you’ve been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, how can you blame anyone else but yourself? You can only perform the confusing task of picking up the shards of your heart and fighting through the wincing pain of putting it back together…even though you know it will not refract light the same way. Huh. That’s not jealousy. That’s good old fashioned world weary heartbreak and disappointment. In understanding a bit about him, I understood a bit more about myself. He wasn’t a monolith looming over me, he was right there, next to me, ensuring I honored every step in his shoes.
It’s a cliché to say that Theatre saved my life…so I won’t (it did though, *insert eyeroll*). I know that the characters aren’t actually leaping off the page to rescue me (I’m fully aware it’s my imagination+therapy+the work doing some heavy lifting). As much as I say that the characters are teaching me things, I know that ultimately it’s me, a room full of people, blood, sweat, tears, imagination, and ink on paper. Nor am I here to suggest that Theatre is a replacement to therapy, psychiatry, and/or AA/NA meetings (it isn’t, shout out to my therapist). But it can be a supplement (like B12). The gift and wisdom of the playwright is their ability to teach us lessons about what it means to be human. Sometimes those lessons are about success. They are often about failure; but always, there are lessons to be excavated, digested and shared. There are empathetic bridges to be built; within ourselves, to each other, and to the world into which we wake. And while that sounds like a gushy Barney sing along, the work is hard. It requires dedication, it requires an open mind and an open heart. Building empathetic bridges to truly see each other can be painful. Much like a journey to sobriety, it can feel pretty ugly (ha, I did one of those Shakespeare things). Much like nudging social norms and our existential paradigm towards a just and verdant society, you take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time.
It’s worth it.
Brandon Burton is a 2020 graduate of The Yale School of Drama Master of Fine Arts program. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s reading of The Baltimore Waltz streaming April 29th
When I first came to New York, with all those aspirations, I, through a fluke of a chance conversation between an actor I know and her agent, learned that Jerry Robbins, who was about to direct, off-Broadway, Arthur Kopit’s brilliant play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad, was having a terrible time casting the part of the young son in the play. I worked hard on the audition and waltzed in and knocked him out with the audition. So he asked me to come to a callback audition a few days later. At which I totally bombed. I’d never heard of a callback. It was a fiasco. Jerry called me the next day and asked me to come see him. He said. “what happened?!” He wasn’t angry, he was just bewildered. I told him that I had no idea, at that second audition, what I was doing. So he kept calling me back and calling me back, looking for the fire to return. Then finally, on, I think, the sixth audition, he had me read opposite the magnificent Barbara Harris. And we soared.
So my career was launched. Jerry was the launcher and Barbara was the rocket.
Luck. Pure, wild luck. This business is beyond capricious.
The sun is shining, cherry blossoms are blooming, and many world economies are opening up (slowly but surely). It seems like spring 2021 has finally arrived, bringing with it the seasonal sense of joy, promise, and new beginnings that has long been lauded by writers and artists throughout history. While many people may associate springtime with Shakespeare sonnets, Impressionist paintings, or even madrigals, spring has also been the focus of many Broadway composers and lyricists.
The most obvious example of springtime making its way into the Broadway canon is the song “Younger Than Springtime” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Sung right after Lieutenant Cable and Liat first meet (and make love), “Younger Than Springtime” has all the classic markers of a spring love song. Cable compares Liat to spring – favorably – saying she is “younger than springtime,” “gayer than laughter,” “sweeter than music,” and “warmer than the winds of June.” But the song also has a great “turn” – certainly one of the reasons it’s still so well-known today. While Cable begins the song by saying that Liat is like springtime, halfway through, he implies that she is also transformative: “when your youth/and joy invade my arms/and fill my heart as now they do/then younger than springtime/am I.” Through Liat’s love, Cable argues that he becomes someone who is “gayer than laughter,” “softer than starlight,” and “younger than springtime,” too.
Another well-known use of spring in the lyrics, title, and imagery of a Broadway song can be found in “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair, another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. The song plays with some of the springtime tropes and patterns used in “Younger Than Springtime.” The singer, Margy, makes clear that she hasn’t seen any of the typical, physical signs of oncoming spring. In fact, it’s decidedly not spring: “I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud/or a robin on the wing,” Margy sings, “But…it might as well be spring.” This is a prime example of Oscar Hammerstein’s genius use of conditional thinking. In the same way Hammerstein implies in Carousel that Julie Jordan is madly in love with Billy Bigelow using the conditional “IF I loved you,” and that Laurie and Curly in Oklahoma! are similarly destined to mate with the conditional “people will SAY we’re in love,” Hammerstein is able to write a spring love song that’s not actually sung during springtime.
The song grows even more rich and complex in its associations with the season. While the characteristics of springtime that Cable lists in “Younger Than Springtime” are all positive, for Margy “it might as well be spring” not only because she’s “starry-eyed,” “giddy,” and “gay,” but also because she feels “restless,” “jumpy,” and “vaguely discontented.” In “It Might As Well Be Spring” you get both sides of the coin: the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, perhaps best summed up by the lyric: “But I feel so gay/in a melancholy way/that it might as well be spring.” Here, spring is being used as a metaphor for the “nameless” discontent Margy feels with her life at the moment – a vague restlessness which sets up most of the action of the play: while Margy is dating Harry, who wants to marry her, she “keep[s] wishing [she] were somewhere else,/Walking down a strange new street./Hearing words that [she’s]…never heard/ From a man [she’s] yet to meet.” These lyrics foreshadow her meeting, and falling in love with, Pat at the (titular) state fair. It’s also hard not to read these lyrics without picking up something of a sexual edge. When Margy starts the song, she sings of “want[ing] a lot of…things/[she’s] never had before.” Given the traditional associations of birth, new beginnings, love, and even sexuality, with springtime, “It Might As Well Be Spring” could easily speak to Margy’s desires as a newly minted young woman.
Many Broadway songs focus on this deeper side of spring’s transitions. In Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel, for example, Willy sings “Spring Is Here” when things with his angel-wife (yes, you read that correctly) have gone sour. “Spring is here/why doesn’t my heart go dancing?/spring is here/why isn’t the waltz entrancing?…Maybe it’s because nobody needs me…Maybe it’s because nobody loves me,” he sings. It’s another clever inversion of the springtime myth: spring may be here, with its gentle “breezes,” and “lads and girls…drinking May wine,” but because Willy has fallen out of love, he can no longer enjoy it. It’s a springtime love song that depends on negative space rather than positive space: without “love,” “desire,” or “ambition,” there can be no spring.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s 1955 tune which was then incorporated into the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, similarly focuses on the “have-nots” of spring rather than the “haves.” A send-up of the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (“April is the cruelest month…”), “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” implies that spring can actually be the worst time of the year – if you’re single, that is. “Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post;/I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling/Spring can really hang you up the most!” the lyrics read. The song reverses traditional springtime psychology and implies that the singer was happy and in love in the winter, and now, during the joyful spring season of rebirth, is experiencing loneliness. “Love seemed sure around the New Year,” she sings, “Now it’s April, love is just a ghost;/ Spring arrived on time, only what became of you, dear?” It should be noted that this song, as well as “It Might As Well Be Spring,” became jazz standards, covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The season’s failure to deliver on its promise is clearly a recurring theme on Broadway and beyond.
But no discussion of spring on Broadway would be complete without “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The major song in the musical’s show-within-a-show, a favorable retelling of WWII from the perspective of a disgruntled Nazi, “Springtime for Hitler” shows Brooks’ thoughtful understanding – and appreciation – of spring’s metaphorical function in Golden Age musicals. As the tap-dancing, sausage-wearing Nazis sing lines like “And now it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany/Deutschland is happy and gay,” Brooks is sending up the positive traits associated with springtime in musicals like South Pacific and State Fair. And to the Nazis represented in the show, “springtime for Hitler” is indeed positive: it encapsulates their military campaign to take over the world. Brooks makes clear, however, that this seasonal rebirth is actually extremely dark. Peppered in with the image of a “happy and gay” Germany are lyrics about “U-boats…sailing once more.” In the song, springtime equals gaiety, but it also happens to equal “bombs falling from the skies again.” Combined with the schmaltzy musical style, movie-musical tap-dancing, over-the-top costumes, and of course the late, great Gary Beach’s acting, springtime in “Springtime for Hitler,” repeated over 20 times in the eight-minute song, becomes an absurd (and incredibly funny) dramatic irony.
Brooks’ hilarious treatment of springtime is similar to the season’s representation in a lesser known E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy song, “Springtime Cometh” from the 1951 flop Flahooley. Like “Springtime for Hitler,” “Springtime Cometh” relies on and leans into the audience’s positive associations with spring and its traditional representation in Golden Age musicals. Sandy/Penny and her genie (truly – don’t ask) sing about “lilacs growing on the clothesline,” “roses growing in the ashcan,” “hummingbird[s],” “merry maidens,” and repeat the word “springtime” six times in the short song. Harburg went one step further and even wrote the lyrics in a sort of faux Olde English: “Springtime cometh,” the characters sing. “Hummingbird hummeth,/little brook rusheth,/merry maiden blusheth…springtime cometh for love of thee.” Harburg pushes this construction even further for comedic effect with “Sugarplum plummeth,/Heart, it humpty-dummeth,/And to summeth up,/The Springtime cometh for the love of thee.” The faux Olde English language reaches its zenith with Harburg’s tongue-and-cheek reference’s to spring’s inherent sexuality: “Lad and lass/In tall green grass/Gaily skippeth,/Nylon rippeth,/Zipper zippeth…which is to say/Spring cometh.” Harburg’s ironic send-up of springtime is sexual, funny, self-aware, and, most importantly, irreverent.
Broadway clearly has a long-time fascination – and infatuation – with all things spring. From the huge number of songs with “spring” in their title (and chorus) – to ones that rely on springtime imagery like the lilac trees in My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live” – lyricists have used the season to convey and inspire romance, joy, lust, restlessness, loneliness, humor, and personal transformation in equal parts. So in this close-to-post-pandemic moment: crank up the Broadway show tunes, smell the flowers, and look forward to a new (and hopefully, better) day. As they say: “springtime cometh!”
Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few. She is a proud graduate of Princeton University, member of Actors’ Equity, and hosts a weekly interview show on YouTube with theatre’s best and brightest entitled “Call Time with Katie Birenboim.”
On the night of February 1, 1979, I stood in the vom of Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway, terrified. I kept repeating to myself, “You didn’t have to take this job. Why did you take this job?” The job I had taken was standby for the female lead in the entire four acts of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.
An hour earlier I had been having a glass of wine with my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting New York and had tickets to see Da. It is my habit to get to the theater early, but that night I arrived a wee bit late only to find that our leading lady was ill, and I was going on. The following half hour was a blur. As I was being helped into costume and makeup, one of the other cast members asked if there was anyone I would like to have notified. I later learned that within minutes of my response, ushers were hurrying up and down the aisles of the Morosco, whispering, “Mr. Dunagan? Mr. Dunagan?”
Luckily there had been an understudy rehearsal and I was well prepared, but I felt totally inadequate as I stood there waiting for my cue. In what seemed like a lifetime but was really only minutes, I remembered that my only obligation as standby was to say the lines in the correct order, with the correct cues, so that the other actors could do their usual stellar work. That realization (and maybe that glass of wine) helped me get through the performance, which astonishingly, may have been one of the best of my life. To top it off, my brother and his wife had made it to the theater seconds before the lobby doors were closed. After the show, we had a jubilant celebration at The Russian Tea Room.
The day after my Broadway debut, while walking around the Upper East Side, my brother spotted a small second floor cafe which offered tea leaf readings. He insisted I have a sitting to see what my future held and was dismayed when the “seer” said the leaves didn’t show anything special. No matter how he argued, recounting the story of the previous night, she stood by her reading.
It’s true, that after a brief flurry of activity during which a column was written about me in Backstage and I signed with ICM, nothing else ever came of my one night stand. But I think there may well be a time limit on one prognosticatory cup of tea. For soon I found myself in Chicago, a city I love, where I have spent a long and gratifying career as part of the vibrant theater community. It was because of that involvement that, almost 29 years later, in 2007, I made my second Broadway “debut” in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. This time my brother was in his seat well before the curtain.
I was in my second season at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota when one afternoon the phone rang. It was Mark Medoff, the playwright, which was odd because I had never met or spoken with Mark. He was calling me out of the blue to ask if I would like to come to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (where he was head of the Department of Theater Arts) to teach Voice and Diction and work on my play, “The Legend of Pecos Bill.”
I am not a playwright, but when I was in grad school at the Dallas Theater Center, I couldn’t find a children’s play to direct for the new Magic Turtle Theater program, so I wrote one. Several years later Mark had been working on a new play at DTC and in the market for a children’s play. Someone had given him my script and he liked it well enough to follow up with that phone call.
I explained that I was extremely flattered, but that I wasn’t really a playwright, I was an actor. When we hung up I thought that was the end of it. But after the season, when I was living in New York, I heard from him again. He was opening a new play at Jewish Repertory Theater and wondered if I would like to be his guest at the opening. We met, hit it off, and kept in touch. A couple of years later, in 1980, his award winning Children of a Lesser God was casting for the First National Tour. I loved the play and wanted to audition, but ICM, my agency at the time, was unable to get me seen. My friend Mark Medoff thought I might be good in the role of the lawyer; he had no trouble getting me in.
That tour took me to Chicago where I fell in love with the city and its thriving theater scene. After my six month commitment to the production, I moved from New York to Chicago where I have had a rich and satisfying theatrical career. My involvement with Chicago theater led me to be cast in the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County which moved to Broadway in 2007 and won five Tony Awards.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my life had I been able to find a children’s play to direct in grad school.
Deanna Dunagan is an actress best known for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and for her portrayal of Nana in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 film The Visit. She has also appeared in the recurring role of Mother Bernadette on the Fox television series The Exorcist, and Dr. Willa Sipe in the 2018 film An Acceptable Loss by writer Joe Chappelle.
During my run as Melchior in Spring Awakening, I was living a double life. (No wonder ALIAS was my favorite tv show at the time…) On stage, I played a fearless and intelligent rebel who refused to let the world define him. In my personal life, I was living a completely closeted existence. My “roommate” was just a “roommate” – certainly not a “BOYFRIEND.” Backstage at the show, I never spoke of my personal life in an honest way, and blessedly the cast never pushed me for the truth. I performed the show for almost two years. In June 2008, a month after I finished my run, I came out of the closet and started my journey towards self acceptance. Looking back, I see how much Spring Awakening changed me. Getting the opportunity to grab the mic and express myself every night was the therapy I didn’t even know I needed. Just thinking about singing the song “Touch Me” every night still makes me well up. I found the courage to come out of the closet from cultivating bravery every night trying to be more and more like Melchior. The show changed the game for me professionally, but it hit me harder in a personal way at the exact moment I needed that form of self expression. I think the ultimate legacy of Spring Awakening is the opportunity the show provides future teenagers by taking their struggles seriously and giving them an outlet to express themselves. Every time I see the show performed in community theaters and schools, I can feel the experience is changing the lives of it’s fearless young performers in ways that they might not even be aware of yet. And watching them transforms me all over again.
Jonathan Groff, recently seen off-Broadway as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors, earned Tony nominations for playing Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening and King George in Hamilton. His film and television credits include Disney animation’s Frozen, HBO’s Looking and Netflix’s Mindhunter.
In 1997 I did a one man play about a drunken Irish theatre critic at the Bush theater in London. St Nicholas! Written by Conor McPherson, which I subsequently performed the following year at Primary Stages in New York on 45th street, and for which I was honored with ‘The Lucille Lortel Award’!
But the previous year the play was premiered at the Bush Theatre in London. The Bush was a small intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. This particular night was a sellout performance. The audience were packed to the rafters.
Now St Nicholas is an extremely intricate complicated and fantastical text. With a sinewy comic thread! It demands an incredible level of Concentrated attention from the player. That evening started well.
But…About 6 minutes into the evening I noticed that sitting on front row…in…the middle…to my right was my ex girlfriend. Who I had recently broken up with. I was a little thrown by this …and wondered why on earth she had chosen that particular, really, quite prominent, seat.
I recovered from this slight ‘hiccup’ and continued, feeling proud of myself that I was not thrown by this ‘obstacle’. So I proceeded with renewed confidence.
After a few minutes, I’d just gotten back in stride when I turned to address my audience stage left and there sitting…in the middle of the left front row was…my ex ex girlfriend. The girl friend previous…to the girl friend…now sitting stage right. In fact these two young ladies were actually sitting…facing…each other. I didn’t panic… but, my anxiety…was, shall we say…mounting.
What on earth was going on? And of course various scenarios began to play out in my mind!
Had they come together?
And as some bizarre joke decided to sit opposite each other?
Or??….were they there by pure coincidence?
My brain became occupied with, what seemed endless permutations on these shifting scenarios. The text of the play, the main purpose of my attention, was drifting in my consciousness. And..ten minutes into the evening….the inevitable happened. I went up! Dried stone dead.
I struggled like a drowning man seeking a life raft. But after..a beat..which seemed a lifetime. I stopped turned to the audience, and said “Ladies and Gentlemen I’m afraid for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I need to start the evening over again! Apologies!” And so indeed I did…and it was truly scary!
“Will I get over the point where concentration abandoned me.”
And…”Will I indeed get through the entire evening….”
The moment where I had lost my way, was looming like one of those huge fences at the English Grand national horse race. Would I get over the fence? The moment arrived… and I lept the fence.. and..proceeded obsessively to the finish. After it was over, I left the stage exhausted!
I sat in my dressing room. There was a knock on my door. It was my ex-girlfriend. “Brian that was wonderful, what an incredible evening.” I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank!
I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank! Were you in?”
Ex-girl friend, “Yes, were you, wasn’t it wonderful
I sat there in a state of stupefaction! Me “But weren’t you?… didn’t you? ..Um..ah…see..?”
Ex girlfriend “ I was absolutely caught from the moment you came on!
I had been a member of Actor’s Equity for over a decade before making my Broadway debut. The opportunity finally arose in 1995 with a revival of Philip Barry’s Holiday, directed by David Warren at the Circle in the Square. Laura Linney played Linda Seton opposite my Johnny Case. Also in the cast were Reg Rogers as Ned Seton and Kim Raver as Julia Seton. From the first day of rehearsal, I was in a state of euphoria. I had done a number of plays Off-Broadway, as well as in regional theater. But Broadway really did feel different.
Unlike most kids who grow up in Los Angeles, my parents took me to the theater a lot and I can recite every show I ever saw — don’t worry, I won’t. My first was Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel. I was 4 years old and spent most of the play under my seat convinced that the ghost of Golde’s grandmother Tzeitel would reappear to pluck me out of the audience. Despite my terror, I was hooked.
David Warren’s production of Holiday was excellent and, from what I was told, received rave notices. I learned early on in my career to avoid reading reviews like the plague — which is exactly how I view them. Reviews are totally debilitating to an actor. Read a bad one and you can quote it word for word until the day you die. Read a good one and your performance is forever cursed with a voice in your brain saying, “Oh, this is the bit they liked.” I find it much healthier to glean a general “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” from the degree of elation or awkwardness on everyone’s faces the day after Opening Night.
During the run of Holiday, I will admit to a bit of a hitch in my “critical discipline.” One night, a couple of old friends who were not in the business came to see the show. As we walked to grab a late bite at B. Smith, one of them said, “How do you handle bad reviews?” “I don’t read them.” “Yeah, but what about the really bad ones?” Gulp. She didn’t stop there. “Like the one in New York Magazine?” Apparently, the raves were not unanimous. Another life lesson: they never are. John Simon, the legendary chief critic for New YorkMagazine, was universally loathed in the theater community for his viciously clever eviscerations of actors, invidiously centering on references to their physical attributes — or lack thereof. My first stop after supper was the late night newsstand on 8th Avenue to rip through the current issue of New York. I had to laugh out loud when I saw that Laura Linney was a “goddess” (which she is) but that “Tony Goldwyn with his raw, somehow unfinished face, was sadly miscast in the role of Johnny Case.” I have no idea what a “raw, somehow unfinished face” actually is. But that’s what I looked like to Mr. Simon. Like I said, you remember ever word of the bad ones.
John Simon’s snark notwithstanding, the run of Holiday was pure joy. Laura, of course, was magic and so was Kim in her New York debut. Reg Rogers gave a hilarious and heartbreaking performance as their alcoholic brother, Ned.
One night about three months into the run, Reg and I were doing one of our favorite scenes. The entire second act of the play is set in the attic gymnasium of the Seton mansion. My character, Johnny, never leaves the stage while the others enter and exit in rapid-fire succession. We had played the scene a hundred times but, as can happen to the best of us, my mind inexplicably went blank. In theater parlance, I “went up.” Badly. Pace is everything in a Philip Barry play, so my brain freeze gave me the sensation of being shoved off a cliff. Fortunately, what seemed like five minutes probably lasted less than five seconds. Reg saw the panic in my face and looked at me like, “Don’t worry, I got you.” The calm confidence in his eyes somehow coaxed the words to start firing out of my mouth again, as Mr. Barry had written them.
Crisis averted. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, the body has some unpredictable reactions to stress; one of them is commonly known as a “flop sweat.” Not a pleasant experience for an actor decked out in white tie and tails. About thirty seconds after getting the train back on the rails, a surge of heat flooded my face and my fancy suit was instantly drenched in sweat. As each new actor entered the stage, I watched their faces go from puzzled to concerned to horrified. When the lights came down at the end of the act, I descended through a trap door in the stage to the basement below, where the entire company was gathered, along with two paramedics ready to wheel me into an ambulance. Everyone thought I’d had a heart attack. The EMT’s made me lie down on a stretcher and it was no small task to convince them that the only thing I needed was a change of clothes.