In honor of President’s Day, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable portrayals of two of America’s greatest leaders, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as seen on the Broadway stage. From stirring speeches to moments of vulnerability, these performances have brought history to life in uniquely theatrical ways.
George Washington in Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking 2015 musical “Hamilton” offers a fresh and dynamic portrayal of George Washington, depicted as a mentor and father figure to Alexander Hamilton through the Revolutionary War and his presidency. Christopher Jackson’s commanding presence and powerful vocals make Washington’s leadership palpable, particularly in the songs ‘Right Hand Man’ and ‘One Last Time.’
Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert E. Sherwood chronicles the life of Abraham Lincoln from his humble beginnings to his presidency. Originally performed in 1938 and later revived in 1994 (with Sam Waterston’s Tony-nominated performance in the title role), it offers a poignant depiction of Lincoln’s journey, capturing his wit, wisdom, and the weight of his decisions during a tumultuous era in American history.
George Washington in 1776
In this Tony Award-winning musical, Washington’s presence looms large, even if he never appears on stage. As the Continental Congress debates independence, Washington’s leadership is felt through references and discussions about his character and actions, as well as in the reading of his dispatches from the battlefield. The musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence has appeared on Broadway twice since its premiere in 1969, most recently in a gender-bent production at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre (now the Todd Haimes Theatre).
Abraham Lincoln in Assassins
Stephen Sondheim’s dark and thought-provoking musical “Assassins” features Lincoln as a central figure, albeit in a more symbolic role. His assassination serves as a focal point for the show, exploring themes of disillusionment and the American dream through the lens of his tragic death.
From the revolutionary fervor of the American Revolution to the tumultuous days of the Civil War, these portrayals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln remind us of the enduring impact of their leadership and the timeless relevance of their legacies. As we celebrate President’s Day, we continue to explore and honor the rich tapestry of American history, both on stage and off.
We all know that theater is a labor of love. But some of Broadway’s brightest stars have taken that to heart more than others, looking within our own theater community for romantic partnerships. In preparation for Valentine’s Day, here’s Broadway’s Best Shows’ list of our favorite Broadway duos.
Audra McDonald & Will Swenson
Audra McDonald is the Tony-winningest performer in history. And if she represents Broadway royalty, then her husband of over 10 years, Will Swenson, undoubtedly stands as a king in his own right. While McDonald graced the stage most recently in Ohio State Murders, Swenson commanded the stage just across Times Square, leading the cast of A Beautiful Noise as Neil Diamond. The couple starred opposite each other in a 2015 Williamstown Theatre Festival production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill.
Phillipa Soo & Steven Pasquale
Another pair of performers, Philippa Soo and Steven Pasquale recently mirrored their real-life relationship, playing lovers at the Kennedy Center in their 2022 production of Guys & Dolls.Individually, Soo has appeared in Hamilton, Amélie, and Camelot, while Pasquale’s credits include The Bridges of Madison County and American Son.The couple were married in 2017, following her star-making run in Hamilton and ahead of his engagement in Lincoln Center Theater’s Junk.
Andy Karl & Orfeh
Likely the first Broadway couple that comes to mind for many, Andy Karl & Orfeh have been married since 2001, mere months after meeting when Karl joined the cast of Saturday Night Fever. The stalwarts have appeared together on the Broadway stage twice more since then, in 2007’s Legally Blond: The Musical and 2018’s Pretty Woman: The Musical.
Christopher Fitzgerald & Jessica Stone
It might be a surprise to learn that the Tony-nominated director of Kimberly Akimbo and the upcoming Water for Elephants is married to the legendary character actor, of Wicked, Waitress, and now Spamalot fame. In true showbiz fashion, Fitzgerald and Stone met in 1999, performing opposite each other in the 1999 Encores! Concert of Babes in Arms at City Center, and married in 2001. As Stone transitioned from a performer to a director, they continued to work together – most notably, Stone directed the legendary 2009 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Williamstown Theatre Festival, starring Fitzgerald as Pseudolus alongside an all-male cast.
Lisa Peterson & Rachel Hauck
A power couple off- and on Broadway, Rachel Hauck is the Tony-winning set designer of Hadestown, and Lisa Peterson is the two-time OBIE-winning director of new plays premiered around the country. They met while working at the Mark Taper Forum in 1996. Audiences might best know their project An Iliad, which Peterson wrote with performer Denis O’Hare, and which toured the country after its 2012 premiere. They most recently collaborated on the 2023 play Good Night, Oscar, which also marked Peterson’s Broadway debut.
Charlotte d’Amboise & Terrence Mann
Triple threat Charlotte d’Amboise has been married to fellow performer Terrence Mann since 1996, after meeting over a decade prior when they were both in Cats on Broadway. D’Amboise has had a long career on the Broadway stage, including two Tony-nominated performances, but is maybe best known for her perennial stints as Roxie Hart in Chicago, to which she has returned more than 25 times for brief runs in the starring role. Mann, a three-time Tony nominee, has appeared in 14 Broadway productions since 1981. The couple most recently appeared together in the 2013 revival of Pippin, and have also co-founded Triple Arts, a training program for aspiring musical theater performers, which they operate and teach together.
Maryann Plunkett & Jay O. Sanders
Two veterans of the New York stage, Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders have been married since 1991. Each with decades-long careers on and off Broadway, the pair has appeared onstage together in Richard Nelson’s Apple Family and The Gabriels play cycles, as husband & wife in the former three plays and then as brother- & sister-in-law in the latter. Recently, their work on Broadway overlapped as Sanders finished up the final weeks of his run in Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch at Music Box Theatre, while Plunkett worked directly across 45th Street in tech rehearsals for The Notebook at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Leslie Odom, Jr. & Nicolette Robinson
Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr. married Nicolette Robinson back in 2012, years before he would go on to become a household name as the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and she would make her own Broadway debut in Waitress. The couple are frequent creative collaborators, releasing music together, co-writing a children’s book, and most recently, teaming up as producers for the 2023 Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious, in which Odom also starred in the title role.
Allan & Beth Williams
Behind-the-scenes duo Allan Williams & Beth Williams have each been a part of over 65 Broadway productions in their careers to date. Allan is a veteran General Manager and Producer, recently serving as GM on Purlie Victorious, Good Night Oscar, and Diana the Musical and as Executive Producer on American Utopia, The Band’s Visit, and American Psycho. Beth is a Producer, who also served as CEO of Broadway Across America between 2008 and 2013. She has 12 Tony Awards to date, and her next show is the new musical Water for Elephants.
Pam MacKinnon is a prolific New York theater artist, with years of directorial experience on Broadway and off, as well as across the country. With a certain proclivity for the works of Edward Albee, she has directed A Delicate Balance and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway (winning a Tony Award for the latter), as well as world premiere productions of Peter and Jerry and Occupant (the latter of which is further discussed below). Other Broadway credits include Clybourne Park, The Heidi Chronicles, China Doll, Amélie, and The Parisian Woman.
MacKinnon gave a unique answer when Broadway’s Best Shows asked which, of all her many productions to date, she considers to have been the most challenging. Rather than discussing the dark themes of a particular piece, she is shining a light on the sometimes hectic nature of being a top working director in New York City, when an unfortunate turn of events had her multitasking beyond her wildest dreams… Here is Pam MacKinnon on her most challenging project(s) yet:
Putting up a great show is always full of joy and hard work. Always.
As a lucky, in-demand freelance artist, I sometimes found myself with as many as seven productions in a season. It’s a hustle that both feeds and interferes with the art. Schedules are beyond our control.
There was one week in the spring of 2008 with my production of Itamar Moses’ THE FOUR OF US up and running at Manhattan Theatre Club, as I was already starting tech of Edward Albee’s OCCUPANT at Signature Theatre. Two amazing projects; beautiful plays with glorious acting companies. After many years working out of town I was about to have two shows off-Broadway.
Blue skies. What could go wrong?
We got word with a couple of weeks to go in the MTC run that Sony Music had finally gotten around to answering our rights query about some transition music that had been central to our many transitions. Lightning out of a blue sky. Their answer was no. We were facing an immediate cease and desist. I was suddenly teching lights and sound for two shows! One from 8 am-11 am. The other from 12 noon to midnight. Designers were already onto their next gigs. Associates who had not been involved with THE FOUR OF US were my new collaborators, brought in to make it all seem seamless. We had one understudy covering both roles in the two-hander, he came in those three mornings to help with the crucial timing.
And I peddled my bike to and fro City Center and the old Signature space—could it have been any further west?!!—avoiding Times Square at all costs, feeling very fortunate to be living the dream, angry with Sony, and very very sleepy by my next Monday day off.
For 20 years, Leigh Silverman has built an impressive directing career in New York and across the country. Since her Off-Broadway debut with 2004’s Well at the Public Theater (which she would restage for Broadway two years later), Silverman has helmed five Broadway and over 30 Off-Broadway productions.
Her Broadway credits include Chinglish, The Lifespan of a Fact, and Grand Horizons, among others, and her sixth Broadway show is this season’s new musical Suffs, which Silverman brings to the Music Box Theatre following its Public Theater premiere in 2022.
Her awards nods include a Tony nomination for her work on the 2014 revival of Violet and two Drama Desk nominations, one for directing the play From Up Here in 2008 and the other for the musical Soft Power. The latter happens to be the show that came to mind for Silverman when Broadway’s Best Shows asked about her most challenging work to date. See what she had to say about the difficult project, and her eye towards its future… 👀
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Broadway’s Best Shows: What has been your most challenging work to date?
Leigh Silverman: This is such an interesting question because every project is rife with its own unique, amazing challenges. I love challenge when it is artistic in nature and forces my collaborators and me to imaginatively and rigorously grapple.
The most challenging work, using this framework, would be Soft Power, a musical I directed at the Ahmanson Theater in 2018 followed by a run at the Curran in San Francisco and was then produced at the Public Theater in 2019.
BBS: What was so difficult about this project?
LS: This musical had been a dream of David Henry Hwang’s, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and was a true exploration/investigation of what is “possible” in musical theater. David wanted to write a play that would shatter when the character of DHH is stabbed (a hate crime that did happen to the real David), and then the play would replay/transform into a musical complete with a full orchestra. He loved the structure of Anne Washburn’s iconic play, Mr. Burns, and in his own spin wanted to create an inverse to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.So in his musical Soft Power, America’s struggles are musicalized through a futuristic Chinese musical lens.
We faced challenges in tone and style as we tried to bend and twist and subvert and articulate why we love musicals, and why, even when they are so very problematic and racist, they still have the power to move us so deeply. All this while commenting on China’s possible future point of view about America as told through musical theater and thereby exerting their “soft power.”
BBS: How did you address and/or resolve the challenges?
LS: We worked tirelessly. We love musical theater and wanted to make an exciting piece of musical theater that honored the form while interrogating it. We wanted to explicitly address the brutal and constant racism Asian Americans face. We worked and worked and worked and at one point Jeanine said to David, “David! Put your pancreas on the table!” That’s how hard we were all working.
BBS: Are you proud of the result?
LS: Extremely. But also it is unfinished.
BBS: Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
LS: The world has changed significantly since 2019 and I believe, when we get back to it, there will be fresh ideas and energy for reinvestigating David’s incredible vision.
Beowulf Boritt is one of the busiest set designers on Broadway. Since making his debut with 2005’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Boritt has designed the set of over 30 Broadway productions, earning two Tony Awards (from six nominations), and two Drama Desk Awards (from eight nominations) in the best scenic design category. His latest Broadway set was for Harmony, and next up is the upcoming revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
His 2023 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award wins were both for his design of the new musical New York, New York. These must have been particularly rewarding accolades, considering that show is the one Boritt named when we asked him about his toughest project to date. Here is Beowulf Boritt on his most challenging work to date:
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Broadway’s Best Shows: What has been your most challenging work to date?
Beowulf Boritt:New York, New York (by John Kander, Fred Ebb, David Thompson, Sharon Washington, and Lin-Manuel Miranda at the St. James Theatre, Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman, 2023) was by far the largest, most complicated set I’ve designed.
BBS: What was so difficult about this project?
BB: The show required many, many locations in quick succession and it all had to squeeze into a Broadway theatre without a very big backstage. The rapid pace of the scene changes was hard because there were several 15-20 minute sequences in the show that were basically constant scene changes keeping the crew working at a fevered pace. For the first 10 days of tech, I think the crew and stage management just thought it was impossible, but they kept at it valiantly, and eventually, we got it all working efficiently, safely, and beautifully.
BBS: How did you address and/or resolve the challenges?
BB: We planned very carefully, making sure everything was exactly the size we had laid out in our technical drawings so it could all fit together like a giant three-dimensional Tetris game. We had to balance all these technical needs with the look of the design so it would all feel beautiful and effortless.
BBS: Are you proud of the result?
BB: I won a Tony Award for it, so that’s a nice cherry on top!
BBS: Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
BB: The show was enormous. Perhaps too enormous to survive in the current Broadway climate. It was what the artistic and producing team wanted, I think, but I suppose in retrospect had we done a much simpler production it might have had a longer life.
Broadway is often a platform for important stories that reflect the diverse tapestry of our collective history. Martin Luther King Jr., an iconic figure in the civil rights movement, has not been exempt from this trend. Over the years, various productions have paid homage to his legacy through impersonation, invocation, and references. In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s take a journey through some notable instances of Martin Luther King Jr. on the Broadway stage.
The Mountaintop Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop provides a unique perspective on the last night of Dr. King’s life. Premiering on Broadway in 2011, the play featured Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angela Bassett as a mysterious hotel maid. The production delved into King’s inner thoughts and struggles, offering a poignant portrayal of the man behind the movement. The Mountaintop humanizes the legendary leader, giving audiences a glimpse into the vulnerability beneath the public persona.
All The Way Bryan Cranston took on the challenging role of President Lyndon B. Johnson in All The Way, which premiered on Broadway in 2014. While the play primarily focuses on LBJ’s presidency, it touches upon the Civil Rights Act and King’s interactions with the administration during a crucial period in American history. Brandon J. Dirden took on the role of the iconic activist as “All The Way” served as a reminder of the intricate dance between political leaders and activists during a pivotal era.
Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch Although not a play centered on Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis invokes his name in Purlie Victorious as a timeless symbol of progress and racial equality when Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee asserts that segregation ought to remain the way of things and “to hell with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.” It also deserves mention due to King’s actual attendance at its original Broadway production. Dr. King was in the audience when the play reached its 100th performance, becoming a historical moment connecting theater and the civil rights movement.
I Have A Dream I Have A Dream was a musical revue that pays tribute to the powerful words of Dr. King. Premiering on Broadway in 1976, the production wove together King’s speeches and sermons, providing audiences with a musical journey through the key moments of the civil rights movement. Billy Dee Williams played the central figure. Through soul-stirring musical performances and poignant storytelling, “I Have A Dream” celebrated the enduring impact of King’s words and the resonance they continue to have in the fight for justice and equality.
One Night in Miami Kemp Powers’ play One Night in Miami explores a fictional meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. While not directly focused on King, the play acknowledges his influence on the era, placing his ideals at the center of the cultural and political discourse. One Night in Miami invites audiences to reflect on the interconnectedness of historical figures and the collective pursuit of social change. The play underscores the enduring relevance of King’s principles in shaping conversations around activism and equality. The play was adapted by Regina King for a 2020 film.
These Broadway productions serve as a testament to the enduring impact of Martin Luther King Jr. on American society. Whether through direct impersonation or indirect references, the stage has become a canvas for artists to explore and celebrate the legacy of a man who played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights.
The jukebox musical featuring the songs of ABBA, premiered on the West End in 1999. Two years later, the show was an international sensation and opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. In the years since, the musical continues to entertain with productions and tours all over the world, two movie adaptations, and a rumored third on the way!
Come along, dancing queens, as Broadway’s Best Shows dives into the careers of the original Broadway cast over 22 years later.
Louise Pitre (Donna Sheridan)
As Donna, Pitre earned herself a Tony Award nomination in 2002. After leaving the show in 2003, Pitre has continued in musical theatre, with iconic performances as Fantine in Les Misérables, Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Joanna in Company. In 2009, Pitre performed at Carnegie Hall in the musical Kristina, written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.
Judy Kaye (Rosie)
Kaye received a Tony Award nomination for Mamma Mia!, and has continued to appear on Broadway and regional stages across the country. In 2006, Kaye appeared as Mrs. Lovett for 1 week in the revival of Sweeney Todd while Patti LuPone was on vacation. Later that year, she took over for Patti again in the revival of Gypsy. Kaye starred in the 2012 musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, winning a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award for her portrayal of Duchess Estonia Dulworth. After a brief run as the Dowager Empress in the Broadway musical Anastasia, she originated the role of Queen Elizabeth II in Diana, The Musical.
Karen Mason (Tanya)
Seven years after originating the role of Tanya on Broadway, Mason appeared on Broadway in Hairspray as Velma Von Tussle. In 2011, Mason appeared as the Queen of Hearts in the Broadway musical Wonderland and went on to recreate the role in the Tampa & Houston productions. She also appeared as Madame Giry in the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Lover Never Dies.
Ken Marks (Bill Austin)
Marks has appeared in several Broadway productions since originating the role of Bill, including Hairspray as Wilbur Turnblad, Spring Awakening, Spider-Man Turn off the Dark, Airline Highway, and most recently, the 2022 Tony-winning revival of Take Me Out.
Dean Nolan (Harry Bright)
Following his run as Harry Bright, Nolan continued to appear in Off-Broadway and regional theaters. He co-produced a documentary titled “None Less than Heroes,” about the Honor Flight program which brings World Warr II veterans to Washington D.C. Currently, Nolan is on the faculty Texas Tech University’s School of Theatre and Dance.
Tina Maddigan (Sophie)
In 2006, Maddigan returned to Broadway as a standby in the original Broadway cast of The Wedding Singer. After a spinal injury left her with vocal paralysis, Maddigan spent years in vocal therapy and is currently an avid TikToker with over 500k followers.
Joe Machota (Sky)
After leaving the production in 2005, Machota moved to the business side of the industry, becoming the head of theater at CAA, where he currently represents some of the largest names in entertainment.
Notable Broadway Replacements
Carolee Carmello (Donna)
Following her departure from the show, Carmello originated the role of Alice Beineke in the musical The Addams Family. In 2011, she replaced Victoria Clark as Mother Superior in the musical Sister Act. Other notable Broadway credits include Scandalous, Finding Neverland, and Tuck Everlasting. Carmello starred as Dolly Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! Until its closing in 2020, and most recently appeared in the Broadway musical Bad Cinderella.
Beth Leavel (Donna)
Beth Leavel succeeded Carolee Carmello as Donna in 2009. Since, she’s appeared on Broadway in Elf the Musical and Baby It’s You!, earning a Tony nomination for the latter. In 2018, she starred in The Prom, earning another Tony nomination. Most recently, Leavel starred as Miranda Priestly in the Chicago premiere of the musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Altomare made her Broadway debut in Mamma Mia! Since, she originated the role of Anya in the Broadway musical adaptation Anastasia.
Judy McLane (Donna & Tanya)
McLane starred as both Donna and Tanya, and is the longest-running lead in the musical’s history with over 4,000 performances. Currently, McLane is starring as Joanne on the national tour of Company.
Mel Brooks’s musical comedy, which held the record for the most Tony Awards ever received by a single production for 15 years (in 2016, Hamilton tied with 12 Tony Awards), opened on Broadway in 2001. The musical, based on Brooks’s 1967 Oscar-winning film, which constantly broke box-office records at the St. James Theatre, ran for 6 years and was adapted into the 2005 hit film of the same name. Come with Broadway’s Best Shows as we look into the careers of the original Broadway cast since their departures from the show.
Nathan Lane (Max Bialystock)
After his Tony Award-winning performance in The Producers, Nathan Lane has continued to be a prominent figure in entertainment. On Broadway, Lane has appeared in The Odd Couple (Alongside Matthew Broderick), Butley, November, Waiting for Godot, The Addams Family, The Nance, It’s Only a Play, The Front Page, Angels in America (Tony Award Win), Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, and Pictures From Home. He has appeared in TV shows like “Only Murders in the Building”, “Modern Family”, “The Good Wife”, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”, and “Gilded Age.” On Film, Lane has been in the A24’s “Beau is Afraid” and “Dicks: The Musical.”
In 2006, Lane received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2008.
Matthew Broderick (Leo Bloom)
Broderick has remained an active entertainer since his acclaimed run as Leo Bloom. He starred in the 2005 movie adaptation of the musical alongside Nathan Lane. On Broadway, Broderick has starred in The Odd Couple (with Nathan Lane), It’s Only a Play (also with Nathan Lane), The Philanthropist, Nice Work If You Can Get It with Kelli O’Hara, Sylvia with Annaliegh Ashford, and most recently, Plaza Suite alongside his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker. He appeared in TV series like “Better Things”, “30 Rock”, “Bojack Horseman”, “Rick and Morty”, and “Modern Family”, and did voice work in the films “The Lion King 1½”, “Good Boy!”, “Bee Movie”, and “The Tale of Despereaux.” In 2006, Broderick also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has also been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Gary Beach (Roger De Bris)
After his Tony-winning performance as Roger De Bris, Beach starred as Albin in the 2004 Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles, as well as the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Misérables. Beach also starred alongside Lane and Broderick in the 2005 film adaptation of the musical.
Unfortunately, Gary Beach passed away in 2018.
Cady Huffman (Ulla)
Since The Producers, Cady Huffman continued her career in theater and appeared in various productions, including alongside Nathan Lane in the Broadway play The Nance. She has also had appearances in the TV series “The Good Wife”, “Frasier”, and “One Life To Live.” Huffman was a regular judge on Food Network’s competition show, “Iron Chef America.”
Roger Bart (Carmen Ghia)
Following his departure from the show, Bart returned in 2004 as a replacement for Leo Bloom. Bart’s other Broadway appearances since The Producers include Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, as Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein, Disaster!, and currently Back to the Future: The Musical at the Winter Garden Theatre. Bart has had TV appearances in “The Blacklist”, “The Good Fight”, “Grace and Frankie”, “Modern Family”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “30 Rock”, and many more. Bart has a cameo in the 2021 film adaptation of Tick, Tick… Boom!.
Brad Oscar (Franz Liebkind)
After his successful run as Franz Liebkind, Oscar replaced Lane as Bialystock. In 2008, Oscar returned to Broadway as Sir Bedevere in Spamalot, and has since appeared in The Addams Family, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Big Fish, Something Rotten!, and Mrs. Doubtfire. Recently, Oscar was a replacement in the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. Oscar has had appearances in TV series including “Law & Order”, “The Good Wife”, and “Smash.”
The new show Emergence, now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center, knows it’s hard to describe – is it a musical? A concert? A scientific exploration? An acid trip? It’s a little bit of everything. In this interview with lead performer and composer Patrick Olson, we explore the creative process behind this idiosyncratic event, that’s a little bit David Byrne, a little bit Carl Sagan, and even a little bit Woodstock.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Broadway’s Best Shows
Why write songs about huge philosophical questions?
You know, it may be less of a choice than just a simple response to how my mind is evolving, as I get older. I’ve tended to find that over time, whatever songs I’m writing at a given point in my life are reflective of the thought space that I carry around in that time. And maybe that’s not so surprising! I really think about these big questions, I really think about the implications of scientific insight. I really think about what it means to be human in a rapidly changing environment that we’re all in. And since I think about those things all the time, I think it’s natural that the music would reflect that.
Tell us about the songwriting process. I mean, it’s the cliche question, which comes first, the music or the lyrics, but…
I normally start with just a baseline, and try to find some bass groove that feels right to me, and evokes some kind of specific emotion. The rhythm section of drums and bass constitute the spine of any song, so I like to start with the spine. And once that feels like it’s in a certain kind of pocket, then I just start noodling around the edges of that. Typically, the next thing [is] a basic portal structure that I would do on an acoustic piano, and figure out what kind of chord progressions feel right in relation to that baseline and those drums, and what sort of harmonic harmonic dimensions will come out of that. Lastly, I start to experiment with vocal ideas, which constitute the melody of any given song.
Once all of that is in place, then I really like to give the music a week or two, to breathe on its own and develop its own sense of character. And so when writing lyrics and the song, the structure of the song, the tone of the song, the qualities that the instrumentals offer, they really shape what the emotional context of the lyrics is going to be in. Then it’s just a matter of linking that to whatever ideas seem to fit the best. And usually, there are scientific insights of one kind or another, and the song kind of comes together at that point.
How and why did your album Music for Scientists become a work of theater that’s now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center? That’s a really unusual journey.
Yeah! Writing and recording and producing that album was immense, fun, and really interesting. We really didn’t cut any corners. You know, we had a full orchestra that we recorded in Nashville. And this was during COVID, too, so that represented all of its own challenges, but we had I think a 50, 60, 70 piece orchestra with it. All of the songs on that album constitute the fertile soil that the next stage would grow out of. We really only used one song from that album, in the show Emergence, and that was “Moons of Jupiter.” I wrote nine new songs to constitute the show. But that album laid out the DNA for what the following songs would be and how they might constitute a different kind of experience, not just an isolated sonic experience, but a visual experience and a community experience of that theatrical experience.
That leads really nicely into my next question– what is the sort of emotional experience you’re hoping to create for your audience?
I would really love for people to just be plainly entertained, in the most superficial way. [And] I would hope people would experience some emotional movement. For them to be touched, or for them to have the music and the stage-theatrical experience, evoke an emotion from them.
I’m really, really happy to report that, we go out into the lobby after every show and greet everyone as they’re leaving, and every single night, I get to hear people say [those] things: they feel it was so entertaining, and the show was really tight, and the choreo was great. And everything just kept moving, and they didn’t know what to expect next. And that there were periods of time in the show where people tell me they were really moved to tears. And it was just really beautiful.
People tell me pretty regularly, “I never thought of this in that way. And I don’t think I’ll ever think of it the old way again. Now I see the world in this way.” So it’s not just my intention, but I really have the privilege of being able to have face to face contact with people as they’re leaving the theater. And they tell me [that] happens. And it’s wonderful!
And you give them a tulip, which is also lovely. (Audience members are handed a tulip as they leave the theater.)
They get a tulip as well! Which is sort of an emblem of the show in many ways. It’s referenced in the show and has scientific meaning as well as, you know, just kind of a nice little practical thing to give people to memorialize the experience.
So what do you see as the importance of an artist, such as yourself, communicating science? Why is that important to you? Why does that matter?
It’s really fascinating because the word ‘science’ is loaded. It can mean so many different things to so many other people, you can say the word ‘science’ to someone on the street and who knows how they might react to that – it might be they have a sense of dread about physics exams that they had during college, or they feel like it’s really ‘mathy’ and something far away from them. Or it’s inscrutable, [like] “science is all about test tubes, and formulas and things I don’t understand.”
I don’t think of science as any of that stuff. I think of science as the insight, the understanding into the nature of the universe. That’s what I care about. The scientific method and good research methodology lead to solid insights, but it’s the insights that I care about. And so when I think about science, what I think about is reality. That is our best human understanding of the nature of things. And science happens to be the most reliable tool for getting at that thing, but it’s that thing that I care about.
An element of the show that was really unique was Jordan Noltner’s lighting design. It had a sort of rock concert feel that I so rarely see onstage. And so I’d love to know how that unique visual was created.
There’s no question Jordan Noltner is a gifted lighting designer. It has to do with the DNA of the show… a big part of what we are is a musical concert, and any rock concert that you would go to for any popular musician, they have extensive and dramatic lighting, and we felt that that would be fitting for what we’re doing here as well.
So you come from the music world. How is the theater schedule treating you? What’s your routine to do this show? Because this is a big sing.
Yeah, you know what I didn’t realize? Last night we finished our 62nd or 63rd show. And since a run of this length is very new to me, I did not understand just how taxing it is physically. I find I live a pretty quiet life outside of the show. And that’s necessary for me to summon all of the energy and explosive stuff that happens in the show. And then I go back home and recover and continue with my quiet life. So it does take a lot of sustained energy–I was surprised by how physically taxing a theatrical run like this is! But it is at the same time the most inspiring and most fun thing I think I’ve ever done in my life. So I will take the exertion, I’ll take all the beatings that come down the pipe, and I’ll keep doing this as long as we’re able to, because it is so exciting. And mostly it’s just about having contact with the audience after the show, when they can speak to me about their experience and that, more than anything else, just recharges my batteries for the next show.
Following an out-of-town tryout in San Fransisco, Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin, and Heather Hack’s musical adaptation of the 2001 film Legally Blonde opened on Broadway in 2007. With a pro-shot that aired on MTV, the musical gained a cult following and became a favorite of theatergoers across the globe. Below, Broadway’s Best Shows explores the original cast members and where they’ve been in the more than 15 years since.
Laura Bell Bundy (Elle Woods)
Following Legally Blonde, Bundy continued her career in theater and also ventured into television and film. Most recently back on Broadway in the new play The Cottage, she has also appeared in TV shows like “Hart of Dixie”, ”Anger Management”, and “How I Met Your Mother.” Since appearing as Elle Woods, Bundy has also ventured into country music, releasing the albums Achin’ & Shakin’, which debuted at number 5 on the Billboard Top Country Album chart, and Another Piece of Me.
Christian Borle (Emmett Forrest)
After originating the role of Emmett Forrest, Borle has won two Tony Awards for his roles in Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten!. His other Broadway credits post Legally Blonde include Marry Poppins, Falsettos, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He also starred alongside Debra Messing, Katherine McPhee, and Megan Hilty in the NBC television series SMASH.
In 2019, Borle appeared in the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. Borle is starring in the Tony-nominated musical Some Like It Hot, which plays at the Shubert Theatre until December 30th.
Annaleigh Ashford (Margot)
Since her performance as Margot, Ashford has become a household name for theater lovers. In 2012, she appeared in the Off-Broadway in Dogfight alongside Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena. She originated the role of Lauren in the Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots. In 2014 she won a Tony Award for her performance in the revival of You Can’t Take It with You. She also starred in Sylvia and the revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Ashford recently received a Tony nomination for her performance as Mrs. Lovet in the revival of Sweeney Todd, alongside Josh Groban. Her final performance will be on January 14th, 2024.
Leslie Kritzer (Serena)
Kritzer, after her run as the high-energy cheerleader Serena, has continued to work in the theater, appearing on and off Broadway including A Catered Affair, Sondheim on Sondheim, Closer Than Ever, Elf, and Something Rotten!. She gained notoriety for her portrayal of Delia and Miss Argentina in the Broadway production of Beetlejuice, and is currently in the Broadway revival of Spamalot alongside James Monroe Iglehart, Taran Killam, Michael Urie, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Ethan Slater.
Kate Shindle (Vivienne Kensington)
In 2011, Kate Shindle starred as the Mad Hatter in the Broadway production of Wonderland. In 2015, Shindle was elected President of the Actor’s Equity Association, which is a position she continues to hold.
Following her beloved portrayal of Elle’s friend Paulette, Orfeh released her first album “What Do You Want From Me.” She is a frequent voiceover artist and has appeared across mediums, including the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In 2018, Orfeh returned to Broadway in the musical adaptation of the film Pretty Woman.
Andy Karl (Kyle the UPS Guy)
Karl has had continued success in theater after Legally Blonde, including Broadway appearances in 9 to 5, Wicked, Jersey Boys, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rocky the Musical, Waitress, On The Twentieth Century, Groundhog Day, Pretty Woman: The Musical, and most recently, Into the Woods. This spring, Karl recently reprised his Tony-nominated performance of Phil Connors in London, and will join the company for its Australian premiere in 2024.