INTERVIEW WITH BROADWAY’S BRIGHT STAR, CARMEN CUSACK

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Carmen Cusack’s star is on the rise.
Carmen CusackIn Bright Star, Cusack plays central character Alice Murphy, the editor of a prestigious literary journal whose haunted past may not be as behind her as she believes. Through Cusack’s passionate and moving performance, the audience gets to know Alice in both 1923 and 1945, at the ages of 16 and 38. Powered by her soaring mezzo-soprano voice, Cusack’s transformative and distinctive ways of portraying this character amount to a truly spellbinding and star-making Broadway debut. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s already nabbed Drama League Award and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for her role.

Set in North Carolina, Bright Star is an original bluegrass musical from the creative masterminds of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Currently playing on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, the show is a heartwarming, riveting, and charming reminder of the power of hope. I caught up with Cusack about playing the same character at vastly different stages of her life, her storied career so far, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: To start off, could you describe your audition for Bright Star? How did you first hear about the show and what song did you sing?

CARMEN CUSACK: I was in LA at the time and was asked to send them a taped audition, which I of course agreed to after reading the script. I decided to sing a couple of folky-type songs and backed myself on guitar to my own little renditions of “Wayfaring Stranger” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”.

This show marks your Broadway debut, yet you’ve been a stage veteran for quite some time. What was it about Bright Star that made you decide to trade in the West End and national tours for the Great White Way? 

Well, I grew up imagining my Broadway debut but life took some interesting turns that landed me in the UK at an early age. I started auditioning there and getting work and ended up staying for 14 years. My plan was to always come back to the States when the time was right – meaning when I could afford to or get a job that would allow me to return. In 2006, the creatives from Wicked were casting in London and it was at this point that I expressed a desire to go back to the States. A few months later, I was working in Chicago as a stand by for Elphaba and then went on to play Elphie full-time on the first National Tour. The big goal has always been to originate a character so I guess you could say (corny as it may sound) that the stars finally aligned – originating a role in a brand new show and opening it on Broadway. All three wishes in one!

You’ve starred in so many renowned shows — like Les Miserables, The Secret Garden, The Phantom of the Opera, South Pacific, and Ragtime just to name a few. Artistically, what do you find are the biggest differences between playing a classic role and originating one in a new musical? 

The freedom to really experiment. When you’re originating a role, the formula is still to be decided. But I also enjoy taking risks with more renowned roles and putting my own spin on them.

Throughout Bright Star, you alternate between playing Alice as a young woman and as a mature adult. What do you find to be the greatest changes in your character caused by the 22 years in between the times we get to know her?  

Carmen CusackTwenty-two years in anyone’s life allows for some hard knocks and Alice Murphy is no exception. Without giving too much away, she suffers a huge loss at a tender age, which informs the dark, guarded woman she becomes.

As an actor, how do you so seamlessly (and frequently) transition from playing Alice at one age to playing her at another? 

Varying posture and vocal textures are some of the tricks and just changing my frame of mind from cocky and careless to confident and in control.

On your website, you describe Alice as your dream role. What is it about this character and her journey that spoke to you so loudly? What are some of your favorite things about her? 

That she gets to go from age 16 to 38 in a matter of seconds is a big sell. She is a spitfire of a character that has aspirations and goes after them even at the most trying of times. Also, I connect with her challenges, her losses and her ultimate victory.

Some of what makes Bright Star such a unique and unmissable experience are the bluegrass and folk influences in its music. Were you a fan of these genres and Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s prior to the show? 

YES and YES! I’ve always been a fan of Steve Martin’s comedy and a huge fan of Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. I grew up in the South with gospel music and the blues, bluegrass and folk. It’s in my blood.

You have so many great songs in the show, including my favorite, the climactic “At Long Last.” What’s your personal highlight to sing every night? 

I love starting off the show with “If You Knew My Story.” It’s one of the newer songs, as is “At Long Last,” which just got put into the show during our DC contract late last year. I feel it sets up the intrigue of Alice and I love how the staging incorporates the entire company, reinforcing the lyrics in the song, “Tell me I’m not alone”. Of course “At Long Last” mirrors my feelings personally that AT LAST I’m singing for a Broadway audience!

You’ve been a part of Bright Star since the very beginning. You played Alice in the show’s early workshops and out-of-town runs in San Diego and Washington, DC. How do you feel that both your character and the show have evolved since its original inception to the final, polished version?

Carmen CusackFrom the first reading, I knew there was strong content. I connected to the character from the start but also knew there was room for improvement. This was very exciting as this work was going to come from the collaborations of these incredibly smart, talented writers. I wanted to watch and learn from them and maybe through the process they might learn from us (the actors). I love being a part of collaboration and then seeing how it lands on an audience. My most treasured memories came during previews in San Diego at the Old Globe. We would meet every morning at 10 AM to discuss what had happened the night before with various scene changes. Steve and Edie were always there for these meetings and as we sipped from our Starbucks teas and lattes, we’d discuss how our experiments would land. There were lots of laughs. It felt like family time.

Do you have a pre-show ritual/tradition of any kind? If so, what is it?

Not really. Just a cup of tea and a moisture mask.

Recently, you played Annie McDougan in the Chicago premiere of First Wives Club. What can you tell me about that experience and do you plan on continuing be a part of that show if/when it transfers to Broadway? 

I think they are reworking it at the moment, which is a good thing. Writing a musical is about the hardest thing to do successfully. It takes time and dedication and you’re putting it out there for critique constantly. You have to form a hard skin, but if you don’t try, you don’t learn. First Wives Club is a great idea and it is going through its process. I LOVED working with Faith Prince and Christine Sherill. We had each other’s back and laughed also. I wish the First Wives team well.

You also played Eva Cassidy in the UK tour of Over The Rainbow. How was your creative process different when playing a real person versus a fictional character? 

Well, there unfortunately isn’t a lot of footage of Eve Cassidy out there, except for the two albums that were out at the time I was studying her. On her live blues alley album, she talks a bit and the way she spoke informed me in a way to her personality. I also read a book that was helpful. I wanted to sound exactly like her in how she sang and spoke, and I think I succeeded in that. It’s a shame that the script wasn’t very good. A fictional person allows for a bit more freedom, but I enjoy the challenges of both.

Tell me a little bit about Fountain Throes, the band you work with on the side. I hear you’re in the midst of putting together an album of original music? Any idea when that might be available?

I am half way through. I’m hoping to get the last five songs recorded soon as possible. The Fountain Throes are a handful of musicians I work with when I’m in LA in my downtime. I miss them! Thanks for asking about that.

You’re a big fan of margaritas. Where’s your favorite place to unwind after a show and what’s your margarita of choice?  

Well, I have yet to find a place here in NY. But I’m open to suggestions! I’m old school with my margaritas – tequila, lime juice and a little agave on the rocks.

Thanks so much, Carmen! Is there anything else you want to mention that we didn’t talk about?

I think you were incredibly thorough. Thanks for the opportunity!

Originally Published on PopBytes

‘HUMAN’ OF NEW YORK: AN INTERVIEW WITH SARAH STEELE

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At only 27, Sarah Steele already has decades of accomplishments under her belt.

Sarah SteeleAfter her breakout role in the film Spanglish, Steele has gone on to nab appearances on television shows like Gossip Girl, Nurse Jackie, Blue Bloods, and Girls. Her recurring part as voice-of-reason Marissa Gold on The Good Wife has made her a fan-favorite throughout the acclaimed series, and her scene-stealing turns in films like Adult Beginners, MargaretPlease Give, and the upcoming Viena and the Fantomes have made hers a true name to watch.

Currently starring on Broadway in the acclaimed The Humans (which I reviewed here), Steele spoke with me about the play, the fast-approaching series finale of The Good Wife, and much more.

NAGORSKI: What initially attracted you to The Humans?

STEELE: Well, (playwright) Stephen Karam is a great friend of mine. We’ve been friends for years. I did his first play in New York, Speech and Debate, when I was 19 and a freshman in college. He kind of wrote The Humans with me in mind, which I was aware of for a couple of years. Then I became attached and did a bunch of readings of it starting around 2013 or 2014. So I’ve just been with it since the beginning.

What is it about his writing that made you want to go back and collaborate with him again?

His writing is super naturalistic and I just really understand it. After reading his first play, there was something about it that made me just think, “I get this, I know how to do this.” More so than any other writer even. There’s just something about him that I understand. And actually, with the first play that I did of his, I sent it to a friend of mine and he read it and said, “This almost sounds like it was written for you.” Stephen and I didn’t know each other yet, but something about the cadences of some of the female characters that he writes just really come sort of naturally to me. I can feel how they’re supposed to be done. We have a lot in common and now that I know him better, I feel like it all sort of makes sense.

Before transferring to Broadway, the show played an acclaimed off-Broadway run. How, if at all, did it change when you moved into the Helen Hayes Theater?

We were lucky in that it didn’t really change much at all. The script didn’t change, but the space is way better for the show. It sort of hugs the show in a way and the acoustics are better so we don’t have to yell at all. That’s really helpful since it’s such a naturalistic play, so to not have to balance being natural and projecting our voices at the same time is great. I think if anything, it got a little bit more naturalistic and a little bit faster, but that’s about it. Other than that it’s really been very much the same.

While The Humans is laugh-out-loud funny, it also tackles some very serious and heavy topics. It’s difficult to label it as simply either a comedy or a drama. How would you describe the tone of the show?

I think I would describe it as just very life-like, you know? If you’re just watching a family, it is going to be funny. You can tell when people’s buttons are being pushed and that’s funny. But I think that the laughs are really laughs of recognition and laughs of relating to what’s going on on stage. So to me, it just seems like very life-like and accurate in that sense.

One of the things that I found so endearing and loved so much about the play was that despite the fact that there are some shocking revelations, the Blakes never seem to turn on one another in their times of need. What is it about their dynamic that you think makes them so unbreakable?

That’s interesting. In plays, we’re very used to seeing high drama. But I think that with something as realistic as this is, it’s important to see that the family really loves each other and that they really want everything to work and be okay. Any fighting is coming out of places of “let’s really solve this problem” and “how do we solve this problem and still be together and still love each other?” as opposed to flying off the handle and not trying to fix it. When the revelation happens at the end, they’re trying to fix it. They’re not just flipping out at each other and I think that’s just because they’re a family that really loves each other. Mistakes are made, but they want everything to be okay. And they’re putting that before anything else.

In the show, Brigid talks about how much she’s struggling to balance her bartending job to pay her bills with her dreams of pursuing a career as a musician. If you could give her advice on this topic, what would it be?

Well, one thing that she’s particularly struggling with at the moment of the play is getting this recommendation letter from one of her professors. She’s sent out a bunch of applications that contain this recommendation letter than she didn’t know was so bad. And I guess I would just say to her, “You can’t really worry what anybody thinks of your work. You have to just put your head down and keep doing your work and working hard.”

Despite the fact that they seem highly skeptical about Richard, Brigid’s parents are anxious for her to get married. Why do you think that is? And do you hope to/plan on get married one day yourself?

I think that the wanting her to get married has more to do with the fact that she has moved in with this man. I think they don’t necessarily want her to marry Richard, but they don’t want her to live with someone to whom she’s not engaged. So I think it comes more out of that, which is extremely frustrating. Brigid is of a different generation and she feels like she should live with someone before deciding to live with them forever. So I think that’s very frustrating for her. For myself, I think that I would like to get married someday. But I do agree with Brigid that I would never do it unless I had lived with that person and sort of knew what I was getting into in that regard.

What are Thanksgiving dinners like at your home?

Much more peaceful! Oh they’re great. There’s usually a lot of extended family at my Thanksgivings and that is sort of a whole different set of drama. You’re not just dealing with your immediate family, you’re also dealing with your extended family’s problems with their individual families too. That can always get dicey, but when it’s just me and my immediate family, it’s the tops!

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What can you tease about the upcoming final few episodes of The Good Wife?

So sad! Not much, actually. The only sort of interesting thing that I could tell you is that I have no idea how it ends.

Oh really?

Yeah! A lot of us have no idea how it ends. That information was kept very tight and many of us are going to be experiencing it just like the viewers will be.

Where do you see Marissa Gold ten years from now?

What a question! Oh gosh. Well, maybe this is a little bit of a tease. She sort of decides at the end that she wants to maybe become a lawyer. So I’d like to think that she is sort of someone like Diane eventually in her life, you know. That would be very cool.

Recently, I interviewed Alan Cumming, who plays your father on The Good Wife. I asked him what his campaign slogan would be if he were running for President in 2016. His response was, “Shut up, stupid people!” So now I ask you the same question. What would your campaign slogan be?

Oh my god, I have no idea! I think Marissa’s would just be like, “Everybody relax.” Everybody’s always flipping out around her and she’s always the one to be like, “Let’s just all relax and think rationally for a second.”

You’ve been acting for most of your life, having made your film debut in 2004’s Spanglish alongside Adam Sandler. What made you realize you wanted to be an actress?

You know, it’s funny. I was 8-years-old and I had been doing all kinds of different things. I’d been doing sports, I’d been doing ballet, and none of it really felt quite right to me. Then one day at recess, I remember this one kid said to me, “Oh I’m taking acting classes in the city.” And I remember feeling extreme jealousy and having this revelation in that moment. I was like, “That‘s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve been wasting my time with ballet and sports and other stuff. Andthat’s what I’m supposed to be doing.” It’s not like I had acted ever before, but I really just had this deep feeling. I just knew.

You made your Broadway debut in The Country House alongside Blythe Danner in 2014. Which do you find to be a more gratifying and/or a more challenging medium, the stage or the screen? Why?

That’s a good question. I prefer the stage. They’re very different challenges because acting on TV and film can for theater actors feel nerve-racking and sort of boring at the same time. There’s a lot of waiting around, but it’s a high stakes job. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really fun and I love it, but there’s something about theater that’s much more freeing and active. So I do prefer the stage – but then again it is difficult to do eight shows a week for months and months and months and keep it fresh. So they both come with different challenges, but at the end of the day, I really do prefer the stage. There is no way that I would do this for a job without theater.

Piggybacking off of the previous question, what are your dream roles both on stage and on screen?

It’s funny, someone actually asked me this recently and I had no answer. My mind just doesn’t like to think that way. I guess I’d love to do some of the Shakespearean roles where you’re pretending to be a man for a while. And I would like to do something where I legitimately played a male role, like Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar or something. I’ve always wanted to do that. There are a lot of great male roles out there. But I struggle to think of existing female roles that I’d really want to play. I do so many contemporary plays so I don’t think that I really come at in that way of thinking of pre-existing parts.

In the movie The To Do List, you sing the classic song, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” Any chance that your next Broadway endeavor could be a musical?

I would love that! I started off in musical theater and I’m always kind of trying to get my foot in the door there. So I hope so! I do some work with Shaina Taub, a composer who was just in Old Hats. I’ve done workshops of some of her musicals. I’m hoping that if one of those goes, maybe I could be in one of them!

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Originally Published on PopBytes

INTERVIEW: “STRAIGHT” TALK WITH JAKE EPSTEIN

UntitledWhat happens when you’re preparing to settle down with your girlfriend but can’t seem to shake off the idea that you might still want to try dating men?

That’s the central conflict for Ben, the protagonist of Straight. Now playing Off-Broadway, this intimate character drama tackles issues of sexuality, fidelity, and perhaps most importantly, identity. Directed by Andy Sandberg and written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Dornarola,Straight is a thought-provoking meditation on love and lust.

Jake EpsteinPlaying Ben is Jake Epstein, the talented and versatile actor best known for his starring roles in Degrassi: The Next Generation and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. In Straight, Epstein must navigate his character’s complex self-discovery in a world keen on putting a strict label on all those who inhabit it. I chatted with Epstein about how Ben does this, why this play resonates so strongly with him, his career aspirations, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Although it deals with many complex issues, Straight has a surprisingly funny tone to it. How would you describe the show in just a couple of sentences?

JAKE EPSTEIN: The play is about a Boston “bro” and his relationships with his girlfriend, and a charismatic, younger guy he meets online. I always describe the tone as “something like life.” It’s funny, sad, and filled with surprises.

You have a long history with musical theater. You made your Broadway debut as the alternate for Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, created the role of Gerry Goffin in the Broadway production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical alongside Jessie Mueller, and have been part of the Spring Awakening and American Idiot national tours. What was it about Straight that made you want to act in a play versus a musical again?

After I did the Spring Awakening national tour, there were a lot of doors in the musical theater world that opened up for me. I’ve been so fortunate to have continued on that path. But the truth is, I never intended to be a musical theater actor. In fact, I went to theater school to study acting and “straight plays” (no pun intended!). When I finished my run in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, I was craving being part of a play again. When I knew that Straight was a possibility, I jumped at the chance to get my feet wet in a real Off-Broadway play.

At first glance, Ben seems to have everything figured out. At 26, he already has a stellar job and what seems like a solid relationship with his college girlfriend. What do you believe to be the catalyst for his journey of introspection and self-discovery? 

I think Ben is in that rare window of time after college and before really settling down where you almost have one last chance to figure out who you are. On top of that, he is feeling the pressure from his best friend and long term girlfriend, Emily, to move in together and get married. Realizing he has this tiny window of time, he goes out on his “journey” as you put it, to lay to rest whether or not he has feelings for men.

How is Ben different than previous characters youve played in your career?

That’s a great question but hard to answer. Each of the characters I’ve played have been so specific and so different. Ben feels like a mix from a lot of the great parts I’ve played. He is extremely intelligent, charming, and sexually ambiguous, with both an emotional intelligence and an amazing ability to suppress his feelings. He’s manipulative and brutally honest. He has a great sense of humour and at the same time, an ability to be very serious. He has a need to control others and yet realizes what he actually wants is being out of control. He’s a lot of things and maybe a better way of saying that is that he is very human. So I suppose my answer is that I’ve never played a character who felt quite so human.

Whats the best piece of direction that Andy Sandberg gave you during the rehearsal process?

Keep emotion out of the argument. Ben is ivy-league educated and extremely good at pontificating. And it’s hard for me to not make some of his arguments emotional. Andy has encouraged me to be courageous enough to trust that the emotion is there in the story without having to rely on it during Ben’s intellectual arguments.

STRAIGHTIncluding yourself, the show only has three characters. What type of creative challenges and/or rewards does being part of such a small cast instead of a full ensemble present?

There’s huge trust that goes into performing with such a small cast. You need to have each other’s backs and keep the energy and story moving with pace, intelligence, and spontaneity. It is a different kind of trust with a larger ensemble.

The show grapples with many themes, including the struggle people face to be accepted simply for who they are. Is there a main takeaway that you hope the audience has after the curtain falls?

I mean, sure, I’d love people to be aware that society still has this nasty obsession with labeling people. But in truth, I hope people are moved by the story and entertained by the wit and dialogue.

Growing up, what was your dream role as an actor? And what is it today?

When I was kid, I wanted to play the Artful Dodger in Oliver. I was fortunate to play the part when I was twelve in Cameron MacKintosh’s tour of the musical in Toronto. That experience was life-changing. Now I want to play Fagan.

You touched on this earlier, but when you were 18, you left your role on Degrassi: The Next Generation to attend the National Theatre School of Canada. What was it about theater that made you want to leave television and pursue it full-time? 

The producers thought I was crazy! Why would anyone leave a TV show to go to theater school? I was 18-years-old and had been on the show for 5 years. I knew that if I was going to be a professional actor, I needed to study. I had it in my contract that when I was 18, I could have the choice to leave the show and go to college. Even though it was one of the hardest decisions of my life, it felt right.

Last year, a play that you co-wrote with your mother, Therefore Choose Life, premiered in Toronto. What did writing teach you about the theater that acting has not, and do you plan on continuing to write more shows?

When you’re playing a part, your entire world is your character’s point of view. Writing a play is about looking at the whole picture. It’s an important reminder that each role is a cog in a bigger machine and you help the machine the most by doing nothing except what your part is meant to do. Nothing more, nothing less. My dream is definitely to continue writing.

Originally published on PopBytes

QUICK PICK: “THE HUMANS” ON BROADWAY

EVEN BEFORE THANKSGIVING DINNER IS SERVED, THE BLAKE FAMILY MANAGES TO BRING ALL OF THEIR BAGGAGE TO THE TABLE.

The HumansIn playwright Stephen Karam’s spectacular new play, The Humans, the middle-class family gathers for their holiday meal that bodes nothing but surprises. Set in a Chinatown duplex apartment, what starts as an evening of carving turkey and catching up on gossip quickly morphs into something much more morose. As the evening progresses, secrets are revealed, relationships are unraveled, and familial bonds are tested in ways that the Blakes have never known before.

For patriarch Erik (Reed Birney), this means spending the course of the night working up the courage to tell his two daughters about a mistake he made, which is starting to have a ripple effect on both his personal and professional life. For mother Aimee (Cassie Beck), this means coming to terms with the fact that despite her 40+ years at the same job, she’ll never get the title or paycheck that her much younger colleagues earn. For Momo (Lauren Klein), Erik’s mother, every day is a new challenge due to her dementia. And on this particular day, she can barely form a coherent sentence.

The HumansBut it’s not just the parents who are struggling. Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), the eldest daughter, is celebrating the holidays as a single woman for the first time, the result of a breakup she’s still reeling from. On top of that are her health issues, which she believes are the real reason she was recently let go from her job. Brigid (Sarah Steele, who recently stole the show in The Country House), the youngest of the clan, is having difficulty juggling her job as a bartender with her dreams of pursuing her passion as a musician. Meanwhile, her live-in boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed), must keep wearing a forced smile as he’s playing host to his girlfriends’ parents. He knows all too well that they have preconceived notions about his history with depression and don’t approve of the fact that he’s ten years older than their daughter.

But The Humans is no dreary drama—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s stacked with enough warmth and humor that you may find yourself surprised that a show that made you laugh so much ends on such a dark note.

Like any family, the Blakes have their ups and downs. But part of what makes them so endearingly human (pun!) is their ability to see past everyone’s flaws and mistakes and not let those things define how they relate to one another. Sure, there are some truth bombs dropped that will require a lot of work to sort through; but the fact that the Blakes want to stick together as a family and work through them at all is what makes them so real.

Karam’s writing is sharp, contemporary, and refreshing. Coupled with the actors’ dedicated performances, the dialogue written for the Blakes produces an unmistakable family chemistry. Even before any introductions are made or relationships are explained, it’s immediately clear who’s who, how they fit in with everyone else, and what the dynamic is. Despite the setting in a large Broadway theater, the audience members feel like they are in an intimate space, which allows them to observe these people in their private habitats. They feel fully transported into the lives of the Blakes. All of which is a testament to Karam’s command of language – and to the power of live theater as a whole.

David Zinn’s meticulous scenic design also works wonders. The apartment is split into two halves. There’s the top half, which is where one enters from the street. Then there’s the basement apartment, interconnected with the ground level via a staircase. Most of the time the entire cast is on stage, but this separation allows characters to have moments of privacy and, thus, stronger development. When Aimee goes upstairs, for example, hearing what her children really think of the chain e-mails she forwards them is the type of exchange that not only fortifies the sisters’ bond, but that also shows how much they love their mother. Although they’re teasing their mom, it’s only because they know that all of her antics –however quirky or disagreeable they may be – come from places of compassion and good intent.

As the show goes on, more and more problems occur with the lights. Occasional flickering switches to moments of total power-outage; as the sparks of revealed truths settle, the unreliable lights mirror the changing ways in which everyone sees each other. By the end of the show, enough chaos and confusion has occurred that it’s no surprise that it concludes in total darkness. It’s a brilliant and evocative choice that adds power to the punch that the play throws at the end.

Before it transferred to the Great White Way, The Humans enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run with the Roundabout Theatre Company. The show racked up six Lucille Lortel Award Nominations (the Off-Broadway answer to the Tonys), leading the pack with the most nominations of any show this season. Given the rich, layered, and complex characters they play, it’s no wonder that literally half of the cast – Birney, Houdyshell, and Klein – are all up for acting awards. And no matter how many awards the show wins at the May 1st ceremony, the profusely talented troupe is practically guaranteed to still have reasons to celebrate when the Tony nominations are revealed two days later.

BOTTOM LINE: FULL OF HUMOR, HEART, AND HIJINKS, THE HUMANS IS A FASCINATING, POIGNANT, AND ORIGINAL PLAY THAT IS DESTINED TO BECOME A CONTEMPORARY CLASSIC.

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Originally Published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH “A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER” WRITER ROBERT FREEDMAN

When A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder opened on Broadway in 2013, it immediately took the theater world by storm.

Set in England at the beginning of the 20th century, the hilarious and uproarious musical comedy tells the story of an heir to a hefty family fortune who decides to kill off the eight distant relatives who stand between him and his inheritance. But can he get away with his plan, especially with both a fiancée and a mistress to answer to?

Robert FreedmanFollowing its acclaimed and decorated Broadway run, Gentleman’s Guide is currently embarking on its first national tour. To celebrate, I chatted with Robert Freedman, who won the Tony Award for writing the show’s book.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How and when did you first get involved in theater? And did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: My parents took me and my sister to the theater all the time when we were growing up, mostly at the Music Center, so I developed an appreciation very young. I saw Angela Lansbury in Mame at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when I was very young and I was enthralled. I never imagined I would know her and work with her some day! As a teen, I would go to the Ahmanson and the Taper and get student rush tickets for $2.50 and sit in the last row of the balcony and be thrilled. Writing just naturally evolved for me. I always enjoyed writing book reports and such in elementary school. In fifth grade, I started my own (short-lived) underground newspaper. As a teenager, I started writing musicals, mostly parodies using my book and lyrics to the tunes of famous theatre composers. I think most of all I just really wanted to be in show business, and the thing that I could do best was write, so that was my way in.

As a writer, who are some of your biggest inspirations?

It won’t surprise anyone when I say Stephen Sondheim is my biggest inspiration. I was also greatly inspired by Moss Hart’s memoir Act One. There are others, but the list is too long.

Gentleman’s Guide is based on the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. How did you first come across this book and at what point did you realize you wanted to adapt it into a stage musical?

Steven Lutvak, my collaborator, saw a film based on the novel (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and asked me to write it with him.  I immediately jumped at the chance.

Speaking of Lutvak, he wrote the music for the show and the two of you co-authored the lyrics together. What was the collaborative process like? Did you work on the songs and the book at the same time or did you take on everything piece by piece?

The collaborative process was fascinating, sometimes difficult, and always fun. Particularly when writing lyrics together, which we did in person, in the same room, we enjoyed cracking each other up. Now, when we hear laughter from the audience, it’s particularly sweet to have connected with people in that way. The process began with the story, specifically the plot. From that, we found places that it felt natural for the characters to sing – but always to advance the story, not for sheer entertainment alone. The next step is to decide two things: the dramatic action of the scene, and the style of music, or song, we intuitively feel is right for the moment. The next step is to come up with a “hook,” a phrase, a line, a few words or a sentence, that ends up being the title or an important part of the lyric. Steve would then go to the piano, sometimes immediately, out of inspiration, or later after he’d had time to think about it, and come up with music for that hook. Once we’d decided we had the right musical style for the story we want to tell with the song, Steve would write out a so-called “dummy” lyric, nonsense words that help me understand the rhythm of the song, and what syllables are emphasized. Then we write the real lyric, perhaps just an A-section, then go back and forth until the song is completed. Since I was writing the book, and co-writing the lyrics, once the plot was pretty much set, I set about weaving the book into and out of, and sometimes inside, the songs as we went along.  It was a natural process.

For a show that takes place so long ago, Gentleman’s Guide is surprisingly topical today. For instance, the way it tackles the dispute between the 1% and the 99% is certainly a hot button issue during this election year. Is there a specific message, idea or lesson that you hope audiences take away with them when they leave the theater?

I could spout off on a lot of meaningful things that the show offers, including a commentary on the great disparity between the haves and the have-nots, which is so perfectly embodied by the British class system and so relevant in today’s America, and the hypocrisy of society, then and now, but most of all, we were attempting to entertain in a smart, stylish way.

Are there any tweaks or differences from the Broadway production that diehard fans can anticipate in the tour staging?

Yes! There are minor tweaks that most may not notice. There are improvements in the staging of a couple of musical numbers, “A Warning to the Audience” and “Poor Monty.”  Darko (the director), in his wisdom, advised the actors not to try to copy the Broadway performances, but to make them their own, and they have, and it’s been exciting to see.  It’s the same exact show as it was on Broadway, and not, at the same time.

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What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of taking this show on the road?

To be able to share our work with so many people is a great thrill, as you can imagine. The audience response in every city has been tremendously gratifying. And for the cast, it’s a great way to see the country, and to connect with people who live in the cities we’re playing.

In 2014, you took home the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. And the show itself won four Tonys, including Best Musical. How did you celebrate?

Robert FreedmanIt was a long, wonderful night! Immediately after the broadcast, we were ushered to the press room, which included photos and video interviews.  Then it was off to the ball, like Cinderella, at the Plaza Hotel, which was glamorous and exciting.  Then we went to the Gentleman’s Guide party, thrown by our producer, Joey Parnes, at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center (an outdoor restaurant in spring and summer), where there was a DJ and dancing and general carrying-on.  But it still wasn’t over.  We then went to the exclusive Tony after-party thrown by our PR maven Rick Miramontez at the Carlyle Hotel, where all the Tony winners and nominees and theatre cognoscenti converge. We didn’t get home until 6:30 A.M.! I was so lucky to have my wife, my son, my sister and brother-in-law, and a dear friend to help me celebrate that night.

As a writer, do you find that being a Tony Award winner puts more pressure on you to replicate and/or build upon the success of Gentleman’s Guide?

I don’t think of it that way. I may never have a career high as thrilling as Gentleman’s Guide again, and I’m perfectly fine with that. In many ways, I’m glad this didn’t happen for me when I was in my 20’s, because it would have been a really hard thing to live up to and replicate. What this success has done is given me more opportunity to work on the kinds of projects, and with the kinds of people, that really excite me.

I see! So are there any new shows you’re working on now? If so, what can you tell me about them?

I can tell you that I’m writing a new musical with Scott Frankel (Grey Gardens), and I’m cooking up another one for Darko to direct, and I’m writing a film, produced and directed by Robert Redford.

When you were writing the book for Gentleman’s Guide, did you always picture the same actor to play every character in the D’Ysquith Family? If so, did you ever worry about finding someone with the stamina to play so many different roles in the same night?

Yes, we always pictured the same actor playing all the D’Ysquiths. We discussed several actors in the process of writing, but when Darko Tresnjak suggested Jefferson Mays we immediately flipped and knew he was the best possible choice even before we started working with him. He’s a genius. But because he’s not known for musicals, he wasn’t on our radar.

In addition to your theater work, you’ve also written quite a few television screenplays, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. How is your creative process different when writing for television versus for the stage?

The process is actually pretty much the same. Writing for the stage has been a bit more gratifying for a couple of reasons. One, there is a live audience and you get an instant response to what you’ve written, and often indications of what you should or shouldn’t change during the process. In addition, you have so much more control of you work. In film and long-form television, once the writer has delivered the script, he or she is considered dispensable, and is rarely allowed to stay involved in the process of filmmaking. In the theater, or at least in our case, Steve and I can truthfully say that what we wrote is exactly what you see on stage. Part of that is the respect for writers in the theatre, and part of that is the respect that Darko Tresnjak and Joey Parnes had for our work.

You’ve had such a vast career in the entertainment industry so far. What project do you consider your crowning achievement to date?

Gentleman’s Guide, without question, probably for the reasons stated above.

If you could have written any show that’s currently on Broadway, what would it be and why?

Hamilton. Because it’s brilliant and the writing is fearless. The beauty of it is that only Lin Manuel Miranda could have written it. I read the same book about Alexander Hamilton when it was first published, and it never occurred to me to make a musical out of it (and I’m a Founding Fathers junkie). The same way it may not have occurred to someone else to make a musical out of Israel Rank.  I bow to his genius without wishing I had written it myself, because I couldn’t have.

Thanks so much, Robert! Is there anything you’d like to add or discuss that we didn’t cover?

Just that I am filled with gratitude for the love we are getting from audiences. There’s no feeling like it, and I am so blessed.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder is playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1st. Click HERE to purchase tickets and to check out where the tour is heading next …

Originally Published on PopBytes