WILL SWENSON HASN’T TAKEN A BREAK IN YEARS.
After back-to-back runs in Broadway shows like Les Misérables, Waitress, and Disaster, off-Broadway shows like Little Miss Sunshine, Pericles and Jerry Springer – The Opera, and films such as The Greatest Showman and the upcoming The Kitchen, the 44-year-old Tony Award nominee (Hair, 2009) is truly an unstoppable force.
Following his Berkshire Theatre Award win for Best Lead Actor in 2016’s The Pirates of Penzance, Swenson has returned to the Berkshires this summer to star in the world premiere production of the new musical, The Royal Family of Broadway. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (the acclaimed creative team behind The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee), The Royal Family has been playing to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
I spoke with Swenson about The Royal Family, the difference between working on revivals versus brand new musicals, the role of art in today’s political climate, filming The Kitchen, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI:What initially attracted you to The Royal Family of Broadway?
WILL SWENSON: A bunch of things! First and foremost, it’s just a great role. When I read it, I was like, “Oh, I could do a lot with this!” Plus, I’d seen the revival of the play it’s based on (The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), so I was pretty familiar with the story. I knew it was a good play and I liked the part a ton. Then, of course, Bill Finn’s music is always spectacular. Getting the chance to work with him is great.
Also, John Rando is just one of the best directors in the business. I’d worked with him just recently and a few times prior. I think this is my fourth project with him. It was just a perfect storm of very appealing things to work with.
What are some of the ways that you find Tony to be a different type of character for you to play than the previous roles in your career thus far?
Hopefully, they’re all pretty different from one another. It does get frustrating as an actor sometimes when you get pigeonholed. People can be like, “Oh, he’s the guy that does this or that.” So I try to spread it around and play different people in diverse types of projects.
Tony is just a wacky, self-centered, full-of-life character. The Royal Family is a period piece so it has some high language and great songs. So just looking at something new to do was very appealing.
What does it mean for you to get to introduce this brand new music by William Finn, who wrote such contemporary classics as Falsettos, to the world through this show?
Well, my favorite kind of show to do is one that’s brand new. When you do revivals or shows that have been widely done, there’s often a preconceived idea of what the show should be or who the characters are. Even down to the moment, like, “This is when typically the actor does this because it’s the way it’s always been done.” Therefore, sometimes you can feel a little bit like a puppet and like you’re walking in somebody else’s shoes.
But doing something new is really thrilling because you’re creating it. It’s legitimate creation and you get to tread new ground and call the shots. Doing something new is just my favorite. In the rehearsal room, you’re discovering things for the very first time and going, “Oh, this works, this doesn’t work.” It’s just a lot more fun for me.
The Royal Family is set in the 1920s and is loosely based on the legendary Barrymore family. What was your creative process like discovering the world of this show?
I YouTubed a ton and read a bunch on the Barrymores – particularly John Barrymore, who it seems like my character is based on. He was this amazing, larger than life archetype of an actor – down to the drunkenness, the carousing, the heightened personality, and the arrogant speech on camera. So I watched as much footage as I could of interviews with John Barrymore, as well as a lot of his actual work. It was like a treasure trove of stuff to use. Some of the stuff I found in his movies was just like, “Oh, that’s going in the show!”
Also, Lionel Barrymore wrote a book about his family and his siblings, in which he told all kinds of wonderful stories. That was great stuff for the backstory and to understand what the family dynamic was. That’s kind of what I did to prepare for this role.
As far as the rehearsal room, it was much more fast and furious. We whipped the show up in only three weeks – which is a crazy, small amount of time to mount a new musical. That’d be a really quick amount of time to whip up a musical that’s well known and already written! We were cutting songs, adding songs, adding dialogue, rewriting stuff – it was just all in a super short amount of time.
You and your wife (6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald) have a long history of performing in the Berkshires, including shows at places like Barrington Stage Company, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Tanglewood, to name a few. What is it about this area that keeps bringing you both back here?
It’s the combo of doing great art and the beauty of the area. There are so many amazing forums up here for performance. We love to go hike and kayak during the day and then work on some new and fun projects at night. We love to go hike up on Mount Greylock and over at Williamstown. I like to mountain bike up to Vermont. We go to various cafes and eat gigantic pancakes. We just love being up here in the summer.
While I’ve been up here, I’ve been going back and forth to New York to shoot a movie I just finished. I’ve missed a couple of shows but I’m done now. So because of this movie, my memory of this summer will be driving back and forth between Pittsfield and New York City.
What’s the movie?
It’s called The Kitchen and it’s starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. It’s about the Irish Mob in the ’70s. I play an Italian hit man. It was pretty fun!
The Royal Family wraps up on July 7. What are the rest of your plans for this summer and where can your fans catch you next?
I’ve got a couple of concerts that I’m singing at in Provincetown at the end of July. My wife has a bunch of concerts too. I’m going to hit the road with her and watch our baby during that time. I have not spent nearly enough time with them during the run of The Royal Family because they couldn’t always come up here. So I’m going to be a dad, do a few concerts and then go be a roadie for my wife.
What are the plans for The Royal Family after the final curtain drops this weekend? And if it does indeed come to Broadway, do you plan to reprise your role?
If there are future plans for it, I definitely want to stay involved. There most likely will be. Because it’s a new show, I imagine there will probably be a workshop of some kind to try to nail down the things that we wanted to continue working on. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone wants to take it to Broadway!
This musical comedy is very much a feel-good show. In these horrifying times we’re living in, do you consider the role of an artist to be to entertain, educate and/or distract audiences?
Hopefully, it’s all of it. I’ve said before in interviews that I feel like history remembers civilizations for two things: their wars and their art. As an artist, that’s the beauty we leave behind in this world. Hopefully what we do makes people question their places in the world and question their decisions and thought processes.
Some art forms are much more escapist. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about the world and just go into a room and enjoy it and laugh for a couple of hours. Other times, it makes you ask yourself hard questions. Hopefully, we can do all of that with our storytelling, which I think is such a noble and a beautiful art form.
You recently tweeted that you “used to feel so inspired and lucky” whenever you saw the Statue of Liberty, but that now seeing it “just makes me feel sad and embarrassed.” As both a performer and a father, how do you hold onto hope in such a toxic political climate?
Man, it is tough. I’ll tell you what – a buddy of mine did a little blog on his website about why we shouldn’t lose hope. And he basically wrote that the reason is because there’s no other option. Because we’re alive. There’s a scary, murky end to all of us, and that’s death. But we get up each day and try to be good people and to try to make a difference because that’s just what you do. That’s part of life. There are challenges, setbacks, hard times and good times. But surrendering is just not an option.
We try – speaking for my wife and hopefully my kids as well – to make our lives as productive and positive as we can. We try to make a difference where we can. Hopefully, those ripples will travel far enough that it can make a difference and we can help make the world a better place.
That’s very inspiring. On a lighter topic, congratulations on your recent Obie Award win for Jerry Springer – The Opera! What were some of the highlights of playing Satan?
Thank you! It was so great on so many levels. I mean, I’d never played Satan before. He’s just such a terrific character. And to do it in such a bizarre setting with such a twist on how the character is portrayed in the context of The Jerry Springer Show was a total ball. And through the medium of opera! That just added an extra cool facet to the delivery of it. That show was directed by John Rando as well. It was just a ball! That was a great company and a really, really fun project.
You’ve played a lot of “bad guys” on Broadway, such as Earl in Waitress and Javert in Les Misérables. What type of creative itch does playing these types of villainous roles scratch versus playing the hero of a story?
Generally, I think they’re more complex. If I was given the choice to play the “bad guy” versus the “good guy,” I think I would generally choose the antagonist. Playing somebody troubled is a lot more fun than playing somebody who has all of their stuff figured out. Discovering how the “bad guy” gets to that point and how they justify their actions or why they probably think they’re the “good guy” because they’ve lost track of their values or motives … I just like it a lot.
You mentioned that you’ll be doing some solo concerts soon. Do you have any plans to release any solo music?
Probably not but you never know. I just really love the theater. It’s not my number one passion to be like, “Will Swenson sings you this song.” I like hiding behind my characters a little more. But when things come up, I surely enjoy them and they’re a good way to take a vacation with my kids.
What are some of your musical theater dream roles and/or collaborators?
Well, as I mentioned, new stuff is really my favorite so I don’t have a huge, long list of “Oh, I want to play that” or “I want to play him.” What really turns me on the most is creating something new.
I suppose if there was one that comes to mind, it’d be Sweeney Todd. I’d like to do that one someday. Of course, Sondheim is someone that I would love to get to work with, but I haven’t been able to thus far. I’m a fan of so, so many great musical theater composers and am lucky enough to have been able to work with a lot of them.
As someone who has appeared everywhere from the stage to films to television, what do you feel is the most important thing that live theater can achieve for an audience that these other mediums do not?
Well, theater is my favorite performance medium. I enjoy working in TV and film as well, but there’s just that intangible thing in the room in a theater where we’re all connected. It’s this living kind of organism of storytelling that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s communal.
I was watching Oskar Eustis give this speech the other day and he said, “When you go to a movie theater and you walk in and you’re the only person there, you’re thrilled! You sit by yourself and you’re totally excited to be the only person in the movie theater. But if you walked into a stage performance and you’re the only person in the theater, or if there’s not a full house, your heart sinks because whether you know it or not, you’re going to have a communal experience.” You know?
The shows that are sold out, that are hard to get a ticket to, there’s something exciting about being one of those select few that get to see it. The fact that it’s so alive and it varies from night to night is just thrilling. Other acting art forms, like film and television, are wonderful and are accomplishing many other things – but they’re very set and they’re the same way forever once the project is finished. So there’s just that extra thing about theater that binds people together. It’s so beautifully communal. I just love it!
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to The Royal Family of Broadway, now playing through July 7 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.