TALKING “THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY” WITH STAR WILL SWENSON

WILL SWENSON HASN’T TAKEN A BREAK IN YEARS.

After back-to-back runs in Broadway shows like Les MisérablesWaitress, and Disaster, off-Broadway shows like Little Miss SunshinePericles 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.

The Royal Family of Broadway

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.

The Royal Family of Broadway

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.

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