Sometimes it’s easy. And sometimes it’s just a real bitch to deliver a legit turn worthy of a Tony nomination.
As several nominees tell it, the challenges range the gamut from Michael McGrath (“Nice Work if You Can Get It”) saying of a kid-glove role, “I can play a short Irish mug very easily” to Nina Arianda (“Venus in Fur”) giving the generic, “Every night is a challenge. That’s what keeps the show so fresh.”
Tony-nommed thesps like John Lithgow (“The Columnist”), Linda Lavin (“The Lyons”), Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”), Spencer Kayden (“Don’t Dress for Dinner”) and Jeremy Shamos “(Clybourne Park”) go out of their way to credit the material — sometimes to the point of minimizing the challenge to their own talent and contribution.
“It felt right and easy,” Shamos says of going from a racist community rep in act one to an aggressive house buyer in act two of the Bruce Norris comedy, which imagines an aftermath for “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Kayden was originally asked to audition for another role in the Marc Camoletti farce, but told them, “‘No, no, no. Suzette is my role.’ It takes almost no effort. It is almost pure play.”
Regarding his turn as real-life columnist Joseph Alsop, Lithgow says that “so little was problematical because so much of it was complete in David Auburn’s writing. The challenge is just the muscle to get through it. Alsop had tremendous energy, driven by his volatile nature. It takes stamina and physical training, it’s Joe Alsop boot camp!”
Jordan, playing a turn-of-the-century union organizer, says he needs to keep tabs on his vocal stamina. “It’s not so much the singing,” he says. “It’s the (New York) accent and the brashness, and there’s so much rallying and yelling. It’s taxing!”
Indeed, comedy is hard work for Lavin, who plays a woman coping with a loveless marriage and thankless children in the Nicky Silver play. “The challenge with such a violent comedy is getting to the heart of it, the nub of it, the real pain underneath,” she says. “It’s the stuff of serious life, made funny by Nicky’s vision of reality. Audiences get it right away, the absurdity, which is not really that absurd, when you think about your own life.”
Danny Brustein and Jan Maxwell (“Follies”) found a quite different challenge in playing the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman tuner.
“With ‘Follies’ you’re on for 10 minutes, then off for 12, then on for three and off for another 10,” says Brustein. “And each time you come in it’s at a heightened state. You don’t know how your arc is going to work until you play the show.”
Maxwell agrees, “Your backstage is as important as your onstage.”
James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) actually asked scribe Richard Bean for changes after an early reading of the farce. “It didn’t go particularly well,” Corden recalls. “I said the script alluded to the fact that the character was actually quite intelligent and then the next moment he would be very stupid. It was confusing to the audience.” Bean agreed, made the cuts “and the next show flew. It was an important lesson. Francis is street smart but not bright. That’s a fine line to walk.”
Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti (“Once”) know all about walking that walk. Regarding his busker character named Guy, Kazee says, “There’s a fine line between a person who is stalled in his own life and the person who is moving forward, trying to pursue a better life. If you go too far in one direction, you look too eager, and in the other direction you look like a manic-depressive. An audience doesn’t want to go with either of those persons.”
Milioti’s immigrant character named Girl presents a similar push-pull. “She’s a person who can sort out everyone else’s problem but can’t fix her own. That hit me late (in rehearsals), and has been a huge theme for me. I know this person very well.”
That kind of epiphany is essential to an actor, says Josh Young (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), whose perf came together “as soon as I realized Judas wants to be a good guy, he is like any other human being and he wants to be loved by his friends. If you look at as a villain, you go the wrong way. He didn’t do it for the money, that’s important. The money is there, but he didn’t do it for that.”
Sometimes the coming-together of a role hinges on a small thing. Kelli O’Hara (“Nice Work”) says of her rifle-toting bootlegger character, “I’m one of these actors who isn’t finished until I get my costume, especially this one. When I put on the trousers, as opposed to a dress and high heels, it changed everything for me. I do play a lot of feminine characters, and I’m probably more like this one. I felt like I could be more myself, as opposed to an ingenue who has lost something or is needy. This girl in ‘Nice Work,’ although she wants to be loved, she is tough, she is not needy for love. Once I embrace that, it came together.”
Regarding her rich California Republican matron, Stockard Channing (“Other Desert Cities”) says, “There’s the hair and the jewelry and the heels and the tennis outfit. The audience looks at her and makes vast assumptions, largely based on superficial observations. When you get to know any human being you make assumptions, then other aspects emerge, which can be very surprising. That’s what goes on with this woman and her family and the audience. This woman has made a lot of mistakes, she’s been holding a beach ball under water for 25 years, she’s been forced to do this very bizarre thing. The challenge is you have to lay some groundwork so the revelation is not a complete surprise.”
For some, it’s the clothes. For Judy Kaye (“Nice Work”), it’s a prop. “The moment I saw the chandelier, it all came together,” recalls the thesp, who, yes, gets to swing from a chandelier while singing Gershwin’s “Looking for a Boy.”
It’s also a relatively small thing for James Earl Jones (“The Best Man”), who says he’s “still working on” his commander-in-chief character. “How does an Indiana Hoosier sound?” he asks. “The character is based on, probably, Harry Truman, who is from Missouri, but our author said that my character was born on a farm in Indiana. I have to diphthong my ‘ie’s.”
Playing Bess led Audra McDonald (“Porgy and Bess”) “to learn as much about her as I possibly could. For me I had the moment where I went ‘she’s an addict!’ so learn everything you can about an addict. She’s not just a drug addict. she’s a love addict. Not a sex addict, she just wants to be loved. I studied addiction, I studied sex trafficking, I studied prostitutes. I don’t take cocaine, but I studied up what the physical reaction is so I could get the visceral experience that Bess goes through.”
For Norm Lewis, McDonald’s Porgy, it’s a little more instinctual. “Every night I have little epiphanies because every night I get to hear the choir singing during a scene where we put wreathes out on the water. I’m not singing at all. I just listen. That’s kind of my ah-ha moment, if you will.”
Cynthia Nixon (“Wit”) ultimately found the character, a cancer patient, within herself. “I had to overcome how formidable she is and intimidating she is. I focused a lot on her powerfulness,” she says. “Then I realized I had it in me all the time. So when I realized that, I could play more with her childlike part and the part of her that was a performer and a vaudevillian in a way.”
Help from helmers
Sometimes it takes a helmer to help an actor meet the challenge, create the epiphany, as well as discover the whole raison d’etre for doing the show in the first place.
“The challenge was to find our ‘Salesman,’ ” says Mike Nichols (“Death of a Salesman”). “You can’t just do it because it’s a good play, you have to have an idea.”
On the first day of rehearsals, Nichols handed a football to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock. “They still had the pages in their hands, and I said, ‘let’s just play with the football while you are doing this scene.'” Forty seconds into the scene, Nichols realized, “They are all three athletes. Actual athletes. Phil and Andrew started throwing the ball over Finn’s head and you saw his whole childhood. He leapt and leapt and leapt and he couldn’t get it. I thought, OK, now it’s us.”
New works present a different set of challenges to helmers.
“I had to make sure the ugliness held even though there are so many genuine laughs in the evening,” says Pam Mackinnon (“Clybourne Park”), at the helm of Norris’ comedy about racism in America. It was important to the director that auds not just be entertained by the “silly behavior and only in retrospect see that it was really racist. My job was to simultaneously have those feelings in the play, navigating Bruce’s prickly tone.”
Jeff Calhoun (“Newsies”) had his own balancing act in bringing the Disney musical to the stage. “There are so many wonderful anthems,” says the director. “The tricky part was to discern them from each other and to create individual narratives within each anthem so there’s movement in each number, so it isn’t static.”
Like those actors who credit the material with making their job easy, Kathleen Marshall (“Nice Work”) tips her helmer hat to book writer Joe DiPietro. “That was in Joe’s script,” she says of such funny bits as O’Hara holding a rifle while singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” or a troupe of chorus girls emerging from a lady’s bubble bath in “Delishious.” Still, the show had its challenges. “It’s a screwball musical comedy. It’s a little like cooking a souffle,” says Marshall. “You need all the ingredients in perfect proportion.”
Scribes at work
Every show begins with a writer. DiPietro (“Nice Work”) began with something of a head start — a trove of classic Gershwin songs — and wrote a book around them, about a playboy who falls in love with a bootlegger. “You’re writing backwards,” he explains. “The challenge is fitting the songs into the story in an integrated and delightful way, and making it as funny as possible. You can analyze it as much as you want, but where is the fun? That’s what you discover with Kathleen Marshall and the cast.”
Taking their musical from screen to stage, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman (“Newsies”) felt the need to flesh out their union-busting villain. “The dramaturgical challenge was making Joseph Pulitzer a real character,” says Menken.
In the film version, the newspaper publisher doesn’t sing. “He’s normally a character who wouldn’t sing,” says Feldman, “but in a musical if a character doesn’t sing, he becomes less prominent.” For the stage version, they gave Pulitzer a song, “The Bottom Line.”
“It’s not a big juicy number,” says Feldman, “but it gives him legitimacy as a character in a full-fledged musical.”
Book writer Harvey Fierstein (“Newsies”) does not include the 1992 movie as one of his all-time faves. “I had all that incredible music, but it’s not the way I would have told the newsies strike, but I’m stuck with this movie with this cult following, and I had to be true to the movie while turning it into something I’d like.” Fierstein pumped up the pro-union message, as well as added a pro-arts one. “Harvey Fierstein writing a family show?” he adds. “It’s fucking funny!”
David Ives’ play (“Venus in Fur”) is set at a contempo audition, of a new play based on an adaptation of an S&M novel from the 19th century.
“The challenge was blending two plays into one play,” says the playwright. “It’s a four-hander that only seems to be a two-hander. It’s a tricky little dramaturgical challenge to weave the two pieces together into a seamless whole.”
John Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities”) says his 10th play, about a political family harboring a dark secret, was the hardest to write “but the most educational experience. The hard part is being in control of the narrative, being in control of each character’s honest reaction to what they’re seeing and doing, what’s happening to them. You anticipate the character’s next reaction slightly before they do, and sometimes you can’t tell who is in control — you or the character. That’s the optimal state — to be in this forest where you are playing ping pong through the trees very, very fast.”
Or as Rick Elice (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) puts it regarding his Peter Pan prequel, “The biggest challenge for me is to write well.”