For the fourth year in a row, The Hollywood Reporter paid a visit to New York to chat with a group of Tony-nominated performers about their journeys to and experiences on Broadway. A year after “the Hamiltonys,” the Great White Way is less in the forefront of the national conversation, but make no mistake about it: plenty of other great shows (plays and musicals, originals and revivals) have moved into the neighborhood, driven by their own top-tier talent (of all ages and levels of experience, more than a few direct from Hollywood).
On May 8, THR convened a gathering at Highline Stages in the Meatpacking District with the legendary screen star Danny DeVito, 72, who’s playing Gregory Solomon, a chatty 90-year-old Yiddish antiques dealer who finds himself in the middle of a family squabble in 1968 New York, in the play The Price; multi-platinum recording artist Josh Groban, 36, who’s playing Pierre, a stout Russian aristocrat experiencing an existential crisis in 1812 Moscow, in the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; fast-rising film and TV actor Corey Hawkins, 28, who’s playing Paul, a con-man who convinces high society that he’s Sidney Poitier’s son in 1990 New York, in the play Six Degrees of Separation; theater favorite and Law & Order: SVU alum Andy Karl, 43, who’s playing Phil Connors, a jaded weatherman who winds up living the same day over and over again, in the musical Groundhog Day; and Pitch Perfect supporting actor-turned-Broadway breakout Ben Platt, 23, who’s playing Evan Hansen, an anxiety-riddled loner of a high school student who gets caught up in a web of lies, in the musical Dear Evan Hansen.
Groban, Karl and Platt are nominated for best actor in a musical, Hawkins is nominated for best actor in a play and DeVito is nominated for best featured actor in a play.
KARL This entire show is measured out within a fraction of an inch. The floor revolves in five different directions, it spins backwards because you’re rewinding time, you’re starting time, the pieces become undone. I have to get dressed on stage — tie a tie, no mirror, and do it within a certain amount of counts. So everything is really mathematical. That’s Matthew Warchus — mathematical, with emotion — so it becomes very technical in that way. But then I put on my hat of like, “But you’ve gotta wrap all that in like what you’re going through today, so everything’s gotta be coated with that emotion.” There’s certainly things that go wrong. Everybody in the ensemble has to be on a fraction of an inch. Everything has to meet at the same time. It took a lot of rehearsal to get that. It’s very smart in that way, but it’s also very complex.
DEVITO The big thing is for me is that if I ever get anywhere that I feel is unfamiliar while I’m going, it’s always go back to the play, just sit on the play, because the play is so amazing. And the audience is changing every night, so that’s a big part of it, but no matter how wacky it get —, whether it’s candies being unwrapped or cell phones going off or whatever’s going on — the thing that you can always do is when you have good material like an Arthur Miller play is you sit on those words, you find that spot where he’s taking you, or she’s taking you, the author, and you embrace it, and you go with it, and it’s, and then you circumvent things and you can play. Like, I have this section in the middle where I eat an egg. I take out an egg and I crack it on my cane — a hard-boiled egg — and from there there’s a bunch of beats that just go off the charts, and you can take that thing and just go with it. The whole rest of the play could be about eating the egg because I eat the whole egg.
And not everybody spits an egg like Danny DeVito.
DEVITO No, I spit an egg pretty good. Depending on how nice Mark is to me, I go easy on him. Sometimes, if he’s really good to me, sometimes I spit a little bit. If he’s like getting on my nerves, I give him the whole nine yards.
There’s a price for doing something eight times a week, for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, over the course of months. It can be physical and it can be emotional, and I want to ask you about that. Ben, let’s start with you. To play this character, you change your physical posture, which must affect your vocal delivery, and I’ve sat close enough to the stage to see how deep you go with the emotional side of things, too. In fact, one of the many people who have given you great reviews for this performance is The Hollywood Reporter‘s own theater critic, and his one note was, “I’m actually a little concerned for Ben because he’s going so deep here. I hope he’s not damaging himself.” So how do you find that line?
PLATT It’s a daily thing that I’m still figuring out. What we all look for as actors are pieces that we want to throw ourselves into and make us want to give everything to, and I’m so in love with this piece of theater — I’ve obviously had four years to fall in love with it, but I mean, I couldn’t believe in it any more, and characters like this do not come around ever, where you get to use all the tools on your belt and really feel this synergy between you and the character. I feel a deep responsibility, as the person who’s administering the story every night, to give it at the same level each night. But I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a human being and that days are different and that there are some days I feel better than others. It’s the kind of role that has taken over my whole life — as I’ve alluded to earlier, I have very strict regimens, as far as eating and sleeping and therapy and all that. It is a sacrifice, but the experience is all the sweeter because you’re making it, earning every last drop of it. We’ve been open for six months now, so maybe let’s talk again in another five, but so far so good. I’m just really trying to take it one day at a time and let each show be its own experience and try to maintain that level of decorum. I will say that I have seven other actors on stage with me and it’s a really tight-knit cast, the eight of us, and everybody is really giving of themselves and nobody is holding anything back. There’s no vanity. If there are days when someone needs to be lifted up, there are seven other people to lift you.
Danny, you’re playing a guy 20 years older than yourself. What do you have to do to make that work?
DEVITO I come in a little early and do my make up and put on some spots on my hands and mess with my teeth, change everything about myself. You come early and you stay late. The first thing I do when I’m finished with the first show on a Wednesday or a Saturday, the matinee, is I go right into my pajamas. I have a little room right off of the stage and I just I lay there and wait for the next one to come ’round, and it’s just so much fun. I also have a little trampoline that I got online, and I have a little bathroom that I put it in, and I jump on that before a show. It’s simple exercise for me, it’s low-impact and it’s really kind of nice and gets you going. I do it without my costume, then I add the layers of clothes and I keep doing it until I’m finally standing there in my overcoat and my hat and my cane and the whole thing. I have a Kandinsky — like a beaded curtain, because my character was born in 1879 and Kandinsky was like the turn of the century. I have chicken soup. Anything to get into the mode.
Josh, while wearing a fat suit and singing and playing the accordion, you have to navigate a complicated stage with a lot of stairs…
GROBAN Yeah, you start to really learn to be much more in-tune with what your body needs and you start listening way more to yourself. And you do feel guilty sometimes about wanting to throw on pajamas and just do nothing. Broadway has been hell for my social life. I can’t wait to say “yes” to things again. Because I know I’m going to sweat a lot, I try to hydrate. Because I know the singing style that I have out there is very different from the singing style I have when I’m doing a concert, I have to warm up in a certain way that I know can be healthy and do that eight times a week. With the stairs, as soon as I feel a tweak, I try to nip it in the bud and just find ways to stretch or whatever. It’s a lot. It’s something I’ve never done before. But I think we’re all so grateful to be doing this when the words are great and the notes are great, and after you do 100 or 150 performances, there is that feeling that you can go back to just resting on the work. Sometimes after a 100 shows, you find new things when you finally let go. It’s those nights sometimes when you’re feeling so tired or that you can’t physically do that thing that you were doing two weeks ago and you have to go back to the basics that you actually find a new thing.
Corey, you have to deal with something that the other folks here, with these particular shows, do not, which is the absence of an intermission. How does that affect you? You’re also playing a guy who is shot out of a cannon, talking a mile a minute. Do you miss an intermission, or do you like that you go right through?
HAWKINS I love being able to get to the bar quicker after the show. (Laughs.) No, what’s interesting with this play is it starts as a dinner party and the audience is sort of trying to figure out this Upper East Side world of art and Kandinskys — and then it turns into this farce, this whodunit? “Who is this guy?!” Then in the third act of the play, the rug gets pulled out from under you, and you realize — or you think you realize — what went wrong. But I don’t think this play could sustain itself if it had an intermission because there’s the ride that Paul is on — I mean, like I said, in every scene he’s a different character and, emotionally, it can be so taxing to go out there and really have to commit to being this person. It’s horrible, some of the stuff that he’s doing, but, again, it’s that theme of redeemability, and actually I’m hearing for the first time how present that is this season actually.
Andy, three days before your opening night, during the second act of one of your last previews, you experienced a pretty terrible injury. Can you share what happened?
KARL I still haven’t actually emotionally dealt with this, so talking about it is very hard. Three days — 72 hours — before opening night, I did something on stage that I’ve done a million times — a leap — but this time I tore my ACL completely, went down, crawled off stage, sobbing, knowing that it was all over. I felt like it was all over. [chokes up] I hate talking about this. But the great thing that I realized about the piece — you know, we’re talking about relying on the text and everything — is that the last song that I sing in this show is all about seeing the people around you for the first time with open eyes and not having any sort of preconceived notions, seeing that they can lift you up. I knew that I had to go out there and limp or whatever, just get out there with a cane, and sing that last song, “Seeing You.” And the audience was part of it, so I could just look all around, 360 degrees, and all of a sudden have this huge leap of a cathartic moment — just, “This is what theater is all about, and this is where I’m supposed to be, and this is how I’m supposed to be.” I went to the hospital later, they told me the bad news, I got into physical therapy, and somehow I made it on stage three days later, limping, with a cast. I wondered, “How do you act when you have a big brace on your leg? How am I going to get the audience to not look at that?” But then I relied on the text, I relied on the comedy, and I made a joke out of it — I was like [plops leg on table], “Hey, aren’t you curious?” And it was one of those moments where everybody was with you and you work with what you got, you know? I think there’s so much to all of that. It was my Karate Kid moment. The show must go on.
Amazing. Well, what we’re going to do now is something we call “Rapid Fire,” where I raise a topic and ask you to quickly name the first thing that comes to your mind. To begin with: your most unusual ritual before a show, after a show or during intermission. Danny’s trampoline sets a high bar.
PLATT I get a fiberglass cast put on every day before the show, like full sock and everything, and before intermission it gets sawed off with a Dremel, so I have to do that. It’s a real-ass cast and everything.
Oddest thing in your dressing room.
PLATT A deer who’s dressed like Evan Hansen, who’s “Deer Evan Hansen.”
Entrance applause: like it or not?
KARL There was a time when I was getting entrance applause but it drowned out a really great lyric that I had to sing — “pointless erection” — so the director asked me to wake up a little earlier and pick up the phone.
HAWKINS I have the weirdest thing because people clap for Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey — they come on a lot earlier than I come on — and then I show up a quarter of the way into the play, and people are like [slow claps].
DEVITO In The Price, Arthur Miller built in a wonderful thing for my character, which is I come up a staircase to this attic where all the furniture is, and he’s got me coughing. It’s in the script. The first line in my scene is Mark saying, “Can I get you some water?” So that helps out because we don’t really have to start the scene, we let them applaud, you know?
Most annoying thing audience members do.
PLATT Phones. People’s faces illuminated by phones, thinking that I can’t see your blue face. Like, I can see your blue face.
GROBAN For me, it’s when somebody says, “Hey, Josh!” Or when I just like finish my big eleven o’clock number and somebody’s like, “Great one, Josh!”
KARL With movie musicals, usually you have lines that everybody knows, so they’ll say them with you.
DEVITO The one annoying thing that happened to us a couple of times is in the second act, there’s a blackout and in the middle of the blackout somebody pulls out a flashlight trying to help you.
What you do on your off day.
KARL I do The Hollywood Reporter roundtable!
Number of performances a week you wish your show was offered.
PLATT I would take seven.
DEVITO I would do nine. Well, with a limited engagement, if you do nine, do you get out of the show earlier? (Laughs.)
Non-friend or relative whose attendance at your show has meant the most to you.
PLATT Hal Prince.
DEVITO Harry Belafonte.
GROBAN Singing about a comet for Neil DeGrasse Tyson was really cool. Singing the word “parabola” to his face was awesome.
HAWKINS Debbie Allen.
KARL The original Rita from the movie, Andie MacDowell.
The biggest thing Hollywood can learn from Broadway.
PLATT Strangeness is successful and powerful and interesting.
GROBAN Stay weird.
Last but not least, what you would be if you were not an actor.
HAWKINS A pilot. I still want to try.
DEVITO Hairdresser [his profession before he became an actor].
Guys, we just established that an off day is a precious thing, so thank you for sharing one of yours with us. And congratulations on the great work and Tony nominations.