On May 5, The Hollywood Reporter gathered seven men who are giving — or, in one case, gave — extraordinary performances on Broadway this season, and who have been Tony-nominated accordingly, for our second annual Tonys Actor Roundtable at Milk Studios in Chelsea.
Four are nominated for best actor in a play — Steven Boyer (Hand to God), Bradley Cooper (The Elephant Man), Ben Miles (Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2) and Alex Sharp (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), all of whom are at least relatively new to Broadway, if not to acting. And three are nominated for best actor in a musical — Michael Cerveris (Fun Home), Brian d’Arcy James (Something Rotten!) and Tony Yazbeck (On the Town), all of whom have been hitting the boards on the Great White Way for decades.
Cerveris, 54, and d’Arcy James, 46, have been nominated for Tonys on multiple prior occasions — the former for The Who’s Tommy (1993), Assassins (2004), Sweeney Todd (2006), Lovemusik (2007) and Evita (2012), winning best featured actor in a musical for Assassins, and the latter for Sweet Smell of Success (2002) and Shrek: The Musical (2009), coming up short on both occasions. As for the other five men — Boyer, 35, Cooper, 40, Miles, 47, Sharp, 25, and Yazbeck, 36 — this year’s nominations mark the first such acknowledgment of their careers.
Five are nominated for work in shows that are new to Broadway (Boyer, Cerveris, d’Arcy James, Miles and Sharp), while two are nominated for work in revivals (Cooper and Yazbeck). Their histories with these shows are varied. One came to Broadway with his show following an acclaimed run overseas (Miles). Another replaced someone who had been part of an acclaimed run overseas (Sharp). Two first appeared in out-of-town incarnations in recent years (Cooper and Yazbeck). Two appeared in popular Off-Broadway productions that subsequently made the jump (Boyer and Cerveris). And one came directly to the big time after a scheduled west coast premiere was ultimately deemed unnecessary (d’Arcy James).
As for their parts, three were tasked with portraying people who actually lived — Bruce Bechdel (Cerveris), a distant and disturbed father remembered by a graphic artist in 21st century America; Joseph Merrick (Cooper), a grotesquely deformed man in 19th century England; and Thomas Cromwell (Miles), a man who rose from the masses to become counselor to the king in 16th century England. Two took on fictional characters of the past — a struggling playwright who co-writes the world’s first musical during the Renaissance (d’Arcy James), a sailor on leave with two buddies in New York City for 24 hours during World War II (Yazbeck). The final two, played the parts of present-day fictional characters — a mentally-disturbed student at a “puppet ministry” (Boyer) and a teen with signs of Autism who becomes obsessed with solving the murder of his neighbor’s dog (Sharp).
While these assignments could hardly be more different, just like the men who inhabited them (one an A-list movie star who landed Oscar nominations in each of the last three years, another a 2014 graduate of Juilliard who didn’t have an agent, manager or credit to his name a year ago), they all demanded a tremendous degree of commitment and skill to pull off, which probably has something to do with why the mutual respect at THR‘s gathering was unmistakable.
Over the course of a 45-minute conversation, which you can listen to and/or read below, the men candidly discussed how they came to the productions for which they are nominated; the demands, on body and soul, of their parts; and a host of other topics including entrance applause, the (mis)behavior of audience members that they find most annoying, the number of shows-per-week that they wish they could give, the oddest item in their dressing room and what they imagine they would be doing if they hadn’t become actors.
Alex, at this time last year you were about to graduate from Juilliard, you didn’t have an agent or a manager and you had never appeared on Broadway. Now, you’re a Tony nominee for the lead role in a Tony-nominated play. What happened?!
Sharp: [laughs] Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I mean, I’m really lucky and a lot of it was timing — very fortunate timing. Because I didn’t have an agent or a manager — I was still at school — I actually ended up getting into the room via a friend who was a reader in the room and via a couple of my teachers recommending me. So they let me come in — this unknown guy — and I got it. And then we [at school] had LA showcase, which you do at the end of Juilliard, so I was in Los Angeles going to meetings with agents and stuff like that. So yeah, it’s been a crazy year.
Steven, your journey from Juilliard to Broadway was also brief, but then the journey to your first nomination has been a little more circuitous. What have you been up to over the 13 years since you were last on Broadway?
Boyer: Livin‘, lovin‘, keepin‘ it real. [laughs] You know, just trying to work. I’ve been working mostly on new plays, and doing a lot of stuff for no money over at Ensemble Studio Theatre, and meeting a lot of playwrights and directors — and that’s how Hand to God came about. It was a reading over at EST, and then we did three more readings, and then got funneled into the schedule and then it just kinda took off. So, in the past 13 years, I’ve just been trying to pay the rent.
Michael, you’ve been involved with Fun Home for several years. Can you talk about what led you first to the Public Theater, where it was such a success Off-Broadway, and now to Circle in the Square for the Broadway incarnation…
Cerveris: Well, it had been around and in development for years before I even became involved with it. I think Sam [Gold, the director] and Jeanine [Tesori, the composer] and Lisa [Kron, the book and lyrics writer] worked on it for five or six years. I came on board right before the production at the Public — we did a week-long workshop. I knew Sam’s work, having seen it a lot; and I knew Jeanine for years because we had done [The Who’s] Tommy together [the show, which ran from 1993 to 1995, marked Cerveris‘ Broadway debut] — she was the assistant music director; and Lisa’s work I’d seen before. So I didn’t know the book or anything, but I came to it via them and wanting to do whatever it was they were doing. And, I don’t know, I just sort of felt like everything I had been doing for years kind of was leading to this in some ways — that’s sort of what it’s felt like for all of us. It took a long time to figure out what it was and what it wanted to be and how we would turn this comic [Alison Bechdel‘s 2006 graphic memoir of the same title] into a stage thing. And everybody just sort of kept at it until it arrived at what it seemed to want to be. There’s a kind of inevitability now, but along the way there was anything but that.
Bradley, your history with The Elephant Man, in one form or another, really dates back over most of your life and the show has factored into a lot of key moments in your life. I hope you can share a little about that…
Cooper: Yeah. The [1980 David Lynch-directed] movie was the original thing that inspired me to want to be an actor. Back then I didn’t even know that it was a play, but then in grad school in New York [the Actors Studio Drama School at The New School] we had to do a thesis and I discovered Bernard Pomerance‘s play. We did a sort of abridged version of it — like a 30-minute piece — and in that, I sort of discovered a different way of looking at the play, perhaps. And I always thought it would be great to do that version of it — just sort of rearranging some things — and Williamstown is a great place to experiment, so I sort of cajoled Scott Ellis to come and try this thing — and Patty Clarkson and Alessandro [Nivola] — and we did it two years ago or three years ago in Williamstown. We got Bernard Pomerance’s blessing to try this out, just sort of taking out a couple of things and having a much more sort of stripped-down, consistent drama aspect to the play, and then it went well and we were lucky enough to go to the Booth [Theatre on Broadway] and do it two years later, and now we’re gonna go to London and that’ll be it — ’cause he died at 28 and I’m 40! [laughs]
Ben, from what I understand you met the director of your show, Jeremy Herrin, just once, by happenstance, before you were offered the part of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall…
Miles: Yeah, we just bumped into each other — I was sitting there and he said, “Oh, hi, Ben, I’m Jeremy!” “Oh, yeah, hi Jeremy!” And he said, “I hope we work together one day soon,” and that was that. And then months later, I met a producer from the Royal Shakespeare Company who’s co-produced this show. I said, “I hear you’re doing Wolf Hall.” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, just out of curiosity, I’d love to see the script — the treatment of it — because I love the books.” And he said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Alright.” And then five months later I get the call! I was driving and I got a call from my agent saying, “They want you to play Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.” [laughs] So it was a kind of long but quick process for me — you know, little quick moments over the space of months.
Brian, I gather that you’ve been wanting to do more musical-comedies for a while — you’ve done some great ones in the past and you’re certainly well-suited for them. How did you wind up with the opportunity to do an original musical-comedy with the guy who has really kind of mastered the genre on Broadway over the last few years with The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, director Casey Nicholaw…
d’Arcy James: Casey and I had worked together before on a show called Minsky’s, which had a life in Los Angeles and was trying to get its way back to New York, and in that process I was asked to do kind of a post-development version of that show to see if they could change some things around, and that was my first time working with him. And I’d done a couple of other meetings with him. So we had a bit of a foundation of a working-relationship there. I’ve always admired him — he’s a very joyful and incredibly positive guy who just brings out the best in everyone — so that was kind of the hook for me. And with this thing? I think everyone here has probably been in development with their play or musical, in some fashion. There were readings and workshops and that’s how I got my first crack at it.
Tony, you’ve been on Broadway since you were a kid. Our theater critic, David Rooney, in his review of On the Town, described you as, “a dependable Broadway yeoman” and, he continued, “who arguably has never been more ideally cast. It’s a star-turn.” How did your association with the show come about and do you regard it as a turning point in your career?
Yazbeck: Yeah. I was introduced to the show back in 2008, meeting [director] John Rando for the first time for the City Centre Encores! version. I had never really known about the show before, oddly enough, even though it was this quintessential MGM movie musical — the musical itself is very different than the film — so, going into it, I don’t think I realized how big of a project this was, as a role and undertaking. It was a huge challenge, especially for a concert version, so we did that and then we sort of put it to rest. I think John always wanted to do it again. So, of course, I just jumped at the chance to work with this man again. We did it at Barrington Stage Company which, like Williamstown, is just another place to harvest new work and go away for the summer. We had no idea that we had a hit on our hands at all. And yeah, it is a role that I probably always wanted to play as a kid and just kind of didn’t know it until it popped up into my face, you know?
Bradley, I have never seen anything like what I saw in The Elephant Man, in terms of the physical transformation that you made eight times a week. You start out on stage, physically, as Bradley Cooper, and we see, body part by body part, you morph into this man who had tragic deformities. Can you talk about what that involved, in terms of preparation and price?
Cooper: I had the benefit of having done it for years, literally. When we did it in 2000, I was so focused on the physical aspect of it and the breathing and discovering how I was gonna interpret the affliction. And because I’ve been able to live with it ‘til 2015, I didn’t really ever think about. And Bernard Pomerance just wrote such a wonderful scene — the device of the illusion that the audience and the actor both agree to on stage, that’s a wonderful way of calling on Merrick. In terms of preparation? I don’t do any preparation because you’re right, I walk out as me, and then it happens literally in real-time, so that’s actually a great benefit. And you know what the truth is? It’s kind of perfect. I do the transformation, then I wear a cloak for like 10 minutes, so if I’m not quite there— [laughs] And then, just in case I’m still not there, I get in a tub where I don’t have to move, so I get a nice warm-up for 25 minutes and then I’ve gotta get up and walk. [laughs]
But at the end of each show, are you in desperate need of a massage or something?
Cooper: You know, I thought I would be, but no. We were just talking about it — it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks. It’s almost like, you know, an accident happens two miles from your house? I think my body started to shut down the last two weeks of the show and I started to really feel it. But, luckily, before that I didn’t at all. But yeah, the last two weeks I started to get a little nervous.
Ben, Wolf Hall is an epic in every respect, not least in that three times a week you guys perform parts one and two on the same day, meaning you, who are in just about every scene, are on stage for five-and-a-half hours. You’ve done a multi-part epic before, actually, with The Norman Conquests, a three-parter. But can anything really prepare you for five-and-a-half hours several times a week?
Miles: No, not really. I miss the furniture — there used to be more furniture in the show [to lean on]. [laughs] Whenever I get a scene where there’s a chair in it — a chair or a drink — I just head for that seat at the end of part two. [laughs] No, physically, it’s a hard role — it’s often more like sport than theater for me, really, five-and-a-half, six hours on stage, and wearing really heavy stuff, as well. There’s a cloak in part two which weighs like two-stone [28 pounds], so I think I’ve gotten about three inches shorter doing the play. But it’s invigorating, too, you know? When you’re on stage for that long and you’re working that hard on the show, it’s a thrill. It doesn’t feel like six hours for me; it feels like two. It goes really quickly. But, yeah, at the end of the week I’m pretty tired. The first day-off we have is a Monday and I have all these plans to do all these great things in New York — and I just stay with the remote and my popcorn all day. [laughs]
For other actors who may be listening, is there a trick to building up your stamina? I read that you almost went down during the first preview, but that you’ve since figured out methods to better prepare yourself…
Miles: Yeah, that was when I realized how hard I’d been working, was that first preview at Stratford-on-Avon in England, when literally I had no idea who was coming on stage next. It was one of the worst nights I’ve ever had in the theater. I thought, “You can’t leave the stage. Just stay and wait and see who turns up.” [laughs] “And someone will say something and then, ‘Oh, right, it’s that scene!'” [laughs] It was really, really, really horrendous. I remember apologizing to the company the next day and they were all like, “Really? We didn’t notice.” Maybe they were being kind. But, yeah, early on I realized that it would take a lot to do, you know? So you look after yourself, you know? You sleep and eat well, and there’s a punching bag offstage which I kind of take things out on. We have a different face every night on the punching bag. [laughs]
Tony, people remember Gene Kelly — whose great screen roles include the one you’re now playing on stage in On the Town — as such an athletic dancer. There’s a reason for that. What he did in the role, and what you are now doing in it many more times than he ever did, is grueling stuff. Even with decades of experience, can you ever get accustomed to putting your body through that sort of work every night?
Yazbeck: Well, like Ben was saying, it’s physically exhausting, in a way. The first couple of months we ran the show I thought to myself, “Can I do this for a year?” I mean, it was just daunting. But I think your body starts to learn to adapt a little bit, and you get accustomed to icing the lower half of your body every night before you go to bed and it just becomes this ritual where you constantly just have to baby your body to get through these shows, especially on those two-show days. But you sort of just make it happen, you know? And growing up being a dancer, this is sort of what I always wanted to do, so you have to look at that and go, “Well, don’t complain now, you’re finally doing it!” You know? So through all the whining and complaining to my wife when I get home at night and all the aches and pains, you know, you just kind of breathe through it. That’s what you do: you learn to remind yourself to inhale and exhale on the stage every night, and that definitely helps you get through every moment of the physical exhaustion of it all.
Alex, can you talk about the very unusual staging and set and multimedia elements of Curious Incident, which require of you a lot of movement and coordination, so much so that it is the first non-musical in 23 years to get a best choreography nomination…
Sharp: Yeah. I mean, conceptually, the set was sort of borne out of the idea that you’re taking a trip inside of this guy’s brain — this unusual person’s unique way of looking at the world — so the set itself is like a huge black grid, which is numbered and lettered. I’m literally choreographed down to the grid square — it’s like graph paper, and I’m choreographed like every single scene because there’s no other set, it’s just an empty space. Every scene is defined by the choreography, and how you move from one scene to another determines how the play moves forward and all of that, storytelling-wise. Tech was an absolute nightmare because it’s so precise — I mean, [choreographers] Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham are absolutely incredible geniuses, but their choreography was so precise, down to literally the squares on the grid, that if you’re in the wrong square the projections hit you. So it just takes a huge amount of focus not to mess that up; otherwise you break the illusion of the play. It’s two-and-a-half hours and I don’t leave and the character, just the way that he is, never stops moving — there’s a lot of just running on walls and back-flips.
Yeah, you’ve said you’re “dripping with sweat from 15 minutes in”…
Michael, I want to ask you about the emotional toll that a part can take. You’ve played dark characters before, from Sweeney Todd to John Wilkes Booth and others in-between, but playing an emotionally-removed guy who has some major secrets and goes to some pretty dark places — is it inevitable that doing that eight times a week has some impact on your own state of mind?
Cerveris: Yeah, it does. It’s interesting because I’ve certainly done things that were more demanding. Singing Sweeney was really demanding. Physically, Hedwig was incredibly demanding. But I’ve never been as exhausted as I am at the end of this show — and just, like, weary. I’ve been trying over time to do various things to sort of shed that at the end of the night — you know, to put the lower part of my psyche in an ice bag at the end of the night! [laughs] You feel so wanky talking about “carrying your character around with you” and all that stuff, but it has to be available to you when you need it and, in the same way that your physical body ends up with bits of bruising from the night, emotionally I think that happens too. I’ve built this little kind of hand-washing ritual for myself at the end to just kind of consciously say, “Right, that’s put away for the night. Now go on.” But still, as I’m talking to people after the show, I’m conscious that I’m not really quite there for a while and, I don’t know, I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been doing something. Thank God it’s a one-act play! It’s just like, “Get yourself there,” and then it starts and you can unload at the end. I think the hardest thing is that he never has any release during the show. Most of these characters that I’ve played get to vent and purge something over the course of the evening, but Bruce — like the actual Bruce — never had that opportunity, so you kind of carry those demons off with you and you have to put ’em some place.
Steven, some actors beat themselves up every night over their performance. You do that quite literally. When along the line did you first learn to operate a puppet? And what does your puppet do to you over the course of a show?
Boyer: I had done one play called Jollyship the Whiz-Bang which is a puppet-pirate rock opera
Cerveris: It was awesome!
Boyer: And I had to learn to operate a puppet for that. But I’m not a trained puppeteer, which I think actually might have helped me for this show because it’s unlike any sort of thing that someone who’s familiar with using a puppet would want to do. [laughs] I’m kind of splitting my psyche and my body, starting at my left shoulder down to the tip of my fingers — it’s like that whole appendage is an entire body of another character with which to express its wants and desires and intentions and things. So it was more kind of thinking about it in terms of a completely different character. And the operation of the puppet? It was on-the-job training. You know, this is our third production of the show, so at this point it’s really become a part of me — I mean, it literally is a part of me [laughs], but I don’t think about it. It does take focus, but in a way that character sort of takes over — the character of Tyrone, the sock-puppet, the devil.
Now, I see a bandage on your pinkie…
Boyer: Yeah. I broke my finger in a matinee. You know, it’s a very violent show. We fight a lot — you know, Jason [the student played by Boyer] and Tyrone [Jason’s puppet that takes on a life of its own] really go at each other in a very violent way — and accidents can happen. I like to think that, on that particular day, Jason won that round and Tyrone is now in a little cast. It’s a very strange, strange thing. One day, last week, we were doing dialogue back-and-forth and Tyrone, the puppet, said a line and it kind of came out garbled. And I [as Jason] was like, “What?!” And made him repeat himself. [laughs] I’m like, “I don’t understand what you’re saying to me.” But it’s all coming out of my mouth. It’s a very schizophrenic experience.
Cerveris: I like that actors beat themselves up all the time, but Steven beats himself up.
Boyer: Yeah. It’s a play about what it really means to hate yourself in so many ways.
Brian, when people from out-of-town come to Broadway to see a show, often what they’re looking for is escapism, and a lot of people associate that with all-out singing, dancing and laughs. Giving them that eight times a week, though, has got to take a lot out of the person carrying such a show, which, in the case of Something Rotten!, is you. What do you do prepare yourself…
d’Arcy James: Well, it’s what Ben was saying. You have to be good to yourself because it becomes very apparent quickly if you’re not — you know, you see the needle going to zero — and so you have to kind of figure out what you need to do in your real life to sustain what’s needed for the show. Our show is a big, high-energy kind of romp — we’re all running around dancing and singing, and it’s a delight to do because, unlike what Michael was saying, I don’t have to shed anything because it’s just kind of pure joy and intoxication, in terms of what we’re doing and the fun we’re having and also what’s coming back at us from the audience. I haven’t had that experience too much. It’s such a great thing to kind of ride the wave home. It’s a lot of fun. But still, even being fun, there’s technique involved, obviously, to kind of create a show and to be in a show. And it does require having an awareness of what it takes to do that.
Do you experience the reverse of what Michael does: can you go in there feeling pissed off and leave feeling happier because your character and show are so upbeat?
d’Arcy James: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s true. If you’re doing your job right, you can’t escape the infection of what’s happening, which is just a lot of fun. So yeah, I think that is true and I’m grateful for it ’cause it is nice to kind of leave all bubbly.
Michael, when your show moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway, it went from a proscenium stage to an in-the-round stage. That’s a major shift. Were you immediately confident that the show would be as effective in that way? And how does it effect your job as an actor to be surrounded on all sides by audience members?
Cerveris: Well, it’s been the most fantastic transferring experience I’ve ever had. You know, there’s always anxiety when you have something that you really love and feel has found its ideal form downtown and then you’re facing moving it up into the commercial world, with all the pressures and anxieties that come with that; you don’t want to lose the thing that you love so much. And when they said, “We’re gonna move it uptown and put it in-the-round,” it wasn’t like, “Oh, great! That’ll be fantastic!” We spent two weeks trying to figure out what that would be in a room at The Public [where the show was performed Off-Broadway] in December before we started proper rehearsals. It was there that we realized, almost immediately, that this was going to be even more exciting. I think the great thing was that we weren’t trying to just capture lightning in a bottle again; we were going back to the material and working on it again. So holding on to a lot of the things that were great downtown we didn’t have to worry about because it was so different. And I now feel like I never want to work on a proscenium again because — Bradley and I were talking about this — you can talk to the people that you’re talking to the way you would talk to people.
Miles: Yeah, it’s a great space for that.
Cerveris: And because Sam and Danny Medford, our choreographer, were so smart about staging us and moving us around, we never feel like we have to be conscious; that’s all been taken care of, so we can just play the scenes. I never feel like I’m reaching to get to anybody. And that element of the audience just completely surrounding you and embracing you — and you know that everything you’re thinking is being registered by somebody — is just really liberating and really exciting. So I’ve loved all of it. The most mundane thing dawned on me one night, in a moment when I’m not speaking and I’m just in a chair, sort of in half-light, looking across the stage at Emily Skeggs: everybody behind me has literally my perspective on Emily — they see what my character sees and they see what I see, like an over-the-shoulder shot in a film — and it suddenly became clear to me why it engages an audience so much. You really are in there sharing the experience with us.
Bradley, over the past year you played two people who at one time — very different times — actually lived: Chris Kyle in the film American Sniper, for which you received a best actor Oscar nomination, and then Merrick in The Elephant Man. Do you find that you enjoy the stuff that comes with playing a “real” person — the research, the responsibility — more than what you have to do when you’re playing a fictional person?
Cooper: Well, there’s primary source material that is not borne out of your imagination that you can work off of, and there’s a responsibility. It feels much more like I’m being of service to something else rather than myself and, I have to say, I really prefer it. It feels like an honor, you know? I fell in love with both of those guys big-time and admire them in many ways. So yeah, it really is — for me, personally — a completely different experience. I don’t think I would have been, honestly, able to do either one if it was just a fictional character, I really don’t. There’s something that sort of got me out of bed and pushed me down the field, in a way, because I knew it was to do service to them. That’s a great motivator.
As I recall, you did things like looking up Merrick’s birth certificate and things like that over the course of a long period of studying him, right?
Cooper: Yeah. I mean, I did the sort of actor-y stuff in school. I got a round-trip ticket to London back in 1999 and I was at the London Hospital, where his bones are, and his birth certificate and his cloak, and I walked across Whitechapel Road to the sari store, where he was exhibited, and just became friendly with the guy who knew everything about him — at least he said he did. [laughs] And also, in the case of Joseph Merrick, he’s inspired so much over the years — it’s really interesting to read and observe other people that have been inspired by him, from Rufus Wainwright [who sings about Merrick in the song “In My Arms”] to David Lynch to Bernard Pomerance. It’s really interesting that he had this impact. And other people wrote about him in their journals at that time.
Ben, one thing that I, as a non-actor, am really curious about is how you handle something: to get to the Winter Garden Theatre for every show, you have to walk past Elmo and painted topless women and all kinds of stuff every day en route to the theater, and then just a few minutes later you have to inhabit the world of the 16th century — and then on two-show days you may jump back-and-forth between those two worlds again. Do you have to sort of cleanse your mental palate? Maybe it’s a stupid question—
Miles: No, it’s not — it’s a really good question. People do it in different ways. I find it an interesting area, anyway, just sort of how you move from your day — your normal day — into your working day, what the transition is. It varies, it varies with your mood, as well. You know, sometimes you just kind of fall into the show, not having prepared that much, but some days you need to clear your head. I physically warm up every night — I find that really helpful, I find the physical affects your mental state pretty well. And, you know, you have little tokens, little mnemonics — or I have — in my dressing room. There are photographs of the Thames. When I was researching the part, I went for a walk around southwest London, this area called Putney where Thomas Cromwell was born; the tide was out on the Thames and I went down on the shore and picked up these pebbles and there was a broken old beer jar from the banks of the Thames at Putney which I carry around and sort of hold sometimes, and that sort of grounds you, you know? There’s lots of little things. I often read some of [Wolf Hall author] Hilary Mantel‘s notes that she’s provided for me and the company throughout the rehearsal period — they’re incredible, they’re really useful to get you sort of back into the mindset and the sensibility of these people in the 16th century. It was a very similar world in many ways, but they thought very differently, they had a very different view of life on Earth and life in Heaven or life in Hell. Things were very present for them that aren’t necessarily very present for people now.
Cerveris: Is it different for you, matinees versus evenings?
Miles: Yeah, there’s a different energy to your day, you know, and a different energy to the company. I sort of see how I feel when I get there, do you know what I mean? But yeah, it is different.
Tony, another question about people today versus people in the past: when On the Town was first performed on Broadway in 1944 and was then released as a film in 1949, the American society was a lot less cynical, and I wonder if the change in that might explain why movie musicals are rarer and rarer these days and, even on Broadway, musicals of that era aren’t always in favor — we happen to have a few this year that have been revived, but that’s not the case every year. So what is the secret to getting the public to go along for the ride with a show that is maybe more innocent than most we see these days?
Yazbeck: Yeah, innocent — I don’t know. I mean, that’s what’s interesting. I guess I look at the big picture. Our show, yes, it’s in ’44 and it’s about these sailors that come from wartime and get off the boat and have 24 hours to basically explore the city and, coincidentally, fall in love, and then they leave and go on a boat again, after they’ve fallen in love, and perhaps they never come back. So I think what’s interesting is they really were talking about real topics back then and now we’re just bringing them up and trying to make them fresh again. My hope is that, perhaps, the movie musical is coming back. I mean, we’ve been seeing this trend lately where people are flocking to the theater to see people sing and dance again, and that just makes me crazy excited because that’s what I watched as a kid. But I think the trick about getting people to be really connected to this kind of a genre — a musical — is firstly the musical, which transports them in their own way, and then not necessarily going, “Hey, we’re just gonna make you laugh,” but, “We’re also going to connect you to something that, perhaps, you can feel from your own family.” We’re basically saying, “You’re not alone.” That’s what we’re saying as actors. And the great part of doing a show like On the Town — and my role — is that I get to express this complete vulnerability of loneliness on the stage, being in a big city and still feeling so alone, and then, at the end of the show, falling completely in love with somebody and having to go back to wartime. So, as much as it’s this beautiful song-and-dance joyful show with a lot of crazy antics, there’s a lot of real, personal, serious issues that they [playwrights/composers Betty Comden and Adolph Green] decided to write about.
Steven, late in your show there’s a “liaison,” shall we say, between two of the puppet characters—
Boyer: Puppet sex.
Yes. And while that scene is going on, one can look around the entire theater and not find a single person — however cynical or jaded they may be — who isn’t laughing uncontrollably. Meanwhile, you and your costar Sarah Stiles manage to keep totally straight faces, which is probably part of why people find it so funny. Talk about how that scene came together…
Boyer: That scene took more rehearsal than anything else by far because there is a wildly comedic scene happening between these two puppets while there is a real, heartfelt, serious discussion happening between the two human beings on stage. Whenever our director Moritz von Stuelpnagel would schedule rehearsal for that scene, it would always take twice as long as he scheduled because there was a lot of improv’ing the positions that the puppets would use that you never saw — I mean, you don’t want to know what we cut from that scene, things that no one should ever really see [laughs] — but it was hard to keep a straight face. Still during that scene, I’ll be talking with Sarah Stiles on stage and, in my mind, we’re trying to have this very serious, heated conversation, but if her eye just crinkles a little bit we could both be completely gone. [laughs]
As we near the finish line, I’d like to introduce a few topics and ask you to share the first thing that comes to your mind. To begin with, your thoughts about entrance applause…
Boyer: Yeah, dislike it — but the puppet has gotten entrance applause several times—
Cerveris: And he loves it!
Boyer: Yes. He’s a big fan.
Miles: He’d be insulted without it.
Yazbeck: I think it depends on the genre. When you know you have a really great crowd out there that wants to see some good theater, that excites me.
The most annoying thing that audience members do…
Sharp: Coughing. If you have to cough, like, more than five or six times, just leave.
Cerveris: Get out of there!
Sharp: Sometimes you get someone in the front row and I swear they have tuberculosis. [laughs] In those quiet moments when they’re just hacking themselves to death—
Yazbeck: When you see the phones light up, that’s the worst.
Miles: Or you hear the phones! When the phone rings and they don’t even bother to get it out of the bag and switch it off. They’re just like, “It’ll finish.”
Cerveris: Or people who think texting is okay because they’re not making noise.
Yazbeck: You’re like, “I can see you!”
Boyer: Lately there’s been a lot of shaking of ice in these plastic cups from the bar. Some guy will just get a cup of ice and let it melt and just shake it, shake it, shake it. [laughs] And I’m like, “You are sitting in the front row! There’s a floor-mic right next to you! Everyone is hearing your ice melt!”
Cerveris: Part of me is just grateful that they’re there — but really!
The non-friend/relative whose attendance at this particular show has meant the most to you…
Miles: Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin came.
Miles: I was so excited! Backstage, we played “Whole Lotta Love” at full volume. [laughs]
Cooper: So many people — I’ve gotta think about it. Denzel Washington was one that meant a lot.
d’Arcy James: Eric Idle [from Monty Python]. That was pretty fantastic.
Sharp: Al Pacino.
Sharp: The fight scene that night was particularly aggressive. [laughs]
The oddest thing in your dressing room…
Cerveris: A football. We call it “the boob football” — it’s a woman’s breast on either end, but it’s a football given to me by [costar] Beth Malone.
Cooper: Merrick gets a present of pheasants and woodcock that the prince sent, so one of the actors, Eric Clem, whittled a cock out of wood and it was in my dressing room, balls and all. [laughs] So if you looked closely, you could see it up in the corner. We shared a dressing room and outside there was an actual wood cock. [laughs]
The number of performances per week that you wish your show offered…
Cooper: Yeah, six, that’s a better number.
Miles: Yeah, six would be good.
Yazbeck: That would be lovely, sure.
Miles: I would just do three double days. [laughs]
Cooper: That’s interesting!
The thing you’d be doing today if you had not become an actor…
Yazbeck: Probably doing some kind of service, some kind of ministry work or some kind of overseas work.
Sharp: I might be in jail. [laughs] Like, probably a handyman of some kind, carpenter or something like that.
Miles: If I’m not sharing a cell with Alex, I don’t know! I wanted to be a photographer when I was younger.
Boyer: I’d be the jailkeeper that looks over Ben and Alex! [laughs] I don’t know, I was a stand-up for a while and I think I’d like to do that — you know, write jokes, comedy writer.
Cerveris: I was raised a good little Catholic boy so I thought I was gonna be a priest for a while, so maybe that. Or a vet — I love working with animals.
d’Arcy James: My dad was a lawyer so early on I thought, “Oh, I think I’ll maybe do that,” and then quickly decided not to.
Cooper: I had no plan B. I’d be fucked. [laughs]