“I love this moment that we’re having right now,” Leslie Odom Jr., the 34-year-old best actor in a musical Tony nominee for Hamilton, says of a Broadway season in which the hit show of which he’s a part, with its colorblind depiction of America’s founding fathers, has been but one of many highlighting diverse stories and talent. After Hamilton‘s record 16 nominations, the next most nominated show is Shuffle Along, which features a large and almost entirely black cast. There’s also Eclipsed, the first show ever written, directed and performed exclusively by black women. The Color Purple, meanwhile, centers around black actresses. And the list goes on.
As described by Odom and six other actors nominated alongside him, many of whom shift between stage and screen, the Great White Way puts Hollywood to shame. “Hollywood’s in a major drought right now in terms of capturing people’s hearts and minds,” says Zachary Levi, 35, the former star of TV’s Chuck-turned-best actor in a musical nominee for She Loves Me. “They’re sacrificing talent over whatever sells tickets,” adds School of Rock‘s Alex Brightman, 29, also nominated in that category. Blackbird‘s Jeff Daniels, 61, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night‘s Gabriel Byrne, 66, both best actor in a play nominees for grueling productions — the former’s an explosive 90 minutes with no intermission, the latter’s a nearly four-hour grind — have long jumped between Hollywood and Broadway and confirm these concerns. “They’ve got a lot of problems, and diversity is a big one,” says Daniels. Laments Byrne, “It’s run by corporations, movies are products, the products have to sell to the widest possible audience and, in order to do that, they shave off anything that’s emotionally challenging or complex.” Reed Birney, 61, a best featured actor in a play nominee for The Humans who plays the veep on House of Cards when not beating the boards in New York, proudly notes, “Broadway has always done stuff before Hollywood,” as fellow theater vet Danny Burstein, 51, nominated for best actor in a musical for Fiddler on the Roof, nods in agreement.
All acknowledge that Broadway still has room for improvement — “What we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons,” cautions Odom, who is black and says that apart from Hamilton “there are no shows for me to do, there are just no roles” — but that, warts and all, it’s a pretty terrific place to work. “The gift that I have,” says Brightman, “is that families come see my show, and it’s inevitably somebody’s first Broadway show every performance — that’s usually affirmed at the stage door — and so that is who I’m doing it for.” Here is a lightly-edited transcript.
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I want to talk about how each of you came to the role for which you’re nominated. Leslie, I believe that before you ever read Hamilton, you saw it — or at least a part of it — performed at a workshop, right?
ODOM Yeah. My wife was up at Vassar. They do a New Works Festival up at Vassar — you guys know the Powerhouse [Theatre] — and she was up there workshopping a new musical. So I was up there every weekend, and they were doing this new thing, Hamilton Mixtape. I knew Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s work from In the Heights — I’d seen In the Heights and I was a big fan — and it was a hot ticket. Even then you could not get a ticket into this black box theater where they were doing this thing. But I said, “I’m getting a ticket!” So me and my mother-in-law, who was there also seeing Nicolette [Odom’s wife], we got the last two tickets in the back row of this black box theater. We felt like [we were in] Willy Wonka. [laughs] And I had never seen anything like it — two minutes in, “What am I looking at? What is this?!” And it’s just being performed in front of music stands, you know? If something works at that level, if something is working at a music stand, you’re good. The second or third song in the show is called “The Story of Tonight,” and it was four men of color on stage singing about friendship and brotherhood and love. I had never seen anything like that. It was a revelation.
And in terms of actually getting into the mix yourself, you were pretty persistent about the part of Aaron Burr, right?
DANIELS Did you have to sleep your way into the role? [laughs]
LEVI Is Lin gentle? [laughs]
BRIGHTMAN And did it work on the mic stand level? If it worked on a mic stand level, you know you’re good. [laughs]
ODOM That, too! Unbeknownst to me, they had been talking about me for this part, about trying me out in this part. You hope when the moment comes, you’re ready for the moment, because 15 years in the business has taught me what a rare thing this is. I’m not some kid that’s going to wait around and hope you know how I feel about a part. No, no, no. After every single time we’re doing a workshop or a reading, I’m letting them know, “I want this part. I want to stay a part of this show. There’s no pressure here. If you feel like you need to see other people for the role, great—”
DANIELS Don’t ever say that. Don’t ever say that. [laughs]
ODOM It worked out.
DANIELS You’re done saying that.
BIRNEY Jeff was almost Superman.
ODOM Here’s the thing about it. It felt like we were walking towards commitment, you know? I’d experienced it in my relationship. I didn’t want there to be pressure. When we were standing face to face under that chuppah, which we did, I wanted us to both have made the choice every day to say yes to continuing in this relationship. And that’s what we did. They could’ve let me go at any time, and I knew that, but I didn’t want them to guess about how I felt about it. You don’t have to guess about that. I love this show and I will give it everything that I have.
LEVI Do other people like the show? [laughs]
Reed, The Humans is not the first show in which you’ve played a character living a life of quiet desperation, but I believe that it is your first show in which that character is of the blue collar variety…
BIRNEY It’s the first janitor I’ve ever played. Terribly exciting. I was really nervous about it because I didn’t think I would cast me as a janitor, but I am so grateful that [director] Joe Mantello and [playwright] Stephen Karam did. It’s been thrilling to do. I did a reading of it in October of ’13, which is how I first got involved. An actor dropped out at the last minute and they asked me to really just do a favor. The guy who was directing it at the time said, “It’s not a perfect fit, Reed.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, no, it’s not. You’re right.” But it’s been miraculous that it worked out this way.
Alex, you were acting in Matilda, I believe, when you were first asked to read for a part in School of Rock — and it wasn’t necessarily going to be the lead, right?
BRIGHTMAN No, it wasn’t the lead. It wasn’t the plan in anyone’s eyes. I was doing Matilda. I was playing a child, clean-shaven, really clean cut. And I did a reading of School of Rock playing one of the children. All of the kids were played by adults, just to see if the script was working. I like doing readings because it’s fun to elevate somebody’s words that are at a really base level, and to sort of show them what the words can be. The director took a shine to me and asked me if I would want to come in for the show, not for the lead, just to see if my energy was right. I came in and I started singing and it was the first time in the 10 years that I’ve been here that I got to sing real rock and roll in an audition, as opposed to my karaoke joint. Then they handed me the material and I started handling that well. And then they had me improvise for 45 minutes in my last callback — two scenes, as long as it took — and I left the room. They gave me the role for the Off-Broadway workshop and then again said, “This is not for Broadway.” And the way they said it was like, “It’s not going to happen. I just want to let you know, don’t stress.” And by the time we had invented, for four weeks, this wonderful show, before we started performances, they said, “We would like you to do it on Broadway.” I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those weird things — “started from the bottom, now we’re here.” Who sings that?
ODOM That’s Drake.
BRIGHTMAN Big Drake fan.
Danny, Fiddler on the Roof is a show that you’ve been involved with over many decades, in one way or another, but you never thought the part of Tevye would even be available to you, right?
BURSTEIN I always thought it was played by an old guy. [laughs] And then, all of a sudden, here I am! Two-and-a-half years ago, I was doing Talley’s Folly Off-Broadway with Sarah Paulson and the director Bartlett Sher came to see the show. He said, “Let’s grab a beer after the show,” so we went out and he said, “Look, I’ve been asked to direct Fiddler on Broadway. It’s not for two-and-a-half years, but I’d like you to play Tevye. The issue is, they may want to go with somebody very famous. Just know that I want you. And you can’t tell anybody. So just think about it.” I’m like, “Okay. What do I do now?” About a year-and-a-half later, I officially got the call and could tell people, and I could start to work on it in earnest. I had done it before twice, when I was a kid in high school and also with Theodore Bikel in Summerstock when I was 21. So that was great.
Gabriel, this is not the first time you’ve done Eugene O’Neill on Broadway. In fact, your two previous Broadway appearances were in both Moon for the Misbegotten and A Touch of the Poet, respectively. What is it about him that you’re drawn to, and what led to this particular opportunity?
BYRNE Well, I don’t know, really. I just feel a kind of empathy with the characters that he writes. When I did Moon for the Misbegotten, I played Jamie Tyrone, who’s the son of the character I play now, James Tyrone, and it just seemed inevitable that somewhere along the line I would play the James Tyrone role. After Moon for the Misbegotten, I thought, “Ah, I don’t really want to do O’Neill again,” but there’s something about the challenge of it that you feel you never quite get to the top of it, you know what I mean? You feel you get a bit up the mountain and then you fall back down again.
DANIELS It’s so rich. The writing is so rich.
BYRNE Yeah, and there’s a ruthless kind of honesty to it, even to O’Neill’s titles — for example, it’s not called Long Night’s Journey Into Day, because the ruthless honesty of his writing is that we are all headed for night, and there’s no cozy resolution, no “closure” at the end of it. His wife described him coming out of the room where he wrote this play bloodless, shaking, in tears, and he refused to have the play performed during his lifetime because I think he must’ve felt enormous shame and guilt about having subjected his family to this kind of microscopic, emotional and psychological observation. Not to be too pretentious about it, but I’ve always felt that like — especially in O’Neill — the role of the actor is to say, “Okay, he wrote this and it cost him an enormous amount to do it. My job is to take what he’s written, and as best as I can, good, bad or indifferently, present it to those people who’ve come in.” It feels to me that as an actor, you get to feel very powerfully your sense in the chain of handing it on.
Jeff, you previously played this same part in a 2007 Off-Broadway production of Blackbird. I’m curious how that came about and also what, nine years later, made you feel that you want to subject yourself to it again. It’s not a walk in the park…
DANIELS Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club, in 2006, sent it to me saying, “Do you want to come back to the theater?” I was out in Hollywood doing bad movies, so I wasn’t happy and I said, “Yeah. Let’s look at that.” I read it and didn’t know how to do it, which I think makes all of us go, “Oh, good, I might fail.” I needed to be challenged again, so I said “yes” and went into it. We threw our best at it — [director] Joe Mantello, Alison Pill and me — and it went well. But nine years later, Scott Rudin called and said, “I want to put Blackbird on Broadway.” And I’m going, “Ah, okay.” Because it’s tough — it’s brutal to do. It’s just the two of us [Daniels and Michelle Williams are the only actors in the piece], and it’s about child abuse and being confronted, and you’re in the room with these two people — this girl, Michelle Williams, shows up and just wants to talk about it at my place at work, and we start where a lot of plays are nearing their climax. We walk on with that. It’s like [Anton] Chekhov: “Enter sobbing.” So it’s just hard to do. But I hadn’t gone far enough. In going back now, Joe and I were going, “What can we do that deepens it?” The 12-year-old girl that was abused — Michelle is playing someone who’s 27, so it was 15 years ago — we’ve got to keep that 12-year-old in the room, otherwise it’s just a lover’s quarrel between two of-age adults. So it’s examining — exploring — what makes someone addicted to underage kids, and his internal fight against that — you’re powerless against it. I didn’t have any of that nine years ago. I made easier choices, I think. And this time, from page one, the choices are real, real hard. She’s the bottle of whiskey waving under his nose, from page one on, that he’s been denying he’s addicted to. “Not me. I’m not one of them. I’m not one of them. I’m not one of them.” So to bring that on stage, and to put it on Broadway — which is a commercial risk, to do a play about child abuse on Broadway — it’s been a great ride. A tough one, but a great ride.
Zachary, what led you to She Loves Me, which has been around for decades and interpreted, in various forms, by many other people over the years?
LEVI Well, I was unemployed, so that’s number one. [laughs] Number two, I grew up doing nothing but theater before I was blessed enough to be doing film and television, and I love theater, I love a live audience, I love the symbiotic relationship that you have with them. You feed them and they feed you back, and on a great night there’s no greater drug in the world — I mean, it’s amazing and it’s transcendent. My agent called me and said, “Hey, you’ve got an offer to play Georg Nowak in She Loves Me.” And I said, “Great. What’s She Loves Me?” I had never heard of the show. And then, upon researching it, I realized why I’d never heard of it. It’s a gem of a show, but it had only been on Broadway for eight-and-a-half months originally. And then, when the Roundabout revived it in the ’90s, it was only up for a year. It’s been done regionally everywhere, but I just had never seen it. And then, I researched it more and found out, “Oh, it’s based on Parfumerie, which was [made into the films] The Shop Around the Corner and You’re Got Mail and all these other great similar stories.” Jimmy Stewart [who starred in the former] and Tom Hanks [who starred in the latter] are two of my idols — I love those guys, they’re everymen,and have so much humanity and humor behind what they do — and I thought, “Wow, it’d be really great to play a role that they have also tackled in their different iterations.” And so I said “yes.” Found out later that somebody else was supposed to play the role. I was a replacement. Schedule conflicts happened and he had to step out and then I got the job and I was stepping into this insane all-star team of Broadway royalty, from [director] Scott Ellis to [choreographer] Warren Carlyle to [musical director] Paul Gemignani in our leadership, and people like [costars] Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel and Michael McGrath and Byron Jennings and the list goes on and on. I’m the sophomore who’s done like, one other Broadway show, so, you know, just dribble correctly, or don’t even touch the ball.
DANIELS Just pass the ball! [laughs]
LEVI Speaking to the show specifically, I don’t think Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and Joe Masteroff realized they’d made something special because, again, the original production only lasted on Broadway eight-and-a-half months. Hello, Dolly! was just killing it on Broadway at the time, so I don’t think anything really lasted or stood a chance against it. But they wrote a timeless classic musical in that moment that really does hold up, even the comedy. Younger and older audiences alike come to the show and they all get the jokes. I’m like, “That’s great,” because they’re old.
BRIGHTMAN It really holds up, it does. I just saw it recently.
LEVI It’s a little gem of a show. It’s also very romantic. It’s very charming. It’s very delightful. I tell people this all the time: It’s not groundbreaking. We’re not Hamilton. We’re not doing things that haven’t been done on Broadway or that needed to be done on Broadway or that are really kind of changing the game. But I think we’re offering people a really fun step-back-into-time, whimsical love story.
BRIGHTMAN You’re doing the perfect two hours of what theater’s supposed to do, which is to take people away for two hours from their cell phones — from everything — and just enjoy something. I think that’s great and you do a great job.
DANIELS Does it take people away from their cell phones? I’m not finding that.
BRIGHTMAN The night I saw your [Daniels’] show, it did. My show? Never, not once, never.
LEVI It doesn’t take people away from their hard candies and drinks.
BRIGHTMAN We had a person — I’ve never seen this before. I’ve seen phones, I’ve seen other things. We had a person in the front row with their phone right here [mimes holding a phone up to one’s chest] and I thought they were trying to show me something, which is also not okay. But it was here, and they were Facetiming with a friend, who was watching our show via their chest.
BRIGHTMAN So basically they got a two-for-one ticket. I was so blown away I didn’t know how to sort of even go, “There’s a cellphone! But it’s not pictures, it’s video! It’s live!” It was so mind-blowing and rude.
Let me ask you guys this. Is there a marked difference between being the first to play a role on Broadway, which is the case with Leslie, Reed, Jeff and Alex in their current roles, versus stepping into a part played at least one other person, and sometimes many others, before, as Danny, Zachary and Gabriel have done in their current roles?
LEVI Well, hopefully the last time it was done was quite some time ago, so you can’t engage that closely. But I don’t know. I mean, I think you still have to just make it your own and trust in yourself, trust in the choices that you’re making and trust in your director and in the piece and in the people that you’re working with.
BIRNEY I love doing new plays. In fact, I prefer doing new plays because the creation and the birthing and collaboration is so thrilling. For me, the danger of doing an older play, which I haven’t done a lot, is that you want to find something different just to be different, and then you get distracted by not being able to actually play the play. You’re like, “Well, I’m going to do this thing to make it my own,” and I think that’s a danger. But there’s certainly gorgeous plays that need to be done again and again.
Danny, Fiddler on the Roof is one of those — it’s now been mounted six times on Broadway. How did you approach it?
BURSTEIN Very carefully. When I first got the role, I went back and watched everybody else do it. I actually wanted to. I usually don’t do that, but I did. I even went to the Lincoln Center Library and got permission from the Jerome Robbins estate to see the revival with Zero Mostel — Robbins, during his lifetime, only let one or two people watch it because he so hated that production, but I went and watched it. And, of course, I’d done it with Theodore Bikel. I basically learned as much as I could and then I threw it all out the window and tried my best to make it my own, and make it as real and honest as possible and go back to the basics every single time, just trying to listen as hard as I can every single night, which is so hard, you know?
Gabriel, Ralph Richardson played the part you’re playing in the 1962 film version of Long Day’s Journey. You actually acted opposite him once. Was it daunting to now step into his shoes?
BYRNE Well, if you look, say, at the Shakespeare canon, I mean, people do Lear and Hamlet and Much Ado — perhaps there’s some kind of comparison there. I think if you’re lucky enough to be asked to play the role, what you then bring to it is what you have inside yourself. You can’t be anybody else. Being subjective and objective, they’re impossible. But I had a unique experience many years ago. I did this miniseries because I was broke at the time and a friend of mine said to me, “Look, you can play this small part and there’s a few Quid in it for you,” and so forth. But one scene that I had in it was with Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Richard Burton — in the same scene.
BIRNEY Oh, come on.
DANIELS Who are those people? [laughs]
BYRNE It was remarkable to watch these people who had never actually been in the same scene before. During the first take, Olivier stopped the camera and said, “Can we have a moment?” And he went over to the director, who was, understandably, extremely nervous, and there was a bit of a kind of hushed kerfuffle in the corner. Finally, wardrobe was called, and the wardrobe people were completely freaked. They came in, and it turned out that Olivier had noticed that Richardson’s military insignia had given him a higher rank. And he wanted an extra stripe.
BIRNEY “You understand.”
BYRNE And so, the level of competition between them was fantastic.
DANIELS “I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to stop.” [laughs] Unbelievable. That’s something.
BYRNE But no, I don’t think you can think of anybody else doing it. I’m really anxious, when I finish this thing, to look, if I can, at some of those earlier performances and see what they did with it.
Leslie, you know now that Hamilton is going to be revived through the end of time—
BRIGHTMAN It can’t be revived because it won’t close! [laughs]
That’s true. But how does it feel to know that you have set the bar for a part?
ODOM It feels like a gift, you know? This is not my first originating, but it’s my first time originating like this. And it’s such a healing thing for an actor because everything that we do is “right.” You’ve never heard so much “yes.”
ODOM Everything that you bring is right, because it’s on you. It’s on [costar] Daveed Diggs, it’s on [costar] Phillippa Soo, you know? So it’s “yes” to you, to all the things that you’ve always done that people thought were weird or didn’t fit, weren’t quite right when you were trying to step into somebody else’s shoes. Now all you hear is “yes.” So it’s a beautifully healing thing. And one of the things I look forward to more than anything is seeing the tenth Burr, is seeing the fifteenth. My Broadway debut was in Rent, and that show meant so much to me as a young performer. I got plucked from my life in high school in Philadelphia and put into the center of my wildest dreams. So the things I’ll say about that is, number one, I was so happy to walk in their shoes — I mean, they were gone, but they were still there. And so there’s something that I feel connected to about that, in that they left a legacy, they left a way that this show was to be done, the love and the passion that it was to be done with. That was the bar, and we had to reach that. So we endeavor to do that at the Richard Rodgers.
Each one of you is visibly working your asses off in these shows—
BRIGHTMAN I thought you were going to say tired. [laughs]
The effort and endurance that’s required for these parts is amazing. We’ve got Alex going at a frenzied pace — performing, singing, dancing — for almost every minute of his show. Gabriel is doing almost four hours, six times a week. Jeff is doing 90 minutes, but full-speed ahead, no intermission. How do you prepare yourself for this sort of thing? It’s basically, I guess, pain management, right?
DANIELS Let’s start with four hours. I saw it, it was great and Gabe was great, but my God, my God, my God. I go, “They’re still acting?!” The curtain would come across. “They’re still acting?!” I felt so guilty because we’re only, you know, 90 minutes, maybe, which feels like 12. Compared to what Gabe’s doing, it’s like we’re out there for 12 minutes!
BRIGHTMAN And their show doesn’t fly by for good reason. I think it has to be that long.
DANIELS No, you get drawn more and more into it.
BRIGHTMAN It doesn’t feel that long, it’s like 10 minutes. You have to feel it with them.
BYRNE People say to me, “Are you enjoying it?” I don’t think you enjoy anything like that, in the sense that, “Oh yeah, fantastic. Bring it on.” But there’s a very quiet satisfaction at the end, maybe due to the fact that you’ve gotten through it. And it’s that satisfaction at the end of having done it that keeps me going on. I think you have a duty to the audience to say, “Okay, I’ve got to be fit and disciplined and focused,” because when you’re in any show you’re not just dependent on your own memory and your own focus and discipline, but you’re dependent on everybody else. It’s a bit like a mountain climbing metaphor: if one person slips, five people go down the mountain. That’s especially true with this play, because it’s so much repetition. But I think that having long-term focus and long-term discipline comes back to just saying each night, “Okay, well, tonight I’ll get through it and to hell with everything else.” I think that my biggest problem is I tend to suffer a lot from doubt. I’ll be in the wings and when they say that awful moment of, “Places, please,” you think, “Well, I have all these words in my head. Will they all come out the way that hopefully they want to come out? You got through it last night, but can you get through it tonight?” Keeping that at bay is difficult for me, because if I start to let that in it can effect the performance. If you do lose focus, even for a couple of seconds in any play, and you have a version of, “Did I leave the kettle on?” as you’re doing “To be or not to be,” you pay for that. [laughs] So you have to be absolutely intent on everything that happens. I don’t know if that means anything to anybody?
BURSTEIN Absolutely. I feel so much more normal, now that I know Gabriel Byrne feels the same things that I feel.
BIRNEY But we’re also all in really beautiful shows, and I feel like you just get on the ride. Because the material is so good, if you trust it, it will take you, it will do the work for you. I know that to be true, that rather than wrestling it to the ground, if I let the play do the thing — and with all your guys’ shows, too — the play will do the work.
BRIGHTMAN One of the important things that comes out of the rehearsal process is pacing your show. Mine, in particular, isn’t a marathon; it’s a sprint for two hours. But the two things that keep me going? First, I created the sprint — I said yes the whole experience, I wanted to say yes and I had so much encouragement to do that and to improvise and to create and invent. Second, and more importantly, is that I remember where I was when I saw my first Broadway show, and it was at the Winter Garden [the same theater where he’s now performing School of Rock]. And now, 21 years later, the gift that I have is that families come see my show, and it’s inevitably somebody’s first Broadway show every performance — that’s usually affirmed at the stage door — and so that is who I’m doing it for, are those people that may have that first moment that I had, that has legitimately changed my life.
One of the interesting things about this Broadway season is that the two most nominated shows are Hamilton and Shuffle Along, which feature big and almost entirely non-white casts. Additionally, there’s Eclipsed, the first Broadway production be written, directed, and performed exclusively by black women, and The Color Purple, which centers around black actresses. The list goes on. What can Hollywood, which is obviously struggling with diversity at the moment, learn from Broadway?
BIRNEY So much. Even beyond the diversity within the casting and the storytelling, I think storytelling in general. I think Hollywood is in a major drought right now, in terms of actually capturing people’s hearts and attentions and minds.
BRIGHTMAN It’s sacrificing talent over whatever sells tickets. I just think talent transcends anything else — talent and drive and merit. I grew up thinking that show business was a meritocracy, and it is not, especially in Hollywood. I think that now, especially in what people are calling the new golden age of theater, we’re doing it right. People, no matter what they look like, have brought incredible stories to light. And people aren’t going, “Eh, it’s good, but she’s this or he’s that.”
BIRNEY But Broadway has always done stuff before Hollywood. You know The Children’s Hour, about lesbians? When they made the first movie, they were just “good friends.” So Hollywood has always shied away from anything that was challenging in that way. And I guess now they’ve been called on the carpet, so they’re stepping up.
Well, you, Reed, should know — you were in the excellent Casa Valentina, which dealt with trans issues before they were being discussed everywhere—
BIRNEY That’s right. Yeah.
BYRNE I don’t think anybody in Hollywood ever sat down and said, “Let’s make a really great artistic picture.” It’s run by corporations, movies are products, the products have to sell to the widest possible audience and, in order to do that, they shave off anything that’s emotionally challenging or complex. Here’s the thing that I’ve noticed: when I look out at the audience during the curtain call at the end, I don’t see any diversity. It costs a lot of money to go to Broadway, and you wonder where the next wave of young writers and young actors is going to come from because the lure of television and film is so strong, for obvious reasons. I used to be a teacher in Dublin, and one day I started a drama class — I knew nothing about it, I just used to take them to the movies and to theater and we’d discuss it — and the difference between them in a drama class and in a conventional class was enormous because they discovered something that allowed them to express themselves. It was unselfconscious, in the sense there was no career involved. But the power of drama to alter children’s lives and people’s lives is incredibly moving. And when I look out at the audiences, I think to myself, “Is there any way that Broadway can address the expense notion? Maybe doing shorter runs so that actors can be more accommodated? And how do you produce diversity in Broadway audiences?” Hamilton is one thing, but you can’t get into that.
DANIELS But isn’t there a $25 ticket, front row, or am I wrong?
ODOM $10 ticket.
LEVI But they are difficult to get, right? You have to win the lottery, yeah?
BRIGHTMAN Yes, they’re very difficult.
ODOM You know, I love the theater and I love this moment that we’re having right now. But I am not so fast to praise. What I think we’re having is a rare moment. What we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons. Oftentimes, from my career, I’ve watched my white counterparts and imagine, if you would, if a white actor was having a similar situation as I’m having right now in this show, the kind of success of this show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles. You know, especially when you look at an Aaron Burr — you look at the complexity, the humanity in this part. There’s no [comparable] parts for me to play, right? Unless we’re talking about somebody’s going to reimagine something, somebody’s going to let me do a She Loves Me or a Music Man. These are roles that were written for white actors. And so I don’t say that to— I’ll take care of myself. I’ll be fine. I’ll go do music. I’ll go do TV. I’ll go do what I have to do. But I hope what we’re going to see is five, six years from now, the shows that this show [Hamilton] has inspired. There’s young writers now that are being inspired by the show that are going to start writing today. But as far as diversity on Broadway? I’d be interested to see what the next two or three seasons look like, because I don’t hear a whole lot of stuff.
Do you think colorblind casting is going to be more common in the future?
ODOM Colorblind casting is great. But you know what’s better than colorblind casting? Roles that are actually written about you. Roles that are actually written about your experience.
DANIELS August Wilson, guys like that, Stepping Out. You’re right. I think it’ll be interesting to see what the playwrights do.
ODOM Ohm yeah.
DANIELS The other thing, too, about Hollywood is they’ve got a lot of problems. Diversity is a big one. But the movie industry is fast becoming obsolete. Sorry, but the cineplexes and that whole thing of making a movie and having it open or not open? That’s gone. I mean, Hollywood’s standing in the way because they can’t figure out how to make money yet, but when you can open your movie on the internet and make money like Louis C.K. is doing with his stuff? Let’s film this stuff — you know, The Humans, let’s shoot it!
BYRNE Well, most productions that I’ve seen of plays, when you put a standard video—
DANIELS You blow out past the camera. I know, I know.
BYRNE You have to reimagine the thing for film and get it out to the widest possible audience. But that’s an interesting point that you make about what’s going to happen. The thing is that if drama is kept in this exclusive, esoteric place called Broadway, and it’s not going into the schools and into the communities, it’ll be people like you or me that’ll find it. But what you want is that to take drama out of that rarified place and make it less scary. Like, people are sometimes afraid to come to Broadway. They’ll only go see Aladdin.
BRIGHTMAN It does feel like a hallowed ground sometimes.
BYRNE Exactly, exactly.
BRIGHTMAN But, to Leslie’s point, I’m confident for the next two seasons because I think that what this season has done — not to discredit seasons before, because there were some great shows that came in with those seasons — is starting to slowly unlatch the box that writers, producers and other creative artists behind the scenes have shied away from, as far as stories that they wanted to tell. I think there are a bunch of writers going, “Oh, no, this would work well now because I’ve seen it succeed.” Younger writers, with their ideas, whether it be gay, transgender, race—
ODOM That’s a great point, too. I think in America, things get boiled down into a black and white issue, but I want to see stories about Asian people, I want to see stories about trans people — diversity is not just a black and white issue. It’s important and we all know why we focus on that in America, but we’ve still got some work to do when you talk about real diversity.
BYRNE Yes, you’re absolutely right.
LEVI Going back to kind of what Alex was saying before about the writers, when the whole fallout from the Oscars happened, I was looking at it going, “But that’s the finish line.” The root of the problem happens way, way, way before that. Unfortunately, so much of the material that’s out there— She Loves Me has a fully Caucasian cast because it takes place in Budapest in the 1930s, and that’s what was written and that’s what it was, right? If you want to change the game and the roles that are available, it has to start with the writing. And as we all know, or at least as writers always tell us, you write what you know. So if we’re going to change the root in order to have a much better tree that’s flourishing, you’ve got to start with the writing, otherwise those roles will never come.
BRIGHTMAN The Roundabout Theatre Company — not to just plug them because they’re my people, but they really do have an amazing system. They go out into the boroughs. They go out and work with all kinds of schools and high schools and give them opportunities to come and not only see Broadway shows, but get behind the scenes, meet actors, meet stagehands and IATSE. There are groups that have been working at this for some time.
BIRNEY And that happens more and more and more.
LEVI It is happening more and more, which is great. But there have got to be more writers who are encouraged — writers of color, of all colors, and backgrounds and whatnot — because that will be the change.
My sense is that what draws many of you who have worked across the mediums — media — back to the theater is the response of a live audience. That’s what I keep hearing. So I’m curious to know, for each of you, what is the moment in your show when that audience response is most palpable and most meaningful to you?
BRIGHTMAN For me, it’s the very first laugh that I get in the show, which is essentially built in. I mean, it’s a laughline and when you figure that out, the audience that I don’t know yet becomes knowable and that’s the last piece of the puzzle. What’s incredibly, wonderfully unfair to actors, before the curtain goes up, is that there’s another character in the show you haven’t met yet, and the first laugh, and the next couple, will determine who they’re going to be. You get to figure them out. But the first laugh for me is my favorite moment live.
ODOM The curtain call. I don’t know how we end up there every night, but every audience is different. The journey along the way is different, but we end up at the same place every night. They’re crying, they’re standing, they’re hugging each other.
BYRNE I would say it’s the tiny moments of silence between the lights coming down and the applause, when the audience comes back from wherever they’ve been to this moment. Sometimes, that silence can be louder than any applause.
BIRNEY I think the first laugh is hugely important and it’s two seconds into our play. And the curtain call, because I feel like there’s the communion, in a way, amongst us all — we’ve just had this event together, we acknowledge their contribution, they acknowledge our contribution and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
BURSTEIN We have a false [Bertolt] Brecht-ian curtain that I pull across when I tell my daughter Chava that she’s dead to me because she’s married outside the religion. When I finally bring that across and scream “no,” that’s the most powerful moment for me in the show. You feel the confusion in the audience. Many people are wondering, “How could he turn his back on his own daughter?” And some people are thinking, and I hear it sometimes, “Yes.” And other people are crying. It’s a very confusing and communal moment, and I think the most significant, for me, in the play.
LEVI This is very difficult for me to answer. I think the curtain call is a possibility because, whether it’s a musical or a play, you are communing with the audience in that moment. We have some moments in the overture where I know if the audience applauds — like after this great violin solo — you feel like, “Oh, they’re going to be with us.” But if I had to pick one moment, it would be right at the end, when Georg and Amalia kind of discover that they are lovers and we kiss. If the people have really been on the journey and they’re overwhelmed and they start clapping, that’s always a really nice moment.
DANIELS Arguably, Broadway audiences are the smartest theatergoing audiences in the world — I mean, London and Dublin and elsewhere would rival that, of course, but it’s certainly one of the smartest. So when you’re sitting out there in the middle of the show, with people who have seen Vanessa Redgrave and remember Jason Robards, to get the dead silence — dead silence, time and time and time again — I’ll miss that the most.
All right. Well, with our last minute or so here, we’re going to do something fun called “rapid fire.” Please just say the first thing that comes into your head — don’t be shy. First, thoughts about entrance applause…
BRIGHTMAN Hate it.
BURSTEIN Yeah, awful
DANIELS They can stop doing that.
ODOM I love it. [laughs]
DANIELS Stop it.
ODOM It’s like, people go, “Welcome!”
DANIELS Have you ever not gotten it?
Most annoying thing audience members do…
BRIGHTMAN Disengaging. Cell phones, any disengagement.
DANIELS Just the cell phone.
BURSTEIN Putting their Playbills on the stage.
LEVI What?! Hoping that you’ll sign it? “Here you are.”
BURSTEIN I actually kicked one off the other day.
Non friend or relative whose attendance at your shows meant the most to you…
LEVI John Lithgow came to our show. That blew me away.
ODOM The President. [Barack Obama has seen Hamilton on Broadway twice and twice hosted the company at the White House. Michelle Obama has called it “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life.”]
BRIGHTMAN Matt Lucas from Little Britain.
Oddest thing in your dressing room…
BRIGHTMAN A picture randomly of Ryan Gosling playing Robert Durst. I have a story, but it’s too long. [laughs]
What you do during intermission…
DANIELS I don’t have one. [laughs]
BRIGHTMAN Change and wipe off my face.
BURSTEIN I change clothes.
ODOM I eat. I have to. I eat like a full meal.
BRIGHTMAN I cannot eat anything.
What you do on your day off…
DANIELS Go horizontal.
BRIGHTMAN I see shows.
What you’d be if you weren’t an actor…
BURSTEIN A teacher.
DANIELS Running a lumber company.
And lastly, the most creative way in which somebody has tried to hit you up for tickets…
ODOM I wish they’d be more creative. [laughs] “Like, remember when I did that thing for you that time?”
DANIELS “I’m bringing a movie producer who might hire you.”
LEVI That’s good.
BRIGHTMAN That’s good.
ODOM They do make a certain small number of standing room tickets available to us — we get a pair for each show. And there was this girl — I’m not going to say her name, but you know who you are — and she hits me up — I haven’t talked to this girl in years and years. “Okay, great. I can get you in. I can get you a couple of seats.” “Okay, great. So I just need five for this week.” [laughs] “I can’t get you five. I hope you’ll be happy with the two.” That was great. That was rich.
LEVI All right. And now on to world peace, gentlemen!