Charl Brown, 33, and Stark Sands, 34 (USC Class of 2001) can be found these days in Motown and Kinky Boots, respectively (Broadway Class of 2013). Twelve years ago they could be found co-starring on campus for the last time — Brown as Leading Player to Sands's Pippin — in the Stephen Schwartz–Roger O. Hirson musical that, like them, just went through that end-of-season adrenaline rush known as the Tonys.
Had they come up head-to-head in the same category, it might have been pushing it a bit, but they didn't. Sands made the leading man ranks, as benefits one who manufactures unconventional men's footwear, and Brown settled into a supporting slot as iconic Smokey Robinson, Motown's second-in-command (after the Almighty Berry Gordy).
The synchronized irony of it all was hard to overlook. It lent a certain surreal haze to their reality last month, and they still hadn't snapped out of it by the time they were enveloped by the annual glitz of the Drama League's star-clustered luncheon.
"When I walked into the ballroom today, the first person I saw was Stark," Brown said. "I thought, 'This is incredible, with our history, that we get to experience this whole thing together.' We work the same press lines, we attend the same awards ceremonies. People ask us about our friendship all the time, and it's fun to go down that memory lane and relive the big moments that we've been through together."
This isn't Sands' first time dealing with awards season blitz — his 2007 Broadway bow in Journey's End earned him a Featured Actor in a Play nomination — but he can attest it's more fun to make the trek with a friend. "There's a handful of people from my college days I keep up with and stay close to, and Charl is one of those people," he declared. He looked no further when he needed a wedding singer two years ago. Brown obliged him by delivering Beyoncé's "Halo."
As Sands tells it, his whirlwind courtship of British journalist Gemma Clarke sounds like a screenplay. Alone in London for two days, he met her on the sidewalk, extended his stay five days just to hang out and spent the next year long-distance visiting. The part that sounds like a sad movie (in particular, 2011's poignant "Like Crazy," in which an Anglo-American couple is strangled by immigration red tape) occurred after she decided to move in with him in New York.
"Because she admitted she'd be living with her American boyfriend," Sands said, "she was denied a visa, and we had to fight the U.S. immigration system. Eventually we found our way through."
His Anglo-American battles these days are confined to the stage and restricted to his drag-diva shoe designer, Lola (a Tony-winning Billy Porter). "The emotional high point for me is a song called 'I'm Not My Father's Son,' where we bond over our mutual disconnect with our fathers," Sands said. "Every night, I can actually feel the audience melt.
"The flip side of that is a scene where I try to talk Lola out of a dress for a gala boot launch. The point I'm really trying to make is: 'Just take this one presentation seriously. Just dress like a man. Do this for me. If you don't, it will sink the ship.'"
Brown's big Motown moment is one from the history books; it takes place when Robinson walks out on stage after a gunshot has sounded and sings, "You Really Got a Hold on Me" to a seething, segregated 1960s audience. "For me, that's the emotional center for my journey through the show. I get to connect with something that really happened, something that propelled us all forward as a people. By the end of that scene, the audience has combined, and it's through the music that they're brought together. That's the thesis of our show — how people of different backgrounds are brought together by a common love of music. That's what music does, how it functions in human nature."
Alongside the Berry Gordy of Brandon Victor Dixon, Brown practically qualifies as comic relief. Dixon gets to do straight and narrow while Brown brings some heart and passion to the proceedings. "They're still the best of friends," Brown noted. "It's hard to figure, considering that they worked so closely together for so long. Berry Gordy is — I won't say dictator, but he knows what he wants and how to get it from people. And Smokey is such a nice, giving, loving person. These two men built Motown together, and it took both of them to do it. Obviously it was Berry Gordy's money and his vision, but Smokey was the first artist and the first vice president of the label, and he had everything to do with turning Motown into what it is today."
Needless to add, the Brown/Sands friendship was activated and fortified by music as well.