If Max Bialystock were producing The Producers, he’d ask the critics to come see his show now.
Several weeks after the press revisited the Tony Award-winning hit to assess Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’s replacements, Brad Oscar, the new Max, thinks they came too soon. The reviews were supportive and respectful, but comparisons to Lane were inevitable. Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer said Oscar "gives Lane’s performance," while New York magazine’s John Simon thought he had everything except "a little frenzied self-confidence a la Lane."
Relaxing in his dressing room before a recent show, the low-key and articulate Oscar exhibits aplomb as he reflects on what must have been a stressful situation. In spite of his place in classic understudy lore (he still gets a kick out of saying, "I went from playing Santa Claus in Branson to The Producers on Broadway"), his assumption of the role of Max came with an unusual cloud of publicity. It was one thing to be tapped in Chicago to fill in for an ailing Ron Orbach as loony Nazi writer Franz Liebkind; he was able to meld with the company over the five days of tech rehearsals before the show opened, and ultimately won a Tony nomination. But Sturm und Drang broke loose after the initial successor to Lane, British actor Henry Goodman, was unceremoniously given the gate in April after several weeks’ rehearsal and performances with Steven Weber, the new Leo Bloom. Reportedly Goodman was trying to be too dark and gritty in the role. Oscar will only say that "the show played; it didn’t tank. It was a different take on it, stylistically different. This material is so vaudeville-sketch, burlesque-based that it seems to require a certain timing, a certain style. And Henry was doing some different things with that."
Oscar, who had covered for the ailing Lane 72 times, took the approach that "there was safety in going out and doing a lot of what Nathan did, because it was so damn good. It was definitive, so you’d have to be a fool to go out there and try to reinvent the wheel."
No fool he, but finding what needed to stay and what he could alter to make the part his own took more time than he was given. "Even though I knew I could start to make it more my own, that’s a different thing than to put into play every night," Oscar says. "I wasn’t in a rehearsal studio. Steven and I didn’t have a lot of time to develop stuff organically. We had to go out there and do that in front of an audience every night." The changes have been incorporated gradually. "Once the press was here and that pressure was off, I found that over the next several weeks I was doing things differently, almost nightly," says the star. "Mel [Brooks] came back in the country right after we reopened for the press, and his biggest note to me was, ‘Make it your own! Make it your own! Find your own stuff. Don’t worry about doing what Nathan did.’" So Oscar experimented with various line readings until he found other ones that felt "organic and real." Some business that particularly suited Broderick and Lane but was not essential to the story, has been pared as well. "I can sense that it’s just becoming more mine," he says.
Castmate Jeffry Denman, who as Broderick’s understudy shared fortnightly rehearsals with Oscar last year, agrees. "I think Brad has added to his Max that which is most essential to the character: command," says the author of "A Year with the Producers." "Brad has fully embraced the role — which is something every understudy has a hard time doing. But now Brad has the role and is owning it. His Max has become more confident and strident and outstanding. It’s different mainly in the way that Nathan and Brad are different. Brad’s Max is a bit more comfortable with himself than I thought Nathan’s Max was."
That self-confidence came in handy during an April interview with the Washington Post in which the 37-year-old actor outed himself. Initially evading a reporter who had been needling him to find out about his romantic life, the exasperated Oscar finally said, "Fuck it! His name is David." His boyfriend is a performer, he adds, and the relationship is now ten months old.
"I’m not going to dodge this issue because I hate when I read things about people and they obviously are dodging the issue," says Oscar. "I mean, what’s the big deal? That’s how I feel. My priority is not to be some sort of role model or hero or spokesperson. It’s who I am. I’m not going to hide it. In my little world right now, in this arena that I’m in, it doesn’t really matter."
Indeed not: Admirers send champagne back to his dressing room at the St. James, a spacious room by backstage standards, with amenities such as a butter-yellow damask sofa, a wide dressing table and mirror, and a CD player. His picture hangs on the wall at Sardi’s. Actors he has long admired, like Frank Langella, spot him and call out. And nowadays he’s invited to perform at special events, such as the recent York Theatre benefit for Cameron Mackintosh, at which he sang "Suddenly Seymour" with Faith Prince.
Before he took over as Max, he even managed a cameo as a caterer on "Law & Order" this season, his first TV gig since he starred in a D.C. children’s program when he was in high school. "It was called 'In Our Lives,' and it was a show for teenagers," he says. "It aired on Saturday mornings. And the first 15 minutes of the show was a dramatized vignette about a teen issue, and the second half of the show was a discussion with the studio audience of teens about the issue."
But with the lead in The Producers the likelihood of taking on film or TV work has dwindled. "More and more," he says, sipping on bottled water, "I’m realizing that I have to say ‘No’ to a lot. I need my Mondays to be as quiet, and I need as much down time as possible." The role of Max, one of the biggest in musical theatre — only Sweeney Todd rivals it in his estimation — demands vocal and physical conditioning. "No other performance profession does eight shows a week!" he says. "It’s been over two months now, and I’ve gotten through eight a week. I’m feeling good, although I’m definitely tired."
He’s not complaining, though, not at all: "This was my dream — to star in a Broadway musical, a big, grand, good Broadway musical. The sound of that brass, the trumpet coming from the pit of an orchestra in a theatre — it just gives me a charge like no other. I just love it."