PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Daniel Breaker

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Daniel Breaker Passing Strange Tony Award nominee Daniel Breaker is now, quite literally, a hoofer as Shrek's Donkey.
Daniel Breaker
Daniel Breaker Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Daniel Breaker has had a big year. In 2007, he was making a decent living as an actor, performing in shows Off-Broadway and in the regions. But in 2008, he was one of the stars of the Broadway musical Passing Strange, playing the younger version of Stew, the show's composer, in the semi-autobiographical tale. He won a Theatre World Award and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Then, this fall, he was drafted to play Donkey in the mega-musical Shrek, stepping into a role that had been created by Chester Gregory in the show's Seattle tryout. When the production officially opens at the Broadway Theatre (after current previews), it will be Breaker's second original Broadway musical in just one year. In between those two credits, Breaker stayed productive: he and his wife had a baby in September. Breaker talked to Playbill.com about people and characters with names like Stew, Shrek, Youth and Donkey.

Playbill.com: It must be a remarkable experience to go into a Broadway-bound show that had already played an out-of-town tryout.
Daniel Breaker: I think a lot of times that kind of transition, being the new kid in school, can sometimes be tough. But the cast was so supportive that I never had any of that pressure of "Oh, this is the new guy. What is he going to do?" Everybody was completely inviting. I never felt out of place.

Playbill.com: Did you have to learn a lot of material very quickly?
DB: Yes, I did. When they offered me the part, I had about five days before the first rehearsal. Also, I'm a new father, so I was doing the late-night feeding and learning lines at the same time.

Playbill.com: Oh my God. How young is the kid?
DB: He's nine weeks old. He's brand new. And when I got the call about Shrek I was actually with my son and my wife up in Boston, just being a new father, covered in baby vomit and learning all the new tricks. Playbill.com: What was your wife's reaction to the offer?
DB: She was stunned. And excited. And also, she's a director, and she had a project in Chicago, so it was a little hectic trying to figure out how to plan our schedule, because I was going to take nine months off and be a dad. But when the Shrek train comes calling….

Playbill.com: There's no stopping the Shrek train!
DB: (Laughs) Yeah, no stopping it. You gotta hop on.

Playbill.com: Now, Shrek is a very different musical from the last one you just did, Passing Strange.
DB: (Laughs) Uh, yes.

Playbill.com: Is that an understatement?
DB: Yes and no. In terms of style, it couldn't be more contrasting. But, also, to a certain extent, my character is a lot like the Youth I played in Passing Strange. I think both the Youth and the Donkey are outcasts. I think they're looking for a home or a companion. The way the Youth went around getting it is different than the way the Donkey does, but I think they're cut from the same cloth. You didn't think I was going to use that comparison, did you? (Laughs)

Playbill.com: No, I did not. Obviously, a lot of the characters in this production have to do a lot, make-up-wise, to get ready. What do you have to do to be a Donkey?
DB: It's about an hour doing make-up and getting into the costume. I have hooves, I have ears, I have a tail. It's all about putting those things on, and lots of stretching, 'cause I'm all over the set when I'm performing.

Playbill.com: Do you walk on your feet or are you on all fours?
DB: I do it all. I'm on all fours at times. I'm standing on my hind legs. We actually have an in-house physical therapist for the entire cast. I think we're going to need it for this show.

Playbill.com: It just occurred to me that the last character you played was called Youth, and now you're playing Donkey. You're not playing very specifically named roles, are you?
DB: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess all my characters have a sort of general name. But I don't think there's anything general about the Donkey or the Youth.

Playbill.com: Back when you were training, did you picture yourself becoming this musical theatre performer?
DB: No, not at all. In college, they always said the training was all about versatility and being able to do whatever part came your way. I just never thought this would be my track. I love singing, but I was quite intimidated by the musical theatre world. I just felt I didn't have the chops. And then all of a sudden, without really trying, I was just sort of dropped into that environment. And I'm having a lot of fun.

Stew and Daniel Breaker in Passing Strange
photo by Carol Rosegg

Playbill.com: Now, a film is being made of Passing Strange.
DB: Yes, the film is already made. Spike Lee shot Passing Strange the last weekend, with a live audience. And then we went back the day after we closed for a lot of close-ups. It's hard to describe what this film is. It's a filming of a play on stage, but it's shot with one of the best filmmakers out there. I think Spike has a deep sense of theatricality and musicality. It pairs nicely. And it just got into Sundance. Playbill.com: Is the future television or film?
DB: I think one possibility was a Showtime or an HBO [special]. I really feel it has a future beyond that, so we'll see.

Playbill.com: Did Spike Lee just go to the show and get inspired to make a film?
DB: Spike Lee came to see the show when we were doing it downtown at the Public. Then he came back two days later, and then came back again. And again. He's our biggest fan. He's seen the show two dozen times plus. He's like Norm at "Cheers."

Playbill.com: Maybe it replaced the Knicks for him.
DB: (Laughs) Maybe.

<i>Shrek</i> stars Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker
Shrek stars Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker Photo by Aubrey Reuben