THE LEADING MEN: Burnham, Pierce and Strand

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Burnham, Pierce and Strand
 
David, David and Ryan. Delightful David Burnham is stepping into a role with which he has a singular familiarity. Deadpan David Hyde Pierce talks of continuing in Curtains with jovial jocularity, and Altar Boyz' Ryan Strand plays boy-band star Abe with a touching sincerity.
David Burnham
David Burnham

A FIYERO FOR ALL SEASONS
David Burnham, rewarded with a Helen Hayes Award for his excellent Fabrizio in the national tour of The Light in the Piazza, returns to Broadway in Wicked starting January 8, in a role he was born to play. Or a role that was quite nearly born with him playing it. Interestingly, Burnham will be playing alongside Stephanie J. Block, the wife of the last Fiyero we talked to, Sebastian Arcelus, now in Jersey Boys. Original Broadway Fiyero, Norbert Leo Butz, is in Is He Dead? at the Lyceum, so there are Fiyeros like flying monkeys all over the place right now.

Question: Back to Broadway in a big way! Are you excited?
David Burnham: I'm thrilled. It's so exciting. For me it's like coming full circle because I did the original workshops of Wicked, and I didn't get to actually do the show. I did other things, now I'm getting back to it, and with two of the people who originated roles with me in the workshops. Stephanie Block as Elphaba and Lenny Wolpe as The Wizard, so it's like the old gang is reunited.

Q: Did you imagine back when you were first working on it that Wicked would become such a phenomenon?
Burnham: You know what? I kind of did, actually. The very first time we did the show, we just did the first act, and just the first act ran over three hours [laughs], but I knew then that this was going to be something major because the story is so interesting and unique, and the music is so catchy. It had all the elements that I thought would make a hit, so I hoped it would be. Turns out, man, this sucker is huge!

Q: Obviously there have been myriad changes in the show since you were first involved. How has Fiyero changed?
Burnham: Aside from the fact that his song changed four or five times, he didn't change that much — he kind of just evolved and got a little bit more defined. A lot of it actually is still true to what [the character] was originally.

Q: Do you feel a sense of ownership of the character in some way?
Burnham: There's a familiarity that I love. It's like revisiting an old friend. It is fun because I was the first guy to sing some of this music and to read some of these lines, so for me, it's a little nostalgic, like I had some part of history. To get to do it on Broadway now is so cool. Q: I'm curious what it's like to be put into a show that's been up and running. Does the cast that is out on stage every night have to also rehearse specially with you to get the chemistry right?
Burnham: To replace someone is very different than creating the role fresh. When you're doing it fresh, you're with everyone else in the show until you are all on the same page; whereas when you go in to replace somebody, you're like the odd man out. You have to get up to speed really fast and fit in and not disturb the cart too much. The people have been great. The understudies have been great for the two witches — they've come to rehearse with me whenever I need it, run lines and stuff like that. The actual cast themselves, it's hard for them to be able to do many rehearsals because they are obviously doing eight shows a week. It's such a taxing show, especially on the witches. So it's pretty fast and furious and a madhouse, but that's what live theatre is, and it's so much fun to be a part of it.

Q: What do you think the appeal of Wicked is?
Burnham: Everybody can identify with either Elphaba or Glinda in that we always felt, or at least I did, as a child, always felt I was different or not in the in crowd or whatever. I always wanted something more. I think people can identify with that a lot, and of course it is just so fun to escape into the fantastic world of Oz, which is interesting because we've all grown up with "The Wizard of Oz," so to kind of go there but get a different take on it is fun, but it's also a very moving journey, I find. [It's a] story of friendship and love and acceptance.

Q: The Light in the Piazza was a show that brought you much acclaim. Is that a show you hold close to your heart?
Burnham: It was definitely and will always be one of the artistic highlights of my life. It was such a brilliant show to be a part of, and I am so blessed to have been in the original Broadway company and then to get to do the role of Fabrizio on tour. That's a rare piece of theatre, that one. It's so well written, and the story is so beautiful, and the music is stunning to sing; it's so complex. There's always new layers to find in that piece, even after doing it for so long, I never got tired of it, not once.

Q: Give us a little background. What is the early story of David Burnham?
Burnham: Southern California, originally. Grew up on a farm outside Los Angeles, didn't even know L.A. existed 'til I was 18. I was a farm kid. Got into acting and singing when I was in high school. I tried to get into woodshop class, but it was full, and the only thing they had available was choir. So, reluctantly, I went into choir and I opened my mouth and I could sing! So I got hooked.

Q: Was there a show or a role where you went from enjoying acting to thinking you could actually do this for a living?
Burnham: Yeah, that was when I had my big break. I was very young, and I got cast to replace Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I went into an open call for Ragtime, and I had long hair down to my chest, and they looked at me and said, "You're not right for Ragtime, but you're perfect for something else." They told me to come back and sing for the producers, and I said, "What's the show?" And they said, "Joseph, and I said, "Wow! Okay, I know that show." I happened to have done a community theatre production of it, so I came back the next day to sing for the producers, and actually the whole team from Ragtime was there: Terrence McNally and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, all those guys. I sang for Joseph at their Ragtime callbacks! Garth Drabinsky, the head of [production company] Livent, said, "Hey kid! You want to go to Canada tonight?" So I went the next day, and after an audition, Garth said, "We're going to make you a star here in Canada, kid." Within a half hour I was in that dreamcoat doing publicity shots.

Q: So yours really is a whirlwind story of success?
Burnham: Well, I paid my dues, I did every little community theatre in L.A., every Civic Light Opera, everything I could do, in the chorus, all that stuff. Then one day, you get your big break, and it's amazing. But you never know in this business. After Joseph where I was treated like a star, I came to New York and no one knew me here, so I struggled for six months here until I said, "You know what? I'm going to go back to L.A." And I did. I moved back to L.A. and regrouped and took some time, figured out what I wanted to do and refocused before getting back in the business. You never know how it's going to be.

Q: This is really a triumphant return to New York then.
Burnham: This is an amazing, amazing time. The past few years have been brilliant. With Piazza, and I came out with my solo CD during all that, and I've been doing concerts all around the country to promote that, and now going back to Wicked on Broadway is just a dream come true.

[Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, located in Manhattan at 222 West 51st Street; for tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.]

David Hyde Pierce

MEN DON'T LEAVE
You've by now heard about David Hyde Pierce remaining in his Tony Award-winning role as Lieutenant Cioffi in Curtains well into 2008. Great news for the show as well as Broadway fans who feel a sense of pride when a show's marquee players stay on board for awhile. Great news for Pierce as well, to hear him tell it… Question: It's exciting that you elected to stay on with Curtains through Labor Day weekend. Often when big names come to Broadway, it seems like the stay is so brief.
David Hyde Pierce: I think I've had enough experience in theatre and other media that I know a good thing when I see it. All around, the people I'm working with, the part, what I get to do, the singing and dancing, all that stuff, I recognize that once I leave, something like this will probably never come along again.

Q: That said, how do you keep it fresh, doing it as often as you do?
Pierce: I was really lucky. I did a play a few years ago, a two-person play with Uta Hagen, and I learned from her, not because she told me, but just by simply being on stage with her. I learned about just going out and doing it. You do your work ahead of time. You do your preparation, and once you walk on that stage, it just happens. You don't have to try to make it different. Just by nature of it being a different night, a different audience, it will be different. It happens moment by moment, scene by scene, between all the actors and the audience each time. It continually amazes me how that really works. It's just sort of an alchemy. You don't have to radically reinvent it each time or trick yourself. You just allow it to be different.

Q: You don't have to constantly remind yourself that the audience is different every night?
Pierce: No. The other great instructor I had was Mike Nichols when we did Spamalot. He would talk to us and say, "You're going to get some audiences that aren't as vocal or don't laugh as much," and he said one of the things you have to do is [alter] your favorite moment, the moment when you absolutely know how to get your guaranteed laugh. He said, "Change it. Do something different one night." He said, "You can always do it again the same way later on if you want to, but once you give yourself the freedom to not care about any given moment and how the audience responds to it, then you have total freedom on stage, and as we've all learned over the years, just because an audience is less vocal does not indicate how involved they are in the show. So being independent of an audience's reaction and available for whatever's going on on stage seem to keep it fresh.

Q: We've seen those audiences that seem to be dead, and it turns out they are on the edge of their seats.
Pierce: Oh yeah. And we've all had situations where a friend comes backstage and you say, "Oh God, you were here tonight? It was such a terrible audience!" And they say, "What are you talking about, you nut? We loved it!"

Q: Do you think it would surprise audiences to know how much the players communicate backstage about how well specific jokes are landing, etc.?
Pierce: They'd be amazed at how much communication goes on onstage in front of them about how the audience is responding [laughs]. You can say a lot with a look to another actor that just says, "Oy!"

Q: You've been humble about your dancing skills and all the help you got from choreographer Rob Ashford and others, but are you feeling a lot more comfortable in yourself at this point in the run?
Pierce: That's a good question. It's sort of a two-edged sword. On one hand, I feel much more comfortable and in command both of my dancing and my singing now that I've been doing the show for awhile, but the more you do it, you also realize that you still can't replace a lifetime spent training in dance and singing. There's only so far I can go, especially with the dancing. I'm proud of what I can do, but I remain in awe of the people who are really out there dancing. It's hard for me eight shows a week. I cannot imagine how the ensemble people do it.

Q: In another sense of "comfortable," do you feel like you have to think about your dancing a little less now?
Pierce: Ha. Yes, or I'm able to think about it in a different way. I'm able to make sure I'm supporting in the right place so I don't throw my back out or that I don't drop poor Jill [Paice] who I'm dancing with. I can free myself. On New Year's Eve, they had a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers marathon on TV. I happened to be watching it because I love them anyway. But the next day instead of thinking about this step or that step, I was able to just give myself the image of imagining I was Fred Astaire, which is exactly what the character is doing in that moment anyway. He happens to be imagining that he's Gower Champion, and now that we've been running it — we've already passed our 300th show — now that it is in my bones, the movements and how to do the dance, that allows me to let my actor's imagination work on the spirit of the dance. That's something that will continue to grow as long as I'm in the show because there's always room for improvement.

Q: I guess it's kind of the difference between that time before you learned your lines and once you have them, what you are able to do with a character after that.
Pierce: Yeah, and for me, the similarity is that in the acting of the show, no matter how hard you try, there are moments when you find that you are still acting, and I'm a big believer in not acting on stage. And the great thing about a long run is piece by piece and inch by inch you start to excavate those moments, many of which you are unaware of and free yourself from them and discover that something will work if said or acted in a completely different way that you didn't plan on, and the shape of the show takes care of itself.

Q: Do you have any advice for others looking to get into dance and musical theatre at a similar stage of their career?
Pierce: I think something that would be really important is to start 20 years ago. That would be my first piece of advice [laughs].

Q: I'm interested in how actors relate to their theatres. How do you feel about the Hirschfeld?
Pierce: I am deeply in love with the Hirschfeld Theatre. It is such a great place for actors and for audiences because these old theatres, they were built without thinking of sound systems and microphones and all that. You can, both vocally and as an actor, be on that stage and do nothing, and they'll see it from the very back row in the mezzanine. It's fantastic, the way the seats are arranged, the distance between [the cast] and the back wall of the house, even the way the pit is set up with this wonderful redwood in the back of that pit. When you hear the band, the sound that comes out of there — especially with John Kander's music and the great orchestration — the place comes alive. And, for our show in particular, which is set in 1959, the vintage and style of the theatre blend seamlessly with the vintage and style of the show, and it becomes all one event.

Q: I see you once worked in Los Angeles with Jason Graae, who we spoke to a couple months back.
Pierce: Listen, my experience with Jason is one of the reasons I went into musicals! He and I had done The Boys From Syracuse for Reprise! out there, which is like Encores here. We played the two slaves, and I had a blast doing that, and he was so great. Working with him, seeing someone who is such a great actor and with such a great voice and wickedly funny, it was very inspiring. I thought, "This is something that I should certainly pursue."

Q: Movie-wise, I have to ask about "Wet Hot American Summer." Have you any recollections of this fine piece of film?
Pierce: I sure do. First of all, I loved making it, but the clearest recollection I have is it takes place at a summer camp, but we shot it in the very early spring in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and it was freezing cold, and we were all running around in short shorts, and people were swimming and water skiing and doing all this stuff, and occasionally one of the great things in the movie is you can see people's breath when they are talking in the midst of the "summer." There's a lot of really good acting in that movie from people who are pretending that they're warm and having a good time.

Q: Would you like to one day be involved in a movie musical?
Pierce: I can't imagine that that would be anything but hell. Famous last words, but doing a movie is hard enough in terms of the set-up and the waiting and all of that, but then to add…Oh my God, no! Absolutely not, because to me, the thrill of the theatre to begin with, and the real thrill of being in a musical is to be there in front of an audience with the orchestra playing underneath you and the music carrying you and the way it lifts everybody up, and to be doing that on a soundstage with: "Do it again, do it again. Now we're going to do it from this angle." I think I would have to hang myself.

Q: So if someone ponied up for a film of Curtains?
Pierce: I would say "yes" immediately.

[Curtains plays the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200.]

Ryan Strand

BOYZ II MAN
Ryan Strand plays in maybe the only boy band still drawing screaming audiences across the country. He played Abe, the lone Jewish member of the Altar Boyz, on the national tour and is now doing the same here in NYC. The lighthearted send-up of boy bands and modern revivalism continues in its soul-saving mission at New World Stages.

Question: I'm curious how it compares doing Altar Boyz here in the city versus out on the national tour. Give us a sense of that.
Ryan Strand: The first major difference is that the houses on tour can be anywhere from 1,500 to 3,300 seats, and then here it's obviously a 350-seat theatre, so it is very different in how you have to perform the show. On tour it's very showy and very big, and here it is much more intimate.

Q: Did you find different attitudes towards the show from audiences as you went around to different parts of the country?
Strand: It was funny because on tour, more so than in New York, we'd have people who actually thought we are a real band, and they'd come up to us and say they thought it was great what we were doing for the church, and we were like, "We're just actors." As far as how people received it, people really loved it just as much as they do here.

Q: What do you feel like you bring to the Abe role.
Strand: At first glance, he's sort of the nice Jewish boy, the one the moms love, and you do have to play that, but I think that I bring sort of an innocence to the role that is needed to get the point across, especially at the end when he has to bring everyone back together. I think it's his innocence that makes the moment more poignant.

Q: Is it difficult that this show has to be played so earnestly, not so much a show where you are winking at the audience?
Strand: Everyone on the creative team calls it the Altar Boyz trap because it is so easy to fall into that wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing instead of playing it completely earnestly, which is what the show has to do. I mean the show is about five guys from the middle of Ohio who are in New York for the first time and just have no clue about so many things about their show…They were raised very sheltered and [have] this very singular purpose, and they really haven't given much outside thought to what their show is about. It's just their show, and they have one purpose, and that's to save souls, and they're going to do it. There's a lot of that childlike quality that they have to bring to it instead of that straight-up comedy aspect.

Q: So you have your own connection to Ohio, is that true?
Strand: I went to college in Ohio at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and surprisingly enough, I miss it a lot. In Cincinnati the joke is that the nickname is "Cinci-nasty," but I miss the city a lot. It's a great place to go to college, and I'm very lucky to have gone to the school that I went to. They call Cincinnati a mini-New York because it has a lot of the good things that New York has and a lot of the bad things that New York has, so it was nice to go there as a second stop on the way to New York from Indiana, where I am originally from. Q: Your Altar Boy, Abe, is the lyricist for the group. Have you ever tried your hand at songwriting?
Strand: No, actually, I'm the least talented writer you'll ever meet. I was bad in English class, and I have no desire to write or do anything like that. I think I am like Abe in that he tries a little too hard to be cool sometimes and he'll throw stuff in like, "Fo shizzle!" and "Yeah, Dawg!" I do that stuff too, and after I say it, I'm like, "Why did I just say 'Dawg?'" I'm like the whitest Jew-boy you could ever meet.

Q: Were you ever a devotee of boy bands?
Strand: Ohhh yeah. I wanted to be in a boy band. I thought that would be the coolest job ever to be in a boy band. I was actually in a very short-lived boy band that was being put together by a couple of people who had been on the show-choir circuit. I was in show choir when I was in high school, and a bunch of us who had won best soloist awards at different competitions around the Midwest were asked to be in this boy band. [There were] five of us, and we were going to meet at one of the guys' cities because he was in summer stock, and we were going to meet in his city. It all came apart after a couple days because one guy's grandpa died, and he had to leave, and another guy was from that guy's city, so he left too, and then there were only three of us, so it never really worked out, but I was so excited at first. I was like, "I'm going to be huge in a boy band!"

Q: Give me a good wacky backstage story from the road.
Strand: [Laughs.] There's one, but I don't know if you can print it. There's no intermission in this show, so if you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck. I had eaten something that wasn't right. It was about three quarters of the way through the show, and I had already been in agony for about 20 minutes at this point. Our swing was on for one of the other characters. We went offstage and I was like, "I can't go back out there. I have to go to the bathroom so bad I'm going to burst." This was at a big theatre in San Francisco, and I had no clue where the bathrooms were, so I'm just running and running, trying to find the bathrooms, all the while hearing the show over the monitors and hearing people picking up my lines. Finally, I came back before my next song, and they had my understudy get dressed, and I came back and he greeted me in my costume and we were like, "Hey!" It was an awkward thing to see. It was a horrible day [laughs].

[Altar Boyz plays New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]

HITHER AND YON
In the mood to travel back in time to some of the borderline psychotic children's programming of your youth? You can troll around on youtube or actually leave your house and check out Cartoon Dump, the live comedy and music show that attempts to capture some of the madness of madcap kiddie shows. Featuring Frank Conniff, who also wrote and produces, and whom you also may remember from TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST3K's Joel Hodgson also has been known to appear), the show has had a successful run at the Steve Allen Theatre in L.A., and will be in New York City at Comix (353 W. 14th St.) on Jan. 8, and again on Feb. 19. The L.A. run continues on the fourth Tuesday of every month of 2008. Aside from the live mayhem, the show promises an assemblage of the worst cartoons ever created. "Clutch Cargo" fans look out! Check out www.cartoondump.com for more info…If you do go to youtube, singer-hoofer-actor Jeffry Denman wanted me to let you know he has a follow-up to last year's "Lazy Tuesday" video from the White Christmas tour. Dude's rapping skills have improved. Look it up.

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.

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