PUTTING HIS BEST FEET FORWARD
As soon as you see John Selya, the sexy star of Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, bopping to the pop songs of Billy Joel, you know he’s got a way about him. His dancing is as athletic and muscular as he is, and he does so many spins and barrel turns that it’s enough to make a whirling dervish dizzy with delight.
But the dynamic 5-foot-9 dancer also acts the soulful role of Eddie, a Long Island mechanic and Vietnam veteran, and it’s a Tony-worthy tour de force. I’ll even bet he waltzes off with this season’s TDF/Astaire Award as the best male dancer on Broadway.
Born in New York City, Selya grew up an "uptown guy" at 90th Street and Riverside. After seeing his sister in The Nutcracker, the ten-year-old boy trained at the School of American Ballet. Once he got the thumb’s-up from Mikhail Baryshnikov, he joined American Ballet Theatre in 1988. There, Selya danced in Coppelia, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire and choreographed Jack and Jill and Moondance. In 2000, he joined Twyla Tharp Dance, and he’s also seen in Woody Allen’s movie musical "Everyone Says I Love You."
We caught up with Selya, 32, to discuss Broadway, ballet and just the way he is.
Question: Little boys who want to be ballet dancers often get teased, like Jamie Bell in "Billy Elliot," but I hear you never got any grief as a kid. True?
John Selya: Yeah. I was never ridiculed. My friends were very open minded. Plus, I was a jock and played soccer. I was part of the "in" crowd. I liked ballet because it was exciting and very physical, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was 16. Q: Were you influenced by the ballet movie "The Turning Point"?
Selya: No, but my own turning point was seeing a news program about Lynn Swann, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He took ballet to improve his coordination and athletic prowess.
Q: Did you ever think of dancing on Broadway?
Selya: Never. I thought Broadway was for singers.
Q: And yet here you are, making your Broadway debut. How does playing Eddie in Movin’ Out compare with the many classical and contemporary roles you’ve done?
Selya: Eddie is the toughest role I’ve ever had. Physically, it’s daunting, but you also run the gamut of emotions: from cockiness, then doubt and confusion to hysteria. You have to act as if you feel responsible for your best friend’s death. Then you have to act messed up on drugs and want to give up on life. And finally you have to find forgiveness in yourself. And as exhausting as that is, it’s tons of fun. And the audience seems to love it.
Q: Twyla’s choreography not only has you doing more turns than a corkscrew, but you also do kung fu kicks and moonwalk, not to mention break-dance. Is that new for you?
Selya: Oh, no. When my family spent summers in New Jersey, I used to break-dance on the Boardwalk for money, and my parents practically disowned me. It’s funny. My mom jokes that she used to never let me do that around the house, and now I’m on Broadway and people are applauding for it.
Q: You were workshopping Movin’ Out around the time of Sept. 11, 2001, and you had just performed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 8, only three days before that terrorist attack. How did that affect your show?
Selya: I think Sept. 11 reinforced this country’s belief in freedom and in our public servants. In that same way, you could say we’re just dancing around to music and it’s not that important, but it is. Just as you need firemen and police, you need artists and entertainers. I also think Sept. 11 reinforced the emotional content of Movin’ Out because it’s about loss and how you recover from it.
Q: Speaking of loss, Movin’ Out lost a wonderful dancer when William Marrie, who played Eddie at the Wednesday and Saturday matinees, collided with a taxi while riding his motorcycle. How did you hear the news?
Selya: We heard William was in an accident Friday night (Nov. 15), but we went to bed hoping he could dance again. The next morning, my girlfriend called the stage manager and he told us that William had passed away. We were in shock. Lawrence Rabson, a great dancer and his roommate, went on for him. And I just sat in the house and cried for two hours. But if there’s any consolation, William lived a great life by his own rules. He died doing something he loved to do: riding his motorcycle.
Q: Tell me about Twyla and how she’s changed your life.
Selya: Twyla saw me in class at ABT when I was 18. She’s always believed in me, and I’m just so grateful. When I left ABT after 11 years, I wasn’t dancing. When you work for an institution, sometimes it saps your love for the art form. The whole hierarchy and politics left a bad taste in my mouth. Then Twyla invited me to dance again. She really saved me.
Q: What’s Billy Joel like?
Selya: Billy Joel is awesome. I genuinely feel he appreciates our efforts and Twyla’s vision. His songs are great and I respect him so much. Each night is different. I know it sounds corny, but I try to savor every moment.
Q: By the way, someone in Movin’ Out who shares the stage and your life is your girlfriend, Ashley Tuttle, who plays Judy. What made Ashley stand out among the many beautiful ballerinas? You’ve not only danced with her, but choreographed for her.
Selya: We’ve been together for seven years and we met at ABT, but I knew her long before that. What made her stand out? Aside from her proportions, her honesty. We talk about dance all the time because we put a lot of personalities into our work. I trust her opinion more than anybody’s. She’s a great associate in every sense of the word.
Q: With Valentine’s Day coming up, I gotta ask: What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done for Ashley or vice versa?
Selya: We find romance in very little things, like going to a dive bar and having a burger at this special place. You know, I’m not a white-horse type of guy. We love to drive out to the beach in the Hamptons, take the dog and just lay a blanket out and look at the ocean. That’s as good as it gets.
For more of Selya, catch him on "Theater Talk" with Susan Haskins and Michael Riedel on Feb. 7 at midnight on WNET/Ch. 13 in New York.
HE’S DOIN’ FINE, ‘OKLAHOMA!’
When it comes to Stephen Buntrock and playing Curly in Oklahoma!, he’s just a guy who cain’t say no. In 1985, when he was 16, he starred as the charismatic cowboy in his high school production in Naperville, Ill., wearing a rawhide vest and chaps with polka dots "that made me look like a rodeo clown." In 1993, he was back in the saddle as Curly in a Chicago production that earned him a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination as Best Actor. And now he’s returned to Broadway in Oklahoma!, roping in audiences and rave reviews with his robust baritone in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic at the Gershwin.
Buntrock, 34, says, "Curly is a very deceptively hard role. To Patrick Wilson and Hugh Jackman’s credit, they blazed a whole new trail to understanding Curly’s adventures. I see him as a poet and visionary leader. Curly cares so much about the land and the people around him. I love his heart."
Before taking over the lead, Buntrock understudied Wilson, who received a Tony nomination for his winning performance. "Patrick’s a great guy. I play golf with him. It was easy to understudy him because he never missed shows." Asked about the difference between their portrayals, Buntrock says, "I think Patrick’s Curly was a tad darker. I like to see him more jovial." And do they sing in the same keys? "Yes, but Patrick has a higher ping and a poppier voice than mine."
The 6-foot-tall actor also raves about Jackman, who played Curly in London: "I saw a video of him, and Jackman’s acting is breathtaking. He found so many layers. I wear his chaps proudly." And he’s not kidding. Buntrock actually puts on the same chaps Jackman wore and jokes, "They’re gonna wind up on eBay someday, and I’ll make a fortune!"
A pro at stepping into established roles, he understudied James Barbour in Jane Eyre and made his Broadway debut as Enjolras in Les Misérables. In 1998, the handsome star got even more attention when In Theatre magazine named him one of the "Sexy Men of Broadway." "It was flattering, but boy was I razzed," he recalls. "The stagehands made copies of that page and put ‘em up all over."
Buntrock also remembers being razzed in junior high school, but not so good heartedly. He says, "I was teased a helluva lot because I did theatre. It was a terrible time. I was lost. I also was diagnosed with ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and dyslexia. It wasn’t until high school, when I was good at sports, that I found myself.’’
Speaking of childhood, his real source of pride now is his adorable eight-year old daughter, Haley Paige, who lives with her mother in Chicago (she and Buntrock are divorced). "Haley wants to be a singer and can really carry a tune!"
As for romance, Buntrock is dating Broadway actress Erin Dilly (Into the Woods), whom he met while doing Martin Guerre ("God, her talent astounds me!"). He adds, "I love cooking for her. She’s been a huge fan of my chicken stew with parsley dumplings. She always wants it. But you know what’s still the most romantic thing? When we’re walking down the street and holding hands. It’s so pure and real."
Or as Curly might say, "Her hand feels so grand in mine." And why not? The happy couple don’t mind if "people will say they’re in love."
For more about Buntrock, visit http://www.theatrefest.com/StephenBuntrock/index.asp .
RODGERS AND HEART
Johnny Rodgers is not related to Richard Rodgers, but it’s some enchanted evening wherever he entertains. Since the 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Miami moved to Manhattan in May 2001, he has shared the stage with Sir Paul McCartney at the Waldorf-Astoria, performed with Michael Feinstein at Weill Recital Hall and provided backup vocals on Liza Minnelli’s new show, Liza’s Back. As a musical director, Rodgers has accompanied Donna McKechnie, Jim Caruso, Sally Mayes and Lina Koutrakos, and his solo cabaret act at Arci’s Place earned him the 2002 Backstage Bistro and MAC Awards for Outstanding New York Debut.
And as a talented tunesmith, he’s no Johnny One-Note. The boyish, 5-foot-9 baritone says, "My biggest influences are Billy Joel and James Taylor, but I like all different styles. I like to write pop and jazz. I love to write a great swing number [like "Take Another Chance on Love"]. I’ll even write a Celtic tune ["Lullaby for the Sleepless Soul"]. I write whatever comes out of my heart."
Clearly, one of his most heartfelt love songs is "Sweet Georgia Smile," which was inspired by actress-singer Georgia DeFalco, his lovely girlfriend of nearly five years. In it, he adoringly croons, "I’m gonna keep you and rock you to sleep in a simple and sweet lullaby." Asked if his sweetheart did anything special to trigger this tune, he grins, "Georgia does special things every day."
For Rodgers, lyric ideas can come at any time. Take his beautiful new pop song, "Coming Home to Mendocino," which is reminiscent of early Billy Joel. "I started writing it before I’d ever been to Mendocino," he says. "I saw the name ‘Mendocino’ on a bottle of body wash while I was in the shower. It sounded very musical. The next month, we took a trip there to the California wine country and I finished the song."
This month and next, to quote a Beatles tune he covers so exquisitely, Rodgers is "Here, There and Everywhere." He’s playing Feb. 15 at the Chicago Cabaret Convention and accompanies Caruso Feb. 18-22 at the Colony Hotel in West Palm Beach, Fl. Then he’s back in New York Feb. 25-March 1 at the Bar at the Fives at the Peninsula Hotel. Rodgers then shares a double bill March 13-14 with Koutrakos at The Duplex, plays March 18 at Fez and appears March 21 with Richard Barone at Joe’s Pub.
To sample Rodgers’ songs, visit www.johnnyrodgers.com. LETTERS FROM THE MALE BAG
Last month I listed "My 7 Favorite Amazing Musical Moments of 2002" among male theatre and cabaret artists and asked readers to rave about their faves, so here are some of them: Parker Scott’s pick of performers included Darius deHaas, John DePalma, Ricky Ian Gordon and Dathan B. Williams, and he was most shattered by Brian Stokes Mitchell’s "The Impossible Dream" in Man of La Mancha. Frank Soldo also was stoked by Mitchell’s "Impossible Dream" and applauded David Foley (The Baker’s Wife), Brian Sutherland (Guys and Dolls) and Ron Raines’ "Soliloquy" from Carousel.
Meantime, it was Patrick Wilson’s "Soliloquy" that stole the show for Amanda Graham. That and Malcolm Gets’ riotous rendition of "Way Ahead of My Time." She caught both of them at Deborah Voigt’s Nov. 11 concert at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Kayla Kuzbel also offered twin faves: Gavin Creel in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Matthew Morrison in Hairspray. And Tony Paradise’s peerless pick was Jeff Harnar’s reprise of The 1959 Broadway Songbook, a dream of a theme show, at The Duplex.
More than a few folks asked for my favorite male-vocalist cuts from 2002’s theatre and cabaret CD’s, so here are my picks for the record (in alphabetical order):
Brent Barrett, "Headin’ for New Orleans" from "The Alan Jay Lerner Album" (Fynsworth Alley).
Matt Bogart, "Her Face" from "Simple Song" (Jay Records).
Norbert Leo Butz, "Moving Too Fast" from "The Last Five Years" (Sh-K-Boom Records).
Scott Coulter, "Maybe You Didn’t Hear Me" from "Scott Coulter" (LML Music).
Gavin Creel, "What Do I Need With Love?" from "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (RCA/Victor).
John DePalma, "It Might Be You"/"Take Care of My Heart" from "The Song Is Mine" (LML Music).
Davis Gaines, "Wandrin’ Star" from "The Broadway Musicals of 1951" (Bayview Records).
Special citation: Stephen Schwartz, "Since I Gave My Heart Away" from "Unchartered Territory" (Fynsworth Alley).
WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Aaron Lazar (Oklahoma!) and Jimmy Smagula (Man of La Mancha) are among the Broadway understudies who’ll take center stage in At This Performance, a Feb. 3 concert at the Ars Nova Theatre. . . . Jazzy singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin brings his guitar and golden tones Feb. 4-15 to Feinstein’s at the Regency. . . . Lyrics & Lyricists, the long-running concert series at the 92nd Street Y, celebrates The Fifties? Fabulous! Feb. 8-10, hosted by Julius DeRosa. The main men will be Lewis Cleale (Amour), Eugene Fleming (Fosse), Bill Daugherty and Russell Nype (Call Me Madam). . . . Everything came up Rosie’s when John McDaniel was O’Donnell’s bandleader on her TV talk show, but the Grammy and Emmy-winning musical director and record producer headlines Feb. 15-16 at Joe’s Pub. . . . Howard McGillin (The Phantom of the Opera) and Justin Bohon (Oklahoma!) will star in the Broadway Musicals of 1925 concert on Feb. 17 at Town Hall. For a change, Howard won’t be wearing a disguise, so folks can ask, "Who was that unmasked man?" . . . Bryan Batt (Beauty and the Beast), who last lit up the stage as Lumiere, will host the Broadway Bears VI auction for Broadway Cares on Feb. 17 at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. . . . And finally, the sassy Seth Rudetsky (Broadway Chatterbox) brings his hilarious one-man show, Rhapsody in Seth, Feb. 28 to the Actors' Playhouse. It’s the must-see story of a gifted guy who grew up gay and wound up on Broadway, working with stars like Betty Buckley and Jennifer Holiday. To misquote a lyric from Dreamgirls, a show Seth obsesses about (and recently produced): "And I’m telling you, you’re going!"
Got comments, questions or suggestions for this "Leading Men" column? E-mail me at email@example.com.
Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!
Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He also has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.