THE LEADING MEN: Ride ‘em, Cowboy!

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Ride ‘em, Cowboy! March comes in like a lion, so we interviewed three Broadway and cabaret stars who are having a roaring good time.
Matt Cavenaugh
Matt Cavenaugh (Photo by Wayman Wong)

Matt Cavenaugh (Urban Cowboy), Jose Llana (Flower Drum Song) and pop singer songwriter Bobby Belfry. And as lionized as they are, they’re also as gentle as a lamb.

CAVENAUGH: THIS BUD’S FOR YOU
Texas is known for its beefsteak, but the new Broadway musical of Urban Cowboy is selling its beefcake. Its sexy, and often shirtless, young star, Matt Cavenaugh, has been plastered all over its ads and marquee at the Broadhurst, and why not? If anyone can fill John Travolta’s big boots, it’s this 5-foot-11 charmer who knows his way around a sixpack of beer and a sixpack of abs. He’s a real cowboy down to his jeans and his genes. His dad back in Jonesboro, Ark., used to ride bareback and saddle broncos in rodeos during the summer.

Cavenaugh, 24, will join 13 other fresh faces in Urban Cowboy who’ll be making their Broadway debuts, including his beautiful co-star, Jenn Colella, who plays Sissy to his Bud. The rocky romance between this honkytonk hunk and his bucking bride goes through more ups and downs than a mechanical bull, and here it’s set to country tunes by Clint Black and Shania Twain, as well as original songs by Jason Robert Brown, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Bob Stillman.

Urban Cowboy just started previews Feb. 28 and opens March 27, but we caught up with Cavenaugh, who’s ready for the ride of his life.

Question: How’s it feel to make your Broadway debut as the Lone Star attraction of Urban Cowboy?
Matt Cavenaugh: Awesome. I couldn’t dream it any better. To quote Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods [which just played the Broadhurst], "I’m excited and scared." Q: Your director, Lonny Price, says his boyfriend, Jeff Blumenkrantz, really discovered you in an non-Equity tour of Strike Up the Band in Ohio. True?
Cavenaugh: Yeah, Jeff recommended me to the producers, so I was brought in and auditioned with a Garth Brooks tune, "If Tomorrow Never Comes." And I got the part. A buddy of mine later called to say, "Hey, check out Playbill Online," and there was a cast announcement for Urban Cowboy on May 31, which is my birthday, so I really celebrated.

Q: Before you auditioned for it, had you seen the 1980 movie?
Cavenaugh: No, but I rented a copy and saw it just once. I loved the rawness of it, and Travolta was the coolest. He’s an American icon. I saw "Grease" a million times.

Q: How would you describe your character of Bud?
Cavenaugh: Bud is a dreamer. He’s a simple, honest guy who wants to fall in love, find his dream house and work with horses. I’m a dreamer as well. And I’ve definitely been in the situation where you find the woman of your dreams and somehow fuck it up. Aaron Latham, who co wrote the screenplay and the book to our show, has written a great character and I feel blessed to play him.

Q: Bud sure loves his beer. How about you?
Cavenaugh: I love it, too. But Bud always drinks Budweiser, and I’m a big fan of Killian’s, and the English and European beers.

Q: In the show, Bud says he loves eating fried "prairie oysters" (bull testicles). Ever tried one?
Cavenaugh: Never, but I once tried rooster fries in high school. Those were chicken balls and they tasted, well, like chicken.

Q: Bud is also the kind of guy who enjoys a good brawl. Do you?
Cavenaugh: You know what? I have never been in a fight in my entire life. If I got into a fight, I’d probably get my ass kicked and cry like a baby.

Q: Speaking of ass-kicking experiences, what’s it like to ride the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy?
Cavenaugh: The mechanical bull is literally a big pain in the ass. It’s fun, but I got sore the most in my back from gripping and being jerked around. My ass was rubbed raw and all along my thighs. And I ride the bull three different times during the show, so that’s 24 times a week!

Q: How would you describe working with Lonny Price and Jason Robert Brown?
Cavenaugh: A dream come true. I remember Lonny as Charlie Kringas in Merrily We Roll Along. That was my favorite musical while growing up in high school. I’m a huge fan of Sondheim and I used to know every word of that CD. And I’m a huge fan of Jason. My favorite part of the show is singing a new song he wrote called "I Take It Back." It’s incredible.

Q: Come to think of it: Urban Cowboy is this good ol’ boy, country musical, but so much of the creative team, like Lonny and Jason, are Jewish, right?
Cavenaugh: Yeah, they joke it’s a Jewish takeover of a Texas story and it’s actually called Irving Cowboy.

Q: Are you a country music fan?
Cavenaugh: Yes, but I grew up in the South [in a family of four girls and three boys] and you can’t avoid it. My favorite country artist is George Strait. I love him, but I love all kinds of music. Right now, I’m a big fan of singer-songwriters like John Mayer and Norah Jones.

Q: The best-known country song from the movie is probably "Looking for Love (in All the Wrong Places)" and it closes your show. So have you ever gone "looking for love in all the wrong places"?
Cavenaugh: No comment. [Laughs.] But I can think of some stupid things I’ve done. I once spent a semester in England where I had a few "looking for love in all the wrong places" episodes. Guess I was sowing my wild oats as a young guy in the pubs and clubs.

Q: Finally, you’re featured on Urban Cowboy ads as big as all Texas. How’s that make you feel?
Cavenaugh: It’s fun and my friends like to rib me, but when you come down to it, it’s really kind of bullshit. It’s not real. What is really real is getting to do this show. I get to sing these tunes, share the stage with Jenn, my amazing co-star, and dance with this great ensemble. That’s the real joy of what I do.

For more info about Cavenaugh, visit www.urbancowboythemusical.com.

LLANA: PROUD TO BEAT THE "DRUM"
It’s taken "A Hundred Million Miracles" – and a liberally rewritten libretto by David Henry Hwang – to bring Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song back to Broadway. For its fans, it’s "a treat to see," but "even those who say they don’t agree" will have to acknowledge it’s rare to see a stage full of terrifically talented Asian-Americans on the Great White Way. And it’s even rarer to see a 6-foot-tall Asian-American leading man like Jose Llana, who looks like a prince and sings "Like a God."

Llana is probably the first Asian romantic lead in a Broadway musical since Ed Kenney in the original Flower Drum Song in 1958. Ironically, the only male actor who was Tony-nominated from that production was a Caucasian: Larry Blyden, who played Sammy Fong. In fact, Blyden is one of four Caucasian actors who have been nominated for playing an Asian, and two have won, but in the Tonys’ 56-year history, only one full-blooded Asian has even been nominated for Best Actor: Mako in Pacific Overtures.

As for Llana, he is "devastated" that Flower Drum Song is closing March 16, but says, "I’ve never been prouder of a show I’ve been in. I’ve been doing this for the past year and a half in L.A. and on Broadway, and it’s been so empowering and personal to me. David wrote such a real character [Ta] for me. Ta is Chinese and I’m Filipino, but we were both raised by parents who want to keep the traditions of the old country, while we’re trying to define what it means to be an American."

Based on C.Y. Lee’s novel, Flower Drum Song is a musical comedy about Chinese immigrants and ABC’s (American-born Chinese), but Llana believes its story of family conflicts and cultural clashes is a universal one.

Born in Quezon City in the Philippines, he moved to New York at age three and grew up in suburban Virginia at four. Even as a kid, he already knew of Lea Salonga, his current leading lady in Flower Drum Song. "I remember having an album of Lea when she was ten. I was five. She was a huge Filipino star." He laughs, "And now I get to make out with her every night in the show."

Years later, he would see Salonga give her Tony-winning tour de force in Miss Saigon. Llana says, "Saigon was very instrumental in giving me the courage to be a musical-theatre actor. It paved the way for many Asian-American actors."

As for the casting controversy involving Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer, he says, "I have two stands: First and foremost, a producer and a director have every right and prerogative to cast whoever they want. At the same time, I disagreed with them in casting Pryce in the same way I wouldn’t want them to cast Donny Osmond as Ta in Flower Drum Song. They really had no excuse to say they couldn’t find an Asian actor who could play the Engineer. That was totally insulting."

It’s also insulting that Asian men are often stereotyped as kung fu masters or delivery boys, and rarely cast as romantic leads, but the 26-year-old actor says, "I never saw being Asian as an obstacle. It’s part of who I am. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky that the Asian shows have only bookended my career." Among his non-Asian shows, he has done Rent (Angel), Streetcorner Symphony (Jessie-Lee), On the Town (Gabey) and Martin Guerre (Guillaume).

Llana got his big break when he was only 19, playing Lun Tha in the 1996 Tony-winning revival of The King and I. He says, "It was the breeziest job on Broadway. I had three scenes and two great songs, and I sat on my ass the rest of the time."

Dealing with the show’s director, Christopher Renshaw, however, didn’t exactly leave him whistling a happy tune. Llana says Renshaw was very difficult: "In my opinion, he didn’t have [much] respect for Asian people. I remember one afternoon, he was trying to direct the ensemble women on how to bow. He told them, `You’re doing it wrong. Asian people are just very passive. Just act that way.'"

Though Llana might play the "lord and master" of The King and I someday, he says, "My hope is not that they’ll revive other shows and give me the lead. I’m looking forward to a future where writers like David Henry Hwang, Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown write stories that can be cast with voices of any ethnicity."

Meantime, if he wants to have a rosy future, Llana says he might return to the Philippines to record a CD. Or he might join the Flower Drum Song tour that starts in Dallas in September: "I really believe this musical has a purpose. We’re not just putting on a show. We’re proud of the story we’re telling, and we want everyone to hear it."

For more about Llana, visit www.flowerdrumsong.com.

BELFRY: HE’S GOT A LOTTA POP
Pop singer-songwriter Bobby Belfry couldn’t have asked for a better last name because he sounds as clear as a bell. And he’s collected honors that are just as ringing as his glorious tenor voice, including a 1994 Cabaret Hotline Award for Outstanding Male Vocalist and a 1999 MAC Award for Outstanding Pop Vocalist. When Belfry released his delightful debut CD, "Imperfect Rhymes" (2000), Billboard Magazine chimed in with a rave review: "In the perpetual quest for new and vital artists, Belfry is one to savor, embrace and lend the hand of fame to." His album has even found a following in Germany. Belfry jokes, "I could be the next David Hasselhoff!"

Meantime, the boyish 5-foot-5 entertainer is back with new songs co written with David Friedman, David Budway, Mark Hartman and Steven Ray Watkins. He’ll sing them in his latest show, Rented Realities, Wednesdays, March 5, 12 and 26 and April 2 at The Duplex, accompanied by Watkins and directed by Tony Award winner Thommie Walsh (My One and Only).

Among his more infectious tunes is "In the Shadow of the Bridge." It’s Belfry’s fun and rollicking reggae tribute to Queens, the New York borough where he was born and now lives. Another song, "Wellspring," bounces to a Brazilian beat as if he were saluting Sergio Mendes. And "Before You Interrupt Me" is a wonderfully catchy country boogie number. Belfry says, "I was channeling the Dixie Chicks when I came up with that."

His other songs are more of a mixed bag, but most all of them are informed by Sept. 11. The 37-year-old performer says, "They’re about overcoming the obstacles of the past, living in the present and moving on to the future." He hopes to record them for his second CD by year’s end.

Belfry says he’s always loved music. When he was 6, he listened to Dionne Warwick albums with his mom and they sang along to them. He says his songwriting heroes include Billy Joel, Stephen Sondheim and Sting, and "my absolutely favorite lyricist is Lorenz Hart. His work is so dark, sexual and sardonic." As anyone who’s ever heard this captivating crooner sing "Cloudburst" or "Skylark" knows, he’s got a deep and abiding affection for the standards, and they’re the kind of standards he aspires to in his own writing. Joey Reynolds of WOR radio raves, "Bobby could be this generation’s Cole Porter."

Since 1991, Belfry also has served up his songs, along with the drinks, at Brandy’s Piano Bar. "I’m there three days a week and make an incredible living. I work with all my friends, I get to sing my new tunes and sell my CDs there. It’s my home." Speaking of home, Belfry says his new songs also have led him to discover something else: "I want to be a father and live in the suburbs. My parents got it right. I’m really great with kids, and it just feels like the next step in my life."

With any luck, Belfry will be a ringing success at that, too.

For more about Belfry, visit www.bobbybelfry.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: The downtown Duplex offers a geyser of gifted guy singers this month: Scott Coulter and Lennie Watts (March 2), Brandon Cutrell (March 12 and 26) and David Sabella (March 7, 14 and 28), not to mention a slew of superb songwriters: Brian Feinstein (March 9), Rick Jensen and Joseph Thalken (March 16) and Steve Marzullo (March 30). … At Judy’s Chelsea, the marvelously mellifluous Marcus Simeone brings back his hit shows Mostly Standards (March 4) and Moon Over Brooklyn (March 11). … Over at Lincoln Center, we’re waiting in "Perpetual Anticipation" to see Jeremy Irons, Juliet Stevenson, Marc Kudisch, Michele Pawk and Claire Bloom in A Little Night Music March 7-29 at New York City Opera. … Jim Walton, who was perfectly Frank in last fall’s amazing Merrily We Roll Along reunion, will team up with Carolee Carmello for a March 7 concert reading of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at Cooper Union. … The next Lyrics & Lyricists concerts on March 15-17 will really Swing, Swing, Swing! with a wonderful cast that includes Leslie Anderson, Cleve Douglass, Eric Michael Gillett and LaTanya Hall at the 92nd Street Y.

On March 17, Bryan Batt joins Annie Golden and Amanda McBroom in Broadway Musicals of 1939; produced and hosted by Scott Siegel, this Town Hall concert promises to be another terrific treasure trove of toe-tapping tunes and trivia. … Jack Donahue, one of the sunniest and funniest singers around, gives a sneak preview of "Strange Weather," his debut jazz album, on March 19 at The Triad. … Finally, Encores! revives the Romberg-Hammerstein operetta The New Moon, starring Rodney Gilfry, one of opera’s most "Stouthearted Men," March 27-30 at the City Center. If this breathtaking baritone is anywhere as good as he was playing Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, audiences will be yelling, "Stellar, stellar!"

Got comments or questions for us? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.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.