THE LEADING MEN: The Three B's — Boheme, Bogart and 'Blue's Clues'

News   THE LEADING MEN: The Three B's — Boheme, Bogart and 'Blue's Clues' Tenors, anyone? How about baritones and basses? Welcome to "The Leading Men," a new monthly column that's devoted to the male musical stars of Broadway and cabaret.
David Miller.
David Miller.

We'll be offering interviews, previews and reviews of their shows and CDs. This month, we run the gamut from fresh faces (like David Miller from La Boheme and cabaret's Justin Daniel) to polished young pros (like Matt Bogart, one of Aida's recent Radames). And, we'll include a handful of our highlights from 2002 and a peek at upcoming performances in 2003.

IT'S MILLER TIME
Baz Luhrmann's romantic and rhapsodic production of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme has set the tenor for reinventing opera for Broadway. And speaking of tenors, David Miller took center stage at the show's Dec. 8 opening night as Rodolfo (a role he rotates with Alfred Boe and Jesus Garcia at the Broadway Theatre). There, he performed before a celebrity-studded crowd that included Sandra Bullock, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Grant. Blessed with movie-star looks himself, the 6-foot-3 American has been called the "stud tenor" by the San Francisco Examiner.

More importantly, Miller plays the impoverished writer Rodolfo with a rich, vibrant voice. His control and technique are breathtaking, and his acting is just as impassioned. The 29-year-old tenor has sung opera across America, from Portland to Pittsburgh, and even played Tony in West Side Story at La Scala in Milan, Italy. Onstage and off, he revels in taking risks. For instance, his hobbies include snowboarding and riding motorcycles. We caught up with Miller to see what makes him tick . . . and talk.

Question: You're an American tenor making his Broadway debut singing Italian opera opposite a glamorous Russian soprano (Ekaterina Solovyeva) in a production directed by an Australian (Luhrmann). Has the reality of it all sunk in?
David Miller: Yeah, it's been a whirlwind. It's surreal. It's surpassed all my expectations. Two years ago, when auditions first started, I thought, "Broadway opera? What the hell is this?" But I also thought, "This could be really cool!" Personally, I didn't discover opera until college [Oberlin Conservatory of Music]. Omigod! In the 17th and 18th centuries, this art form produced the rock stars of their day, and now it's become this tradition of stereotypes of large people screaming their guts out. This [Boheme] was an amazing chance to bring some youth and vitality to it.

Q: Over 2,000 singers tried out for it, and you auditioned 5 times before you got to meet Luhrmann. What was that like?
Miller: Incredible. Baz approaches everything from the standpoint of truth. Baz strips away all the "opera acting," all the Italian, and gets to the words and what you're trying to convey. To Baz, the voice is the last layer of the performance, not the first — unlike opera, where the emphasis is on the voice, and if you can act, it's a bonus. But Baz believes, as I do, that you have to connect with what you're singing and the other people onstage. If you want pure vocal tone, go to a recital. What's the difference between going to an opera and a recital? The drama. Q: To play up that drama and make it more accessible, Luhrmann has cast Boheme with young, good-looking leads and reset it in the 1950's. It's very sexy.
Miller: Yes, but the show is sexy. It's about a bunch of kids who fall in love in Paris. What could be sexier? It's all in the libretto. But in most opera companies, you have only two weeks to rehearse and limited tech and orchestra time. Here, we rehearsed for two months and explored the text before we even went into the theatre.

Q: One factor that has generated some feedback among opera purists is the miking, even though it's pretty subtle. What do you think?
Miller: The miking in this show is not for amplification. Acoustically, the Broadway Theatre is not good. When Miss Saigon played it, they lined the walls with velvet to dampen all the sound. Without the mikes, we'd feel like we're singing into a pillow. We'd oversing and hurt our voices. Thanks to technology, we get a reverb effect, as in an opera house, so I'm singing just as I would at Detroit, Sydney or anywhere else.

Q: What's it like to work with your Mimi?
Miller: Katya's great. She really looks you in the eye. Baz says, "Acting is not what you convey. Acting is what you draw out of other people." And she's got incredible presence, just like Greta Garbo. She's such a movie star.

Q: Is there any friendly rivalry among the three rotating casts of Rodolfos and Mimis?
Miller: None. I consider Alfred one of my best friends. And Jesus and I hang out all the time. We went to see Joey Fatone in Rent, and I didn't even know it was based on Boheme. It was terrific. Anyway, we're one big family.

Q: Maybe the six of you should do a sitcom called "Opera Friends."
Miller: [Laughs.] But seriously the cast rotation keeps it fresh and interesting for everyone. I couldn't imagine being in a single cast of, say, Cats, and doing it for ten years or whatever. I'd want someone to claw my eyeballs out. But every time I do Boheme, I always find something new.

Q: So where are you from, and how did you get started?
Miller: I was born in San Diego, but I grew up in Littleton, Colorado. In high school, I got roped into musicals because they needed guys. I played Rooster in Annie and Noah in Two by Two. My voice teacher recommended that I study with Richard Miller (no relation) at Oberlin. And the show that inspired me to sing opera was Boheme. My roommate put on a recording of [Luciano] Pavarotti and [Mirella] Freni. Wow! I thought, "I wanna sing that high C and hold it twice as long." Even though there's so much pressure in opera, I decided to go for it because my dad always told me: "Better to shoot for the stars and miss, than shoot for a pile of cow s--- and be on target."

Q: Opera aside, what kind of music do you like to listen to?
Miller: Opera is what I do, but it's not what I am. I don't listen to it when I'm home. I like hard rock, alternative bands, techno. Korn, Third Eye Blind, System of a Down. One of my hobbies is deejaying, and I even got to deejay for the opening-night party [of Boheme]. I actually was more nervous about that than singing that evening.

Q: Finally, what's next for you?
Miller: I'm signed to do Boheme until July, and we're negotiating an extension, but I'm off in April to do a world premiere of an opera at La Scala. It's Marco Tutino's Vita [based on Margaret Edson's Wit]. Meantime, it feels as if everything I've done has prepared me for this Boheme. It's a show I absolutely adore.

GOING FOR THE RECORD
Once you hear the new CD by Matt Bogart, you'll want to play it again . . . and again. Entitled "Simple Song," it's a thrillingly theatrical showcase for his charismatic and commanding baritone. Produced by John Yap and lushly orchestrated, this handsome CD is literally a record of Bogart's Broadway credits, such as Miss Saigon ("Why God, Why?"), The Civil War ("Tell My Father") and Aida (in which he sings "Elaborate Lives" with the entrancing LaChanze).

He is also joined by his brother Daniel Bogart, and they belt the beautiful "If You Still Love Me" from Martin Guerre. What's more, his girlfriend, Jessica Boevers (who plays Ado Annie in Oklahoma!), accompanies him on an adorable duet of Rodgers & Hart's "I Could Write a Book." Bogart, who first met Boevers at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, says, "We didn't start dating until four years ago, so this is kind of our song. It's about 'how to make two lovers of friends.'"

Even with all the special guests, "Simple Song" is clearly Bogart's vision. It's his heroic, dramatic delivery of such classics as "Her Face," and his voice, that make this CD stand out. "I didn't want to do an easy-listening album of Irving Berlin," Bogart says. "I went for edgy 11 o'clock numbers, songs that I believe in, like 'Simple Song' [from Leonard Bernstein's Mass]. Stephen Schwartz's lyrics are amazing: 'Sing God a simple song . . . make it up as you go along.' That's what we do in life: create a journey and revel in the wonder of it all."

Another inspiring song on the CD is "New America," which comes from JFK, a new musical by Will Holt. In it, Kennedy sings of his hope for this country. Bogart says, "Even though it was written for a great man in the 1960's, I think it's an anthem for our time."

Ironically, one of the toughest songs to record was the one he's sung over 1,000 times in Miss Saigon: "Why God, Why?" "It's high. There's a reason I did that show when I was young," wisecracks Bogart, who's 31. "A lot of guys lost their voices doing it."

Next, the 6-foot-tall leading man will sing up a storm as Starbuck, the rainmaker, in a new revival of 110 in the Shade, Jan. 21-March 2 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. Then, he's headed for the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., to do Camelot (April 2-May 18). It'll co star Brent Barrett as King Arthur and Glory Crampton as Guinevere. No doubt when Bogart plays Lancelot and sings "C'est Moi," he'll be a knight to remember. For info about Bogart, see www.mattbogart.com.

CABARET TODAY
Justin Daniel is originally from Atlanta, Ga., but he made his New York bow just in time to be one of 2002's most dazzling debuts in cabaret. Only 23, he recently wowed the critics with his pipes, poise and appealing personality. But the sweet-sounding tenor didn't do it by regurgitating Gershwin or repackaging Cole Porter. In his acoustic show called "Quarterlife Crisis," Daniel tongue-in-cheekily sang of the fun and frustrations of being in your twenties, and he did it by using current pop-rock tunes by India: Arie ("Beautiful"), Oasis ("Cast No Shadow") and Ben Folds (the hilarious "Song for the Dumped").

Plus, he found his songwriting soulmate in a fellow Georgian: pop star John Mayer, who's only 25 himself. Daniel gives his own special spin to three of Mayer's terrific tunes from his "Room for Squares" CD: "'83," "Why Georgia" and "My Stupid Mouth." On the last song, Daniel, who's gay, changes the pronoun in the lyrics to indicate that he's on a date with a guy, and not a gal. It's subtle and refreshingly matter-of-fact. He says, "It's cabaret. I feel I can't lie to the audience. Besides, being gay isn't an issue for me. I came out to my parents at 18, and they were so supportive. In fact, my dad asked me about it and said he didn't give a s*** if I was. I was so lucky." Luckier still, Daniel has a boyfriend who's such a whiz at graphics that he did his flyers, press kit and website (www.justindaniel.com). The internet-savvy singer also says he found a number of songs in his act, such as Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" and Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like a Rock," by surfing the web. Accompanied by Jeff Waxman on piano and Bob Green on guitar, he's bringing back "Quarterlife Crisis" Jan. 6 and 13 to Don't Tell Mama.

Though teenyboppers could mistake the 5-foot-10 performer for a pinup from a boy band, Daniel will be playing for an even younger crowd in February. He's featured in the tour of the hit kiddie show "Blue's Clues" as Slippery Soap. And while that promises to be good, clean fun, Daniel says he can't wait to get back to cabaret: "It's my own creation. I wrote the words. I picked the songs. It's really the best performing experience I've ever had."

VOCAL HEROES
Last year I saw so many memorable male singers. Here are my "7 Favorite Amazing Musical Moments of 2002" (in alphabetical order):

Tom Andersen, "Anyone Can Whistle," Broadway Musicals of 1964, Town Hall.
John Barrowman, "Being Alive," Sondheim Celebration concert, Avery Fisher Hall.
Chad Kimball, "Giants in the Sky" (lounge version), Broadway Spotlight, Ars Nova Theater.
David Miller, "Che Gelida Manina," La Boheme, Broadway Theatre.
Stephen Pasquale, "Streets of Dublin," A Man of No Importance , Mitzi Newhouse.
Marcus Simeone, "Some Enchanted Evening," Mostly Standards, The Duplex.
Patrick Wilson, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," Oklahoma!, Gershwin Theatre.
Special citation: Adam Green, "Captain Hook's Waltz," A Party for Adolph Green, Shubert Theatre.

What were your highlights? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com and we'll feature some of your faves next month.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There's so much to see in the New York area: Jason Danieley (The Full Monty) will join his wife, Marin Mazzie (Kiss Me, Kate), at Joe's Pub and make beautiful music again Jan. 5 and 19 and Feb. 2. . . . Another Full Monty cast member, Sal Viviano, will be a most happy fella appearing Jan. 4-6 at Lyrics & Lyricists' "The Songs of Frank Loesser" at the 92nd Street Y. . . . Jazz singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers also will put his own spin on standards when he swings into the Algonquin's Oak Room Jan. 14-Feb. 8 with his new CD, "Secret Heart." . . . He'll be followed there on Feb. 11 by 19-year-old whiz kid Peter Cincotti (Our Sinatra), who's also headlining Jan. 11 in the "Cabaret at the Chase" series at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. . . . Johnny Rodgers, another Our Sinatra alumni, will play Jan. 7-11 at The Bar at Fives at the Peninsula New York. . . . Speaking of singer pianists, the legendary Steve Ross has been such a key player at the Rembrandt Room at the Stanhope Park Hyatt New York that he's been extended through Feb. 1. He'll be joined by Peter Howard (Jan. 14 18) and Peter Mintun (Jan. 28-Feb. 1) for two-piano performances. . . . Downtown in the Village, John Epperson will sing and accompany himself in "Show Trash," which recalls the roots of his creation, Lypsinka, Jan. 18, 23, 25 and 30 and Feb. 23 at Upstairs at Rose's Turn. Finally, the madcap Mark Nadler (American Rhapsody) will open Jan. 6 at the brand-new upstairs Supperclub at the Firebird Restaurant. His show is called "Tchaikowsky and Other Russians," which delightfully deconstructs "Tschaikowsky," the classic Danny Kaye patter song, and that sounds plenty "Godunuv" for us.

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.