THE LEADING MEN: Tony Yazbeck Climbs Into the Branches of Sycamore Trees

News   THE LEADING MEN: Tony Yazbeck Climbs Into the Branches of Sycamore Trees
 
Meet Tony Yazbeck, who plays the author's stand-in in Sycamore Trees, Ricky Ian Gordon's autobiographical musical.
Tony Yazbeck
Tony Yazbeck Photo by John Fortunato

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TONY SEASON

Only a few more days left to catch Sycamore Trees, the Ricky Ian Gordon-penned musical having its world premiere at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. The ensemble piece — all actors are on the stage for the entire show — features Broadway vets Farah Alvin, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Jessica Molaskey, Diane Sutherland, Matthew Risch and, our Leading Man of this month, Tony Yazbeck.

The actor-singer-dancer debuted on Broadway at the age of 11 alongside Tyne Daly in Gypsy. He was last seen on Broadway all grown up in the Patti LuPone version of the same show, for which he was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award (he played Tulsa). He appeared as Gabey in the Encores! concert revival of On the Town, dancing Jerome Robbins' choreography. Other Broadway turns include Al in the recent revival of A Chorus Line and Phil in White Christmas. But his most important role is coming later this month when he weds his sweetheart, Jessica Lee Goldyn, currently playing Tiger Lily in Paper Mill Playhouse's Peter Pan.

How is Virginia treating you?
Virginia's nice, actually. It's kind of nice to be away from the city for awhile. There's this little village called Shirlington Village here where the Signature Theatre is located, and it is kind of its own little Pleasantville, in the middle of nowhere, but it is nice. I actually like going out of town for new shows because it helps to bond the cast together.

For the uninitiated, tell us about Sycamore Trees.
Ricky Ian Gordon started writing it over 25 years ago based on his life and his whole family, which is a big family. When his partner died in 1996, he realized why he was writing it and what the point of writing it was. It spans six decades from the '40s through the '90s, and it talks about the social and political times during each decade and it also tells what happened to this family, how it grew and expanded into different areas. Toward the end of the show, obviously, his partner passes away from AIDS, and it talks about what he had to go through with that and how the family bonds together because of it, and the realization that family really is so much more healing and important than he ever thought it would be. What is it like working so closely with Ricky Ian Gordon, who you actually play in the show? When you were Phil in White Christmas, you didn't have to answer to the "real Phil."
The role I play in the show is based on Ricky. What is great about Ricky and I is, when I first got this job, we sat down and we chatted for a long time. I started to understand him right away. The first thing I got about him is he is just so passionate about everything he does. He's one of the most brilliant music writers of our time. There is a genuine earnestness about him that I connect to. When we started working on this, of course there were times when Ricky was in the rehearsal room watching us all, and I'm going, "I hope I can give his role justice and give his family honor," but at the end of the day, you take what you have been given with the characters and the information that's on the page…

Tony Yazbeck in Sycamore Trees
photo by Scott Suchman

The first time I got the script and read it, I was blown away. I realized, this is the kind of theatre that I've always wanted to do. It was real, it was new, it was fresh, and it really had something to say. So you started on Broadway at the age of 11 in Gypsy with Tyne Daly, and recently closed in Gypsy again. Do you think you'll keep on growing up in the show, appearing in the next Broadway incarnation?
[Laughs] Who knows? Maybe in another decade, I'll play Pastey and Jocko, and maybe I'll graduate to Herbie. [Laughs] It's crazy what happened. It was awesome for me to be able to return to the same theatre to do the same show with the same director and play one of the roles I'd always dreamed of playing as a kid. That was really such a full-circle thing for me. It was a dream fully realized for me.

How well do you remember being on Broadway as a kid?
Oh, God, it's very vivid! Very vivid. I remember the day I got the job. I remember the streets of New York, how different they were back then, even in like '89-'90, how it was sort of a different vibe. It felt a little dirtier and a little more magical in a way. I remember [casting agent] Stuart Howard gave me my first job. I remember my parents were there, and we were all jumping up and down at the St. James Theatre knowing that I was starting rehearsals in a few days, and that was my first introduction to theatre!

Was it a tough transition after that?
Yeah, I was 13 when the show closed. I was in the "I'm-not-a-kid, I'm-an-adult" phase, so I had to go back to school for awhile. So I went back to school and became a kid, but I always had in the back of my mind, "I know what I'm doing, I know what I'm doing…" and my thing was always putting it in my head that I was going to [pursue acting] and not listening to the billions of people in your head who like to scream at you, "You can't do it." I felt like I was never made to do anything but this.

Marc Kudisch and Tony Yazbeck in Sycamore Trees.
photo by Scott Suchman

Marc Kudisch, who plays your character's father in the show, has appeared in The Leading Men column in the past. What's it like working with him?
Marc is a very generous actor. He comes off larger than life, and I think he is. He has a lot to say and a lot that he feels, and he's very creative onstage. What's great working with him: he loves to collaborate. Whenever you can work with an actor who is ready to create and is never set in any way, you can get so much done. With the seven of us in the cast, we really lucked out. The seven of us are completely giving. Everyone is very courageous. We're ready for anything. It starts with our director. From day one of rehearsals, it was Tina Landau setting the standard. She was the ringleader for all of us to be brave enough to be ourselves and to give to each other as a whole and to not ever sit back. Just to go forward with everything. Marc is great. We share a dressing room, and we have a lot to talk about. What is next for Sycamore Trees?
You know, I don't know. I know we got some great reviews here, my manager told me. I think that this is the first step. We have an awesome cast with a great director. When I got this job, I walk in the room for the first time, I'm working with Judy Kuhn, Jessica Molaskey and Farah Alvin and Marc Kudisch and Diane Sutherland and Matthew Risch, who is awesome. And I'm sitting there going, "Okay, if this cast and this director and this music writer can't make something happen, I don't know what can." We really do have a successful show here. I think it is the beginning stages still, I think we need to move somewhere else and make it even better.

As for what you have coming up next — a wedding — congratulations!
Thank you. I'm so focused on that more than anything. We're so happy, we almost feel like it is overdue, and we've been waiting a couple years to do it because of this job or that job and we're like, "You know what? No matter what, we're getting married." That's what you have to do in this business, decide that your personal life is way more important than any job could be. We're getting married, then going to Germany for a couple weeks.

[Sycamore Trees, directed by Tina Landau, runs to June 13. Signature Theatre is nine minutes from downtown Washington, DC, in Arlington's Shirlington Village. Tickets for Sycamore Trees are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT (7328) or visiting www.signature-theatre.org.]

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"NOW" VOYAGER News from the world of divas was big this week with the announcement that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would step into Broadway's A Little Night Music this summer, revitalizing a show that was announced to close in June. Let's not miss the fact that British leading man Alexander Hanson — a major reason for the success of this Trevor Nunn-directed revival — will continue in the role of Fredrik Egerman, which he created in the Broadway staging after playing it in London (he was the only West End cast member to cross the pond). Here's my Leading Men conversation with him from a column earlier this year.

PURPLE MEN (AND WOMEN) IN BROOKLYN

Michael Bianco of The Purple Plays
photo by Matt Staib

The Purple Plays, eight new one-acts by Steven Alexander — half hurting, half healing, the resultant bruise the color of the show's title — will be performed at Ceol's Irish Pub, 191 Smith Street in Brooklyn, June 18 at 7:30 PM; June 20 at 2 PM; June 21 at 9 PM; and June 24 at 7 PM. Two of the one-acts were directed by yours truly, so come have a look. Chuck Hinshaw, Michael Bianco, Paul Jones, Evan Sokal, Meredith Edwards, Whitney Harris, Heather Leonard and Andrea Swenson are among the talented cast in stories that Alexander says feature "characters that are in different chapters in their lives and how even the smallest gesture can make a huge difference...for better or worse." Charleigh Parker of HBO's "The Boardwalk Empire" also directs. Tickets available through bugaboojonesgroup.com. The show is part of the Second Annual BoCoCa Arts Festival, running June 18-27 (bococaartsfestival.com). Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com

Matthew Risch and Tony Yazbeck
Matthew Risch and Tony Yazbeck
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