THE LEADING MEN: Wopat and Breaker

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Wopat and Breaker
 
A couple Tony nominees run the Leading Men gauntlet this month: A Catered Affair's Tom Wopat, the most introspective taxi driver since Robert De Niro; and Daniel Breaker, who plays the multi-faceted part of Youth in Passing Strange.
Tom Wopat
Tom Wopat

Father of the Bride
I always think it must be a nice thing when a character shares the same name as the actor in that role. Your castmates never have to worry about accidentally calling you by your real name onstage. Tom Wopat shares more than a name with Tom Hurley, the working-class cabbie and reluctant wedding subsidizer in A Catered Affair. Wopat relates to his namesake by recalling the Wisconsin dairy farmers of his youth, men he says worked "from light to light and sometimes beyond that to just keep food on the table for the family." Channeling that ethos and mixing in a heavy dose of world-weariness — one would swear there is a rain cloud following him around the stage —makes Tom's Tom an extremely captivating character to watch and a great foil for Faith Prince's Aggie.

Question: How are you enjoying being a part of A Catered Affair?
Tom Wopat: The story itself is a great story I've always likened to the O. Henry story, "The Gift of The Magi." In my view, this story has that kind of symmetry and payoff. It's bittersweet. It's a beautiful piece, but not as much fun to do as some of the other musicals I've done over the years like Oklahoma! or City of Angels or 42nd Street. It's very satisfying. The thing that's interesting about it is the way that it seems to affect people. There's a pretty large percentage of the audience that really gets it and identifies with the humanity of the play.

Q: How do you mean, "not as much fun" — because it is a more difficult role?
Wopat: "Difficult" is not really the word as much as it's emotionally exhausting, since I'm not a good enough actor to act the last scene without kind of "going there." And I go fairly deep into the emotion of the situation and the frustration of the character. It's kind of painful on a nightly basis — that's basically what I'm talking about. There is a depth of emotion and anxiety that pretty much all the actors in this show get to at one point or another.

Q: So there is plenty of tapping into reality up there?
Wopat: I think that's the strength of the play and the musical itself. It's real people. They are not going to break into a dance, but they will sing about what they are doing. And the music I think is very beautiful and integral, and integrated, actually, into the action. I think it's one of the best examples of how to bring a song out of the action and go back into the action from the song. I think that combination of John Bucchino's music and John Doyle's direction has really achieved that kind of melding of the two things.

Q: Because your character is emotionally distant through much of the show, you spend a lot of quiet time on stage while Harvey Fierstein or Faith are going off. Was that challenging?
Wopat: Yeah, that was really hard for me because I am a fairly vocal guy to begin with. I have started to be a little more reticent as I get a little older. I recognize the class of worker this guy is and also that older generation saddled with the inability to really discuss emotion and address situations that arise because of a lack of communication. That's what this play is really about. Q: It definitely is a musical that allows the players to really act.
Wopat: Well, I've done plenty of musicals where you feel you almost have to apologize for the book. And this is not one of those. I think this book is totally amazing, and both Paddy Chayefsky's whole concept originally, and what Gore Vidal did to it, and also Harvey's contribution is fairly amazing. I've been kind of astonished on a weekly basis at the depth and insight in the lines. There is just a wealth of knowledge and subtlety to the dialogue.

Q: So far, your stage work has been more brash and open characters. Was it a cool change to play a more inward-looking guy?
Wopat: Yeah, that's kind of been a conscious decision. I'm getting a little long in the tooth to do the Curleys and some of the more traditional leading men roles in musicals. I've been playing dads these days. I think that it's interesting to be able to have a little more breadth to the character. I think this performance is informed by what I was doing when I was doing Glengarry Glen Ross [in 2005], which was an amazing production.

Q: How happy were you when you first encountered your big number, "I Stayed"?
Wopat: [Laughs.] You know what? I was all ready to turn the part down until I got to the song, and then I got to the song and I said, "Sheeeeooot. I'm gonna have to do this." I think it has the potential, if we get a run out of this show, to be a real audition song, and I think it's kind of a cross between the soliloquy from Carousel and "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy. It's a real epiphany, and those don't happen very often in musicals, and they don't happen very often in plays. It's one of those things where all of a sudden, something clicks in this guy, and he's gotta say what he's gotta say, and the musical comes to a screeching halt, and it's really a challenge, but it's also extremely exciting. At the beginning, I feel like I have the power to take the audience wherever I want to take them. I have their complete attention at the beginning of that song. Probably once a week, I will finish, and you can just hear all of the air being sucked out of the room as I walk off. It's pretty amazing.

Q: Are you able to enjoy some of Faith's memorable reactions after your song?
Wopat: I saw it in rehearsal. This show was intense to watch in rehearsal as anything I've ever done. And I can't say enough about Doyle. It's a unique acting experience working with John Doyle, and it was a total joy. And I would challenge you to find anybody as good as that. He's an amazing guy, he's got an amazing approach, and it's hard to overstate, and I don't want to gush, but I love all the creative people on the show, and I have an intense respect for John Doyle. Harvey, I had never worked with him before. I've never been in Harvey's circle, and he's engendered a great deal of good will on Broadway, and he's been an amazing force for a long time, and sometimes those guys get a little iconoclastic, a little hard-wired into the way they want things done. But I must admit that Harvey is very sensible, and I can't emphasize enough how smart he is, and what a great writer he is. It's an inspiration to be around guys like him and Bucchino.

Q: And congratulations on the Tony nomination, your second.
Wopat: Thanks. It was bittersweet in the sense that I'd hoped to get some recognition for this part, but I really hoped that the show would be recognized — that was actually a more important thing to me. I may sound like I am trying to make myself sound like a saint or something, but it's absolutely true. I think that this piece should be seen by as many people as possible, so I was a little upset that they did not recognize the show and did not recognize the book, which was as good a book as I've ever been involved with of a musical. Having said that, I'm really, really honored and pleased that I was nominated and also that Faith and [orchestrator] Jonathan Tunick were. They've been recognized as geniuses before. That's no big surprise, but again, we're just looking at the fact that we want the show to run. It's not that we are desperate to be the Best Musical of the year or anything like that, but you want to get the recognition you need to sell tickets and put butts in the seats. We're really hoping that people who see this show are going to go out and spread by word of mouth how good it is.

Q: How far do you feel you've come on Broadway since your debut as a replacement in I Love My Wife in the late seventies?
Wopat: I wanted to be John Raitt or Heather Mac Rae's dad. Those are the guys I wanted to be. [Laughs.] I've had pretty good luck. I've got no complaints. I've been able to do a lot of really terrific shows and work with a number of amazing actors: Bernadette Peters, Faith Prince, and the list goes on. The television stuff that I've done has been a lot of fun. Making records has been a gas. I've got another record I'm going to make this summer that's coming out in the fall. My whole career, I pretty much was just working with what I had. You know, it's kind of nice starting to see if there are some real acting chops under all that cowboy stuff!

Tom Wopat in A Catered Affair

[A Catered Affair plays the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]

Daniel Breaker

Breaker Breaker
If you need a little good luck, root for Daniel Breaker to cross your path. The man is recently married, has a baby on the way, and is up for a Tony for his role in Passing Strange, the first professional musical he's ever done. "I am going to cure cancer in July, so as soon as that's done I think I'll just take a break," he jokes. The way things are going, don't doubt it. Question: Congrats on the Tony nomination. What was your first reaction?
Daniel Breaker: Thank you. I didn't believe it. I did not believe it at all. The Tony website sort of popped up with the information before CBS did. I got the information like half an hour before TV, so I got with my wife, and we looked online, and I was like, "This isn't really happening." And then they announced it, and I thought, "This really isn't happening, and at like two o'clock that day, I took it in and realized life is going to change a bit.

Q: So you're not someone who is going to pretend you weren't really paying attention.
Breaker: Oh, of course, I was. There was all this talk about it. With my family alone, they would call me and ask me if I got nominated for a Tony yet. So, they sort of added the pressure. My mom and dad — we sent them out to Vegas for Mother's Day, and at 5:00–5:30 in the morning their time, they woke up to investigate to see if the news was out, so they were some of the first to call. I got lots of sleepy yet excited phone calls from my family. I also have a sister out in L.A. who called that early hour also.

Q: What was it like showing up at the theatre after finding out something like that?
Breaker: This play, this musical, this project is an ensemble. And I don't mean that in the B.S. sort of way, it really is. The only reason we are here is because of the band and the actors and the creative team, so it feels like we all got nominated for seven awards, and it does feel like a collective, so everybody was on Cloud Nine that day. As a result, the audience is a bit more supportive, a bit larger, so the show was actually somewhat easier to get through because we don't have to get the crowd to join us. It's not as difficult as it was before; as soon as they come in, they are having a great time.

Q: Would you have envisioned this success for yourself and the show a couple years ago?
Breaker: Yeah, this was never my plan. I never actually had dreams of being on Broadway. I definitely didn't have dreams of being in a musical. Also, when I joined the show at Sundance back in 2005, I could not even imagine that this show would have legs on Broadway. But a series of events have happened to help us get here, and also I think audiences are looking for something like this show. It was also sort of a good year in terms of the Broadway world — I feel like we have a balance of funky, new, downtown musicals that make it uptown and classics like Gypsy, like South Pacific, which I think is exactly what Broadway should be. It should be both of those things.

Q: What's the most fun that you have at any given performance of Passing Strange?
Breaker: I love it all. The show is always different. There's always new things that we discover in the show, and musically Stew tries new things, so that's always fun. The fact that it is live and that it's different each night really is enjoyable because you never get bored. He's doing this new part in the show during the song "Keys," where we sing "It's all right," where the music cuts out and it's just a little drumbeat, and everybody is singing, "It's all right" without any musical accompaniment, and that is a hell of a lot of fun, and the music crashes back in, and that elevates the show, and just takes it to a whole new level, and the audience comes along. And that's been a new, fun element, but really it's everything, from the top of the show to the curtain call. It's just damn fun. It's a great way to live. Q: You lived in many different places growing up. Did the transient life inform your acting?
Breaker: I think a lot of army brats tend to be actors. When you travel around so much, you get to appreciate the kinds of masks that people sort of wear or the traditions that people have in their lives. I think I took in so much, so many different cultures, so many different backgrounds, both racially and economically, that I sort of brought all those things onto the stage. I think this play sort of epitomizes that idea because this kid wears different hats throughout the show. So it was very true-to-form.

Q: In your recent "Cue & A" interview for Playbill.com, you had several references to classical music. Did that come from your days at Juilliard?
Breaker: My two loves other than my family are cooking and classical music. One of the few constants when I traveled around was Mozart, so I attached to him, and when I got into college… You know, Juilliard is just real rife with geniuses, so it was a wonderful opportunity to kind of drink in all of the magnificent musicians, so I am like a little armchair conductor, I guess you could say. I love music — anything that is communicating an emotion or a thought through music is beautiful. And when it can elevate itself to trigger emotions in someone, it's awe-inspiring. So whenever that happens, it's great. I mean, for some it happens in Gypsy, and for others it happens in In the Heights, and for me it happens in a Bach fugue.

Q: Have you thought of how you are going to be on Tony night? Playing it cool?
Breaker: Honestly, the thing I'm really looking forward to is my beautiful pregnant wife next to me in her lovely gown, my mom, my dad, my brothers and sisters also there. The Breakers of Jacksonville are coming in!

[Passing Strange plays the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street in Manhattan. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]

Hither and Yon

If you're up in the Catskills, say Phoenicia, doing some inner tubing, and you feel like you need a theatrical fix (hey, you never know!), check out Bye Bye Birdie, being done by the Shandaken Theatrical Society. I got a quick impromptu tour of this little upstate theatre during rehearsals. For reservations, call (845) 688-2279 or go to stsplayhouse.com. Final weekend of shows is June 6- 8… Jason St. Little, so canonized by this column by my accidental typing of a "t," has taken his sainthood in stride and will be performing two more of his one-of-a-kind shows as Tits Fisher on July 3 and 10 at the Zipper Factory. See zipperfactory.com for all the mad details… Variety calls him a "freak." He calls himself "America's Gaysian Sweetheart." Alec Mapa is bringing his one-man show to Joe's Pub, June 28 and 29. Go to www.joespub.com for more… Billy Stritch, so entertaining in tandem with Jim Caruso at Caruso's Cast Parties, will perform in concert with Klea Blackhurst, celebrating the release of Stritch and Blackhurst's Hoagie Carmichael Tribute CD, "Dreaming of Song." The concert is June 16 at Birdland, part of the treasured Broadway at Birdland series. Hit www.birdlandjazz.com or call (212) 581-3080 for ticket info… Tony Danza is at Feinstein's until June 14 in his show, "I Could Have Danced All Night." . . . Adam Pascal will close out June at Feinstein's with shows on the 29th and 30th. Visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com for info on those events…Enjoy the Tonys, folks! May your favorite performers and shows take all the hardware.

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

Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Passing Strange.
Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Passing Strange. Carol Rosegg
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