The Producers, the all-time Tony-winning champion (an even dozen), needs another Tony like it needs a hole in the head, but here he is anyway — and a winning Tony he is!
Tony Danza is currently proving who's the boss of Broadway as one of the Main Stem's main attractions — that irrepressible, irresponsible shyster showman Max Bialystock, who gave you the musical version of Hamlet known as Funny Boy and will soon be giving you Maim, Katz, High Button Jews, South Passaic and Death of a Salesman — On Ice!
"He's right up my alley," declares Danza, implying Shubert Alley, although this is the first time he has ever played his song-and-dance card here. Previously, he toiled on Broadway in the works of Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. No, really: He replaced Anthony LaPaglia in A View From the Bridge, and he served drinks to Kevin Spacey and other besotted outcasts in The Iceman Cometh. Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's merry musical romp uncorks the hoofer–crooner in Danza that he has only displayed in nightclubs.
"Y-not is Tony spelled backwards," he shrugs by way of an explanation. "It has been a longtime ambition and dream of mine to do a Broadway musical. I probably should have picked one that isn't quite the hardest musical. This one is really difficult, but I'm having a blast, and the people I'm working with have been tremendously welcoming." There's a lot that's likable and relatable about Max for Danza. "First of all," says the actor, "he's a guy trying to keep balls in the air. I love that, that feeling of 'I'll get this done somehow, whatever it takes.' I know he's despicable at times, but he's really this conman-with-a-heart sort of guy who wants to scale the heights again. I identify with that. If you're characterizing him, this one joke does it: Early, he says, 'You're looking at the man who once had the biggest name on Broadway: Max Bialystock! Thirteen letters.'
"I saw The Producers originally when it first opened with Nathan [Lane] and Matthew [Broderick], and you know something? I hate to admit this because it probably speaks to the actor in me, but I remember thinking, 'Gee, I believe I can do that part.' I really did."
Susan Stroman, the show's Tony-winning choreographer–director, came to the same conclusion when she caught Danza's TV talk show and sent foot runners to his doorstep. "I didn't have to audition, but performing before 'Stro' for the first time was intense. I think we eventually got in sync. Later, I wrote her a note and said, 'I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed working with you, and your lack of buyer's remorse was thrilling.'"
He's just dirt-kicking. Stroman was quite thrilled her hunch has paid off so handsomely: "He's spectacular! He can really sing, and he can really dance. And he's a real New Yorker. As Mel Brooks always said, 'Max is New York first, then he's Jewish.' Thing is, he has the energy to do it — he's in great shape — and he understands comedy, the tone."
Danza entered show biz via the boxing ring and played a pugilist on the "Taxi" that took him to stardom. The season after "Taxi" (1978–83) permanently parked, he rebounded with eight seasons of "Who's the Boss?," playing housekeeper to businesswoman Judith Light. "One of the truly wonderful people in the world," he says of that co-star. "First, let's just start with her heart, her being, her work ethic — and then go to the performer in her. You know how good an actress she is? She can cry out of one eye at a time."
George C. Scott, with whom he made his Off-Broadway bow in Wrong Turn at Lungfish, was another source of inspiration. "I think he was the greatest American actor. To have been around him on the stage and seen what he could do to an audience was incredible."
Slugging his way into show business and paying attention to the greats he has worked with made Danza fairly fearless as a performer. "One of the things that changed my whole life was a 'Taxi' episode where we all pretended to tap-dance. I went and got a teacher and started studying. Tap-dancing sorta gave me the license to act. It just opened me up.
"It would have been easy to turn The Producers down. 'Naw, I'll stay home.' But I really wanted the experience. I'll soon be 57 so I'm on a different mind-set. Now, I'm totally 'if I want to have the experience, that's why I'm doing it.' Chasing, after a while, gets to you — and that's what actors do. We're chasing the next job. Well, I'm finished chasing."
It's hardly a rest stop, The Producers. But then, Y-not? "I'm a dyslexic prophet," he grins.