THE LEADING MEN: Burstein and Barrett

By Tom Nondorf
03 Dec 2009

Danny Burstein
Danny Burstein
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

South Pacific star Danny Burstein and Chicago's Brent Barrett talk about their new work, and reflect on past projects.


The end of another calendar year, and, as I reflect on the slew of enjoyable Leading Men I talked to this year, I have to say there's no people like show people. Always great stories and reflections, and I'm most lucky and happy to present them here to you in this space each month. What about this month? Danny Burstein from South Pacific and Brent Barrett from Chicago are here.

Read this and you can say, "I knew Danny Burstein when…" because this is a fellow whose star is on the rise. Tony-nominated for his last two Broadway roles, the manic lover Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone and the heroic scamp Luther Billis in South Pacific, Burstein is also a key player in the new Martin Scorsese-exec-produced HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire," which is getting a lot of buzz as it is written by the folks behind "The Sopranos." Among other projects, Burstein is also a recurring character on "Law & Order." One fact that is not likely to change no matter how big his star gets: He is truly one of the nicest guys out there.

Q: Tell me about "Boardwalk Empire," which must be an exciting project.
Burstein: The pilot was filmed in July. And that was, needless to say, very exciting. Not only working with all the writers, but, of course, working with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot and who is just fantastic. Everybody brings their A-game to the table, and everyone is super prepared, and [Scorsese] couldn't be nicer and more relaxed the entire time. They ordered another 11 episodes, so I'll be in about eight of those, they tell me.

Q: Were you a little nervous going in about working with Scorsese?
Burstein: I thought I was. Beforehand I certainly was — the thought of how everything was going to go. But then when I got there, he was so supportive and so calm. I grew up in New York City, he grew up in New York City. He just reminds me of a guy from the neighborhood whose passion happens to be films. And he loves talking about films, and he's a genius talking about films. He knows every little film that's ever been done, and he loves getting into conversations and telling stories about them. He's just an absolute delight and couldn't be more normal. Really, it was such a relaxed experience where I thought it could be a tense one.

Danny Burstein (center) in South Pacific
photo by Joan Marcus
Q: I can't personally even imagine how you tackle that show at the same time as South Pacific...
Burstein: Well, it's a little bit of a juggling act, but it's something that I've always wanted to do, to be able to bounce back and forth between different genres, and I'm able to do it somehow. And now what would be nice is another good play in New York somewhere — that would be really exciting.

Q: You got your MFA at UC San Diego, so I'm curious if being a New Yorker from the Bronx, you were originally thinking of staying in California and doing film work? What led you to go out there?
Burstein: The reason I decided to go back to grad school, I had been acting professionally since I was 19 and I got my Equity card in St. Louis doing musicals. I wanted to be a dramatic actor, and I could only get seen for musicals, and it was kind of a weird thing because that's what was mostly on my résumé. I decided to go back to grad school to put some legitimate dramatic credits on my résumé, and UC San Diego was very hot at the time. They were doing a lot of very interesting work with a lot of very interesting directors…and I thought I want to go out there and do that. …Years before, I had talked to Tony Randall. I had worked with him in summer stock 1986, and he had been trying to establish his National Actors Theater on Broadway, and I said if you ever do that, let me know... And about a year after I got back from grad school I was already doing things in New York, and I picked up the phone and I heard, "Danny. Tony Randall!" and he was asking me to be part of his company on Broadway. Just like that, I never had to audition.

Q: I was just watching him in a Doris Day movie the other day, "Lover Come Back."
Burstein: I think he made two or three of those. He loved Doris Day. He spoke about her rhapsodically. I'll tell you my favorite Tony Randall story. I met him doing Around the World in Eighty Days in St. Louis. I was about to go to graduate school... So he said "So you'll go to graduate school?" and I said, "Yeah, I'll go to graduate school," and he said, "So you'll be able to teach acting some day?," and I said, "Yeah, I'll be able to teach acting." And he looked at me all of a sudden with fire in his eyes — now I had just met him like a minute before — and he said, "If you had an acting class in front of you right now, what would you tell them is the most important part of acting?" And I was so green. I went, "Well, my favorite acting teacher always said that acting is doing and acting is reacting," and he went, "Uh-uh. Listening." And I said, "Well that's very much a part of reacting, don't you think?" And he said, "Don't argue with me you asshole. You should get down on your knees and thank me for telling you this!" Then he got up and he said, "It takes ten years to learn how to listen. Ten years." And walked away. And we became dear friends. I'd go to his house for Thanksgiving. I loved him. But in the first minute of meeting Tony, he called me an asshole. In a way, I wear it as a badge of honor.

Q: So tell me a little about your thoughts about Luther Billis, the fellow you've been playing for quite a while now.
Burstein: I love Luther Billis. He is a wheeler-dealer, but he's not just that. I played the role when I was 16 or 17 in non-Equity summer stock, and we put the show up for nine days or something. I really didn't know what the character was all about. And I think a lot of people think they know the show and they think they know all the characters. I think, with this production, [director] Bartlett Sher made a concerted effort to really delve into the characters and really find out what was there — not just from the surface but really what was going on deep inside these people and what motivated them. So right from the beginning we decided that it was Luther's love of Nellie that really propelled him forward. And, he would do anything for her and it wasn't necessarily so his love would be requited, it was just about making sure that she was happy.

Q: It's got to be one of the coolest things you can do, to take a character that people think they know and find a lot more depth and show people a different side.
Burstein: Yeah, and I have to again credit Bart for allowing me to play. The great thing that you always pray your director has is taste. You pray that they're able to go, "This is fantastic. Hold onto this," because that helps shape your performance. Bart has exquisite taste.

Q: I got the chance to talk to your show's leading man, Paulo Szot, a couple months back and he seemed like truly a gentle soul.
Burstein: Without a doubt he is one of the loveliest people you'll ever meet, and he cares so much about the work. We have one scene together, and every month we look at each other and we almost break up laughing in the middle of the scene because it's silly, but we just love each other so much. We have that thing, where it's going so well that it's almost scary. It's that great mutual respect thing. So every three months or so we have to put ourselves back into check to make sure we're okay because otherwise we could just giggle through that whole scene. You don't giggle with people you don't absolutely adore. You just have to be on that completely same wavelength, and it's such a great, great thing. I admire him so much, I really do. His performance is sublime. It's not just incredible singing, it's the real depth of his character, on and off stage. He's a deep-feeling, fantastic human being.

Danny Burstein in The Drowsy Chaperone
photo by Joan Marcus
Q: Say you're given one night to perform in front of all your friends, and you have to choose whether to play Aldolpho or Luther Billis. One night only. Which do you choose?
Burstein: [Laughs] Can't I do highlights of both? I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that Aldolpho was the most silly fun I've ever had on stage. It was a very, very close company. We all loved each other. So it was like riding on this wonderful comedy soap bubble that could burst at any moment. Yet, it was so tenuous and just glistening and perfect, and I had the most amazing time doing that show. Having said that, Luther Billis is much more surprising and deep and adult, and I enjoy playing him every night because of that. Because he is much more than people think. That's a two-way answer!

Q: You were kind enough to introduce me to your two sons at the Broadway Flea Market a few weeks back. Do they have acting in their blood?
Burstein: I don't know. They're both trying to figure out where their interests lie because they have so many interests, and that's a wonderful thing. Alex, my older one, enjoys writing. He's always been interested in filmmaking; he makes short films. And my younger son, Zach, is a very talented musician. He's a wonderful drummer, very ridiculously funny and a terrific artist. I think whatever Zach winds up doing, it will be arts in some way. And maybe even Alex, too. The world is their oyster, and they have so many different interests and they're so ridiculously smart. They have really sophisticated senses of humor, which God knows I certainly appreciate.

Q: You also have a lovely wife, the great Rebecca Luker, two successful Broadway shows in a row, this little HBO thing, the "Law & Order" gig, voiceover on the popular "Grand Theft Auto" video game... Are you ever in a mode of disbelief?
Burstein: Oh, are you kidding? I know that South Pacific is not going to last forever. I'm Jewish, what are you talking about? [Laughs.] All I can see is like, okay, Alex has college starting in a year, so I have to be putting some money away for that and make sure that the roof isn't leaking and on and on. I think long term, well, what happens after South Pacific closes? And I don't know when that is. I hope the show lasts for a good long time yet. But you never know. You'd be silly not to prepare yourself for anything in this business. I've never been one of those people who rests on their laurels. I'm not good at taking compliments. I try to always just strive towards being better and looking forward to what's on the horizon. And trying to make sure that there are enough seeds planted for the time when I get to that horizon so there will be something to reap when I get there.

[South Pacific plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street. For more information go to] Continued...