THE LEADING MEN: Brian d'Arcy James Takes a Giant Step Into a New American Musical

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15 Nov 2012

Brian d'Arcy James
Brian d'Arcy James

Sweet Smell of Success, Shrek and "Smash" star Brian d'Arcy James steps into the cowboy boots of Texas rancher Bick Benedict in the new musical Giant at the Public Theater.


Brian d'Arcy James famously played the ogre Shrek in the eponymous Broadway musical, and nowadays he's playing a bit of an ogre in Giant, the Michael John LaChiusa-Sybille Pearson musical at the Public Theater that's based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel, which was made into a classic 1956 Hollywood movie and follows a Texas cattle family through a quarter of the 20th century.

James, 44, is Jordan "Bick" Benedict, the cattleman proprietor of the enormous Reata ranch, the Rock Hudson role in the film; Kate Baldwin is his wealthy Virginia wife, Leslie Lynnton Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor in the film); PJ Griffith (American Idiot) is Jett Rink, the ranch worker who becomes an oil magnate — James Dean's last film role. The cast includes Michele Pawk, John Dossett and Bobby Steggert. Steggert portrays Bick and Leslie's son, Jordy Jr., who marries a Mexican woman and teaches a lesson in fighting bigotry. Composer-lyricist LaChiusa is a Tony nominee for The Wild Party, Marie Christine and Chronicle of Death Foretold; librettist Pearson got a Tony nomination for Baby. Giant's director, Michael Greif, is best known for Rent, Next to Normal and Grey Gardens.

James got a Tony nomination for Shrek the Musical in 2009 and for his performance as the heartless and amoral New York City press agent Sidney Falco in the musical Sweet Smell of Success in 2002. His other credits include Time Stands Still, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, The Apple Tree, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — and his role on the much-discussed TV series "Smash" last season as Debra Messing's much-cheated-upon schoolteacher husband. We recently chatted with James about Giant (which is at the Public through Dec. 2), his past and his future, and about "Smash."

Would you tell me about "Bick" Benedict — how you see the character, from when we first meet him to how he changes over the decades?

James in Giant.
photo by Joan Marcus

Brian d'Arcy James: He's in charge, [at first] with his sister, of a many-million-acre ranch. He's dedicated to the land. He has a passionate love for the land and all that goes with it in terms of keeping it up and the work that goes into that. As time goes by, Leslie, his wife, has a significant impact on him in that she brings a whole new perspective to how the ranch is run. She sees things differently, which in turn causes him to reassess how he sees things. Not to mention the fact that time brings social changes and new ideas, new ways of embracing ideas. Bick is forced to reconcile the past with the future, or the present, as he moves forward.

There is a change in him. He's slow to change. But he is capable of changing.

What about Leslie's point of view causes Bick to change?
BDJ: One of the biggest changes is in terms of human rights, of how she sees the Mexican workers on his ranch and how he views them. Although he has the attitude of being a proponent of their livelihood and treating them with great care and respect, he sees them primarily as workers. He doesn't see that he doesn't give them ample living arrangements.

Leslie is there to shine the light on those kinds of things — the disparity between how the Mexican workers are treated as opposed to those who aren't Mexicans. The haves and the have-nots, if you will. She's there to constantly remind him and say, look at the disparity, look at the inequality here, and let's do something about it. That's a very potent and very important theme in the show.

But on the smaller scale there is the family life and the basic relationship the parents have with the children. In this case Bick favoring his daughter because she embraces his ideals and ideas more readily than does his son, Jordy. So there's a great family drama going on.

For me, the show has a lot to do with the idea of what we pass on from generation to generation, what a parent gives to a child. How that is a representation of the evolution of this country, in the way that ideas change and the way that ideas are embraced or not. That's what I think is really beautiful about Giant.


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