THE LEADING MEN: Going to Batt

By Wayman Wong
October 3, 2005

Welcome to our Oktoberfest of "Leading Men": Bryan Batt (Hurricane Katrina relief benefits), Andy Karl (Slut) and Doug Kreeger (Yank!).


In La Cage aux Folles, Bryan Batt stood by for Gary Beach and brilliantly made the role of Albin his own. But "standing by" is the last thing that this lovable actor from Louisiana is doing these days. He has become Broadwayís ambassador to New Orleans, and heís been a one-man tornado raising money for his hometown. At the Sept. 25 Broadway Celebrity Benefit for Hurricane Relief, organized by the cast of Wicked, Batt opened the star-studded evening at the Gershwin by singing the most moving and memorable version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" He said, "I grew up on the lakefront and rode my bike on those levees. About two years ago, my partner [Tom Cianfichi] and I opened a business in New Orleans and we loved every moment of it. And we will do it again. We are a very resilient people. We are a very optimistic people. We rooted for the Saints for 35 years!"

Battís Broadway credits include Cats, Saturday Night Fever and The Scarlet Pimpernel, and he created the role of the delightful Darius in Jeffrey onstage and onscreen. But he said, "That song probably was the hardest thing Iíve ever had to get through, emotionally, to perform. Liza [Minnelli] told me: "I loved how you sang that," and when Liza says something like that, you grow another inch or two."

This month, Batt will appear in HeartSong: The Concert for New Orleans, which also includes Karen Akers, Brent Barrett, Ann Hampton Callaway, Judy Kaye and Donna Murphy, on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at Symphony Space. And he will host With Love, From Broadway to the Bayou, a benefit starring Matt Cavenaugh, Melissa Errico, Judy Gold and Patrick Wilson, on Oct. 23 at 9:30 p.m. at Joeís Pub.

Question: How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your family?
Bryan Batt: My partner Tom and I were on vacation in California at the time it hit, and my mom lived across the canal that broke, in Metairie, and her place was high and dry. But sheís terrified of hurricanes, so sheíd been evacuated to Houston. Now sheís staying with us in New York. Our store [Hazelnut] and our carriage house sustained minimal damage; we have some mold but no flooding. I was just there this past week. We donít have power or water, but weíre hoping to reopen in November. And the French Quarter and the Garden District did not flood. But my brotherís house is ruined; the water had been eight feet high there. When I visited it, I inhaled fumes and toxic mold. I burst into tears when I saw this area that had been so green and lush, and now it was covered in this black death. Some of the media said the wealthy were spared, but thatís not true. Parts of the lakefront area, where they lived, were devastated, too.

Q: At the Broadway Celebrity Benefit for Hurricane Relief, the cast of Spelling Bee did a hilarious skit that satirized the Bush administrationís slow response to this disaster. Whoís to blame?
Batt: I think everyoneís to blame. The funding for the levee system has been cut and cut and cut. Now President Bush has taken responsibilityó and itís one of the first timesóand it speaks volumes. So many people died and suffered who didnít need to. Itís mind-boggling that this happened in America. And the media got it. Some of the coverage was sensational, but I loved what Anderson Cooper did [on CNN]. He was on my plane and I sent him a note thanking him for all his work.

Q: How did you and Tom come to open your store, Hazelnut?
Batt: Tomís been in retail on Madison Avenue for years, and I had always wanted to have a store that sold beautiful home furnishings, so we opened in October 2003. One of our specialty items was New Orleans toile. Itís a linen-cotton blend fabric that features beautiful vignettes of New Orleansólike the St. Charles streetcar and the steamboat Natchez. Sonia OíMara drew them, based on my sketches. Itís sold like crazy. We still take Web orders for it, and part of the proceeds go to Katrina relief.

Q: How long have you and Tom been together?
Batt: Itís been 16 years plus. Heís great. We met doing Evita in Akron, Ohio. I was Che, and he was the understudy for Magaldi. Growing up, I never knew any gay people until I started doing theater in the French Quarter. Then I met Tom. He was the first person I dated and that was it. Iíve been very lucky.

Q: When did you know that you were gay?
Batt: When I was little. Anytime a "Hercules" movie would come on TV, I was all over it. When I was caught playing with my momís hoop skirt, [my parents] sent me to a child psychologist. It was always in me, but I tried to deny it. I had girlfriends all through high school and college, and they were beautiful, wonderful women. But I always hankered for something else. Finally, my brother asked: "Are you gay?" I said "yes." He said, "Thank God. I thought you werenít getting any!"

Q: Youíve played leading men on Broadway; was it ever an issue?
Batt: When I played the lead in Sunset Blvd., the movie of Jeffrey was coming out, and I was petrified. Back then, every agent told you that if you want to play a straight role, you donít come out. This was before Ellen [DeGeneres] came out. But now I couldn't give a ratís ass. Itís normal to be gay.

Q: What was it like to play Albin in La Cage aux Folles?
Batt: It was a blast! I almost didnít take it because I didnít want to stand by again. But Jerry Zaks wanted me and the producers were so nice. And I never thought Iíd get to play Albin. Iím 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. Iím a big boy. But then I thought: George Hearn played it originally and heís no waif. I love Garyís performance, but it was so much fun to put my own twist on Albin. Getting to sing "I Am What I Am" is my best memory of Broadway so far. What an honor. Jerry Herman came a couple times to see me and arrived at my dressing room after Act I, beaming and clapping. He was so supportive. It was a great company. When my mom, Tom and I got back from New Orleans, Gary and his partner, Jeff, were the first people to have us over for dinner. Theyíre the best. Meantime, I could use a nice new Broadway gig.

Q: Got any projects on the horizon?
Batt: This is ironic, but I was cast in a TV series that was supposed to start shooting in New Orleans in late October, called "Christopher Street." Danny Gurwinís in it, too. Itís set in a bar in the French Quarter. I play Josh, and itís my life if Iíd stayed in New Orleans: I wouldíve been married, gotten a regular job and realized later on that Iím gay. Itís a drama and the script is fantastic. Theyíre gonna try to shoot in February instead and hope to pitch it to HBO or Showtime. Itís very exciting.

Q: Thanks for everything youíve done for New Orleans.
Batt: Itís given so much to this country: itís the birthplace of jazz and all this incredible food. Iíll do whatever I can to make sure that city comes back.

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In Altar Boyz, Andy Karl was a blessing and a blast as Luke, the break-dancing bad boy of a Christian boy band. He left audiences busting a gut as he busted his moves. But now the 6-foot-1 actor from Baltimore is starring as another biblically named character, Adam, in Slut, the new musical by Ben H. Winters and Stephen Sislen, at the American Theatre of Actors. However, the womanizing Adam is no Altar Boy. Karl, 32, says, "Luke wants to save the world, one soul at a time, and Adam wants to sleep with it, one girl at a time. He never lies to chicks. He tells them: ĎYou can give me your number, but Iím probably not gonna call, ícause Iím moving on to the next girl.í Thatís so great to play. You have to walk that line of not being sleazy. Jim Stanek plays my best friend who wants to find Miss Right, but I show him how to party and thatís where the conflicts come up. Everyoneís so talented and funny. Throw [former Altar Boy] David Josefsberg into a rehearsal and heís hilarious 24 hours a day."

Asked to name the sluttiest thing heís ever done, Karl says, "If getting naked is slutty, when I played Danny Zuko in Grease at Paper Mill Playhouse, I got naked in the wings during ĎRock ĎíNí Roll Party Queen.í I danced around and wore nothing but a sockóand it wasnít on my foot." He also posed nude, except for a strategically placed string of chili pepper lights, for a poster of Slut, which sold for $20 at the Broadway Flea Market and raised $1,200 for Broadway Cares. Jenn Colella, his leading lady in Slut, says, "Andyís one of the hottest guys around, but heís so grateful to practice his craft that seeing him expose himself for the show is the sexiest thing ever. When he was cast in Slut, I thought: ĎYay! I get to make out with him.í"

In real life, Karl is no slut. Heís happily hitched to Orfeh, whoís starring in another Off-Broadway show, The Great American Trailer Park Musical. "I can count on two hands all the girls Iíve slept with in my life. Adam is into the double and triple digits. Iíve never had a one-night stand. Iíve always been into relationships. Iíve always dated women with strong personalities and Iím married to one now."

Karl and Orfeh met during Saturday Night Fever; he understudied Tony and she played Annette. And thereís no question "how deep is their love." Orfeh says, "It was love at first sight and I mean in that silly, Hollywood bull**** way. We started dating in July, got engaged in December and eloped in January. And this Jan. 10, itíll be five years. Heís probably the nicest man Iíve ever met." And howíd Karl propose? Orfeh says, "We had ordered [takeout] from our favorite Mexican-Chinese fusion place, so we had enchiladas and pork fried rice. Anyway, he hid the engagement ring in a Cartierís box in one of the cartons. I opened it and flipped out. I threw the box at him." Karl adds, "She hit me in the head with the box, and then I got down on one knee."

Each night after their shows, they walk home together to the East Side where they live with their cats, Bugzy and Worm. Karl says, "We genuinely get along and weíre best friends. We love performing together and maybe Iíll write a musical for us someday. Iím still one of her biggest fans. We play make-believe and I do my work [as an actor], but my real life is when I come home with Orfeh. Everything else is pretend."

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If theatre is a horse race where young "Leading Men" jockey for stardom, Doug Kreeger has scored a Triple Crown. In May, the 5-foot-9 actor from Honolulu gave a killer performance as the chilling child murderer Richard Loeb in Thrill Me. In August, he won a 2005 Fringe Festival award for portraying a high school nerd in Swimming Upstream. And from Sept. 14-21, this NYU grad was picture-perfect as a gay Army photographer in Yank! at the N.Y. Musical Theatre Festival. Kreeger, 26, says, "It was a gift to originate three completely different characters in three new musicals in New York. Iím doing exactly what Iíve always dreamed."

Whether heís playing a cold-blooded killer from the 1920s or a sweet-faced soldier from the 1940s, Kreeger carries it off with confidence and charisma. He says, "Loeb was a dangerous part. He had so much anger that it was scary, but I loved it." An added Thrill of working on that show was being directed by Michael Rupert: "He was great, once I got past the fact I was working with ĎMarvin.í I never told him how much of an effect he and Falsettos had on me growing up. I had seen musicals like Hello, Dolly!, but Falsettos blew me mind."

Next came Swimming Upstream. "I was honored but flabbergasted that I got an award for goofing around with Jessica Snow-Wilson. I played Todd, a guy who wrote a sex-ed musical about sperm. It was broad comedy, and we had these set pieces that look like a vagina, and I thought: ĎThereís no way Iím gonna be upstaged by a vagina.í" Like Todd, though, he knew what it was like to be different: "Everyone in Hawaii surfed and went to the beach. And I spent my time in a dark theater for hours on end. I donít surf. Iím somewhat scared of the water, which is ridiculous, coming from Hawaii."

Kreeger next received raves for David and Joseph Zellnikís Yank!, a World War II buddy musical with a terrific, toe-tapping score and a touching story that was full of humor and heart. In it, he played Stu, a war photographer who clicks with Mitch, a macho serviceman magnetically played by Ivan Hernandez. Yank! follows what happens after their private affair becomes public, complete with dream ballet. Joseph Zellnik says, "Doug is a writerís dream and heís an incredibly smart actor." Kreeger adds, "Iím really proud of the cast. I hope Yank! has a future life because itís amazing."

Speaking of the future, Kreegerís next show is Bob Dylan and Twyla Tharpís The Times They Are A-Changiní, which will begin Jan. 25 at San Diegoís Old Globe Theatre. Though he loves R&B and hard rock, he says, "I bought a couple of Dylanís CDs and now Iím an uber fan. Twylaís a genius, and this show will be brilliant. Itís got three principal roles: a father, a son and a woman who mixes things up. Iím standing by for Michael Arden, and heíll be great. Thereís also a dance ensemble culled from Cirque du Soleil, Twylaís company and musical theater. Itís gonna be very cool!"

Thereís so much to see in New York: Scott Alan presents his latest Monday Nights, New Voices on Oct. 10 at 9:30 p.m. at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). Hosted by Chad Kimball, itíll include Doug Kreeger, Neil Bartram, Gavin Esham and Charles Strouse. Ö kicks off its spectacular Standing Ovations IV on Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Joeís Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-239-6200). Itíll star "Leading Men" alumni Michael Arden, Cheyenne Jackson and Howard McGillin, plus Andrea McArdle, Melba Moore and Lea Salonga. Ö The Mabel Mercer Foundation will celebrate its 20th anniversary by moving its Cabaret Convention (Oct. 17-23) to Frederick P. Rose Hall, Broadway at 60th St. (212-721-6500). The illustrious lineup will include multi-MAC Award winners such as Tom Andersen, Jeff Harnar, Phillip Officer, Craig Rubano and Marcus Simeone. Visit Ö Speaking of Harnar, PS Classics releases his album, "Dancing in the Dark," on Oct. 4. Itís a sparkling gem of a CD, set off by Alex Rybeckís multifaceted arrangements. Ö The Broadway Cabaret Festival, hosted by Scott Siegel, will be held at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. (212-307 4100). Itíll offer a tribute to John Kander and Fred Ebb (Oct. 21); a double bill of Euan Morton and Eden Espinosa (Oct. 22) and Broadway Originals! (Oct. 23). Ö Amas Musical Theatre will host a panel called "Leading Men of Color" on Oct. 23 at 4 p.m. at the Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St. (212-563-2565), with Rob Barnes (Jesus Christ Superstar), Tony Chiroldes (The Capeman), Eric Anthony (Hairspray), Raun Ruffin (The Civil War) and Jerome Lucas Harmann (Swing!). Ö Finally, hereís a TV and DVD alert: John Tartagliaís kiddie show, "Johnny & the Sprites," will debut Oct. 9 on the Disney Channel. And our soldout "Leading Men" concert, which Tartaglia hosted May 30 at Joeís Pub, is now out on DVD. It was so popular at the Broadway Flea Market that it sold out twice. To get a copy ($35), E-mail Proceeds go to Broadway Cares.

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Until next month, letís hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.