According to Danny Burstein, his next Broadway play is about “how we make the donuts,” his sweeter variation on “how the sausage is made.” Is your mouth watering yet?
Burstein is starring as real-life photographer Larry Sultan in Sharr White new play Pictures From Home, beginning performances January 13 at Broadway’s Studio 54. The work’s source material is pretty unusual: A 1992 art photo album by Larry Sultan that attempts to capture his enigmatic parents.
Sultan, who died in 2009, spent eight years making trips to California’s San Fernando Valley to photograph and interview his parents, who are played on Broadway by Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker. The result of Sultan’s efforts was a stunning collection of photographs accompanied by Sultan’s journal-like, almost stream-of-consciousness writing. Raw and unflinchingly authentic, the book puts readers in Sultan’s mind—and camera lens—as he attempts to create something without even knowing what that something is, a process aptly similar to creating theatre.
And that brings us back to those donuts—or, rather, the making of them. “It’s not just a piece of art,” Burstein says of the play, which he’s been developing since its first readings in 2021. “It’s going backstage and seeing what the process of making art is like. It is the play version, in a way, of Sunday in the Park With George.”
Even though he hasn’t (yet) starred in that particular Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, Burstein has been making theatre for more than three decades; he won a Tony (after six earlier nominations) in 2020 for his performance as Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
And appropriately given this newest Broadway venture, much of Burstein’s own understanding of art and its creation came from his parents, two lifelong teachers. Their love of art meant Burstein spent his youth growing up in the Bronx surrounded by it: “My mom is a painter, so we had so many books of the great artists around the house—and her own paintings, which were remarkable. And thank God they had musical theatre albums that I loved.”
Burstein remembers telling his father that he wanted to go to the High School of Performing Arts and become an actor. He was expecting the trope of the parent worried their artist child will never be able to make a living, but instead he got, “Well, great!” In fact, Burstein’s father has no one but himself to blame for his son’s love of the theatre.
“As a kid, I was a terrible reader. My dad would give me books and I’d give up 60 pages in, which is not a great thing for the son of two teachers,” Burstein admits. His father, a writer who studied with Philip Roth at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, was concerned, to say the least. “He knew that [reading] would be important to me in the long run—and it was.”
Everything changed at 10 years old when Burstein’s father thought to let him have a go at reading a play script: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. The dialogue form made everything suddenly click. “I understood that,” Burstein recalls. “I understood people working out ideas, arguing or falling in love. I could relate to it automatically. I just started reading play after play after play.”
As it turns out, Burstein’s method for creating his art links him back to both his parents and Sultan. Perhaps taking a cue from his parents’ life in academia, he describes himself as a “relentless” researcher. No detail is too minuscule—Burstein has gotten information from Sultan’s widow, Kelly, about the photographer’s exact setup: the clothes, the cameras, the tripod. To Burstein, that level of detail—and connecting the dots behind them—is part of an endless pursuit of truth that ultimately connects him to Sultan and his photography.
“His photographs aren’t meant to be taken just at face value,” says Burstein “He believed photographs were not just photographs, that they reveal something about the photographer, who he was as an artist, as a person. It’s many layers of truths, finding the deep truths within the image. That’s what Larry’s life work was.”
Meet the cast of Pictures From Home below.