THE LEADING MEN: Szot, Burgess and Webb

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Szot, Burgess and Webb
August in New York: Chats with South Pacific's Paulo Szot plus time well spent with Tituss Burgess and Jimmy Webb.
Paulo Szot
Paulo Szot Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Paulo Szot's life story so far would make a nice movie. Check that. There's enough here for a miniseries. Brazilian-born son of Polish parents yearns for a life in the arts, gets a scholarship to study ballet in Poland, only has enough money to sail for 23 days on a cargo ship, arrives, hurts his knee, is told by a doctor that if he wants to walk he must not dance again, goes with his fallback of singing, becomes an opera star, gets a chance to act on Broadway despite a fear of speaking onstage, wins a Tony, and remains a humble and beloved leader of the cast of South Pacific as the conflicted Emile de Becque. Some enchanted life, indeed!

Q: A year-and-a-half along, are you still discovering new things about Emile?
Paulo Szot: All the time. I went for a vacation in the Bahamas, and I found a house there that looked like Emile's house, and that has become my inspiration for what his house would really look like.

Q: Now that you are more comfortable acting onstage, are you careful not to become overly comfortable?
Szot: Absolutely. In the beginning, I was very insecure. It was my first role as an actor, and it was a question of finding confidence. Then there is a moment where you begin to trust yourself, to believe that you are doing things that are good. But I've never felt too comfortable. I've always felt it is a challenge to start and finish a show. Maybe there are people who it is easy for them to do eight shows a week. It is not easy for me. I have to condition myself, to think as an athlete, to discipline myself. Only that can give me the comfort that you are talking about.

Q: Is it difficult falling in and out of love onstage every night?
Szot: I think that's the easy part! To be onstage with such beautiful actresses and to fall in love with such characters and play Emile. The challenge of the character will always be there because he always changes. I thought at the beginning it would be a question of two or three months [of things changing], but Emile still changes, the whole show changes. That's what makes things interesting and not boring. My colleagues ask me, "Do you not get bored [doing the show]?" I say, "No!" I was bored many, many times when I did Don Giovanni. By the fifth show I would be like, "I can't do it anymore," but not [with South Pacific]. It's the magic of the theatre. It gives you the liberty to change.

Q: Did winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical boost your confidence?
Szot: Of course. I'd lie if I said not. I was very honored with this recognition last year. It is something I'll never forget. When you come to a new profession as an actor, it is always a good thing when people like you. It is good for your soul as an artist. Q: Did you think, "Hey, maybe acting is the new way to go"?
Szot: I always tried as an opera singer to act. As an opera singer, we are closed in the frame of what we do. We do not have the liberties of stage acting. I always was afraid of being an actor, of acting without the support of the music, acting with my own words. It was a challenge for me, a challenge that became my life. When I finish this, I'm very open now to do another musical. If I don't, I know I am going to miss it.

Paulo Szot and Laura Osnes in South Pacific
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: Lovely Laura Osnes has joined the cast as Nellie Forbush. Is she a contrast from Kelli O'Hara, your original leading lady?
Szot: Kelli, we did the show together from the beginning. We created this relationship for several weeks. With Laura, the difference is we are creating the relationship onstage. We didn't have the time before [she joined the cast], so we are adjusting live. We meet onstage and we create our relationship onstage. That is the biggest difference between Kelli and Laura. They are both wonderful actresses, they are both beautiful and lovely persons. Q: You shall return to opera next year in The Nose. Are you excited?
Szot: Very much. It's my Metropolitan Opera debut. The direction is going to be great. It is a challenge of a super, hyper, extra-difficult music. Shostakovich is crazy and beautiful at the same time! For the performers and for a singer who has to memorize all the notes, it is a big, big challenge.

Q: People here think opera is such a serious thing. Do you try to convince them otherwise?
Szot: It's not only here but where I was born too. I always encourage people to come see opera and to break this kind of myth, because once they go and they see, it's a little different than musical theatre, yes. The most important thing in opera is the music — that's the untouchable thing, but everyone loves music. It's just a question of opening yourself to a new experience.

Q: What was it like taking that cargo ship from Brazil to Poland?
Szot: I was 18. Back then, I thought everything was interesting. It was my first big trip to a continent where I didn't speak the language at all. My parents are Polish, but I was the fifth child so they kind of lost the language with me. If it was today, I don't know if I would do it again. I was going to a communist country where I didn't speak much. I just knew that I wanted to develop as an artist and I had this scholarship to dance.

Q: I imagine a scene of you surrounded on a ship by boxes and rats.
Szot: [Laughs.] No, no, the ship was quite good! There were some beautiful days when I could see all the fishes and dolphins and flying fishes and all that. There were storms, too, where I was afraid the ship was going to capsize. But it was an adventure.

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

Tituss Burgess

Tituss Burgess put on his crowd-pleasing one-man show at Birdland, entitled How I Hear It, July 27. He stayed around for Jim Caruso's Cast Party and did a marvelous version of "Guess Who I Saw Today" that blew folks away. Burgess recently saw one show he was in close — Guys and Dolls in which he played Nicely-Nicely — and one show with which he is closely associated announce its closing — The Little Mermaid, where he created the role of Sebastian. I grabbed him for a chat after his Birdland gig, and he was most forthcoming, admitting he was glad his show was over (for now), and after the Broadway closings, he's ready for something new. Q: Is this relief the usual wave of emotion that comes over you post-show?
Tituss Burgess: It's weird. I booked this show four months ago, and every month I came up with a new show, a new thought process. It's hard for me to lie to an audience and regurgitate information that is not relevant to where I am in life because I think it will ring false. So I changed songs and charts up the last minute, and I wanted to do material that I could communicate clearly to the audience and tell my story.

Q: Is that search for truth something you wish you didn't always have?
Burgess: I wish I could turn it off, I really do! Some days I appreciate it, some days I wish I could just go out, do the hits and not care. That's just not the way I was designed. I'm learning to not ignore it. My blessing and curse is that I can't shut up! I give myself creative license to talk about things that the rest of the world may or may not be talking about. I don't know any other way.

Q: To what do you attribute that? A show you saw? A person who influenced you?
Burgess: When you asked that question, the first image that came to mind is Lena Horne in "The Wiz" doing "Believe in Yourself." I watched that movie over and over again as a kid, and I would swear that lady was talking to me. I'd watch it in my living room, and I'd go to the library, rent the movie, fast forward, and that's all I would listen to. It's interesting because at times in New York, I've felt like I'm in Oz, and all I wanted to do was go home to what is normal, what makes sense, what is familiar. We are not always able to do that as adults, as well-adjusted human beings. I'm 30 now. I know all too well the pain, suffering and isolation that comes along from being a young, black, gay, slightly overweight youth who doesn't have anyone to go to and all he sees is "well-adjusted white people." So I said to myself, "Tituss, if you don't go head-to-head with these issues right now, you'll be doing a disservice to a long line of young, gay, black men who have nothing to look up to." Now, I'm not a role model, I don't claim to be that—

Q: But you can illustrate what is possible—
Burgess: Possibilities! That's right. I watched Obama accept the Democratic nomination, and I wept because I hadn't even realized it was a possibility that we could have a black President. I thought someday there would be a man of color in the oval office, but then it was like, "It's now. It's happening right now!"

Q: What do you miss the most about The Little Mermaid?
Burgess: That time in my life was so charmed. The family, the cast was so warm and so grossly talented. My first entrance was always out of the orchestra pit... I would see these kids in the front rows, and on the nights when I was down or wanted to do the show the least, the look of awe and wonder on their faces — it had nothing to do with my performance — but the look of absolute wonder that I saw, the possibility of mesmerization on all these children's faces brought me right into the moment. I thought, this is the first show some of these kids see, period, and I thought, I won't destroy that. The magic and intensity of seeing a show for the first time, the romanticism, you can't re-create it. With the kids, I secretly wished I was them sometimes, seeing a Broadway show that first time. Q: What's up next for you?
Burgess: Not a damn thing! To be honest with you, I've been blessed to work steadily for a while now. I have no desire whatsoever to do a show, to be a part of endless tech. It scares me a lot, but I am tired and I love this city and love what I do too much. To properly deliver information and to appreciate the gift that I've been giving, I need to take a break, a pause. So, shows like How I Hear It are what I've got right now. I've got lots of concerts planned around the country, and I'm going to do those and sing till it is out of my system and till I start to miss theatre, and then I'll start to audition and hope the right project comes my way… What the hell? This got so in-depth! [Laughs.]

[Check out for info on his schedule and CD.]

Jimmy Webb

Songwriters Hall of Fame member Jimmy Webb (performing at Feinstein's on Aug. 12 at 8:30 PM) has written many pop classics of the timeless nature: "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Where Love Resides," "Wichita Lineman, " "Galveston" and dozens of other modern standards. Of course, as a fan of existential kids' fare, I had to ask him first about the beautiful songs he wrote for "The Last Unicorn," a cult-classic animated musical with the voices of Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges, Tammy Grimes, Keenan Wynn, Alan Arkin and others. Q: "The Last Unicorn" is a strangely affecting musical film experience. Was that film a happy experience for you?
Jimmy Webb: I really just did it for fun. Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell from the band America are friends of mine, and when I got an opportunity to do "The Last Unicorn," which was from a classic of fantasy literature by Peter Beagle, the concept was that I would score the film and America would sing all the songs. The film turned out extremely well, but the release in the U.S. was botched. It was meant to be 70mm stereo, and it was four-walled and released in mono. In Germany, they released the stereo version, and they put out an album and did the proper promotion and everything, and it became a standard in the German repertoire. Gerry was telling me the other day, America closes their show with the song "The Last Unicorn" in Germany. People get up and wave their cigarette lighters and everything. The film came back over here and went to number one on the VHS rental chart and stayed there for months. So someone lost an opportunity to have a huge success here. If they'd just believed a little bit, it would have been huge here. Every once in awhile, people approach me and say, "We want to do a musical version," and I say, "Go ahead, do it!" It's just a matter of money. You can make a musical out of anything if you're willing to lose ten million dollars.

Q: How have your Feinstein's shows gone so far?
Webb: They've gone extremely well. It's the first time I've played Feinstein's on my own. I've played there with Glen Campbell, I've played there with Paul Williams and Liz Callaway, I've played there with Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo, and I've even played there with Michael Feinstein, but this is my first solo. I was quite nervous, but I've been very pleased.

Q: Are you more nervous doing a single?
Webb: It's my preferred way of performing. There's a lot of anecdotal stuff in my show. Sometimes I think I'm doing stand-up [laughs]. We have a lot of fun at these shows. They're not serious. I have to counterbalance the romantic nature of the material and lovelorn quality of some of the songs with a lively repartee. I hope it's lively, anyway, and I hope it's repartee!

Q: Your songs have often had a theatricality to them—
Webb: People have said that, and I wouldn't deny it. My dream has always been to do a Broadway show. I still hope to be able to do that.

Q: Were you influenced by show music in your songwriting?
Webb: Oh yeah. When I was in high school, I did the high school musical that you hear so much about. Our senior assembly was a musical that I wrote. One of the songs in it was "Didn't We?" When I was doing my two years of half-heartedly majoring in music at San Bernardino Valley College in California, I wrote another show called Dancing Girl. [There is] something about those blue and red theatre lights that make that pink color that gets my blood racing. I've always been influenced by theatre. I think one of the most vivid impressions, and emotional reactions was when I saw the film "West Side Story." I fell in love with Natalie Wood, for one thing. I had an epiphany when it came to the music and lyrics of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It was overwhelming. I still think it is probably the best American musical.

Q: What was it like working with Richard Harris on "MacArthur Park" and the albums you did?
Webb: I worked really closely with him. We did a lot of drinking together. The album "A Tramp Shining" was really just a hobby, something we did when we weren't drinking. People say, "Why'd you pick Richard Harris? He wasn't a singer." I say, "Yes, he was." He'd just finished singing King Arthur in "Camelot," and done a fantastic job. The movie was a big hit. Don't tell me he wasn't a singer. Don't try to demean him because he did a fantastic job on "MacArthur Park." Nobody's ever done a better job. He brought this great dramatic sense to a piece that was a little offbeat and experimental. Frankly, I don't think we expected much when we put that album out, but we were gobsmacked because the public went nuts. "MacArthur Park" was number one in most countries, here it was number two, kept from number one by the Beatles. And they could hold anybody out of first place.

[Jimmy Webb is playing Feinstein's at Loews Regency, 540 Park Avenue. The final show is on Aug. 12 at 8:30 PM. Go to or call (212) 339-4095 for ticket info.]

Herringbone is back. Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh's one-man musical show starring B.D. Wong and directed by Roger Rees is running until Aug. 30 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre of La Jolla Playhouse. You can read more about the show in an interview I did with B.D. in June 2007 in our archives. That was when he was doing the show in Williamstown, and much of the same creative team is involved in the La Jolla production. Tickets are currently available by calling The Playhouse Box Office at (858) 550-1010 or online at…Dustin Burrell was a first-class hoot in W. Somerset Maugham's Our Betters that I caught recently at the Producer's Club. The now-closed show was directed with finesse by Le Wilhelm . . . . Take note, Aug. 17 at 7 PM, Nick Adams, another fellow late of Guys and Dolls, performs at Birdland. Call (212) 581-3080 or visit …That's it for August, folks. Keep in touch!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at

B.D. Wong and Dan Lipton
B.D. Wong and Dan Lipton Photo by Craig Schwartz
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