by Mo Brady
What happens when you let musical theatre actors do straight plays?
Good things, it turns out.
This week, I got the chance to see The Play That Goes Wrong on Broadway. This was my first time at the show, having missed it during its preview period and the season leading up to the Tonys. I knew going into the theatre that much of the original cast was from the U.K., and that much of that original cast had been replaced by American actors just weeks ago.
What I didn’t know going into the theatre was how many of these replacement actors have musical theatre pedigrees. Mark Evans, the show-within-show’s director, spent years touring the country as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon before taking a recent turn as Bert in Mary Poppins at Paper Mill Playhouse. Another cast member, Clifton Duncan, played the Balladeer in last summer’s Encores! production of Assassins. Preston Truman Boyd, one of the show’s understudies, is a frequent hoofer in Broadway musicals.
Of course, this is not the first time that actors have crossed between musicals and non-musicals on Broadway. Celia Keenan-Bolger comes to mind, as does Katie Finneran, Nathan Lane and numerous other theatre luminaries. But more often than not, it’s a privilege given to stars and principal actors, not to people in more minor roles.
What is the reason for that? Although it’s obviously not a black-and-white issue, I have some ideas as to why. First and foremost, there are *so many actors* in New York City. Every year, more and more fresh faced graduates of BFA programs come to the Big Apple to pursue their dreams of making it on Broadway. One of the easiest ways for “the business” to figure out “who you are” is by putting actors into metaphorical boxes: dancer, singer, character actor, belter, etc. Many performers embrace being put into these boxes, not only because it can increase their likelihood of getting called in to audition for roles but because it allows them to focus on strengthening their skills in specific areas.
However, these boxes are not always fulfilling to artists. Some people - most people - can do more than one thing well. Some women can both belt and sing coloratura soprano. Some dancers are also incredible comics. The list of examples is endless.
A couple of years ago, The Ensemblist produced a podcast episode called “Ensemblists in Plays,” in which we featured a trio of actors who have done both musicals and straight plays on Broadway: Nick Cearley, Christopher Gurr and Leah Hofmann. One of the reasons these performers pursue jobs in both musical theatre and straight plays is that they’re good at both. Each has unique skills and talents than help them succeed onstage, no matter what the style of the show is.
This kind of versatility can be seen nightly in Cats at the Neil Simon Theatre, where Gurr expertly takes on the dual roles of Bustopher Jones and Gus the Theatre Cat. His musicality combined with his incredibly humanity allow him to bring gravitas to roles that could easily be played as “silly.” His performances in Cats are truly a masterclass in how to bring truth to the circumstances of any character. Even feline ones.
Back at The Play That Goes Wrong, my favorite performance was Akron Watson as Trevor the stage manager. Two seasons ago, he made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of the profound Broadway revival of The Color Purple. Yet, in The Play That Goes Wrong, Watson plays an entirely different character, finding a perfect balance of genuine aloofness and over-the-top ridiculousness. In every one of his comic turns, you could sense a genuine warmth towards him from the audience. I found myself following Trevor’s story, even in times when he was silent, just to see how he would react next the play’s events.
Just as I hope diversity of race, gender and size continue to permeate Broadway casts, I hope that this cross-pollination between “musical theatre actors” and “straight play actors” continues as well. This diversity of skill sets can only provide audience with a more realistic reflection of society on stage.
Mo Brady is co-creator and host of The Ensemblist podcast.