BWW Interview: Danny Burstein's CABARET Love Story
The newly revived production of CABARET is set during the early 1930s just as Nazi Germany was beginning to bloom and fester. It revolves around the Kit Kat Klub, where the Emcee (Alan Cumming), Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), a bedraggled band and skimpily dressed dancers entertain nightly.
Danny Burstein plays Herr Schultz, a Jewish shopkeeper in denial of Berlin's encroaching reign of terror. His is a later-in-life love story and Schultz is determined to persuade his intended, Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond) to wed, despite the ominous political foreshadowing.
"It's a very complex show," Burstein said before a recent performance. "I actually started doing a lot of research on that period and had many discussions with the directors about how to play my character." Burstein focuses on Herr Schultz's sheer goodwill and loving nature, fostering the audience's empathy throughout the play.
Herr Schultz is one of the few good guys in this society: he just wants to live happily ever after with his intended, he said. To him, the hooliganism of Nazi Germany is a mere hiccup of day-to-day life. "My character is good-natured and positive about life," he said. "He can't know how bad it's going to get. He's sure it will pass. Germany has so many political parties, so many 'isms' trying to be heard and take over. He is absolutely positive Nazism will pass because it will never happen."
The Cabaret serves as both a refuge for those who seek a respite from reality and a metaphor for Berlin and the outside world during this time. "People like him thought this period was going to be like it was after World War I when medals were proudly displayed and people were proud to be Germans.
"He's a good man in one sense, being the only Jew in the show and representing all those people who stayed and thought it was going to be OK," Burstein said. "Including those who were not Jewish and thought this would all pass. My character stands in, in a way, for a whole country who stood by.
"I think he and she represent those people who couldn't imagine something like this would happen," he said. "If the war wasn't going on, they'd have a very healthy, simple relationship and be together the rest of their lives." Burstein, who is a good decade younger than the character he plays, views his relationship less of a "December of their lives and more of a credible relationship," he said.
"At first I was hung up on the age thing, too," he said. "I thought I was too young for this. But I tried to get in his bones and the sheer physicality of him, where his voice was. I'm trying to make it a deeper, smarter, funnier and more well-rounded performance."
Burstein's credits include 14 other Broadway shows, including SOUTH PACIFIC, THE SNOW GEESE, GOLDEN BOY and THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. He believes every role he's had has prepared him well for this challenge. "I just try and bring an open heart to the show every single night," Burstein said. "He's a walking heart and I couldn't believe it when I was asked to do the role. It was a huge pat on the back, it was in my bones already. He's a decent guy, hard-working and self-made."
Burstein considers this past year "my German year," in which he appeared in THE SNOW GEESE and had his Met debut in DIE FLEDERMAUS. "When I was in SOUTH PACIFIC I was always trying to find new things, trying to make it better, and it's the same challenge I have here. And now everyone is giving a deeper and deeper performance," he said. "I admire Alan so much. He is fearless as an actor and always gives it his all. I'm more instinctual and methodical until I find what I want my character to be then I home in on it," he said. "They're all beautiful," he said of the cast.
"That's why this is a masterpiece, because the show is continuously relevant," he said. "Sadly, on the very first day of rehearsal there was news about an anti-Semitic rally in Paris. It's something that continues to this day. But Cabaret is so beautifully written and it's done so succinctly, and of course there's that incredible score. The whole experience has been transcendent -- the ensemble, everyone involved. I've been in the business over 30 years and have never worked with more talented people," he said.
This is Burstein's 15th Broadway show and his enthusiasm hasn't waned. "I enjoy going to work every night," he said. "I love it, the idea of it, to be able to connect to a person right there with you. I'm still learning the depth of his sadness and how he covers it up trying to be so positive," he said. "He deals with a lot even at this time of his life, he knows people were being beaten up and his wife had passed away. He worked hard for everything he got and understanding that level of decency under the chaos is something I'm trying to convey."
He recalled a talk-back recently in which an Auschwitz survivor shared some memories. "It was terribly moving and affected us all," he said.
Between juggling movie parts, the stage and television, Burstein rarely has time to take a break. "I like to go fishing at our lake house," he said. With two boys around college age, he's grateful for all the opportunities he's had. "And I'm over-the-moon happily married" to the actor Rebecca Luker. "I'm living the life I always wanted to live."
Cabaret is playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. near Eighth Ave.