BWW Interviews: Will Swenson Chats MTC's MURDER BALLAD
Definitely! I mean this show's very, very up close and personal. So the fact that I knew her well and we worked together on stage before, it definitely helped us break through those barriers that probably would have taken longer to break through otherwise.
The show's run was recently extended at MTC. Why do you think theater goers are responding to it so positively?
I think a lot of things. One, it's just a super unique theatrical experience and I think people are always looking for something new. And we've seen the set up of a traditional musical so many times, you know we sit down, we watch a show and then the curtain comes down. And this is such a unique theater viewing experience - something that's never been seen or done. And then on top of that, I think the show's great - it's an amazing score and the cast is really top notch so I think people are really responding to it for those reasons.
Are there any plans for a cast recording to be made?
Yeah there is. We are recording one in a couple of weeks.
Oh, that's great!
Yeah, I'm excited about that.
I was looking back on your most recent shows and it's kind of interesting because it's almost as if you've been doing musical theater through the decades. It seems like you gravitate toward more modern shows than traditional. Is that just the way the chips fell or is that a personal preference?
(laughing) I think it's more just how things have worked out but I certainly have... I've done 'Hair' for the Sixties and 'Rock of Ages' for the Eighties, and I guess this show is more Nineties.
And Priscilla is sort of the Seventies.
Sort of the Seventies, yeah, so I guess I have. I've never thought about it that way before, that's very funny. I have a show for every decade. I don't know, I'd love to do something a little more legitimately musical theater, maybe I'm getting pigeon-holed a bit as the guy who sings pop scores and rock scores. But it's a nice comfort zone, I enjoy doing it. More than anything I just enjoy singing - that's my favorite.
We spoke a bit about 'Hair'. Would you say that was one of the most unique professional experiences you have had?
Yes, absolutely. When I got the part, somebody said to me, 'Man, this show is going to change your life,' and I thought, 'Whatever. People just say that about whatever show they like.' But they were absolutely right. And over the course of four years, we went to so many different places, and it became so successful and I became so close with the cast and then just what it is as a show and what it means and how it's presented and my role in that. The whole thing was just mind blowing.
Well it was an experience for the audience as well! Can you tell me a little about the upcoming film you will be directing next year, Facing East?
Oh yeah, it's a gorgeous piece that originally was written as a play. It played off-Broadway for a while and got great reviews. And I grew up Mormon and the play deals with a Mormon couple dealing with the suicide of their gay son. Unfortunately suicide is really prevalent in religious communities for gay kids, so this play is hoping to make a difference in that. So the producers, knowing that I have some film background as a director and knowing that I had a foot in both worlds, the Mormon world and the secular world, asked me to direct it and I'm thrilled about it. It's just a beautiful, beautiful script and people are really responding to it well. We're hoping to shoot in summer or fall of this coming year.
Will it film in Utah?
Yeah, it will shoot in Salt Lake City.
You mentioned your background. I know you come from a theater family and I was particularly interested in your grandmother Ruth Hale. It seemed like she had a very extraordinary life and career.
She sure did!
What influence did she have in you choosing your career path?
Oh a massive influence. She was just this fireball, this go-getter. She would come into breakfast in the morning and sing 'Good Morning to Youuuu!' She would tap dance on the kitchen floor, she was just this crazy, crazy fireball of creative energy who just couldn't slow down. And she wrote, I don't know how many plays, I think over 60 and I think 40 or so of them were published. And she just always kept moving. She started all these theaters all over the Northwest, and for a good chunk of my life, lived with us. So she'd see me in plays and say 'that's not good enough. Now you're going to direct them.' And she was an amazing person as well. She was always bringing in straggling actors and they would stay with us for a while. It was the hardest thing to get her and grandpa to not pick up these actors cause they just had to help people. She was a massive creative influence. I still, sometimes when I get a note that I need to project a little more I hear my grandmother's voice going (loudly) 'Speak up boy!'
It sounds like her life can be a play in itself. Has anyone ever considered that?
You know she wrote a play that was semi-autobiographical. She was born during the years when the Mormon Church was still practicing polygamy but covering it up. And she was adopted within the ranks of the Mormon Church so she most definitely was a baby who was born out of polygamy but couldn't be recognized legally. And so this play was about her trying to discover who her parents were and she always dreamed that her mother was a famous actress, that's where she got her theater bug.
I wanted to congratulate you on your recent marriage to [five-time Tony Award winner] Audra McDonald. I loved what you wrote in your Murder Ballad bio - that you were married to a 'hack actress.'
(laughing) I think only a handful of people will get that reference, the rest will kind of go, 'Well he's not very nice!'
Do you think there is a possibility that the two of you might work together in the future?
Oh I'd sure love to! That's how we met, was working on something together and we seemed to do alright with that one. I don't know, it would be lovely.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus