Behind the Stage Door with Danny Burstein
There's a curious phenomenon that takes place after theatrical performances in New York these days. Forty years ago, the likes of Beatrice Lillie, Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grimes and Barry Nelson could leave the theater after a performance with very little ado. There might be a few fans waiting for their signatures and "Dave the Autograph Hound" seemed to be a constant presence. That isn't the case today. After every performance, barricades are set up outside the theaters and police patrol the area carefully to keep fans at a safe distance from the performers who are exiting. Each time the stage door opens, Playbills and pens are automatically thrust forward for the departing actors to sign, while disposable cameras flash away to capture the moment for posterity.
Such was the case after a recent midweek performance of the Tony Award winning musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. Outside the Marquis Theater, cast members like Beth Leavel, Sutton Foster and Troy Britton Johnson were easily recognized by the throng and the cast members graciously signed programs and posed for pictures. Not so easily recognized was featured actor Danny Burstein, who had spend the past two hours wearing a character costume, wig and makeup so heavily applied that takes forty-five minutes to put on. Still, Burstein was greeted enthusiastically by fans when he left the stage door and he signed more than his share of Playbills. How did this actor explain the way fans recognize him off-stage?
"Usually they don't" Burstein commented. "It was just that someone really did recognize me from my previous work and called out the name of the character I play in this show." In THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, Burstein plays an amorous man named Aldolpho who romances the title character in the musical. "Most of the time I walk by and people recoil their Playbills because they think I'm a stagehand,"
Although he's been actively pursuing a theatrical career for only 16 years, Burstein has amassed some truly impressive credits. Off-Broadway he's appeared in such impressive productions as A. L. Gurney's MRS FARNSWORTH; Noel Coward's SAIL AWAY; I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT NOW CHANGE; and PSYCH. On the Great White Way he's been seen in SAINT JOAN; A CLASS ACT; TITANIC; the revival of COMPANY; and THREE MEN ON A HORSE among others. Of course, he is presently wowing audiences in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE.
The following afternoon, found Burstein sitting in the aisle of the Marquis Theater noshing on a savory dinner of pulled beef from Virgil's Bar-B-Q while a piano tuner offered a counterpoint to his conversation. "I always wanted to be an actor," he mused, "I just never thought in my wildest dreams that I could make a living out of it." A New Yorker by birth, Burstein was attending Parson's Junior High School on Jamaica Avenue in Queens when he was featured in a student production of THE ME NOBODY KNOWS. English teacher Stuart Glazer was directing the production and he pulled Burstein aside after one rehearsal. "You should go to the High School of the Performing Arts," he told the young Burstein. The student responded, "Great! What's the High School of the Performing Arts?" The teacher explained to him what it was and that there was an audition process requiring two monologues. The boy asked, "What's a monologue?" That year approximately 4,000 students auditioned for the High School of the Performing Arts. Only 128 made it. Burstein was one of them.
"It was a wonderful thing," commented the Burstein. "It gave me a great, firm foot in the door to being an actor. His classmates included Helen Slater, Erica Gimbel, Lifetime TV's Lisa Vidal and Kecia Lewis-Evans, who is featured in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. "I'm very proud of those years," he boasts. "I really loved it."
After being graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts, the actor studied at Queens College, where his father teaches. "It was close to home and was a decent liberal arts school. Unbeknownst to me there was a teacher there who would change my life; a fellow named Ed Greenberg. Ed was not only the director who opened up the Music Theater of Lincoln Center with Richard Rodgers, he was also the director of the St. Louis Municipal Opera-the largest outdoor theater in the country. He took me under his wing and said, 'I believe in you.' And he did! It was wonderful. At the age of 19 he gave me my Equity card and took me out to St. Louis. I was in the chorus of THE MUSIC MAN with Jim Dale and Pam Dawber." In a twist of irony, Burstein found himself competing with Dale in the category of "Best Supporting Actor in a Musical" at this year's Tony Awards. The recipient, however, was Christian Hoff of JERSEY BOYS.
After college Burstein took a year off just to do theater. He was working with people who didn't have any theatrical schooling and lacked training to fall back on when they weren't working. "It scared the hell out of me because I though they were extremely talented, yet they couldn't get jobs. That's the tragedy of our business. What is it? Ninety-four percent of the actors in the unions are unemployed at any given time?" Perhaps that thought is what propelled him to enroll in graduate school at the University of California in San Diego. He was there for three years and received his MA in 1990. He's been working steadily ever since.
Looking back on the body of his work, he discussed the Roundabout Theater's 1995 revival of Sondheim's COMPANY turned out. "Maybe we were all intimidated by doing the show because the original production was such a seminal event. Still, I don't know if the creative team really figured out which way to go with it. The show is so very much a part of the 70's, yet it was decided to move the time ahead to the mid-90's. Even though the material was brilliant, it just didn't click. God knows there was a lot of talent both onstage and off in that production. Nothing really jelled, yet there were individual moments that worked every night and I had a great time working with Veanne Cox."
An unfortunate problem that the COMPANY revival faced was the health issues of Boyd Gaines who was cast in the leading role of Bobby. "He had vocal problems and he'd come backstage with x-rays of his vocal chords. They were terrifying. Boyd rehearsed the whole show and wound up doing less than half of the performances. His understudy, Jim Clow, never had a real rehearsal process but was forced to jump in and save our asses."
There were rumors that this production of COMPANY would transfer to a Broadway house for an open-ended run. Stories floated about that the producers were going to put Michael Rupert into the starring role and the show's marquee went up on the Eugene O'Neill Theater. There was even a "big old ad in the New York Times…Then I got a call from director Scott Ellis telling me it just wasn't working out. It was a very sad day for me. I'd worked my whole life for my next show and my next break. Finally I had an idea that this was going to take me through the next year and I'd have a decent salary. Then it all fell through." At the time, Burstein was the father of a three year old son and another child was on its way.
Far happier are the actor's recollections of his tenure in TITANIC, which he joined in 1997. "I was a replacement and everybody else in the show was pretty settled at that point. I loved joining that cast. There were about 50 people in it and it was an honor to work with them, let alone sing that marvelous score. I listened to the recording about two weeks ago. Now please realize that I'm not the kind of person who goes home and listens to theater music in general. I'm into the Eagles, the Beatles, and Mozart. However, on a whim I put on TITANIC and couldn't believe how gorgeous the music was; especially with Brian D'Arcy James singing. I was blown away."
Most people realize that TITANIC dealt with the ill-fated ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Needless to say, the stage version had more than its share of special effects. Burstein recalls "the funny things that went wrong with the hydraulics at the end. We were all tilted and drowning. The curtain came down and there were times they couldn't get the hydraulics to level off the stage again. It was at the end of the show and there was only one more scene. We could see the stage managers pulling at things trying to make the scenery cooperate. Forget it! There were times when it just wouldn't work and that's how we took our curtain calls-holding on sideways and nodding our heads. Then they'd have to get a ladder and take us down one at a time. That happened quite a few times!"
Carnegie Hall celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sir Noel Coward's birth by presenting a two week concert performance of his musical SAIL AWAY with Elaine Stritch recreating her role of Mimi Paragon. "I don't think I've ever worked with anyone more talented than Elaine Stritch," the actor stated. "She wants things her way and she knows herself so well that she's absolutely right 90% of the time. You have to give in to somebody who has such mind boggling talent. She's wonderfully enigmatic; there's nobody else like her. My wife worked with her for two years doing SHOWBOAT in Canada and on Broadway and she has lots of stories to tell. You know Elaine Stritch is a diabetic and she gives herself an insulin shot before every curtain so she'll have the energy to do the act. That's pretty amazing. Whenever you work with someone like that you want to remember every single moment." There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the legendary Elaine Stritch is memorable.
However, when the topic of his current project is broached, Burstein's face lights up and his eyes sparkle in a way that indicates an exceptional fondness for it. He got involved with THE DROWSY CHAPERONE quite simply: "I got a call from Roy Miller; one of our producers. He'd seen me in a reading and said, 'I've got a show and a role that I think you'd be right for. I think it's right up your alley.' You know, you get a hundred of these calls over the course of a year. I was about to turn him down when for some reason I took a deep breath and looked at my wife. I knew that Miller was one of the producers at the Papermill Playhouse and I was going to be doing HAROLD AND MAUDE out there with Estelle Parsons, so I thought., 'What the hell-okay' and that's how I got involved in this show. We did it for the NAM Festival two years ago and Bob Martin, of course, played The Man In The Chair. Everyone else in the cast was different except for me and Georgia Engel.
"When Casey Nicholaw came aboard as director, he was an old friend but I had to re-audition for everybody so they could see us in our roles. I sang a song from THE CANTERBURY TALES called 'I Have A Noble Cock' thinking there couldn't be a better song for Aldolpho. They all roared with laughter. Then I did a scene for them and they were all very sweet. I got a call to do the show about a week later."
The rehearsal period for CHAPERONE was extremely challenging because of the incredible physical activity the material requires. "It was both hard work and enormous fun. We were given great permission to go ahead and play all the physical stuff; the pratfalls and everything were worked out by the actors. The great thing about Casey Nicholaw is his impeccable taste. He'll just watch what's going on and say, 'That's perfect and now you'll do that and one more thing-I don't know what it is- and you're off.' He's always right. He innately knows what goes with the rhythm of the script. He realizes that there's a music to a scene even before the underscoring starts."
Burstein's big number in the show is called "I Am Aldolpho". It's a hilariously funny song that establishes the character's amorous bravado. "Finding the choreography for that number was hard as hell," recounts the performer. "We did easily a dozen different versions in LA and here trying to get the staging right. The number didn't always end with the two of us getting folded into that Murphy's bed. We used to have a tango segment and I would end it by dragging Beth Leavel off with her legs dangling behind. There were many different versions before we found the right one."
Burstein is quick to credit the creative team for the show's success. It wasn't just a matter of Casey Nicholaw's direction, but also Gregg Barnes' costumes, the lighting design of Ken Billington and Brian Monahan, and the ingenious scenic design by David Gallo. Gallo's set for a middle income apartment in New York City cleverly becomes the setting for the vintage production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' which The Man In The Chair is listening to on his phonograph (remember those things?). Gardens glide out of closets and gilded mirror frames descend from above. In fact, watching the set changes is as much fun as watching the actors who are performing. There's no wonder that Gallo won a Tony Award for his work on this show.
Another special ingredient that contributes to CHAPERONE's success is the camaraderie that has developed among the entire company. "They're a great cast. I adore them. I really do." He's especially effusive about Georgia Engel, who television viewers will remember as "Georgette" on the classic MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. "Georgia is a genius and one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. .She's a walking heart. Really, she's a nice, soft-spoken sweet woman."
When the subject of his marriage comes up, Burstein's face literally beams. Quite obviously he's still in love with Rebecca Luker. He says his wife is "warm and wonderful and there's nothing sexier than talent. We sort of rediscover each other all the time." They married in 2000, while she was performing in Susan Strohman's MUSIC MAN revival. Did the actor feel uncomfortable watching his wife kiss Craig Bierko, and later Eric McCormack, eight times a week? Absolutely not! "Oh, I don't know, it's just part of the business. I know what it feels like when I'm up there doing it. It doesn't mean anything, it's just a part of the play. It's like crossing stage right and sitting down. You just do it the way you'd do any other move. You're doing it in character."
It was Luker who was very instrumental in getting Burstein cast in the BBC's comedy ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS when they were filming a one hour special in New York. "The show was coming to New York and they wanted to find two American actors to play Serge (Josh Hamilton) and his boyfriend, Martin (me). My wife is a huge ABFAB fan and I really didn't know much about it. I read the script and showed it to her. She explained that Josh is like Sapphy (the daughter) -very straitlaced and a bit of a nerd. Josh's boyfriend would have to be just like Jennifer Saunders, so I would have to be a male version of her. I agreed and went to a store called Ricky's-one of those stores that sells all sorts of wacky things. I bought a size "small" t-shirt of Darla from "The Little Rascals" that had "Drama Queen" written on it. I also bought the tightest pants I could imagine and was sporting a beard at the time. I cut my hair short and slicked it back on the sides a little and felt the only way I could get this part was if I walked into the audition looking like the character. I looked ridiculous, but everyone else in the rooms was looking pretty sharp. They were wearing vests and ties and three-piece suits. I felt I had a leg up because my wife knew the part called for a male version of Edina. So I went in there and improvised like crazy. They loved me and sent the video to the two girls in London. They cast me from the tape."
As the conversation winded down, Burstein was incredibly gracious and walked his guest through the labyrinth of corridors that would lead to the very stage door where the crowd waits after every performance. He commented about the mobs that Julia Roberts is attracting after THREE DAYS OF RAIN. "It's crazy. Sometimes you can't cross to the other side of the street. That's how crazy it is. There are times when her car can't make it down the street because of all the people." When asked why this is happening, Burstein ponders the question for a moment and replies, "It probably has to do with the media attention of the stars and the paparazzi. People want to feel a part of that. It's touching and feeling a part of someone who is famous. That phenomenon has grown as publicity and the machines that push it have grown and continue to take more prominence in our society."
Burstein opened the stage door for his guest. There were no barricades set up, no flash cameras, no pens and no Playbills. There was just the strong sun of a late afternoon in early summer and a nearby police officer who nodded his head when the visitor walked passed him. No one here had been deemed "famous" by the paparazzi so there was no need for anyone to attempt being a part of that person's life for even a moment.
On the other side of the door, Danny Burstein, along with the cast and crew of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, had begun their preparations for that evening's performance, after which more mayhem behind the barricades was surely to ensue. Perhaps it would be a night where Danny Burstein was once again recognized without his elaborate makeup.