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BWW Interview: Bobby Steggert Discusses MOTHERS AND SONS

It's a long climb up to Bobby Steggert's dressing room at Broadway's John Golden Theater. There are five steep flights of steps that call to mind that running gag in Neil Simon's BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. Steggert isn't doing a revival of that show; as most people know he's in Terrence McNally's new play Mothers and Sons.

The perpetually young actor greets his visitor with a warm smile and a cold drink. While waiting patiently for his guest to catch his breath, Steggert explains that he chose this particular dressing room because it was more spacious than the others. True. It also provides him with a cardiovascular work-out every time he has to access it.

Bobby Steggert, who'd been named one of Out magazine's "Most Eligible Bachelors" chuckles at the mention of it. "I heard about that," he explains. "They never called me to ask whether I was (1) 'eligible' or (2) a 'bachelor'. I think having come out more officially last year made them name me to the list. I thought it was kind of fun and flattering."

There had been postings on the internet that Steggert was ready to pack it in and move to Maine when the premature closing notice was posted for BIG FISH--the musical in which he starred earlier this season. In that show he shared top billing with Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin. Steggert laughs at the recollection of his posting and explains, "I might have said sarcastically that 'I'm outta here!' With a little distance I realize it all worked out as it should have.

He continues: "You know, commercial theater can be a real heart breaker. It's just so difficult to not be able to plan more than a few months ahead. I'm very aware of BIG FISH's weaknesses and the things that didn't work in the show but what I'm really proud of was that we (as a company) really did put our true hearts and souls into creating that story. It felt misunderstood. There are a lot of beautiful musicals out there--GENTLEMAN"S GUIDE, for example is beautifully crafted. However, it doesn't ask you to look at your life in any significant way. BIG FISH had that ambition. It really disappointed me that it wasn't given a little more of a shot, because we had something real to say about mortality and about family."

Going on, the actor says, "It was a tough show to get right because there were two aspects of the story: there was the fantasy and there was the reality of what was happening to the family. It was a hard balance to strike, and honestly, we never struck it."

BIG FISH was Steggert's first time with an out-of-town try-out for a show. "We were in Chicago and it was my first experience with having new songs thrown at me during rehearsals and six pages of new dialogue that had to be memorized for that night. It was maybe the most stressful month of my life. It was constant memorization and brain gymnastics when I was up on stage. It was exhilarating but extremely stressful."

As sort of a post script to the disappointment Steggert experienced with BIG FISH, he adds, "I got a Drama Desk nomination today for it! It's really cool. Sometimes you think shows are completely forgotten and then something like that reminds you that they're not!"

Only recently the cast album of the musical YANK! was released. It was the vehicle that Steggert starred in during its Off Broadway incarnation. "I'm so proud of that recording!," he says while beaming. "You know, the writers raised the money themselves and the show is so beloved that they were able to get the funds easily. That was a testament to the piece and its need for a recording. What was really thrilling was that Jonathan Tunick came in and expanded the five piece orchestra to ten pieces with a beautiful string quartet and horns. It gave a really authentic 40's flair to the music."

Steggert's enthusiasm for the project is evident as he fairly bubbles over during his discussion of it. "What was so exciting was that the whole cast re-united in the recording studio and jumped directly into the skins of the characters. This was after years of not playing together. It just indicated how fully we'd already invested in and loved doing that show. I got to visit with an old friend for a day and I'm proud of how true the characters sound to me on the recording. They really did a great job on this one!"

There had been much talk that YANK! would move to Broadway, helmed by director David Cromer. Is such a move still possible? "No. I don't think so, " the actor responds. "It's not a Broadway show. We've already talked about how commercial theater is. I don't think it would find a long term commercial audience and that's okay because it lives on now in an immortal way on CD--and what is more important than a Broadway production is that it's available for regional theaters to do. I'm sure YANK! will have a life after New York."

Presently, Bobby Steggert is on the boards with Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller in award winning playwright Terrence McNally's newest effort; a play that is receiving spontaneous standing ovations from audiences. Steggert comments: "We're getting them every night and I think they're mainly inspired by Tyne's relentlessly beautiful performance." It was well-reviewed and Steggert has received fine notices for his performance in it. Broadway World's Michael Dale noted, "Steggert is unapologetic and audacious throughout, in a fine portrait of a man who grew up in a world where the first question on a date wasn't inevitably: "' have you been tested?'" AM New York enthused, "Steggert, who was seen previously this season in BIG FISH, once again excels." Theatermania summed up Steggert's performance by calling it "extraordinary".

The play had an unusual genesis, being first presented at Pennsylvania's Buck's County Playhouse. "The Playhouse is being revitalized," the actor explains. "Jeb Bernstein was trying to give it some of the artistic presence which it had in the past. Tyne Daly actually made her stage debut at that theater with her parents. She was a teenager at the time. The people at the theater thought that since Tyne had just done MASTER CLASS on Broadway it would be a great idea for her to do a two week run in a play by Terrence McNally. That got Terrence and Tyne talking and he suggested that he write a play for her. When he started thinking about what he could write, he remembered ANDRE'S MOTHER, a TV drama he had written some time ago. He began wondering what Andre's Mother would be doing twenty years later. He wrote a very beautiful but incomplete draft and the Playhouse committed to doing it. My role [Will Ogden] was very tiny. I think it had only one scene." The actor received a call from McNally and was invited to participate. "Terrence knew I had a month between the Chicago try-out of BIG FISH and the start of the Broadway previews. I read the play and thought it was beautiful and had something interesting to say. Of course I'd do it. Tyne Daly? Terrence? Of course!" Steggert continues: "The magic was that Terrence wrote the play on us. We'd be rehearsing and he'd be in the room at his laptop, watching us and listening. He was constantly re-writing. Eventually he got to the draft that we did there, which expanded my part to near where it is now with three big scenes. One of these scenes McNally wrote for Steggert is a confrontation between his character and the one played by Tyne Daly:

Katherine: I know what loss is. Will: Try to respect Cal's loss. He lost more than your son. He lost a generation. People who might have mattered. Hamlets, Nuryevs, Melvilles, Whitmans. Young men who wanted to write the Great American novel, too!

and later... Will: What happened to Gay Men in the final decades of the 20th Century? First, it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. People will shake their heads and say "What a terrible thing. How sad." It's already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.

The actor adds that such dialogue is making the audiences respond to the play so emotionally. "The play deals with some serious issues and a wide scope of ideas," he says. "It gives us the entire gay man's experience from the 1980's to now. I think it does so gracefully. Much of this is achieved by McNally's flair for language. He's a poet. He's also one of those playwrights who understands his responsibility to not only move but to entertain. He understands that humor and drama must coexist."

The first thing that comes to Steggert's mind when asked about Terrence McNally is the playwright's lack of pretense. "He's humble," the young actor says. "He doesn't pretend to be something he's not. He doesn't express anything he doesn't actually think. He's wildly funny. He's kind. He's compassionate and he cares a lot about the people he collaborates with. He loves actors and truly respects the rehearsal process. He's the kind of man who looks you in the eye and you can feel his heart."

The actor has nothing but praise for MOTHER AND SONS director Sheryl Kaller. "She's incredibly intuitive, very perceptive and--for my sake--really helpful in teaching me how to authentically parent. She's a fantastic mother and has two daughters in their early 20's. She took a huge break from directing as a young woman just to raise her family and be with the kids. She raised them here in New York. She had a lot of insights as to how urban, modern parents raise their children in the smallest domestic ways and in the larger conceptual ways. She was a real inspiration to me personally."

When asked about playing opposite Frederick Weller, Steggert comments that he had an interesting experience with him. "He's very a very private actor and his process is very quiet. As a result we had to build an intimacy very slowly and quietly. We sort of tip-toed toward each other. As a result, it feels more 'earned' in a way."

To Fred Weller's great credit, there didn't seen to be any awkwardness about playing opposite an openly gay actor during the rehearsal process. "There was, however, a little bit of uneasiness from me," Steggert explains. "What do we talk about in this play? Internalized homophobia... I quietly hoped that this older, straight man was okay with kissing me. Rationally, this is ridiculous for me to even admit that I was scared, but it's also good to admit it because these are the little shadows in the back of your brain that you have to look at and investigate. I realize now that I was worried about absolutely nothing."

Bobby Steggert describes Tyne Daly as "the most delicious woman ever. Before every show she climbs all five flights of stairs to hug me. Can you imagine that? She's a great leader and totally committed to her craft. As a person she's really funny and thoughtful. She loves poetry, and she'll drop off poems that made her think of me. She'll write it out and say 'This poem's for you!' I love being near her and listening to her stories and observations. I also think she has a healthy relationship with her fame and success. As a result, she never treats anyone as lesser; she's very generous of spirit." Steggert also says that Daly is "one of the most fierce actresses I've ever worked with. I don't mean 'fierce' in a 2014 gay way. I mean truly fierce with great strength and passion. There's no one like her,"

There's no one quite like Bobby Steggert, either. He's straightforward, unassuming and highly intelligent. It's obvious that he really won't be moving to Maine and will be on stage for a long, long time. Hopefully the next time he appears on Broadway his dressing room will be on the first floor or at least have elevator accessibility.

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello

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