BWW Interview: Bobby Steggert Discusses Playing Toulouse-Lautrec in MY PARIS

Le Musee d'Orsay in Paris is known for its extensive collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works. Among them is a large group of paintings, drawings, sketches and posters created by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec; an artist who has become synonymous with the City of Lights.

Even a cursory examination of this artist's works makes it apparent that Lautrec's genius was to be found in how effectively he was able to use a minimal amount of brush strokes to evoke not only the human likeness but the emotions found under the surface of each figure. His paintings seethe with sensuality, ennui, languidness and lust: all of this captured with the least amount of strokes from his brush or pen.

Lautrec was a diminutive man. Some reports claim he stood a mere 4' 8", while others say that he was 5'3". His short stature is commonly thought to be the result of his parents' incestuous marriage. He also bore other maladies that made his life almost intolerable. He found solace in a nightspot in Montmatre called Le Mirliton--a tiny club where he was inspired to create his fabled posters. ( Later on he transferred over to Le Moulin Rouge, but that's another story unto itself.)

Currently, Henri Toulouse -Lautrec is the subject of MY PARIS a new musical that is gracing the stage of Connecticut's Norma Terris Theater and is part of the lauded Goodspeed Opera House. Playing Lautrec is Broadway's Tony nominated Bobby Steggert who appeared in the RAGTIME revival, BIG FISH and, most recently, Terrence McNally's highly acclaimed play MOTHERS AND SONS.

"This is easily the most challenging role I've ever played and the most vocally demanding as well," the actor says in a phone conversation after a full day of rehearsing in Connecticut. "Not only is it a formidable role but I never leave the stage from the beginning of the show to the end. I was attracted to the piece because it was intimidating and I think when something scares you it's a good sign. I was also impressed with the man's dignity. He never had time for self pity. He was really confident in what he had to say and who he was in the world. He surely harbored a lot of pain and fear as a result of being so different but he spun it into gold and found this wonderful community in which he felt he was part of things." Steggert adds, "I was also attracted to the dark side of him. He had so many difficulties and struggles with different demons--as we all do-- and I found the interplay between his resilience and he self-destructiveness to be fascinating."

To prepare for his current role, the Maryland native visited almost every museum in New York that housed any of Lautrec's works and read several books about the artist. "He was really interested in painting pictures of working class people: laundresses, and prostitutes, rather than who would be considered 'proper' models. He gave them humanity and there's true complexity found in all his models."

As he works on his role, Steggert is finding that he has common ground with Lautrec and the Impressionist artists. "As I get older and more experienced, I have learned more and more to trust the power of simplicity. When a point of view is specific enough, a whole world can be communicated with the simplest of economy." That same thinking is reflected in Lautrec's works hanging at Le Musee d' Orsay and other prestigious art museums throughout the world.

Adding to the Parisian flavor of MY PARIS is its score, which was composed by the legendary Charles Aznavour, who wrote it for an unsuccessful French production. The 91 year old Aznavour turned it over to the American creative team with his blessings. According to Steggert, it's "legitimately and authentically French. We've been encouraged to approach the music with an off-the-cuff freedom, and though I always intend to communicate the lyric first, the soulful passion inherent in the music has been a real asset. The English lyrics and musical adaptation of Aznavour's score has been done by American Jason Robert Brown.

The music isn't the only aspect of the score that makes MY PARIS redolent of Montmatre and Pigalle. "Lautrec was not a romantic," Steggert explains. "He portrayed people as they truly were with no frills, yet he often found further beauty in the grotesque. The characters of Montmatre in this stage adaptation come across as such: gritty, human and honest. All the A-List designers on this project support Lautrec's vision. Paul Tazewell has somehow found a way to play with his proportions and trick your eye into making me appear much shorter than I really am; even when I'm standing next to someone of the same height. My knees are thrilled that I haven't been asked to pull a Christopher Seiber in SHREK," he adds with a laugh.

Bobby Steggert has great praise for the cast and creative team involved with MY PARIS. "Kathleen Marshall is a subtle wizard. She hires highly competent open-hearted people and the work unfolds with seemingly effortless ease. She is always prepared, always creatively engaged and just a truly lovely person. Alfred Uhry is kindness and encouragement personified. His only goal is to make his words feel right for the actor. This is a cast of legit Broadway pros and it's a singular experience to be in a room where every single person is an expert at what they do."

What these people "do" is create musical theater and all indications are that MY PARIS is shaping up to be something exceptional. When asked if this show has Broadway prospects, Steggert responded honestly," I stopped asking that question years ago and it has been highly helpful to my sanity."

That said, it would behoove serious theater-goers to visit Connecticut's Norma Terris Theater to experience a musical about one of the art world's most gifted painters in which he is portrayed by one of the theater world's most gifted actors.

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello

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