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BWW Interviews: Bobby Steggert on His Career, A MINSTER'S WIFE and Being a Nerd

It's obvious that Bobby Steggert is beginning to feel very much at home in the bowels of Lincoln Center. He's in the very dressing room that he had less than a year ago when he appeared in their production of A. R. Gurney's delightful play THE GRAND MANNER. Now he's playing Eugene Marchbanks in Joshua Schmidt and Jan Levy Tranen's A MINISTER's WIFE; a musical treatment of George Bernard Shaw's CANDIDA which opened on Sunday, May 8th.

Steggert is a genial fellow and it's hard to believe he's just turned 30. His youthfulness is accentuated as he sits on a chair with his legs crossed under him, yielding a favorable comparison to Peter Pan. Has Bobby Steggert found a Fountain of Youth that's more effective than the one Ponce de Leon supposedly unearthed in St. Augustine, Florida?

Steggert laughs heartily as he replies: "My parents are in their 60's and look like they're in their mid-forties so genetically I'm very lucky!" He pauses for a moment and then adds, "As a young person--knowingly without the perspective of age--it can be annoying to not be taken as seriously as you sometimes hope. I'm told, though, that I'll enjoy it more and more as the years go by."

How long will he retain the boyish moniker of "Bobby" Steggert? "You know I graduated from NYU and was deciding what agent to go with and felt that I wanted to go by the name of ‘Robert'. I was going to be ‘Robert Dietrich Steggert' because I thought it would be a great stage name. My headshots and my resume all said ‘Robert Dietrich Steggert' and I chose a great agent but one of the first things she said was, ‘I want you to take a look in the mirror and tell me who you see. I looked into the mirror and said, ‘Of course I see "Bobby" that's what everyone calls me.' She continued by saying ‘The best thing you can do in this business is to represent yourself authentically and it might be a little juvenile when you're 40 but you'll already be successful by then being Bobby Steggert won't ring as childish, it'll just ring as your name." Certainly with two Tony Award nominations to his credit, no one is criticizing Bobby Cannevale for his name choice.

A native of Frederick, Maryland, Steggert's father worked an hour away in Washington, DC. "I grew up my entire 18 years in Frederick so I had a very steady childhood. He also had a very intelligent childhood because when he was graduated from Frederick High School, Bobby Steggert was named valedictorian of his class. "I always loved school," he recalls. "I was a real nerd: I loved writing reports and doing projects. I loved it all. I really did!"

As with many performers, Steggert's interest in the performing arts dates back to his younger years. "I did a little opera called AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS by Giancarlo Menotti. It was a Christmas opera in which I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Not only that, I played the title role. I was an honest-to-goodness boy soprano in those days. After the performance I recall being very shaken because I didn't remember a thing about it. My parents, Mary and Bob, had the forethought to say, ‘If you were so transported you don't even remember what happened, you should keep doing it.' It was a wonderful bit of advice and I'm grateful I trusted them. I guess you could say that they were the opposite of most parents who would back their kids away from the performing arts. They trusted that I had a real penchant for this profession and I credit them greatly for that."

Despite his debut singing in a Menotti opera, Steggert shied away from musical roles for quite some time. "My voice didn't really settle until I was a junior in college. I had some real troubles as a freshman and sophomore in college because I had voice teachers who didn't understand that my voice needed time to really mature. I was spurred away from musical theater in my early college years because I had no confidence or strength. I concentrated on doing straight theatre and classical plays as a result of my voice not being ready. I would say that it finally became a man's voice only when I was in my mid-twenties." This is odd for someone to understand because Steggert's singing in A MINISTER'S WIFE is not only clarion but it is refreshingly youthful. His solos could stop the show if they were allowed to in this production.

Reflecting on how his training prepared him for Broadway, Steggert becomes reflective. "I started with a base of education in musical theater. I was there for a couple of years. That taught me physical confidence. I didn't understand my body and how I could use it on stage until that experience. Then I went into classical theater and that allowed me to understand the importance of the use of words with verse. I think the combination of those two studies made me feel very prepared for anything that was put in front of me. I had a confidence with a lot of different kinds of material. As a result I felt armed when I went out into the world."

MASTER HAROLD...AND THE BOYS brought Steggert to Broadway. He understudied the leading  role and got to work with director Lonny Price. "It was a very difficult, complex piece," he remembers. However, it allowed Price to see the potential for Steggert to do musicals and he encouraged me to audition for 110 IN THE SHADE, which is so vastly different from MASTER HAROLD. I really credit Lonny's ability to see the versatility that had resulted from my training at NYU as well."

Cast as Jimmy Curry in 110 IN THE SHADE, the production turned out to be a very popular one and extremely memorable to Steggert. "I had no idea as to how fortunate I was to be working with Audra MacDonald and John Cullum. Of course I grew up knowing who Audra MacDonald was and I loved listening to her voice in such things as the RAGTIME recording. At the time I had no idea who John Cullum was. The generosity they shared with me as members of the cast plus the examples of professionalism that they set-both in very separate ways-proved that they are kind, professional people who are also utterly committed on stage. At the time I didn't realize how rare as it is. Now, years later, I understand that not every actor is going to be all that giving in the rehearsal room or on stage. Audra and John really were."

As exceptional as the experience of appearing in 110 IN THE SHADE was, it'll stand out in Steggert's mind for another reason. Those who saw the production will recall that it featured a rain curtain that sprayed down a fairly Heavy Dose of water at the musical's denouement. Of course that meant the stage floor was more than just a little soggy when it came time for curtain calls. At the end of the show's very first preview and Steggert's first appearance on a Broadway stage, he came running out for his bow, slipped on the wet surface and landed face down in front of the bewildered audience. Welcome to the Big Time!

After doing a string of Off Broadway shows, Steggert found himself cast in a revival of Flaherty and Ahrens' RAGTIME. "I just wanted to do a show at home," explains Steggert. "I went to the Kennedy Center to do it. As a child, that theater was the beacon of all theatrical events for those of us who lived in the area. It's a fantastic organization which takes incredible financial and artistic risks. I was thrilled to go to the Kennedy Center but the part of Younger Brother isn't one that I really thought about. Let's face it, when I think about RAGTIME and my recollections of seeing it as an 18 year old had me think about the story of Coalhouse Walker and Sarah. Perhaps it was because Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra MacDonald played those two roles. As with 110 IN THE SHADE, I didn't know what I had on my hands. I didn't know what opportunity I had in playing that fantastic part. He's the catalyst for so much change. Once I locked into the idea that his development was so enormous from the beginning to the end of the play I knew how to track that growth. It was a huge surprise when RAGTIME moved to Broadway but it really changed my life."

For his efforts in the RAGTIME revival, Steggert received a Tony Award nomination as "Best Featured Actor in a Musical". What's it like to get that kind of news? "People were telling me this would happen," the actor recounts, "Still, I didn't believe them because those very people had told me the same thing about 110 IN THE SHADE and that did not happen. I was conditioned to be careful about my expectations. I'd received nominations for other awards as a result of RAGTIME but the Tony Awards are different, with a different committee of nominators, so who knew what would happen? On the night before the nominations were to be announced, I turned off my phone and was insistent upon sleeping through the morning. I woke up and turned on my phone to find about 17 hundred e-mails, texts and voice mails-so I knew before even listening to a single one that I'd been nominated. It was a moment of pure and utter satisfaction because I registered it as an opportunity to keep working. That's really all it is for me. Oh, it was fun to go to the luncheons and it was fun to receive all the congratulations and it was great to get into the tux, but the bottom line was that I knew I could use it as an opportunity to keep working in what I love. I love to do live theater. It was the most wonderful boost I could have asked for!"

However, on the day of the actual Tony Awards ceremony, Bobby Steggert seemed to be as calm and as unruffled as they come. Encountering him backstage after a performance of THE GRAND MANNER, found him to be less concerned with the lavish ceremony he'd be attending than he was with being with his parents, who'd come up from Maryland to be part of their son's big night. "I knew I wouldn't win," he states matter-of-factly. "In retrospect, I had the benefit of being in a show that had closed already. I heard from friends who had gotten nominated for shows that were still running and they claimed it ‘puts them in their heads a bit' as they perform every night between receiving the nomination and the night of the Tonys. They wonder what it is that they're doing right exactly and sometimes that can screw with you. I had said my piece with RAGTIME and I'd had a wonderful experience with it but I was already in my second show since its closing. I was past RAGTIME at that point. I was just very grateful to have been remembered. I certainly didn't expect to win and that's why I was pretty cool."

As for THE GRAND MANNER itself, Steggert has his share of memories about his participation in it. "At first I had huge reservations about my involvement in the production because I was scared to be cast as a playwright who was in the room. I thought it was great pressure in that and wondered whether he would ever be pleased. Moreover, I wondered if I would be able to get him down in the ways that are important. More importantly, will I be welcomed into this experience or will I have an uphill battle? As soon as I met Pete [Gurney], I knew that I was in for a great treat because he is the most lovely, generous, support, smart and sparkly person at the age of 80. I imagine that's how he's always been. It turned out to be a pleasure to get to portray him because I respect and like him so much. On top of that, our cast; Boyd Gaines, Kate Burton and Brenda Wehle are three of the most wonderful, inclusive actors and they embraced me greatly. It was probably the most effortless time I've ever had in the process of putting together a play. I guess that's because we were all so very happy to be there."

Bobby Steggert has been involved in the most recent versions of the musical YANK! which has gone through many revisions and workshops while popping up in various Off Broadway venues. "They asked me to do it years ago at the 2nd annual NYMTF Festival and I read the script. At the time I thought it was cheesy and it wouldn't work. I thought they were trying at something it didn't attain. I went to see it and realized how wrong I was-even in that version," he says. "It had incredible heart and there was vulnerable honesty on David Zellnik's part. I thought I had missed my chance because it was a great role in an important story. Thank God they did it again a few years later at the Gallery Players and I'd just finished 110 IN THE SHADE. My agents thought I was crazy to go from a Broadway show to doing a free production about gays in the military that was being staged in a basement in Brooklyn. They thought I was nuts but I told them they had to trust me because it was an important story and I needed the chance to play the part.

Steggert's agents went along with his notion and he played in the Brooklyn YANK! which led to an engagement at Off Broadway's York Theatre. That, in turn, led to director David Cromer's involvement and subsequent workshops. According to Steggert, Cromer has added dimension to the piece. "He has made the war and the reality that these men face far more visceral and ‘present' than in pervious versions. According to the people I trust, the show has grown exponentially as a result of that."

Is YANK! coming to Broadway? The answer is a resounding "yes", however specific details cannot be discussed at the moment.

Presently, though, Steggert is impressing audiences with his splendid performance in A MINISTER'S WIFE which also features Liz Baltes, Kate Fry, Drew Gehling and Marc Kudisch. There are many professionals who consider the role of Eugene Marchbanks to be one of the most challenging for any actor. In fact, it was the young Marlon Brando whose performance opposite Katherine Cornell's Candida made him a stand-out in the public's mind. That was in Shaw's original version. Here, Steggert is given another dimension to perform thanks to Schmidt and Tranen's demanding music and lyrics. Steggert rises to the occasion and contributes a finely honed interpretation of the complex role, displaying his crystal clear vocalizing to great advantage. He's nothing short of marvelous in the role.

"I pursued this project pretty aggressively," states the actor. "I love Josh Schmidt. I thought his ADDING MACHINE was both revolutionary and exciting. I also love Austin Pendleton who's written the book. Frankly, I just wanted this challenge. It's impossibly difficult music and George Bernard Shaw is really dense. I'm not very interested in a project that doesn't include a little grief along the way. I like to grapple with the complexity of the material. On top of that, I like working here at Lincoln Center. I think they support their creative artists unlike any unlike any theater in the City."

When asked what the most challenging moment for him to portray in this production, Steggert pauses for a few seconds and becomes very reflective. "I would have to say that comes at the very end. Marchbanks is so incredibly sure of what he believes and in one shattering moment Candida makes him understand that not only is he able to take care of himself but he must be by himself. It's a confusing moment of heartbreak and discovery of strength. It's also a moment in the show that took me a while to understand and it's pretty taxing emotionally."

Although A MINISTER'S WIFE has a cast of five, the score uses human voices in a way that calls to mind Rossini and some of the other great opera composers. In Steggert's mind, is he performing in an opera or a piece of musical theater? After all, Bizet's CARMEN has just about as much spoken dialogue as this does. "I don't consider it a musical and I don't consider it an opera either. I don't know what to call it; that's why I love it," he adds with a laugh.

Reactions to this production have been quite varied. "I think that's when you're presenting something that makes people really think. This show is about relationships and it's about the fragility of love. I've found that people who are really able to investigate the relationships in their lives find it to be pretty profound and moving. People who aren't necessarily ready to investigate their love relationships are almost a little resistant to the story and I find that fascinating," he says. Regardless, this production has the audiences standing on their feet at the end and chattering positively about it as they leave the theatre.

Surely Bobby Steggert is an actor who loves to take risks. Although he's done his share of film and television, it's really apparent that he's truly a stage actor. The stage is where he's most at home and it's where he thrives on the challenges it presents to him. There's no doubt that he'll be spending plenty of time in the dressing rooms at Lincoln Center-either at the Newhouse Theater or the larger Vivian Beaumont upstairs. Surely he'll be seen at other major venues around our country as well. Anyone who rises to the challenges of playing to a live audience eight times a week becomes very comfortable in the dressing rooms that are part and parcel to the process.

Photo Credit: (T) Walter McBride/WM Photos; (M) Paul Kolnik; (B) Paul Kolnik


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