Broadway Bullet Interview: Daniel Jenkins of Mary Poppins
This week we talk to Daniel Jenkins who plays George Banks in "Mary Poppins." Not only does he talk about "Mary Poppins" but we also hear his performances of "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" from "Big River" and "Coffee, Black" from "Big."
Along with having appeared on Broadway in "Big" and "Big River," Daniel has also appeared on Broadway in "White Mountain" and "Angels in America." He's worked with director Robert Altman on the films "O.C. and Stiggs," "Tanner '88," and "Caine Mutiny." He also appeared in the film "Cradle Will Rock," "Glory," and "Infested."
"Mary Poppins" is playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Broadway Bullet Interview: Daniel Jenkins of Mary Poppins
Broadway Bullet: Many of you know that "Big River" is my favorite musical, pretty much ever. It's no secret on the show, and so when I saw "Mary Poppins" and discovered that lo and behold the original Huck is playing the father, Mr. Banks, in "Mary Poppins" I couldn't wait to see if he'd be willing to come in to talk with us, and sitting right here in the studio is Daniel Jenkins.
Daniel Jenkins: How could he be so old? Unbelievable.
BB: I was taken aback. That mustache you got for Mr. Banks. I'm trying to go where is…I wasn't in New York so I never got a chance to see you. I just heard the cast album.
DJ: It's a great disguise. I come out the stage door and I look like a stagehand. It's awesome.
BB: So, let's kind of back up and go a little chronologically through your career. Probably makes the most sense. What went into the making of "Big River"? Which you were the original Huck in.
DJ: Talk about a dream job. I was in town. I guess I was here for a year and then I got that job from Louisville where I was an apprentice and a company member, and had a great time too. Yeah, it was an unbelievable gift, and being a country bumpkin really it fit like a glove. I had a good friend, who actually worked with me down in Louisville, playing Tom Sawyer. So, after the longest audition of my life, I just had a fantastic time.
BB: So, just a year in New York?
DJ: Yeah I was sort of here for a year.
BB: Were all your friends like killing you after that?
DJ: Pretty much. Yeah, they were pretty angry with me.
BB: So there are a lot of legends working on that show. I mean Des McAnuff, that's pretty much where he made his big reputation, right?
DJ: Yeah I think so. Of course, being out at LaJolla many years after that, and bringing great stuff in. He was so much fun to work with. I had a great time. He's very specific. He had a very tall stack of little notes. He wrote one note on one page, and then he'd rip it off, and I could have made the worlds largest notepad from the notes I had, which I love and would continue to get during the run. It was great. He was very diligent.
BB: Roger Miller when the show opened?
DJ: Yes, that's right.
BB: Did you get a chance to meet him?
DJ: Absolutely. What a wild wonderful guy. I was really proud of his work in it because I felt like he stretched himself. His reputation was kind of like novelty tunes. That's what people associated with him, and he came out with this really rich gospel sound, and mixed in some Dixieland, and stuff, and was really stretching himself and growing. One day he brought in "Worlds Apart" which is my favorite tune.
BB: I have so many favorite tunes from that show.
DJ: Oh my god, well he brought in…If you can imagine we're working on this show, and it's been in development at LaJolla and Cambridge too, and they've been chipping away at it for a while. Roger at one point realized we needed a tune for a certain part in the show, and he brought in "Worlds Apart" and he sang it for us and we're all just sobbing. It's just so beautiful and I was just very proud of how deep he reached within himself to pull that stuff out, and that was great example of it.
BB: How much discussion was there, and I think this is appropriate to being up because lo and behold it's back in the media again, the N-word. I mean our listeners may not know that Huck was the last part I did as an actor. Having achieved my dream role I kind of got bored. I just remember we had a lot of issues within…
DJ: How did that get settled?
BB: We said it. You know mainly because the actor playing Jim kind of pushed the issue and decided it needed to be that way. One of the things we debated over was whether Huck should switch after his big reverie of the thing, and then not say it again, and we were all like "that's pretty ridiculous" because in the context of the meaning back then…
DJ: It's a tricky question. My personal opinion is that Mark Twain knew exactly what he was doing. The word has taken on a much larger connotation. The power of that word has grown, but I do think he knew what he was doing when he had the ignorant characters use the word and he used it not just the way you would use "guy" he used it repeatedly. He used it like a sledgehammer. It was very much on purpose, in my opinion, the volume- the number or times- that word was used in the book. However, in modern context you have to go, "ok, why are we using that word?" Are we trying to teach people who might feel the same that this is wrong? Are we helping people? Are we hurting people? I had…you know when I did the revival we were out on the road…
BB: Yes, yes. For our listeners you did the revival and the sign-language version.
DJ: Yes, and basically got to sing and say all the same stuff and narrate a little as Mark Twain. We were in Huston, and they had a real problem with us using the work in Huston, and we were going to play in front of 6000 people out on a big lawn and we used the word "slave" instead. At first I was pissed off and was like, "come on this is not the piece. The piece is about this ignorant boy who learns what real friendship is. That doesn't mean he's not ignorant anymore." There are parts of him that wake up, but he is raised to be prejudice, and this is a very important part of the story. We can't just abandon it because people don't want to hear the word. Then I realized that there are people who are hurt by that word in the African American community in general it can be very painful to hear that word and to kind of legitimize it by having it on a stage. So, not to be coy about it, but it's not a black and white issue. There's so much gray area.
BB: I imagine that every company across America that puts this on probably wrestles with that.
DJ: And it's good that they do. I don't think there's one answer to it. There's kind of the knee-jerk liberal reaction which would be you have to educate, but then there's kind of another area of are you causing pain or are you helping in a way. It's tricky.
BB: Well, we like exposing lesser-known musicals. I can't say that "Big River" is one of them on the show, because it's one of my favorites, but in the studio I'd love to play one of the tracks from the cast album. One of my favorite songs, but there are so many, but the trio "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go."
DJ: And we're all expecting you to sing along.
BB: You serious? Is there any story behind this?
DJ: Oh, I think the story behind this one for all of us was "why are we all three singing on stage, Des?" That was the question we had to keep asking ourselves and keep justifying for ourselves that these three environments would happen at the same time. We're all singing the same thing, but what are we saying? The regular questions you'd ask putting on any show, which always seemed to come up when we did this number.
Listen to "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" in Broadway Bullet Vol. 113
BB: When you mentioned "what are we singing about" I think one of the brilliant things that Roger Miller did with the music was that some of it was pretty straight forward musical theatre, but most of it kind of alluded to what was going on around it, the action, and not directly and somehow it still just ties in.
DJ: "Ham for the Hog" is a great example of that. That is a totally left field absolutely Roger Miller tune. What the heck is it doing in this show, you know? And it's perfect. It works beautifully. I liked how his songwriter mentality meshed with musical theatre mentality. Another stretch for him. The stretching was the musical theatre stuff. It was like, "am I going to further the story here? How do you do that?" That wasn't something he knew, but he was willing to learn.
BB: Let's move along and another landmark show you were in was "Angels in America."
DJ: Oh yeah. That was yet another unbelievable honor.
BB: Stephen Spinella who's been on the show recently with "Spring Awkening"…
DJ: Yeah, fabulous. I got to replace him and actually got to work in development on the second part of that at Sundance.So I kind of fell in love with the piece, and with Tony, and Prior before it even came to New York, knowing that it had been written for Stephen.
BB: I actually didn't realize you replaced his role.
DJ: Yes I did, and believe me I watched and stole as much as I could because he was brilliant. Yeah, that was a really great time and "Angels" you gave so much and kind of emptied yourself out, but gosh how much you got back. I've never gotten that much back from an audience.
BB: And then you got to originate the Tom Hanks part in the musical version of "Big."
DJ: Yeah, again I had a great time. An unbelievable time. That was another one that fit very well: child in a mans body. I'm still pretty much a little boy. I had a great time. My research was playing video games and eating pizza with 13 year olds, so how bad could it be?
BB: When they said iconic role, you know, I wonder how much Norbert Leo Butz was thinking about Steve Martin before him in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Was that a role where you were wondering, "What would Tom do?" Or how do I separate out myself from this iconic movie performance?
DJ: You know I've been asked that question before and I can't say that it was ever really an issue. I mean I had obstacles, and objectives, and issues, and kind of a supernatural issue. They were all plenty big enough for me to struggle without having to worry about how Tom Hanks might have been doing it. You know it was really, honestly, truly never a problem. A lot of people don't believe that, and I love Tom Hanks performance in it, but I didn't feel like I somehow needed to honor it.
BB: Now before we started the interview, you were saying that you thought they got it right even more in the tour than in the show.
DJ: Well they had even more chance to work on it. You know after Broadway the writers got more time, and I think just like any good oil painter, they'll take that thing off the wall and put more oil on it or scrape stuff off. Yeah, it was great on the road.
BB: And there's some great music from it. It's probably a good show for community theatres out there.
BB: We're going to play one of those. One of your songs. Do you want to set this one up?
DJ: Yeah, this is "Coffee Black" and this is right after Josh wakes up sexual, and comes into the office the next day.
Listen to "Coffee, Black" on Broadway Bullet Vol. 113
BB: You do most of your work on stage?
DJ: Yeah, most of my work is stage, and like most stage actors you find ways to supplement it with television of commercials, and so there have been pilots that have come and gone, and TV work, and commercials, which support my theatre habit, since theatre isn't a very lucrative profession. Yeah, some off-Broadway stuff, so music that I've gotten to get produced, and having kids. Having a family is an amazingly engaging piece of work. I'm pretty blessed to be able to get to make a living doing this in New York.
BB: How did "Mary Poppins" drop into your life? Did you audition? Or did your agent kind of…
DJ: Yeah, audition. It was the longest span of an audition process I've ever had. I think there might have been eight months between the first audition and the last one because of all the creative team were across the pond, so getting them all over here was a chore. So, yeah, auditioned for it. I scheduled knee surgery around the auditions, so that's how long the process was. It was wild, and for a nerve-y Broadway audition process it was fun.
BB: Now the show has quite a few really established veterans playing a wide variety of roles like Cass Morgan who is in there as the Bird Lady.
DJ: Yeah, I've worked with Cass. Cass has done a show that I wrote with my dad, who was also in "Big River" by the way (he came in and replaced Rene's role actually), so I did a show with Cass that I wrote, and then I did a show that she wrote with her in North Carolina. So, we have a lovely cyclical history, and an incredible voice. Oh my gosh, and wonderful actor.
BB: The show is actually based more on the books then the movie, but it has the songs.
DJ: Yeah, I think the books are really cool, and they're really well known in England, and the show is in it's third year there. It's still doing really well, but they're not as familiar with the books here. So part of the wonderful part of getting to do this show is introducing people to these little gorgeous storylines that they're not familiar with from the movie. So you still have these kind of iconic songs, and tunes that you know, and then I feel like George Stiles and Anthony Drewe just kind of seamlessly put in a few of these tunes. They fit so beautifully into the show these parts of the book. So, yeah the books really add some depth, and a storyline to the stage version.
BB: I think a lot of people might be thinking it's a little like the other Disney things where they just put the movie on stage.
DJ: Yeah, this is a little bit of a different animal. I think there are some things that you're obviously going to put- you're going to put Supercal on the stage, you're going to put "Jolly Holiday" on the stage, and they actually make sense too in a musical theatre setting those songs will work, and they've done great things. I love that kind of sign language thing. I think that's so cool. That blows me away. So they add theatricality to it as far as trying to make a story that will engage an older audience as well. That's what I'm most impressed with, so I'm really impressed with what Julian did with the books.
BB: I think in this version of the production your character has one of the biggest emotional journeys.
DJ: Someone said, "Are you having fun?" I said, "Yeah, of course I'm having fun." Really what I'm doing is when they're all out there doing "Supercal" I'm backstage crying. I spend a lot of time mopping backstage.
BB: You get very excited when you finally get your chance to have your little verse of "Supercal."
DJ: That's right. It is a great journey and a really accessible one. I got to say some of the most rewarding parts for me are when fathers or when men come up to me and express their thanks to me for showing a part of the journey that they are very familiar with, and kind of lose touch with. What's important, and work takes over, and you forget that your kids are growing up too quickly. It's all stuff that is so accessible to me. You don't have to reach too far. It does kind of engage a wide cross section of the audience. It's one of those things that Disney does very well, but in this case I think it's working even better because of that story aspect.
BB: Technically there are some real eye-poppers in this show.
DJ: I don't know how much we're allowed to say. I should have asked. So we're in tech, right? And we're pissed off because we can't go out to the front of the house and see the darn effects, you know, because we want to see Gavin do his thing. So, me, and Rebecca, Jane, and Mark, who played the maid and butler in our house, and the divine Rebecca Luker who is, of course, my wife. She is unbelievable. So, we're supposed to get back in the house, because the house is coming downstage during "Step in Time" this number, and we're like peeking through the last wing there, and trying to see how much we can see before we dash back to get into place before the house came down. Yeah, it's so cool that stuff. It is so cool, and just the reveal of "Step in Time" to me, that's a number in the second act- the chimney sweep number, Bob Crowley just continues to out do himself. It's breathtaking. Breathtaking. Anyway, it's cool to witness, even from the wings, and out front it must be something else.
BB: I'm normally not- I like simplicity a lot of times, like "Chicago" what they did is perfect…
DJ: Yeah, I do to, because of story, because you're focusing on performance and story.
BB: But I have to say for an impressive set piece, this is really an impressive set piece. I'm sitting there going "Oh my god how are they dropping attic?"
DJ: Man, you are seeing your ticket price up there. That's for sure.
BB: And it's a big cast.
DJ: A big cast. Full orchestra. In a lot of ways it's a really old fashioned musical, but the pyrotechnics are "you're kidding! You're kidding! There's more?"
BB: So, how long do you think you're up for this one?
DJ: You know, it's such a great job it's going to be hard to leave.
BB: Certainly, you won't have to. It's going to be running for years that's clear.
DJ: And Rebecca Luker is as good as they get. She's so connected, she's got such deep chops, she's so right there on stage, and she's so fun backstage. I'm really fortunate. We'll see. I really like it. I really like the gig. It's nice to be working.
BB: So, like I said sometime when you get some time off, and we're not so rushed and maybe sing something for our listeners here in the studio.
DJ: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Run through all of your favorites from "Big River." Only if you're singing too though.
BB: I don't sing anymore. That's a use it or lose it tool. Well I thank you so much for coming down amid all of this craziness. I hear you're replacing some of the kids, so this has been a rehearsal period for you.
DJ: That's right. Yeah, yeah we have some new kids coming in. They're adorable.
BB: Good luck with the rest of the run.
You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 113. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.
Photo #1 by Linda Lenzi; photo #4 by Linda Lenzi
From This Author Michael Gilboe