Gender Bending With Brian Charles Rooney
Theatergoers are accustomed to seeing roles written for one gender performed by members of the other gender. This dates back at least until Elizabethan times when all of Shakespeare's women were performed by men-more correctly, younger men. Today's audiences might find it hard to believe that the original interpreters of such famous female roles as Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Ophelia were male, but such was the case in Elizabethan Theater because the morality of the day felt it was "improper" for women to be performing in front of crowds. In more recent times theatergoers have become used to seeing Peter Pan played by the likes of Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Cathy Rigby and Sandy Duncan. They have also risen from their seats and applauded Harvey Fierstein when he portrayed Edna Turnblad in HAIRSPRAY; a feat that saw him awarded the Tony Award for "Best Actor in a Musical" in 2003. So it should come as no surprise to anyone with a background in the arts to learn that the current revival of Brecht and Weill's THE THREEPENNY OPERA has the role of Lucy Brown performed by a young man. Not just any young man, mind you, but Brian Charles Rooney, an actor with a four octave range that reaches a Soprano High A in "Lucy's Aria". In this daring interpretation of the show, Lucy Brown is actually a male-who might also live as a female as the whim strikes the character.
Meeting Brian Charles Rooney in the empty Studio 54 is a disarming experience. A good-looking fellow, he arrives at the theater a few minutes late because of problems with his subway connections. Dressed casually in a green golf shirt, jeans and sneakers, he sat down in one of the theater seats, sipped from a bottle of vitamin water, made himself comfortable and conversed happily for over an hour in a discourse that covered a variety of topics; especially Scott Elliot's controversial production of THE THREEPENNY OPERA that he is featured in.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Rooney's mother was a Ford model. His first visit to Broadway was as a guest of his grandparents. They took him to see the musical MERLIN which starred illusionist Doug Henning and Chita Rivera. It also featured Nathan Lane in a supporting role. "I remember bits of the show, especially Chita's performance. She was so powerful and commanding. However, the Mark Hellinger Theater was the real star to me. Just the whole experience of being there, in a Broadway theater, was amazing." Still, the youngster didn't get to the theater again for quite some time. "When you're growing up in New Jersey, the city is so close and yet so far away! Suburban families, for the most part, see New York City as a far away, and sometimes dangerous place. The next show I saw was PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, when I was in high school. I loved it and I still do; the overture gave me chills. I know a lot of people hate PHANTOM, but ironically that show fueled the excitement and love I had for live theater." Actually Rooney really wanted to be a doctor. "I went to Duke University and knew that I would either double major in Psychology and Drama, or just minor in Drama. I didn't think I would actually be able to pursue theater arts as a career. I had been pressured to be a doctor my whole life. I also didn't have any training. I had done a few plays in high school, but I never sang in a choir or in a musical. When I got to Duke, I discovered that the program was holding auditions for Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. I'd always sung along with the radio and CDs in the privacy of my bedroom; but I had never sung a song with piano accompaniment before, least of all a Sondheim song. I decided to audition for the show and was cast as Charlie. Playing that role was a 'baptism by fire.' I didn't read music, and one of that character's songs, 'Franklin Shepard, Inc.,' is probably one of the most difficult in the musical theatre canon. I learned it and was determined to perform it better than anyone expected me to. That determination grew quite heartily throughout college. I kept auditioning for shows, and fell more and more in love with performing; but I also grew more ambitious."
Initially Rooney went into these productions with the typical attitude of getting another lead role, but he had an epiphany when he was cast in another Sondheim show, ASSASSINS in his senior year. "I played Booth, which vocally explored the lower end of my range. I remember being onstage during the curtain call one night and wishing the applause would end. I wasn't depressed or sad in a conventional way, really, but the applause meant the show was over, and so was Booth, for the night. The curtain call was almost anticlimactic and embarrassing in a way. It was a strange feeling, but I realized that being an actor wasn't about all the superficial stuff anymore. It was about the research and rehearsal, and what I could create out of that. It was about relating to people in the audience and telling them a story - knowing that people were listening and reacting, and hopefully feeling what the writers intended for them to feel."
The young actor feels truly blessed in the Roundabout Theater's production of THREEPENNY. "If an unknown actor is fortunate enough to be cast in a Broadway show, his role is often somewhat similar to his own personality and physical appearance- at least visually - after all, casting directors, producers, and directors won't take a chance on casting a newbie in a role that, at face value, might be a stretch. Scott Elliott is one of those rare directors who has an almost supernatural instinct about a person. When I walk in a room, people see an innocent guy, and they assume I am shy... I don't think he made those assumptions... he let my work speak for itself. Now 'Lucy' and I are very different people, but there's a lot about 'Lucy' that I CAN relate to or empathize with, quite a bit actually, and that's why I'm playing him-in this version, Lucy is a 'him.' So in that sense, I was right for the part, and Scott new that, bless him! However, I don't live as a transvestite, nor have I ever performed in drag before. Obviously being able to sing the material helped too. Visually, however, Lucy and I are VERY different, and that's the kind of part that actors beg for. In this way I'm going backwards and I may have to fight when it comes to being seen by casting directors for more traditional roles. Their minds might go blank and all they will see is Lucy Brown. I think I will be rather hungry to play something a little more traditional when THREEPENNY is done... but then again, perhaps not," he chuckled.
Has playing a role with such a high tessitura affected Rooney's voice? "No," he says with a chuckle, "everyone keeps asking me that! I was actually sick the second week of previews and it didn't affect my soprano tone and range at all. I do some really high tenor belting in the ensemble stuff-high C's and D's-and that was slightly affected, as that tends to be more athletic singing, but my solo singing was fine. That was rather a huge relief!" The singer says that there are times when his range climbs up to an E, like the note Christine sings in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
Rooney discovered his incredible range when he was in college. "I would fool around when we were rehearsing a show and sing along with the sopranos. A friend of mine suggested that I was a countertenor, but I didn't know what that was. He directed me to the wife of a professor of mine, who is a Baroque opera singer. She had me vocalize and taught me a short aria from Handel's opera, SUSANNAH. It was a piece that is normally lowered for countertenors because it was written for the castrati. Countertenors can't sing it because it's too high. She told me I had the tone and ease the castrati would have had without my being a castrato." It is fairly obvious that Rooney has not been castrated to enhance his singing talents. "I think most people would agree that my voice IS rather odd... but I don't question it, I try to develop it as best I can. My voice is a gift I was given and it is my responsibility to take care of it and make the most of it."
The conversation veered toward the audition that Rooney gave for THREEPENNY. Did he know he was auditioning for a female role? "Yeah, I knew that they were casting it male but they wanted someone who could sing tenor AND soprano and could play in an early 20's age range and be convincing either male or female because they didn't know exactly what they wanted to do. The director had had an idea of what he wanted but then that changed so they wanted someone who could fill in different versions of that idea. Normally an actor comes to New York and auditions for everything. Some actors are lucky and they have the support of a conservatory, in that they are put in a showcase and given an agent. I didn't have that, so I did it the old-fashioned way, an exception to the rule you might say. I didn't have an appointment, so I went to the Equity open call. I sang 'I'm a Stranger Here,' which is a Weill song from the musical ONE TOUCH OF VENUS. I sang it as a soprano. The casting associates were pokerfaced and said, 'You sound great, Brian. Thank you.' I left feeling discouraged.
"I got an e-mail from Jim Carnahan's office two weeks later asking me to come in for a callback. I went to that and a few days later had yet another callback for Scott and the music director, Kevin Stites. I got the call 20 minutes after I had left. They did me a HUGE favor in not making me wait and wonder!!""I learned to sing from mimicking other singers," continues Rooney, "lots of high-singing men, lots of female belters and lots of sopranos. I was attracted to those voices, I think, because of my potential to sound like them. I didn't necessarily know what I was capable of though. I was attracted to the sounds and the vibrations those kind of voices create. I'm a firm believer that the frequency of a person's voice is what affects the listener. For example, I'll get onstage and sing something and people will kindly say, 'That was so moving!' or 'I cried' I can't express how moving it is to hear things like that, BUT, I don't understand what the difference is between when I do it and when someone after me does it, other than I know that I lay my heart bare when I sing for an audience. But, some singers don't have that effect on some listeners. There are some pop singers, I think, who might benefit from this too... they might not have the greatest voices but they're super-successful and people like to listen to them. I think there's something about the frequency of a singer's vibrato, or even the frequency of a speaking voice, that affects people physically and I think it's just kind of hit-or-miss. It's just a strange theory of mine."
Rooney's interpretation of the role of Lucy is that he's a "gender opportunist". He feels that "when someone perceives him as female, and it's to his advantage, then that's what he'll go with; and vice versa if he is perceived as male. Obviously Mac perceives him as female, so Lucy exploits that perception as much as he can, and manipulates Mac in return. It's obviously a dysfunctional relationship but in the context of the play it's somewhat romantic in a comic way." The original design had Rooney wearing very high platform shoes, but because of the actor's height, he was easily a foot taller than the rest of the cast when he wore them. It became a distraction and now he wears patent leather combat boots, "which makes more sense, because it's a rather 'goth' take on the character and he's a bit of an anarchist in a way and acts like he doesn't care what people think, even though he desperately does," adds the actor with a grin. "His tough and aggressive behavior is a survival technique, because he's been used by so many people his whole life."
Rehearsals for THREEPENNY started off on an odd note when Rooney was provided with a rehearsal skirt which he wore over his regular clothes. Several women in the cast were wearing them and Rooney joined their ranks. The female skirt over his male rehearsal clothes created something of a "mishmash" but it led the actor and the creative staff to a point they were trying to illustrate in this production. "We wanted the audience to relate to what Lucy's going through emotionally as opposed to what gender he is. I think that is an incredibly political statement, especially now in the United States. I think that was the penultimate reason for casting the role this way." Rooney is happy to learn that many people find themselves truly caring for the character he's created. "There's a huge reward in hearing that."
Some audiences for THE THREEPENNY OPERA have been hostile to it and Rooney is first to admit that he's seen some empty seats after intermission. He recalls a "Question and Answer" session that was held after one performance and one woman commented that Brecht wrote for the middle and working classes and she didn't see them in this production. Rooney took the microphone and responded, "It's interesting to me that you say that, because you're that character... the audience is the middle and working class... We're the ones who buy PEOPLE magazine and deify Martha Stewart when she's insider trading. We watch Nancy Grace sensationalize the misfortune of others, and allow people to lip-sync on TV or on stage, and then applaud and reward them, when they SHOULD be singing live. That stuff happens because it's PERMITTED. We're guilty of permitting those things, and that's what this show hopefully told you for the past three hours." He put down the microphone and the audience clapped. What shocked Rooney was that the woman was probably eighty years old and seemed to be demonstrating 'willful ignorance' and it made him glad that he was involved in this sort of production. "If anything it made her think or at least it made her aware of things she was already thinking about."
As conceived in this production, the character of Lucy represents issues that aren't over yet. Alternative life styles, gay marriage, transvestites and transsexuality are issues that society has only scratched the surface of. "People have a lot of thinking to do about how other people live," says Rooney, "Hopefully in our small, tiny way we do that a little bit every night. At least we try to instigate that. It saddens me that some critics commented that casting Lucy as a man was tacky or trite. I fear that those same critics might think the issues that this casting choice represents are not relevant. We mustn't become complacent. There is still a lot of hate in this world. I think we are all aware of that. Our country is suffering from the wounds caused by that hate, and what's worse is that the media does very little to assauge that suffering."
Rooney is happy to note that the cast of this show (which includes Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Dale, Nellie McKay and Cyndi Lauper) gets along extremely well and he's quick to point out that Lauper is at the top of his list. "She's been wonderful to me. She's so great and so talented and has become such a great friend. Oddly enough we have a lot of the same neuroticisms," he added with a chuckle that just might have been self-conscious, "and it has been easy to relate to her. She's been very, very supportive. We went to a diner together after a show the other day and I was sitting there talking to her about something and I started thinking, 'this is so bizarre'. This business is such a small world unto itself. Once you get into it, you meet so many people, many of them famous. I've worked with Petula Clark on something before this and a couple of other famous people in different things and initially I was a little star struck. I try to relate to people in a simple, friendly way. If we don't hit it off, I don't try to push it. I've had great luck working with famous people. I have often thought, 'what have these people been through?' The knowledge they have is so valuable because they've had a lot of opportunities. If there's anything selfish about my relationships with any of the famous people I've worked with it's that I try to listen to them and glean as much as I can from the stories they tell." The advice he's received from some of these celebrities has helped him to make various decisions in his life. "It's easy to make mistakes or incorrect assumptions about a business move." He was grateful for having the advice of those who are more seasoned in the business aspects of the profession.
When Rooney was asked what he'd like to see happen to his career in the future, he hesitates for a moment and says, "I'd like to continue playing roles like this; and that doesn't mean I want to necessarily be in drag again!" the actor remarked with a broad grin, "I'd like to be in plays and musicals, or films that require intelligent actors, directors and designers. I'd like to pursue some more comedy too. THREEPENNY isn't a comedy in the traditional sense, but my material in it is comic!" He admits that he enjoys the laughs he's getting in this production and sheepishly adds, "I'm becoming something of a laugh whore." Rooney also writes music and has a huge binder of songs that he's composed. With Lauper's encouragement, he'd like to pursue his talent for song writing and recording. He hasn't ruled out films, either. "I recently did an independent movie-musical and it was an incredible experience because it was so challenging. The technical aspects of making a film are so different from those in theater, and that appealed to the technician in me. More than anything else, I'd like to exploit the fact that I'm musically and dramatically versatile, but not spread myself too thin." His biggest goals, though, are for security and respect. "If you really want me to break it down, I want what all actors want: to survive and to burgeon."
Rooney admits that he not only "lurks" on internet message boards, but he actually posts on BroadwayWorld.Com. Recently he even revealed his true identity. "Someone mentioned that I should play the witch in WICKED because in the original novel the author suggests that she is born a hermaphrodite... this person also felt that I could sing the role, which is actually, freakishly true!" he laughed. Rooney admits he likes the idea but playing too many cross-dressing roles might cause casting directors, producers, and directors to associate him solely with these kinds of roles.
Do other Broadway performers actually engage in discussions on message boards the way Rooney does? "MANY do," he responds. "But they all hide. They lurk or they post under made up names! Everyone at BroadwayWorld has been very nice to me and complimentary. However there is one person there who was a little odd. He, or she, had some horrible things to say. That was hurtful. I'm not going to lie. I am not too proud to admit that. I think the more honest you are about these things, the more humanized you become. It's a blessing to be able to talk about theater and react to it publicly and have a voice, as long as you are respectful. When I leave Studio 54 each night after the show, most of the people waiting at the stage door don't know who I am. I'm usually in a hat and glasses and people don't recognize me, so I don't get to hear their reactions to the show or anything. So to be able to go on-line and read those reactions is great-and I do also read reviews even though they tell us not to-they're all valid opinions to me. I am a business man... I need to know how people are reacting to what I am selling," he grinned.
Once the engagement of THE THREEPENNY OPERA ends, Rooney has an act that he will be doing. "It will be late June or early July depending on my schedule and my band's schedule. Will will be performing at either Birdland or Ars Nova, depending upon the availability of the space. It's called "I Enjoy Being A Boy". The show will have a lot of different music in it because that's my thing, because I can sing in many different styles. It'll be a way to introduce myself to people who don't know me."
It is obvious that more and more people are getting to know Brian Charles Rooney. His performance in this particular musical has been discussed on the street, in the media and, of course, on theater message boards. No matter what people think of the concept of this production of THE THREEPENNY OPERA, they all seem to agree on Rooney's talent and his willingness to push the proverbial envelope even further. Perhaps in the near future there will be an envelope pushed into someone's hands and it will contain the words: "And the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical goes to Brian Charles Rooney". It couldn't happen to anyone more deserving or more affable. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The Roundabout Theatre Company's production of THE THREEPENNY OPERA is being presented at Studio 54 (254 W54th St). Perfs are Tues-Sun. Call 212-719-1300 for details. www.roundabouttheatre.org
1) Brian Charles Rooney headshot
2) Nellie McKay and Rooney in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, by Joan Marcus
3) Nellie McKay and Rooney in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, by Joan Marcus
4) Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Alan Cumming, Nellie McKay and Cyndi Lauper in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, by Joan Marcus
5) Rooney in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, by Joan Marcus
6) Brian Charles Rooney