BWW Interviews: David Burtka of BURTKA, DAVID at 54 Below
This week marks a notable homecoming on 54th Street: More than 10 years after he appeared as Tulsa in Gypsy, David Burtka is finally returning to the New York stage for two concerts at 54 Below, ending this evening.
"Being back in New York is so exciting!" Burtka exclaimed when BroadwayWorld spoke with him by phone a few days before opening night. After nearly a decade in Los Angeles, Burtka feels "alive" now that he's on the East Coast again. "It's telling, you know, because the minute I get back to New York, it's like I'm meant to be here. I immediately start working."
Career & Family
Just as he and his family settled down in New York, 54 Below invited Burtka to do his cabaret, and he was offered a role in a play...which he declined due to scheduling conflicts between the productions and the schedule of his husband, Neil Patrick Harris.
"It was just over the holidays," Burtka explained, "and it's wild, because Neil ended up taking time off for November and December. That time with the family is just so valuable. So, I thought, you know what? I don't want to be doing a play while Neil is getting to play with the kids. He's going to be going full force in the spring, and so am I, when I start rehearsals for It Should Have Been You."
While both partners will be working, they are both dedicated fathers and have an agreement that only one parent can do a Broadway show at a time. "It's a bummer for the kids, you know--eight shows a week. We only get one night a week to put them down and reading our books and 'Good Night's,'" he added. "So Neil is taking my position from [when he was doing] Hedwig. He's going to be working during the day, and I'm going to be working at night, and maybe I'll see him a couple of times in the next nine months."
Burtka feels that their personal relationship has helped their professional one. "For years, we've been each other's biggest supporters," he said. "In every relationship, you have to be a team. Not only in our real personal life, but our working life, too-if he's doing a movie, or doing a show...I'm always there with an eye of a director, and directing him and giving him notes. Letting him know what works and what doesn't. He trusts me a lot and-vice versa. I trust him more than I trust anybody's opinion.
"And he knows me more than anybody, too," Burtka continued. "In rehearsal, he's like, 'why are you making that face? I know that face.' 'What's going on in your brain?' He knows my brain, more than anybody else, so he gets it."
"I've always wanted to do a cabaret," Burtka said of his 54 Below show, noting his background in musical theater. "And then, Neil had a good idea of a show, and the concept is fairly new. Not many people have seen this sort of idea before, so that makes it a little more different, I should say, than your typical cabaret."
The structure of the cabaret, he continued, is his homecoming, from Broadway to Los Angeles to a new career direction in the culinary world and back again. "I go into that, and stories of Gypsy and stories about Neil and I, from the past," he said. "I'm doing some old standards from when...I was in a cabaret class with Joan Morris at the University of Michigan." His selections for the show include everything from the 1920s through the 1990s, he continued, including numbers by Harold Arlen and Scott Alan. The Alan song, "Good Night," is used to illustrate the story of Burtka's mother's battle with cancer. "The lyrics are really poignant, in terms of saying goodbye, and seeing you on the other end," he said. "There are some serious moments, but there some comedic moments. Hopefully, people will find it very enjoyable.
"You know, it's really about embracing my homecoming. Embracing the theater and embracing what I haven't done in a really long time. It's really exciting for me to be debuting there and to hit the ground running with a one-man nightclub act."
The show is also a reunion of sorts for Burtka and his Broadway Dainty June from the 2003 Gypsy revival, Kate Reinders. When asked about his memories of the production, Burtka becomes enthusiastic. "Gypsy was a great production," Burtka said. "It was really to be involved with a lot of really great, amazing actors, not just musical theater people, but people who are in a lot of straight plays, which is great. And, working with Sam Mendes was a dream come true. He's unbelievable as a director."
Now that Arthur Laurents is no longer around, Burtka feels a bit safer discussing how the production changed from the initial concept to the opening night: "It was supposed to be a lot dirtier, and a lot more raw and sleazier. A little bit more like what Cabaret was," he recalled. "Arthur Laurents and Sam Mendes didn't really get along that well." Laurents cut many moments from the production and prevented Mendes from exercising control, he added. "We were all proud of it, of course, but it wasn't necessarily what Sam envisioned. And Arthur does his own version of it, which is very interesting But, that's all I'm going to say about that."
Burtka's cabaret debut sold out in the first week tickets went on sale. While his schedule is booked for the next several months, he hopes to do another run at the venue--and possibly beyond. "Feinstein's in San Francisco wants me to do it. A group in L.A. wants me to do it. It's difficult. Seth Rudetsky's in high demand, and he's been amazing, too...He's had so many great ideas, 'cause he's worked on these quintessential cabarets. And it's great to get perspective from him, sort of taking the idea, and making it new."
So how does it feel to be back in New York's theater scene after a decade away? "It's like working a muscle," he said after a long pause. "Having to, like, get back in shape. So that's been probably the big challenge; making sure I do my breathing exercises. Singing every day and making sure I'm strong for when the actual show comes about."
From This Author Jena Tesse Fox