BWW Interview: Brian Shepard: I Never Had a Fallback
Replying to a question about how he has chalked up such an impressive performance roster, Broadway triple threat actor Brian Shepard, who plays Cosmo Brown in Maine State Music Theatre's new production of Singin' in the Rain, smiles and says," Good fortune, a lot of hard work, and I LOVE this! I am doing what I have always wanted to do. It was this or bust. I never had a fallback."
Shepard's dedication and determination to pursue a career in musical theatre began at a very early age and came as a bit of a surprise to his family in the small town of Rochester, Michigan. "No lie," he recalls, "it was really the movie Singin' in the Rainthat sparked it all for me. It was like a light bulb that went off. It was one of the first things I ever saw where people broke into song or started tap dancing. For me the feeling was 'Wow, people do this! This exists in the world!' And I knew I wanted to dance."
Shepard notes that his family had no background in theatre at the time, but they were very supportive and by now, "They are very, very savvy about theatre. My Mom helped me find a really good dance school. They put me in the boys' class, but it was too easy. I said I wanted a harder class, so they put me in with the girls and I really learned to tap." By high school Shepard had become "really serious about it." Not only was he studying dance, but he began to train in voice and he "listened to every cast album" he could get his hands on.
He matriculated at Oklahoma City University as a dance major and performed at Wichita Music Theatre in the summer. Upon graduation, he immediately was cast in Peter Pan, a gig which gave him his Equity card and which included the national tour as well as a holiday engagement in New York that was so successful it transferred to the Gershwin Theatre. "That was it! I was off and running!"
Other high profile engagements followed including the original Broadway cast of Spamalot, and Broadway turns in Guys and Dolls, Young Frankenstein, Follies, and Something's Rotten, as well as a great deal of work at leading regional theatres. In recent years he has also put together a joint master class with his wife, Amy Spanger, and they have toured high schools, dance studios, and other performance training programs. "It's a way to give back a little," he says, "and I do enjoy working with kids when they are enthusiastic, dedicated, and really interested."
Shepard maintains, however, that Cosmo Brown remains his dream role, and he relishes this opportunity to play the character for the first time at Maine State Music Theatre, after having also done the part at the Fulton and Maltz Jupiter Theatres for director/choreographer Marc Robin with Curt Dale Clark as his Don Lockwood. Shepard recalls how he booked the role the first time. " Marc was doing it at the Fulton, and he lost his Cosmo with only two weeks to go. He held a dance call in New York, and that's how we met I was so grateful to be cast."
Of the character of Cosmo Brown, Shepard says he appreciates most the way the relationship among the trio of Don, Cosmo, and Kathy develops. "You know Cosmo and Don are old friends from the beginning because you get to see how they scrapped their way through show business from the bottom up in the "Fit as a Fiddle" montage. They have come up the hard way. Then you watch Don fall in love and what that does to his friendship with Cosmo and how Cosmo makes room and they become a trio of friends."
Shepard sees the film of Singin' in the Rainas so beloved because "It has so many classic sequences that are song and dance moments: Gene Kelly leaning on the lamppost, 'Make 'Em Laugh,' and I love 'Good Morning.' The show has so many iconic, clean, beautiful moments all in one ninety-minute movie." And he believes that MSMT's production successfully translates the movie magic into stage enchantment. He gives the example of Robin's staging of "Make 'Em Laugh," Cosmo's bring-down-the-house number. "Donald O'Connor [the movie's Cosmo] is amazing with the slapstick. What he does with his body is spectacular. There also is a lot of pulling faces which you can't quite do on stage because the audience can't see your face all that well. S you have to find ways to draw them in, to make it a little bigger. Everyone always asks me if I am going up the wall. Well, I'm not! I have to do it [the number] eight times a week, and it has to be done in a way that doesn't destroy the set. But we have a fun idea that I think people will like, and it will be a surprise."
Of Marc Robin's vision for Singin' in the RainShepard says, "Marc is working really hard to incorporate all those beautiful iconic images and songs and to keep the staging as cinematic as possible. He does a really good job of highlighting those moments people like to remember and then speeding along to the next thing. It all feels like an embarrassment of riches." Of the choreography itself, he says it is "inspired by the movie and integrates all the steps and pictures people want to see, but it is also tailored to our individual strengths. He knows I have a strong dance background, so he has included quite a few little elements that are challenging and fun." As to his personal method of learning the numbers and making them seem effortless, Shepard says, "For me it comes down to working each moment over and over again so it looks improvised, but it is really painstakingly worked out. I think the secret to that kind of comedy is having the precision. It's like juggling. You do it until it is IN your body." And Shepard concedes with a laugh that "It comes with the territory for Cosmo to get banged up a great deal because I am always jumping up and falling down and getting hit in the face with heavy objects."
Yet despite these occupational hazards and the lightning speed with which MSMT puts up a production, Brian Shepard says he is having a wonderful experience at the theatre. "I am blown away by the army of talented young interns and by the organization and enthusiasm of everyone in the company. It is impressive how efficiently run [things are]." And he says he is delighted to be part of the magic of the theatre's Diamond Jubilee and thinks "Singin' in the Rainis a fantastic choice to closeout this anniversary season. "This is a classic, and it will end the season on a really high note. There is something about having it rain on stage and having this guy sing about being in love that is so universal, so wonderful, so magical! It gets people all the time. It sounds simple, but it is pretty special!"
Photos courtesy MSMT, Roger S. Duncan, photographer
Singin' in the Rainruns at MSMT"s Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME from August 8 - 25, 2018 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769