Backstage at the Tonys with Neil Patrick Harris, Audra McDonald and More Winners
At the 2014 Tony Awards, the main show was on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, but there was plenty of excitement in the press room as members of the media plied the newly minted winners with questions. We asked many of the Tony recipients what advice they might give their 15-year-old self.
Mark Rylance, winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Twelfth Night, said “My younger self was in trouble so I would tell him to find a way to talk to people.” In contrast Neil Patrick Harris, Best Actor in a Musical for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was in a better place at that age, “I was pretty proud of my 15-year-old self,” he explained. “I was just cast on a big TV show [Doogie Howser, M.D.] and I’m glad that path has led me to the theater which is such a different media than TV.” He went to tell of seeing his first Broadway show. He had a role opposite Whoopi Goldberg in the film Clara’s Heart, and the producer flew him and his family to New York, and they went to see Les Miserables on a day off from filming. The experience changed young Harris’ life and he fell in love with the musical theater. His co-star Lena Hall, who won for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, would say to her younger self, “I would say stop stressing out so much. Take the time to figure what you want most. Once you find it, you will eventually get there. Until then you will be lost.”
Carole King accompanied Jessie Mueller who won a Tony for portraying the iconic singer-songwriter in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. She explained she learned about her young self through watching Mueller’s performance. “I didn’t learn anything new about my songs but I learned new things about myself,” King said. “At that age I had no idea about myself, but now I learned to see it with such clarity thanks to Jessie who found all this on her own. We were saying to each other earlier, we’ve giving each other a gift, and it’s such a gift to see myself through Jessie.”
James Monroe Iglehart, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Aladdin, confided that he “would tell him [his younger self] to stop complaining and study harder. If I had, there are hills and valleys I would not have gone through. But because of those hills and valleys I’m here tonight, so I guess I can’t complain. But because I didn’t study, my math is terrible. I’m bad at giving tips in restaurants. I’m lucky I married a scientist.” The jovial Iglehart broke up the room by revealing that to celebrate his win he and his wife would go to McDonald’s, elaborating that a trip to the fast food franchise is how they mark big occasions. “It keeps us humble,” he explained. “We get a Big Mac and fries. It shows us this is still real life” He went on to put the journalists in stitches by saying that his next goal after winning a Tony and Drama Desk Award was to be “People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive with no abs whatsoever.”
Many of the actors were asked how they built their award-winning characterizations, particularly when the roles were so different from themselves. Audra McDonald, who usually plays soprano parts, revealed she found the key to conveying the rough-voiced legendary and tragic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, through memories of her own grandmother. “Six months into rehearsal, I found tapes of Billie talking with her band members,” McDonald related, “and she sounded remarkably like my grandmother. When I was a little girl I used to imitate her to her face, so that was how I found Billie’s speaking voice.”
A significant trend among Tony winners was playing members of the opposite sex. Lena Hall said she would observe men in the street to research how to portray Yitzhak, Hedwig’s Croatian-Jewish husband. “I categorized their walks,” she went on, “so I could pick the one that was best for my character. I also studied my boyfriend and his face when we had a fight so I could duplicate those expressions. I watched some Marlon Brando, too.” When asked what advice she would give to actors crossing the gender line, Hall replied, “Watch yourself in the mirror. If you are a woman playing a man, you have to edit your movements. Women are more outwardly emotional and men are stoic and keep it inside. Women tend to be a lot more flamboyant.”
From the opposite end of the sexual spectrum, Mark Rylance, who played Twelfth Night’s Countess Olivia in the Elizabethan tradition of men playing the women’s roles, related that he watched tapes of Japanese male actors enacting female roles because of their emphasis on the contrast between action and stillness. “In the early part of the play, she is mourning [for her brother], so I wanted her to have great composure and stillness like a tree to contrast with her excitement later when she falls in love.” He also explained he did a great deal of work with delicate gestures to differentiate Olivia’s hands from the grasping male hand.
Bryan Cranston, Best Actor in a Play for All the Way, read a lot of biographies of his character President Lyndon Baines Johnson, but only up until the period of the play, 1963-4. “I didn’t want to be overloaded with information.” When asked if he planned to repeat his role of LBJ in Tony winner Robert Schekkan’s sequel The Great Society, he responded, “Never say never, but I almost feel as if I just had a baby and now you’re asking ‘Do you want to have another one?’”
Future plans were another common query. Kenny Leon, Best Director of a Play for A Raisin in the Sun, said he would like to stage a play with his Raisin star LaTanya Richardson Jackson and her husband Samuel L. Jackson, possibly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? British performer Sophie Okonedo, Best Featured Actress in a Play for Raisin, will be doing The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s film adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays, with Benedict Cumberbatch. Mark Rylance hopes to do more of the Bard’s work in the original style and bring the productions to Broadway. Jason Robert Brown, winner of two Tonys for the score and orchestrations of The Bridges of Madison County, said his musical version of Honeymoon in Vegas will probably be on Broadway this fall. When asked if the composer-lyricist regretted Bridges closing before the Tonys, he replied “I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I know the show was good and it’s nice to be awarded for it.”