Before he was cast in the Broadway revival of Follies, actor Danny Burstein had never seen Stephen Sondheim's famous musical, which first hit the Broadway stage in 1971. And he didn't know much about the show, except that everyone in the theater world seemingly had an opinion about it.
"Everyone thought it should be this way, or everybody thought it should be that way," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And it was good, because I had my own opportunity to form my own opinion about it without knowing anything about it beforehand."
The two-time Tony nominee is now playing salesman Buddy Plummer, a down-on-his-luck kind of guy who's torn between having an affair with his mistress, Margie, and staying in a loveless marriage with his wife, a former Follies chorus girl played by Bernadette Peters. Buddy openly fantasizes about what life could be like, if only he had made different decisions and married a different girl — maybe Margie or even someone else entirely.
Though some runs of Follies have portrayed Buddy as a loser, Burstein says he didn't want to play him that way.
"I don't like whiners — characters who whine on stage — and in reading the script, that's what it seemed like to me, like the character was one sad sack whiner," he says. "And I thought, 'No, he really wants something. He wants the love of his wife, and so he's fighting for that.' So lines that could be read in a very sad way instead could be read in a very positive way."
On Stage, Screen And TV
The versatile actor has played everything from a casino owner in HBO's Boardwalk Empire to sailor Luther Billis in the Broadway revival of South Pacific to a dad from Staten Island in a guest-starring role on the FX comedy Louie — in a part that was partially improvised.
"Half of [a scene I did was] scripted and half [was] just complete improvisation," he says. "And I just love that kind of thing. [Louie creator and star Louis C.K. is] very smart and likes to work quickly, and I had a great time keeping up with him."
Burstein is used to working quickly. In Follies, he sings several songs — including the song and dance number "Buddy's Blues" — at a relentless pace.
"The song just goes on and on and on," he says. "I'll be perfectly honest with you: You know that feeling you get when you run out of breath and you feel the dark curtains coming? Sometimes that happens to me during that number. Because you're just putting everything you have into that. ... It's an exhilarating feeling when you finish it."
Burstein says Sondheim even offered him some advice about the song.
"Basically [he said] just to make it as clear and specific as possible, line by line" says Burstein. "The line seems like it's going straight ahead, and then it seems like it's going to take a right and it takes a left instead."
Sondheim also gave Burstein advice on how to read his lines — and then added a few new lines to the show's script.
"He was responsible for adding little lines here and there ... that he'd always wanted, that were in the original script," says Burstein. "About a month ago I got some new lines, and happily. It's really an honor for Stephen to come in and say, 'You know what would work great here?' ... He changed one line from 'It's great to see you' to 'You look sensational.' That's one of my first lines to Bernadette, and I thought, 'Fantastic, of course he would tell her she looks sensational.' There were little things like that, that in the grand scheme of your character make a huge difference."
"I know Stephen is one of those writers that writes things for a reason — there is intelligence behind it. And I tried to get it right for him. I really believe, so strongly, in the fact that he's a genius and that his writing takes care of the actor. So basically every single night, you just try to live up to the brilliant writing."
On the song 'The Right Girl'
"It is famously a very, very difficult song for actors to do. One thing I had to do initially was separate who [I] was talking to [on stage — my mistress or my wife]. So I put the character of Sally off stage left, where Bernadette has just exited. And then the character of Margie I put out center. So my love of Margie is focused towards the audience and my anger is focused at stage left. It sounds simple, but that was a huge epiphany for me, figuring out who I was talking to in the song, because it's not always clear.
"... It was very difficult figuring out which 'Yeah' worked where. We tried many different versions of it. Stephen had us cut it in half at first and taken a lot of the dance music out. And we put all of it back in, then cut some of the dance music ... then he changed the lyric at the end. He brought in a lyric that he had put in, in London: 'You miss me / I knew it / Hey Margie / I blew it / I don't love / the right girl.' That wasn't in the script when we first started in D.C."
On the ending of the song 'Buddy's Blues'
"I thought it would be interesting if he finished the song big — reaching out to the audience saying 'Love me, love me' because no one has ever really loved [him], and then realizing that he's getting applause for something that is very empty. And I thought maybe he would just leer at the audience — because this was all a facade — and just walk off stage. But that didn't quite work. That was too heavy. So now it's just like, 'This is a sad facade. Oh well. Now I have to go back to the rest of my life.' That's the feeling that it is now, and I just sort of walk off sadly."
On Buddy's personality
"He just wants to be in a happy marriage, and he wants to have a normal type of life. But unfortunately his wife of almost 30 years has not requited his love. She's been in love with somebody else all that time — and she's grown sadder and sadder, but he still has this pipe dream that their love will somehow be all right and the marriage will be all right, even though it probably won't, sadly."
On Sondheim's melodies
"[With his lyrics,] you expect him to take a right and he takes a left. He does that with melodies as well. And actually, when you're learning the music — and I'm sure I can speak for every actor who's learned a Sondheim song — you're secretly cursing Stephen Sondheim. Because it's so damn hard to learn his music."
Related NPR Stories:
- First Listen: 'Follies (New Broadway Cast Recording)'
- Broadway's 'Follies,' Sounding As Sumptuous As Ever
- Bernadette Peters On Sondheim's 'Follies'
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Steve Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies" is back on Broadway, And the new cast recording has just been released. My guest is one of the stars of the show, Danny Burstein. Chances are you don't know his name, but he's terrific in the show, as I will soon demonstrate by playing excerpts of the new recording.
Burstein was also in the recent revival of "South Pacific," which was shown on public television. His performance was nominated for a 2008 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. In 2006, he was nominated for a Tony for his performance in "The Drowsy Chaperone."
Burstein plays a casino owner in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." He's married to Rebecca Luker, who's starred in revivals of "The Music Man" and "The Sound of Music."
"Follies" is set in an old theater that's about to be torn down, where there's a reunion of the showgirls who used to perform there decades ago in a "Ziegfeld Follies"-type review. The girls who are married have brought their husbands to the reunion. The show shifts back and forth, between the present and the past, when the girls were young and performing in the follies.
Danny Burstein plays a salesman married to a former showgirl played by Bernadette Peters. Let's start with Danny Burstein and Ron Raines singing "Waiting For the Girls Upstairs," in which they remember when they first started dating the showgirls who became their wives.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING FOR THE GIRLS UPSTAIRS")
DANNY BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hey, up there, way up there, what do you say, up there? I see it all. It's like a movie in my head that play and plays. It isn't just the bad things I remember: It's the whole damn show.
RON RAINES: (As Ben Rogers) (Singing) Waiting around for the girls upstairs after the curtain came down. Money In my pocket to spend. Honey, could you maybe get a friend for my friend? Hearing the sound of the girls above dressing to go on the town. Clicking heels on steel and cement, picking up the giggles floating down through the vent, Goddamnedest hours that I ever spent were waiting for the girls upstairs.
GROSS: That's Danny Burstein with Ron Raines from the new cast recording of "Follies." Danny Burstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to talk with you. I really enjoyed your performance in "Follies."
BURSTEIN: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to be here.
GROSS: "Follies" is such a famous show, and yet you'd never seen it before. So people are probably like arriving, comparing it to the original production and to revivals and to the cast recording, and it has such a kind of lore and even mythology surrounding it.
So, how did it feel to you when you were cast and you'd never seen a production, and you had to kind of start from scratch?
BURSTEIN: Well, I knew - the one thing I did know is that everybody had an opinion about the show, and they were all different. Everybody thought it should be this way, or everybody thought it should be that way. And everybody's opinion was very, very strong, and it was good because I had my own opportunity to form my own opinion about it without knowing anything about it beforehand.
So I just - I got the script, and I just kept reading it over and over and over again, first for enjoyment, and then I tried to start to make decisions about the characters and my character's arc, which was very important to me, and tried to make it as smart as possible.
I have this weird thing that I do, I sort of - every character I play, I try to make that guy the smartest guy in the room. And I try to figure out how to do that with the character of Buddy Plummer. And it wasn't easy at first.
GROSS: Well, it's interesting you should say that because I've seen a production of "Follies" in which it was a great production, but Buddy was played kind of like a real loser. And you don't play him that way. You play him as a decent guy who's life hasn't turned out the way he would have wanted it to.
GROSS: And he's in a marriage that's not really working out, and he has a girlfriend who really isn't that smart.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: Right, well, he's got normal ideals, understandable ideals, universal ideals. He just wants to be in a happy marriage, and he wants to have a normal type of life. But unfortunately, his wife of almost 30 years has not requited his love, and she's been in love with somebody else all that time, and she's grown sadder and sadder over the years.
But he still has this pipe dream that their love will somehow be all right, and the marriage will be all right, even though it probably won't.
GROSS: Was it a conscious decision for you not to play Buddy as a loser?
BURSTEIN: Absolutely, absolutely. I have - it's sort of a pet peeve of mine: I don't like whiners - characters who whine on stage. And I tried to - in reading the script, that's what it seemed like to me, like the character was one sad-sack whiner.
And I thought; No, he's really - he really wants something. He wants the love of his wife, and so he's fighting for that. And so lines that could be read, you know, in a very sad way, instead, could be also read in a very positive way. In really wanting something from his wife, and not just complaining about how bad life is, but telling her about it so there can be change, so they can move forward.
GROSS: Can you give me an example of a line that could be read as sad that you've made it as kind of, you know, a decent guy who wants something?
BURSTEIN: You know, it's funny you said that because I can't think of a single one at this moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Thanks for coming through for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I know it's really great to be here, Terry, take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: OK, well, let's bail ourselves out with a song because there's a great song called "The Right Girl," and you explain the context of the song.
BURSTEIN: "The Right Girl" happens at the top of Act II. he's just - my character, Buddy Plummer, has just watched his wife Sally kiss his old best friend, and they've told each other that they love each other and that they want to run away together. And she even wants to marry him.
And I watch this scene happen, and "The Right Girl" occurs right after that.
GROSS: And you're singing, in part, about your girlfriend, your mistress.
BURSTEIN: Yes. I in the middle of the song, he sings about his mistress Margie, and thinks that she is the right girl that he should marry. And then at the end of the song, he realizes that he doesn't even love - he doesn't love his mistress, and he doesn't love his wife of 30 years, who he's so convinced himself he loves all these years. And he finally is able to let her go at the end of the song.
GROSS: It's a great song, and you do it so well.
BURSTEIN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: So this is Stephen Sondheim's song "The Right Girl," sung by Danny Burstein in the new cast recording of "Follies."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIGHT GIRL")
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) The right girl, yeah, the right girl, she makes you feel like a million bucks instead of - what? - like a rented tux. The right girl, yeah, the right girl, she's with you, no matter how you feel. You're not the good guy, you're not the heel. You're not the dreamboat that sank, you're real when you got the right girl, yeah.
(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) And I got...
GROSS: And that was Danny Burstein singing "The Right Girl" from the new cast recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies."
Now, you know, the yeah that you do in that, when you've got - yeah, the right girl, that's such a loaded yeah because it sounds so affirmative, and you're in such kind of doubt and kind of despair in the song. And also musically it's like real powerful punctuation.
So when you were figuring out how to do the song, did you spend a lot of time figuring how to do the yeah?
BURSTEIN: Oh endlessly, endlessly. It is famously a very, very difficult song for actors to do. And one thing I had to do initially was separate who I was talking to. And so I put the character of Sally off stage left, where Bernadette has just exited.
GROSS: And she's your wife in this loveless marriage.
BURSTEIN: And she plays my wife. Yes, and then the character of Margie I put out center. And so my love of Margie, you know, is focused towards the audience, and my anger is focused off stage left. So that was a huge - actually, it sounds simple, but that was a huge epiphany for me, figuring out who I was talking to in the song because it's not always clear.
And then they yeahs punctuate whether you feel ecstatic and elated and all this love for Margie, or you feel anger and disappointment towards Sally, your wife who doesn't love you. It's - it was very, very difficult figuring out which yeah worked where.
It's a very hard song, and we tried many different versions of it. Steve had us cut it in half at first and taken a lot of the dance music out. And then we put all of it back in and then cut some of the dance music down. And then he changed the lyric at the very end.
GROSS: He changed the lyric? I didn't notice that.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, he brought in a lyric that he had originally put in in London: You miss me, I knew it. Hey Margie? I blew it. I don't love the right girl. That wasn't in the script when we first started in D.C. I don't even remember what the old lyric was, but that's what we have now.
And he told me when his next printing of "Finishing the Hat" comes out that that's the lyric that's going to be in there.
GROSS: Really? You know, I know the song, and I didn't realize that the lyric had been changed. I feel foolish.
BURSTEIN: Oh, no.
GROSS: But that's a really great part of it. Actually, let's hear you sing that part.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIGHT GIRL")
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hey Margie? I'm back, babe. Come help me unpack, babe. Hey Margie? Hey bright girl? I'm home. You miss me? I knew it. Hey Margie, I blew it. I don't love the right girl. Sally? I want to talk.
GROSS: That's a great part of the song because it ends on such a kind of tragic note. You've got no place to turn now. You realize you don't love your wife or your mistress.
BURSTEIN: And the song gets no applause at the end of it on purpose. That was a choice that Steve gave me. He said: Well, we could put a button on the song right there and ask for applause, or we could go straight into the scene, and I had wanted all along to go straight into the scene.
It's not - it was never meant...
GROSS: Oh that's why the scene's on the cast recording, too.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, it was never meant to open Act II. When the show was originally played, it was played without an intermission, and so having that onus on it is - it's not fair to the song, in a way. So I thought it would be better just to go right from the song. He has this epiphany that he doesn't actually love his wife anymore. After all that they've been through, he doesn't love her.
And so now he can tell her, and that's why the scene that follows is in there, as you said, and it's only after he sings that song, and he has that revelation that he can actually tell his wife that it's over.
GROSS: So when you say Sondheim said, well, I could put a button at the end, what does that mean?
BURSTEIN: That means literally a musical button that asks for the applause at the end of a song. So it could be when I'd love the girl - boom, that musical boom is a button. And it basically tells the audience it's okay to applaud.
And we decided to forego the button and go straight into the scene because it seemed to come out more naturally and more organically that way.
GROSS: So let me ask you: Say you - say there was the button, you got the big applause, would it have been awkward for you right after this character's really unhappy epiphany to have to figure out what to do while the audience is applauding?
BURSTEIN: Yeah, it's an awkward moment. You know, that's the funny thing about the show: You always have to stay in it and keep the wheels spinning in your head. We spend a lot of time offstage between scenes before leads: Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Bernadette and myself, we'll have this very emotional scene, and then we disappear for 10, 15 minutes.
And you have to keep the emotion going while you're offstage and build it to an even more heightened emotion by the time you get out there for the next scene because of the way that the show is written. It's sort of disjointed. But it all sort of comes together at the end and makes sense.
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein, one of the stars of the Broadway revival of "Follies." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." The new cast recording will be released tomorrow.
One of his songs is the show-stopper "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," also known as "Buddy's Blues." It's done like a vaudeville number, and you're kind of decked out in vaudeville clothing. You're wearing these, like, orange striped pants.
BURSTEIN: It's an incredible - yeah, it's incredible. Greg Barnes(ph), our costume designer, is amazing, and he designed this gorgeous, gorgeous striped orange costume for me with a bowler hat, and I love...
GROSS: Wait, can we mention the plaid bowtie and the plaid vest with the orange striped pants? It is really loud. It's...
BURSTEIN: Yeah, and it weighs about 25 pounds, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: Because of all the beading, I think, and the fabric is very heavy, as well. But it's a great, great look.
GROSS: And you've got to dance in that.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, yeah, I know, tell me about it.
GROSS: It's like dancing with a backpack on.
BURSTEIN: It kind of is. It kind of is. I actually said to my dresser, Phillip Rolf(ph), last night, I was wondering how much weight I lose in the second act every night.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: It's one of those shows. You know, it's really hard.
GROSS: So now what's the hardest thing about singing this song?
BURSTEIN: Dancing and singing at the same time because the song is relentless. It just continues on and on and on. And I'll be perfectly honest with you: Some more nights than not, you know that feeling where you run out of breath, and you feel the dark curtains coming?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: Sometimes that happens to me during that number, you know, because you're just putting everything you have into it and singing on top of all the movement. And, you know, you just make it through the number. And, you know, it's that exhilarating feeling when you finish it.
You know, I used to dread doing it because it's so hard, the lyrics, getting every lyric as clear as possible out there and getting the emotions out there at the same time. But now it is - you know, I look at it like this fantastic challenge, and I really, you know, get myself up for it every single night. It's so exciting.
GROSS: Yeah, you have to enunciate clearly lyrics that are sung very fast.
BURSTEIN: Very fast, and they're - each line is its own joke, so, you know, is its own little story. And that was very important to Steve that I, you know, made sure I got all those little jokes and stories out because each of them is so unbelievably smart.
GROSS: So before we hear you singing "Buddy's Blues," what advice did Sondheim give you about this song?
BURSTEIN: Basically just to make it as clear and specific as possible. That was it. I mean, you know, line by line, you're going I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues. So make sure each of those lines is as specific as possible. Know where - you know, the line seems like it's going straight ahead, and then you sort of want it to take a right, and it takes a left.
GROSS: Yeah, now that line you just mentioned, oh-God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues, there's - you're singing this to separate women, your wife, who doesn't love you, and your mistress who does but who you're always leaving.
GROSS: So that line is sung, half of it's sung to your wife, and the other half of the line is sung to your mistress, the way I hear it.
GROSS: So you have to make that clear when you're singing it, kind of like with the song you were talking about before, you have to know who you're addressing in each part of the song.
BURSTEIN: Exactly, and of course it goes at a breakneck speed. So - and you're dancing. You're doing vaudeville moves.
GROSS: Right, okay, so we've got to hear it now.
BURSTEIN: Okay, wonderful.
GROSS: So this is "Buddy's Blues," sung by my guest Danny Burstein from the new cast recording of "Follies."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUDDY'S BLUES")
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hello, folks, we're into the Follies. First, though, folks, we'll pause for a mo. No, no, folks, you'll still get your jollies. It's just I got a problem that I think you should know.
(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) See, I've been very perturbed of late, very upset, very betwixt and between. The things that I want, I don't seem to get. The things that I get - you know what I mean.
(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues, that long-as-you-ignore-me-you're-the-only-thing-that-matters feeling, that if-I'm-good-enough-for-you-you're-not-good-enough and thank-you-for-the-present-but-what's-wrong-with-it stuff, those don't-come-any-closer-'cause-you-know-how-much-I-love-you feelings, those tell-me-that-you-love-me-oh-you-did-I-gotta-run-now blues
(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Margie, Margie, Margie, Margie. She says she really loves me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) I love you.
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says. She says she really cares.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) I care, I care.
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says that I'm her hero.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) My hero.
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says I'm perfect, she swears.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) You're perfect, Goddammit.
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says that if we parted...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) If we parted?
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says, she says that she'd be sick, bleh. She says she's mine forever...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) Forever.
BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says I gotta get out of here quick...
GROSS: Danny Burstein will be back in the second half of the show. The new cast recording of "Follies" will be released tomorrow. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Danny Burstein, one of the stars of the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies." The cast recording will be released tomorrow. In the meantime, you can hear the complete recording on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Burstein was nominated for Tonys for his performances in "The Drowsy Chaperone" and the revival of "South Pacific." He plays a casino owner in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." In "Follies," Burstein plays Buddy, a salesman who's married to a former showgirl played by Bernadette Peters.
So you've told us a little bit of the advice that Stephen Sondheim gave you. It sounds like he was very active in this production.
BURSTEIN: He was very active in this production, especially when we moved to New York and he was responsible for little, adding little lines here and there, that even after we opened there were lines that were added that he'd always wanted that were in the original script. We started out with the script that Casey Nicola(ph) at the Encore's production and just basically started adding on from there. And even after we opened, like I said, about a month ago, I got some new lines. And happily, happily. It's really an honor for Steve to come in you know, and say, you know what would work great here? I was looking back at the script and this line is missing and it would be great if we were able to add that in. And he changed one line from it's great to see you to you look sensational. You know, and that's my first line - one of my first lines to Bernadette, and I thought, oh fantastic, of course he would tell her she looks sensational, you know. You know, and I thanked him for it, and there were little things like that that really in the grand scheme of your character and the arc of your character, they make a huge difference, since the script is so sparse. Little words here and there really help a lot.
GROSS: Were there questions that you had about the melodies or the lyrics that you were grateful you were able to directly ask Sondheim about?
BURSTEIN: Yeah. I mean there's always, there are always, like I said, his lyrics, you expect them to take a right and they take a left. He does that with melodies as well. And actually, when you're learning the music...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: Here's the truth, when you're learning the music - and I'm sure I can speak for every actor who's learned a Sondheim song, you're secretly cursing Steve Sondheim...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: ...because it's so damn hard to learn his music. It also takes a left when you naturally want to take a right, melodically. But you realize the music, it doesn't go to a natural note, it goes to a - that's not an E natural, it goes to an E flat, and the reason it's an E flat is because he's feeling something that's just off at that moment. And it all is so smartly written and so smartly thought-out that a lot of it just sort of takes care of itself. And then when you, you know, when you're talking to him about specific things, he is, you know, so ridiculously helpful, and also so ridiculously collaborative, much more so than you think he's going to be. And this is my third show with him, so, you know, I think I've got a sort of a good rapport with him. I mean I hope I do.
GROSS: Could you give us an example of the musical line that takes a right when you expect it to take a left and is therefore difficult to sing but very affecting?
BURSTEIN: Ah, well, if I could just go back to "Buddy's Blues." (Singing) I've those god, why don't you love me, oh you do, I'll see you later blues. (Speaking) You know, you don't want to sing that. You just don't. That (Singing) god, why don't you love me, all you do, I'll see you later, blues. That long as you ignore me you're the only thing that matters, feeling. (Speaking) It's those notes there that tell you something's wrong. (Singing) Matters, feeling. (Speaking) That lets you know, that's an indicator, that's a stop sign that says whoa. Even though it's going at a breakneck speed, you know something is not quite right and that's exactly what he is setting up.
GROSS: And to make it even harder is the orchestra sometimes heading in even a different direction?
BURSTEIN: Oh, yes. That's the genius of Jonathan Tunick, who's setting things up to go in a manic way and the orchestra has a life of its own. But, of course, together it sounds unbelievably perfect and of a piece. I can't hear all the orchestrations as I'm doing the show.
BURSTEIN: I can hear sort of where I fit in the pocket every night in the orchestra. But it was only after I heard the recording just recently that I knew, oh my goodness, all this wonderful stuff is happening underneath me. It was really wonderful to hear.
GROSS: Do you record your voice when you're learning a song and do you find that helpful or would that be too self-conscious-making to do?
BURSTEIN: Yeah, I don't do that. I...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: I never record my voice. I've never really taken singing lessons, so the sound of my voice scares the hell out of me, frankly, Terry. But I love, like my wife, she opens her mouth and her heart falls out. You know, she's one of those people, she has this voice, you know, from God. It just happens and it's beautiful. When I open my mouth, it takes a lot of hard work to get something to sound right and, you know, that's my process. But I think if I recorded my own voice, I would scare myself and never want to go back.
GROSS: Well, we should hear you sing again. So this time I'm going to play something from the cast recording of "South Pacific."
BURSTEIN: Oh, wonderful.
GROSS: This is the recent Broadway revival that was also shown on public television. It was the theater production shown on television and...
BURSTEIN: Right. Live from Lincoln Center.
GROSS: Yeah. There you go. Live from Lincoln Center. And to me this was like a real high point of the show. And it's the song "There Is Nothin Like A Dame. It's a song, I never really had much of a feeling for this song, but it's so much fun. It's just so kind of invigorating the way you guys...
GROSS: ...do it and...
BURSTEIN: It was a highlight every single night. There's something great about the sound of 20 guys singing together in unison, you know, for this eight-minute song. It just, it was very, very special and truly one of the highlights of the show.
GROSS: So this is from "South Pacific," which most people probably know is a musical that's set on a South Sea island during World War II and you guys are Navy guys. And, of course, there's only a few girls around - a few women around who were, you know, in the military with you and the men are very starved for women and for sex...
GROSS: ...as the song makes clear in its own modest way.
And this is a group song, but I want to point out the lines that my guest Danny Burstein is singing. So you're going to hear him doing what don't we got, what don't we get. And then it's him singing we've got nothing...
BURSTEIN: (Singing) Put on a clean white suit for. What we need is there ain't no substitute for.
GROSS: Yeah. There you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So here is "There Is Nothin Like A Dame."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS NOTHIN LIKE A DAME")
GROUP: (as characters) (Singing) We got sunlight on the sand. We got moonlight on the sea. We got mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree. We got volleyball and ping-pong and a lot of dandy games. What ain't we got? We ain't got dames. We get packages from home. We get movies, we get shows. We get speeches from our skipper and advice from Tokyo Rose. We get letters doused with perfume. We get dizzy from the smell. What don't we get? You know dam well. We got nothin' to put on a clean white suit for. What we need is what there ain't no substitute for. There is nothin' like a dame, nothin' in the world. There is nothin' you can name that is anythin' like a dame. We feel restless, we feel blue...
GROSS: That's my guest, Danny Burstein, with all the guys in the CDs from the recent revival of "South Pacific." A line reading I have to ask you about there.
GROSS: When you say there is no substitute for...
GROSS: And so it rhymes with white suit. And so you hold out the tute so that really rhymes with suit.
GROSS: Is that the way it's written or did you decide to do it that way?
BURSTEIN: It's actually - I don't remember. I'll have to go back and look at the music. Some people do it and some people don't. But I think I just sort of grew up with that in my head. It must have been, I must have stolen it from Ray Walston, from the movie. I'm imagining that's what he did. But I love that line reading. It's just, it's so smart and funny. I basically tried to throw in as many old famous character actors that I could into my performance.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: I basically stole that performance from everybody, you know, so...
GROSS: You know who it made me think of? Stubby Kaye.
BURSTEIN: Yeah. Of course.
GROSS: Because he has such a big, big hearted voice.
GROSS: And you sound so much like you should be in "Guys And Dolls" in this.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And I love that show, so that's a real plus for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: Oh, thanks. Thanks. Yeah. I loved all those old character actors and so I just basically stole as much as I could from them. Even, you know, old comedians like George Burns. I love the way he used to sing. You know, oh, the woman is so beautiful.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: And he would go down at the end of his lines. I threw some of that in there too. You know, I just try and listen to different sounds and steal as much as I can, because those guys were the originals and they would be the guys who would sort of influence that character back then in 1941, so it sort of made sense to me.
GROSS: So was "South Pacific" an important show for you when you were growing up and first falling in love with musicals?
BURSTEIN: Absolutely. I loved – I loved, loved the movie, and that was a huge influence on me. I loved movie musicals, but - and I listened to, my parents had the recording of Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald doing "Oklahoma."
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: And I'm imagining what's there in my parent's foyer. And also "Finian's Rainbow," a City Center recording of "Finian's Rainbow," and I grew up listening to a few of their cast albums. But I just loved musicals because I just happened to love musicals. I never saw myself doing musicals, ironically. When I got into the business, I sort of - I saw myself becoming the next sort of...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURSTEIN: The aspirations of youth. I saw myself becoming the next Marlon Brando, you know, an actor like that. And that's where I was pointing myself and my career, even though there was no career at the time. But that's where I wanted to go. And then musicals just sort of came into my life. And my mom can sing and so I thought, well, if my mom can sing, you know, she sounds pretty when she sings, I'll bet I can sing. I just started, you know, singing and going to auditions and it's, the whole thing is one big fluke that I turned out where I am. But I tried to do a little bit of everything. I try to do musicals. I tried to do dramas and, you know, very, very different things.
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the Broadway revival of "Follies." The cast recording will be released tomorrow. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies." The new cast recording will be released tomorrow.
You mentioned that you first expected to be a dramatic actor.
GROSS: So this is a good opportunity to hear a great dramatic scene, and it's from the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," the series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, and its stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, who controls the bootleg liquor in Atlantic City during Prohibition. And you play a casino owner named Lolly Steinman. So here's the scene I want to play. Nucky is your source for liquor and you have to make payoffs to him. And in this scene the supply and the delivery of alcohol has been kind of slow because Nucky's under attack from other gangsters and from the feds. So one of Nucky's henchmen show up at your casino, coming to collect the payment from you, and when you hand him the envelope he notices, as he puts it, the envelope is light. And here's him talking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Damien) So what am I supposed to tell Nucky?
BURSTEIN: (as Lolly Steinman) Tell him I don't know. And you can ask him why I had to higher this Mick when I ain't got no booze to sell.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Damien) You're evading the issue, Lolly.
BURSTEIN: (as Lolly Steinman) Let me tell you about the could casino business, Damien. People gamble. They lose. They get mad. So we give them free drinks so they keep gambling. Sometimes they win. They get happy, so we give them more free drinks. Then they're drunk so they gamble even more and eventually they lose it all. Next night they come back and do it all over again. So the whole (bleep) equation depends on what? Alcohol.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Damien) You just got a load last month.
BURSTEIN: (as Lolly Steinman) Of the cheap (bleep). The swill, and I'm even running low on that. The rollers want the good stuff. We ain't got it, they play someplace else.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Damien) It's hard, Lolly. Nuck's fighting for his life.
BURSTEIN: (as Lolly Steinman) We're all fighting for our lives. He wants fat envelopes? I'm going to need the booze from him. Or from somebody else.
GROSS: That's my guest Danny Burstein in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire." Now, you grew up in New York City and watched...
GROSS: ..."Million Dollar Movie," in which they showed a lot of old movies.
BURSTEIN: I did. Yeah.
GROSS: And I know they used to show a lot of like James Cagney Prohibition era...
GROSS: ...movies there. Did you channel some of what you'd seen in those old movies into your role on "Boardwalk Empire"?
DAN BURSTEIN: Oh, sure. Sure. The guy - Lolly Steinman is very much of that ilk and also is very much of - from my neighborhood in the Bronx. People, you know, had those thick strong accents and, you know, there were somehow connected. You know, I always had that feeling that they were all connected to the mob somehow growing up. You know, they all had this great New York flair and I just sort of tried to channel that every single time. I love the New York sound.
I love the whole New York experience. Growing up here, it's given me so many opportunities and, you know, I feel like I steal, every chance I get, from my past.
GROSS: I want to play a scene that you were in from a TV show that's shot in New York. The show is "Louie" and it's one of my favorite shows. And it's a show that's written and directed by and stars the comic Louis C.K. and this was an episode from the first season. And in this episode, Louie's in a diner on a date when a group of high school students come into the diner and they start making a lot of noise and bothering everybody.
So Louie gets up and asks them if they can just keep it down and one of the kids, Shawn, threatens to beat him up. So Louie secretly follows this bully home to Staten Island, rings the doorbell and tries to explain to the parents, like, you know, your kid's a bully and you should know this. And Louie speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
LOUIS C.K.: (as Louie) Hey, look, nothing happened to me. I'm OK, but it was scary, you know. I'm not a fighting guy. I'm 42. I got children. I'm not going to get in a fight with somebody. But look, he threatened me and that's illegal.
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) Sean, get down here. Sean.
MICHAEL DRAYER: (as Sean) What?
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) Get down here.
MICHAEL DRAYER: (as Sean) Oh, man. What, what, what, what?
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) You bothering this guy?
DRAYER: (as Sean) What the hell?
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) What did you do?
DRAYER: (as Sean) What the hell are you doing here?
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) What did you say to him?
DRAYER: (as Sean) Listen, I don't know what this guy told you, but...
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) What did you say to this guy?
C.K.: (as Louie) Stop hitting him. How do you think he turned out like this?
BURSTEIN: (as Sean's father) What are you talking about? He's no good.
C.K.: (as Louie) Oh, don't say that. He's your kid. He probably could've been a good kid. He's obviously smart, but what will - how - you teach him to just hit people. What was he going to be, but a stupid bully?
GROSS: So that's my guest Danny Burstein with Louis C.K. in a scene from the first season of "Louie." How did you get the part in this episode of "Louie?" Do you know Louis C.K.?
BURSTEIN: I don't know him at all. I just went in and auditioned for it like any other actor goes in and literally by the - which - and this rarely happens. By the time I got home after the audition, my agent had left a message saying that they wanted me for the part. And "Louie" is shot in a way that I sort of like to call guerilla television. He just sort of walked into the room and introduced himself and he said, I think we're going to sort of do it this way.
And we all sort of looked at him and said, OK. And he walked out of the room and five minutes later, there was a knock on the door and there he is with the lights and camera over his shoulder and he was going. And we had no idea that the scene had started.
GROSS: You're kidding?
BURSTEIN: No. We just went. And then there was a lot of improv and a lot of thinking on our feet, changing things around, changing blocking. And we took it from there. We basically did that 14 times in a row, just kept changing things and changing things and honing it and making it better each time. And then, there's a scene that immediately follows the one you just played where he and I are sitting on the steps and half of it is scripted and then the other half is just complete improvisation.
And I believe they took the first take of that scene because, you know, it just was so spontaneous and worked so beautifully. But I love that kind of thing. He's very smart, obviously, and very bright and likes to work quickly. And I had a great time, you know, just keeping up with him, and that was enough for me. And making him laugh every once in a while was also a highlight. I think stand-up comics are pretty amazing people.
They're brilliant and I have a great affinity for them.
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the Broadway revival of "Follies." The new cast recording will be released tomorrow. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies." The new cast recording will be released tomorrow. So we were talking a little earlier about working with Sondheim. You've been in three Broadway or off-Broadway Sondheim musicals, "Company," "Merrily We Roll Along," and now "Follies."
GROSS: But the first time you did "Merrily We Roll Along" was a local production when you were in your teens.
BURSTEIN: Yeah, I was in college. I was 18 and I was going to Queens College and my professor, Ed Greenberg, a wonderful director and professor in his own right, and he was also a producer. He produced at the St. Louis Muni; amazing man. He was directing "Merrily We Roll Along" at Queens College and cast me as Frank in that production, and I was just 18.
GROSS: And this is Franklin Shepherd who's the leading character and he's a songwriter who starts off with really pure ambitions and becomes more, like, cynical and commercial as time goes on. But the story's kind of told chronologically in reverse order.
BURSTEIN: Exactly right.
GROSS: So now I read this. Tell me if it's true, that when you were in this college production, you actually wrote Sondheim and asked him for some advice.
BURSTEIN: I did. I did. I wrote him a long letter, a very, very long letter.
GROSS: What did you say in this letter?
BURSTEIN: Oh, god. I asked him all the questions about the show, how it came to be and what about the character, what the key to playing his character was, and so many questions. And he wrote me a letter back saying, all these questions, my goodness, you know, I'd have to write a letter the size of "War and Peace," and I simply don't have the time for that right now. But here's my phone number. Why don't you call me and maybe we can figure out a time that you can come over and we can talk about the show.
And I couldn't believe that I had this letter in my hand and that he'd given me his home phone number. And so I called him. I was, you know, unbelievably nervous and shaky on the phone, this 18-year-old kid talking to Stephen Sondheim. And he said, yeah, great, you know, in two weeks on this day at - in the afternoon, 3 o'clock we'll meet. Great. You know, and he hung up. And he gave me his address and sure enough, I walked in and Jim Lapine was just walking out as they were working on "Sunday In The Park With George" at the time.
And we sat there in his living room with a carafe of white wine for three hours talking about musical theater. And I remember having, you know, the greatest time of my life and finding it unbelievable fascinating. And, you know, that was quite an introduction to me about what it is - what it means to give back and I've been trying to do similar kinds of things my whole life because I had the best example.
GROSS: What's one of the most useful insightful things he told you about the show or about your part in it?
BURSTEIN: That sometimes there doesn't have to be a reason. There's not one specific thing that sometimes turns a life around. It can be a gradual thing and it could be sometimes something that just is. I wanted there to be a moment where Frank had some kind of an idea that his life was going in the wrong direction. And he told me not to worry about that one particular moment, that sometimes these things happen gradually and sometimes it may have even happened in a scene that was never in the show.
It happened maybe between scenes. And I kept looking for that specific moment and he actually allayed me of those - of that want and it actually helped a lot.
GROSS: So finally, what's your best remedy for a sore throat, an overused throat when you have to sing?
BURSTEIN: Gosh. I - you know what I do? I just drink a lot of hot water and honey. I drink about, I'm not kidding, easily close to a gallon a show of hot water and honey.
GROSS: But here's what I'm wondering. If you're drinking a gallon of water, unless you're really, like, sweating it out of your system, which you might very well be in a show like "Follies", you must have to use the men's room a lot during a production and you can't afford to be worrying about that if you're on stage.
BURSTEIN: You do. Actually, you - this is the real down and dirty of an actor's life. You have to time out your pees. It's absolutely true. You have to know, oh, OK, between this scene and this scene I have seven minutes so I'd have the time to run to the downstairs bathroom and then pee and then get back on stage for the next scene. And everybody does it. Nobody really talks about it, but everybody does it because you have to be, you know, overly hydrated in order to do what you do.
And of course, you know, we're all, you know, sweat like crazy and by the end of the show, you've really, you know, lost a lot of weight, I'm sure.
GROSS: Well, Danny Burstein, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for doing this.
BURSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. I absolutely love you. I'm such a huge fan.
GROSS: Danny Burstein plays Buddy in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." The new cast recording will be released tomorrow. You can hear the entire album on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.