For 34 years (1988-2021) California-born Broadway veteran Wayne Bryan was in charge of Music Theatre Wichita, a nationally acclaimed organization known for creating large-scale musical shows while simultaneously training generation after generation of Broadway talent. How did Wayne happen to come to Wichita? And what did he think about his time here? We asked him.
This is the first of a three part interview.
Wayne Brien Smith was born in 1947, and raised in Downey, California.
His father, Elwayne E. Smith was the City Attorney for Huntington Park, California. Later in his career he focused on estates and living wills. Wayne recalls him as, “a very honorable man, and a lawyer with great integrity.”
Wayne’s parents were married in 1945 in Long Beach, California.
His mother was Carolyn Marie Bast Smith who was an elementary school teacher. She retired from teaching shortly after Wayne was born. Wayne said he, “did have her as a substitute teacher one day, and he thought it was really funny at the time.”
When Wayne went off to college, his parents gave birth to his brother Steven C. Smith. Wayne, clearly a proud brother brags on Steven’s, “two Deems Taylor Awards for his biographies of film composers Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, and is the Emmy nominated writer and producer of over 300 documentaries.” Check out Steven’s website at https://mediasteven.com/
What was the first musical you remember seeing as a kid?
“Carnival!”, it was based on the MGM film “Lili” (1953), about Lili who is befriended by puppets. I just badgered my folks to take me. It was playing at the downtown Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it was the Broadway touring company. It had two of the Broadway leads, Anna Maria Alberghetti as Lili and James Mitchell as Marco the Magnificent. According to the ticket stubs lovingly pasted into my program, my initiation into musical theatre took place on June 20, 1962, so I would have been 14
The leading man was popular singer Ed Ames, who was just wonderful in it, to my young teen eyes.
And opposite Marco is the character Rosalie the Magician, Kaye Ballard had played her on Broadway, but she didn’t tour with it. The producers found this remarkable woman that no one had ever heard of named Jo Anne Worley (pre-Laugh-In) and she was unmannered and really magnificent and really just wonderful.
What was your first non-professional performance?
It was a children’s theater production of “Rumpelstiltskin”. I was in fifth grade. I was later told by the director that I really had the best audition, but since I had never been in a show before they were reluctant to cast me as the evil elf. So, I was the second guard, (Ingert), “Who are you who come knocking so loudly at the gate of the King’s Garden?” I Just loved it, I just felt at home.
The next year, they did “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” of course not the Disney version, so all the dwarfs had different names. I was Blick, the head of the dwarfs, the equivalent of Doc.
And that year my school did “The Littlest Angel” as its Christmas show. After those three shows my folks decided I was taking this theater stuff entirely too seriously, so I was not permitted to do any shows in high school.
I was in the debate squad, and I played trumpet in the band. So, I got a little music and I got used to being in front of people. And then I went to college and played in the marching band. The band leader was the musical director for the Downtown Civic Light Opera. They were looking for a Rolf for their “Sound of Music,” I was 17 and my grandfather was German, so I looked the part and they had me come audition for it.
And it turns out I could carry a tune. After that it was just one show after another.
Tell me about the Navy and how that led to Broadway.
After college, it was 1968, and we were fighting in Vietnam. So, like my dad, a Naval Officer in World War II, and the Korean Conflict, I joined the Navy instead of being drafted into the Army.
I had a three-year commitment which I thought would just be three lost years out of my life.
I was stationed with Beachmaster Unit One at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, and spent half of my Navy time serving overseas in the Pacific. But when I was in town, the Navy didn’t care what I did with my evenings, so I started singing in nightclubs in downtown San Diego. I also started working with the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park in San Diego.
It was like MTWichita, it was a mix of equity and non-equity people, so you could work there and be a volunteer. And if you showed promise, you’d be hired for a show. So, I did a couple of shows, as a community theater actor and then they hired me to do the Woody Allen role in “Play it Again, Sam.”
The next summer, right after I got out of the Navy, I and three other actors did a long running show called “Beyond the Fringe.”
It was a British musical revue which originally starred Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. I earned my Actors Equity membership card that summer at the Globe, and then headed up to Los Angeles to see if I could make a living in theater, since I now had some credentials.
Who were your mentors?
The first person who saw my performing and said, “I think you’re going to work in this business… Let me know how I can help,” was the choreographer for “The Carol Burnett Show,” Ernie Flatt. Ernie’s partner in life was visual artist Bill Arms, and it happened that Bill’s sister Dawn Daniel was my leading lady in “Play It again, Sam.”
So, Ernie and Bill came down to see the show at the Old Globe and were complementary to me. Although I still had a year left in the Navy, Ernie said, “If you ever want to come watch a taping of the Carol Burnett Show, just give me a call. You can stay at my house. We can go in to work together, and the whole process takes about a week.” I wondered if this were some sort of inappropriate proposition, but it absolutely was not. He was just the classiest, greatest guy, so I took a week’s leave and stayed in Ernie and Bill’s home in Beverly Hills. I could have stayed with my parents in nearby Los Angeles, but then I would have missed all those mornings over coffee with Ernie, asking about his amazing career at MGM with Gene Kelly, and on TV with Garry Moore and Carol Burnett. The amount I learned that week was truly remarkable.
And it was also amazingly educational to watch the Burnett Show machine do its business. On Monday they would do a read-through of the sketches, and decide which ones needed to stay or go away, and which ones needed to be tweaked. The musical numbers would have been decided on the Friday before, so orchestrators could start working on them. Ernie would teach the dances to the ensemble, and if they had a guest star like Ken Berry, who was a dancer, they’d have his number staged right before lunch on the first day. That allowed Ken to ask questions and polish up the routine.
I watched as each day the new elements were added, like the camera blocking, and then the costumes and props. On Friday they taped it twice, in front of two different audiences. They would take the best parts of each show for airing, with no additional retakes. It it had to be performed like a live stage show. I think I had been at MTWichita for at least a decade before I realized how much critical information I had gained that week. I saw that, if nobody panics, and all the departments are capable, when you allow talented people to do what they do, the whole piece can come together with joy and excellence.
Toward the end of my Navy time, NBC-TV announced that the Hallmark Hall of Fame was going to produce a TV special of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I felt I needed to be seen for this project, since I had been playing Snoopy around San Diego, performing his “Suppertime” routine.
In fact, I had won The All-Navy Talent Contest in 1970 with my Snoopy routine. So, when I learned about the upcoming TV special, I went to Los Angeles and called NBC studios from a pay phone, asking for an audition.
They said any actor submissions had to come through an agent, and of course I had none, so I called the only person I knew in the business, Ernie Flatt. I told him, “They won’t let me audition for this part unless I have an agent. Do you know any agents?” And he immediately said, “I haven’t had one for a long time, but I’ll call some of the people that have been on the Burnett Show, just stay where you are.” Within 20 minutes he called me back at the pay phone. He had tracked down an agent who was willing to see new clients, and set me up for an appointment. I didn’t ultimately get to audition for Snoopy, but Ernie’s immediate reach back and his going out on a limb for me meant a lot.
Ernie also worked on getting me a part on the Burnett Show, and on a night club act with comedienne Ruth Buzzi, but those projects did not work out. Instead, that fall I earned my Screen Actors Guild card filming an episode of the new series “M*A*S*H.”
Then, in 1973, I had a chance to audition in Los Angeles for an upcoming Broadway revival of “Good News.” I prepared to sing my usual audition song for producer Harry Rigby. But on the way to the audition, I remembered an obscure song called “Never Swat a Fly,” which had been written by the songwriters of “Good News” for a 1930 science fiction movie musical called “Just Imagine.”
En route to the audition I thought, “Oh, my gosh, that song would be the perfect way to signal to these people that I understand the era,” since it was the kind of goofy song that a comic sidekick would sing in the 1920s, and that’s the kind of role I was auditioning for.
So, without proper sheet music, and without any rehearsal, I sang “Never Swat a Fly” for producer Harry Rigby in my Los Angeles audition at the Debbie Reynolds’ Studio.
“That’s wonderful!,” exclaimed Mr. Rigby, “You need to sing it for the director Abe Burrows in New York,” and a New York audition was scheduled for me. I told Ernie about the upcoming opportunity, and he said, “They’re going to want you to dance in this show, so let’s work out something.” I drove out to Ernie’s avocado ranch, where he was spending the weekend, and he staged “Never Swat a Fly” for me. I’m not really a trained dancer, but he made it look like I could dance. I can move and imitate, and I looked good doing it, so I did the routine in New York, and got the job. And they added “Never Swat a Fly” into the show for my character to sing.
Until his death in 1995, Ernie stayed a good friend. He even came to Wichita to see our productions of “Mame” and “Anything Goes,” because Toni Kaye, one of his favorite dancers from “The Carol Burnett Show,” starred in both of them.
My other great mentor was Craig Noel, who ran the Old Globe Theater for many years. He was my first director, in “Play It Again, Sam” and “Beyond the Fringe.” I felt at the time that he was wonderful, but after working with dozens of directors in other situations, it made me truly appreciate what a consummate, smart, fun man he was. Whenever I take on the role of director, I try to emulate all the qualities I loved about him. When I later became a producer at MTWichita, I would still call Craig for advice.
What was the theater community like during the AIDS crisis?
In many ways the AIDS epidemic was like the recent pandemic, overwhelmingly frightening and paralyzing. No one understood what caused it or how to treat it, and no one could predict who might be its next victim. One main difference, however, was that while COVID struck all levels of society, AIDS seemed to target specific groups, especially gay men, who then became increasingly marginalized and discriminated against.
It was very frightening to see one group of people being wiped out by some mysterious force, which no one saw coming and no one knew how to deal with. For the first many months of the crisis, you saw your colleagues getting sick, and then you would read their obituaries and go to their memorial services. These were often people you had worked with, or had been involved with on some project. Sometimes they were well established professionals in the industry, but other times they were promising young hopefuls, just starting to find meaningful lives and careers. Wonderful looking young people would develop sores on their bodies, and suddenly be thrown out onto the street by their landlords and disowned by their parents. The healthy folks wanted to be supportive, but everyone was scared because nobody knew what was causing it. It was a really terrible time, especially in New York City where the disease seemed everywhere.
In those days, you would open weekly “Variety” magazine, and the obituaries in the back pages would include names you knew. It a very frightening era.
It was a very ostracizing time within the entertainment industry. If actors were known to be gay, they were sometimes not hired for jobs, because their co-workers didn’t want the danger of having a gay person around. Whether they were healthy or not, the discrimination worked on many, many levels. Ultimately AIDS wiped out a whole generation of creators, writers, choreographers, directors, cinematographers, art directors, who simply disappeared and were just not there anymore.
It was the theater community that started turning the tide. Well-known actors like Elizabeth Taylor came forward to speak out, and start raising money for research. Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS became a massive force in terms of fighting discrimination, and providing significant financial and emotional support for those affected. These remarkable efforts continue to this day.
To donate to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, or to learn more about the organization click on the link in the picture to the left.
Tell me about your personal life.
I am living in Rancho Mirage, a suburb of Palm Springs. I’m married to Mark Madama. We met in 1979.
We were together for ten years in New York before the Wichita job called. Mark then became a professor of musical theatre at the University of Michigan, a job he loved and from which he just retired. Because we both had jobs we enjoyed that were specifically tied to diverse physical locations, we lived in different time zones for over 30 years. We were married in 2015. He’s a really good guy, we’ve been together 44 years. In addition to being a marvelous teacher, Mark is also an award-winning stage director, and MTWichita was lucky to have him in charge of over 50 of our summer productions.
What’s the future look like for you?
I don’t know, I felt it was definitely time to hand over the reins in Wichita, and I don’t regret that, and Mark knew it was time to leave the University of Michigan and he doesn’t regret it. He’s found a community of tennis players out here, he’s still teaching musical theatre, and he has several other projects that he is working on.
As for me, time will tell. I don’t expect to be put in charge of another theatre, at my age. And with our industry focused on bringing new creative voices to the table, I probably will not often be asked to serve as a guest director. As a performer, however, who knows? My singing voice is still in good shape, and I have my acting resume updated, with new headshots that reflect the way I look today. If there’s a theater that needs Will Rogers’ dad somewhere, that might be fun and I have an agent in New York who is submitting me for TV roles.
I’ve been asked to put together a musical show for our big local theatre, the McCallum, in 2024. That’s fun to think about.
I might write. I have all my research from the tour and Broadway run of “Good News,” which really was an epic disaster — terrible choices made, suspicious fires, colorful personalities, plus a menagerie of odd animals! I’ve told stories about it for years, but it would be fun to get it down in writing. I believe it’s the kind of theater story that anybody interested in musical theatre would enjoy reading. Plus, it has a redemptive ending, thanks to Music Theatre Wichita presenting a new version of the show 20 years after Broadway, entirely rewritten by Mark and me.
“Good News! – the Wichita Edition” is now the officially licensed version of the show, and it’s received over 300 productions in the U.S., United Kingdom, and Canada, plus an internationally acclaimed cast album.
Of course, the future also involves taking care of my health. When I returned to Wichita in August, I had a heart attack, which was a complete surprise, since we really didn’t see any warning signs. I had just gotten over COVID, and had taken a tumble at home, and so I was physically sore when I got to Wichita. I didn’t think it was anything particularly serious or problematic. And then suddenly, after three days in rehearsal for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” I had burning in my chest, and aching in the arms. Thirty hours later I had quintuple bypass surgery.
Now I’m back in California, feeling rested and energetic. Three days a week, I go to physical therapy, which I’m really enjoying. The ticker seems to be doing fine, and it all feels like it happened to someone else. I am very grateful.
In terms of finding something that really sustains and challenges me that is the big search for this fall and beyond.
Wayne’s mother, Carolyn passed away in 1994.
Elwayne remarried, “a wonderful lady named Carol Lee.”
They moved to Wichita and lived happily for another 15 years, until Elwayne passed away at the age of 95.
Wayne is back in California now. His brother and sister in law also recently moved to the area.
If you didn’t do music theater, what would you do?
I was accepted to law school. And my dad was a good and honorable lawyer, and I always found that there was nobility in that, if done properly. It’s what I was programmed to do, but I kind of feel I would have veered away from it into something in the arts anyway. Whether it would have been getting into television in some way, I don’t know. I would have had to have something for this artistic outlet.
I don’t know if I’m gifted in the visual arts, but I may take up the paintbrush and see. I’m 75, and I figure I could be nearing the end, but I feel like I have another decade to make a contribution somehow, maybe volunteerism.
Check out Wayne’s World II: It’s Party Time
Check out Wayne’s World III: It’s Excellent