This is the second of a three part interview with former Producing Director of Music Theatre Wichita (MTWichita) Wayne Bryan.
What’s your favorite role?
I’ve been really lucky; I’ve gotten to play some really challenging and varied roles. I would say the role that takes me on the greatest personal journey, from start to finish every night, and that requires me to bring out the best part of myself, is “The Will Rogers Follies.”
In the opening scene, the actor playing Will must take headlines from that day’s newspaper, and riff on it the way Will Rogers would have done. To pull this off, you have to steep yourself in his opinions on politics and religion and marriage, and then find those same issues in contemporary headlines, and make jokes about them
The concept of the show is that Will Rogers has been called back from the ether by the ghost of Florenz Ziegfeld to do one more edition of the Follies. My particular approach to the role includes the idea that Will has come back because he is working out one bit of unfinished business, which is it to reconcile with his father. For most audience members, this is probably a minor subplot. But for me as an actor, this gives Will a specific journey to take, with a meaningful resolution at the end. I especially loved the productions in which Nicholas Saverine played my dad (although he’s five years younger than I am!).
So, for me, “The Will Rogers Follies” is the show that always leaves me feeling ennobled, somehow. And maybe you have acquainted somebody in the audience with this really incredible American who today is largely forgotten.
But the role that is just a lark from start to finish is Bill Snibson in “Me and My Girl.” The show includes all manner of comic bits, summersaulting over sofas, swinging on lampposts, and just being a complete cut-up. When I saw it in London, I thought, “That’s the kind of show I was put on this planet to perform in.” I’ve luckily gotten to do four productions of it.
And, of course, I still love the show that illness prevented me from doing last August, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The main character is very much like Wayne in his later years, sitting at home with his records, telling stories about who was in what show and what happened to them. That’s pretty close to the bone, that one.
Who’s the biggest diva you’ve worked with?
MTWichita brought in the tour of “Camelot” starring Robert Goulet. The only reason why we did it was because our frequent leading man, Richard White, was playing Lancelot, and he wasn’t available for our season because of the tour. At that time, nobody was bringing the touring shows to Wichita, so the tour producers contacted us about bringing “Camelot” to Wichita. The tour came in and Mr. Goulet’s lengthy contract required two bottles of a certain French wine chilled to a certain degree and one had to be delivered to him for each act … even though publicly he was stating he had given up drinking. About that time, he had a very non-amicable parting with his second wife, Carol Lawrence (Broadway’s original Maria in “West Side Story”) and we were supposed to make sure none of the press asked him about Carol. So, we did make that request, but one reporter insisted on going there, and Goulet was not happy about that. It was a very tense week. And the final irony: Richard White decided to leave the tour before it came to Wichita.
On the other hand, once Mr. Goulet arrived in town he went to play golf with one of our board members and he was perfectly amicable and friendly. But we were unaccustomed to having people of that notoriety come be part of the musicals here. That’s one of the reasons we always attract great Broadway talent but not the big names who usually require entourages to travel with them, and lengthy riders with crazy demands.
Best movie musical?
“Singin’ in the Rain” is the easy answer. It’s so perfect, everything about it, start to finish, you can watch it again and again.
Movie that should be turned into a musical?
“Tangled,” which is being done on the Disney ships, but hasn’t made it to land yet. I’m also intrigued by a British Musical called, “Flowers for Mrs. Harris,” which is based on the movie, “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris,” and is a very nice topic for a musical.
Best movie about Broadway?
“All That Jazz,” in terms of really showing the inner workings of it. It’s quite cynical, but evokes a very realistic depiction of putting on a Broadway show.
There’s also a documentary called, “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway.” It’s about the 2003/2004 Broadway season, concentrating on the Tony Award rivalry between “Wicked,” “Caroline, or Change,” “Avenue Q” and “Taboo.” It gives a lot of insight into how Broadway works.
What type of music do you listen to in your car?
I’m pretty predictable, the Sirius XM “On Broadway” channel. It surprises me sometimes with some delightfully obscure songs they choose to play. I’ve also been listening to “110 in the Shade” with Audra McDonald, I hadn’t heard that one in a while.
The release of the new “Music Man” album with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster inspired me to go back and compare all the various recordings of that show.
Top three favorite Wichita restaurants:
In no particular order, Georges French Bistro, Sabor Latin Bar & Grille, and La Galette French Bakery.
What Broadway character are you most like?
The Man in Chair from “Drowsy Chaperone.”
I was present, but it didn’t happen to me. The first Broadway show I did, “Good News,” starred a film actress named Alice Faye, who had never been in a stage musical before, and she was lovely. She was really learning every day how to be better on stage, but she had a film star’s voice, not a big belty voice. This was in 1973 in Boston, and having body mics on everybody was not yet the norm. But they did put one on Alice, so you could hear her, and in those days a battery pack that powered the mic had to be hidden on your person. It was rather large, and cumbersome. And they normally hid it in the small of your back, hoping that your natural curvature would cover it. Alice had a lovely figure, full in front with a tiny waist, but she had absolutely no butt whatsoever. They tried putting the battery pack where they normally would in the small of her back, but it made her look like Quasimodo. So, they tried to hide it in the inside of her thigh, which was fine because her dresses were all more than knee length. But when she danced, it would ride up, and this very nice, modest lady would come off the stage to whoever was standing in the wings, pull up her dress and say, “Here! Can you fix this?” And you try to get it back down in place.
Well we had a promising first night, but the show was way too long. When we came in the next day, they chopped big chunks out of several things and that second night, everybody was trying to remember where the cuts were — including the sound man, who was having trouble keeping track of when the mics were supposed to be on or off. So, Alice did the title song, “Good News” and went off the stage. The next scene was in the locker room where John Payne as the coach was giving a speech. His script had been rewritten too, so he had a lot of really meaty pauses, and right in the middle of one of those pauses, everyone heard Alice’s unmistakable voice say, “Well I don’t know, but it’s dangling down there between my legs someplace!” It got a huge laugh, but of course that was a laugh that could never be repeated.
There are other moments, like in rehearsals for “Brigadoon”, Mr. Lundie’s house fell over just barely missing Mr. Dick Welsbacher.
On “Crazy for You” there is a little cart that Polly drives and some of the other singers pile on to the cart. Well, we tried to save some money and we used the cart from “Fiddler on the Roof.” But the cart for “Fiddler” was built to hold some cheeses — not three singers, so it collapsed right at the edge of the stage, the wheel went flying out into the orchestra pit. Boy, those guys jumped out of the cart, pulled it back up just with sheer grit, the audience whooped and laughed.
We’ve had a bat join the actors on stage, most memorably with Jimmy Brennan who was playing the Devil (Mr. Applegate) in “Damn Yankees.” Jimmy was alone on stage, and this bat started flying around him, so he called it Boris, and he had a whole conversation with it while it was flying around him.
Live theater has those unpredictable things about it, but our group has always planned well and managed to look out for each other.
If you’re stuck on a deserted island, what one cast recording would you want?
“Ragtime.” It’s two discs full, and there’s great variety in the music. Plus it’s so well sung, and tells such a rich story.
Who would play you in the Wayne Bryan movie?
Writer’s Note: A few odds and ends…
Wayne shared so many great stories with me that did not really fit in the format of the story, but I wanted to share a couple before the curtain call.
The 50 Grand Slam
NBC Game Show, 1976. “I won $50,000 in the category of the American Musical Theatre.”
Wayne played P.T. Barnum more than once: “I later repeated the role on the S.S. Norway Cruise Ship.”
On Broadway in 1975 in Rodgers and Hart: A Musical Celebration. “I’m with Tovah Feldshuh (currently Lea Michele’s mother in Funny Girl). Below are Virginia Sandifur and Stephen Lehew.”
The cast of “Wayne’s Place,” a TV variety hour Wayne had in San Diego in 1972. Note Julie Kavner in the center (later the TV sister of “Rhoda,” and voice of Marge Simpson).
Wayne appeared on Broadway in three different shows.
Good News (Dec 23, 1974 – Jan 04, 1975)
Rodgers & Hart (May 13, 1975 – Aug 16, 1975)
Tintypes (Oct 23, 1980 – Jan 11, 1981)
Wayne played filmmaker Mack Sennett and Ann Morrison played Mabel Normand in the TV musical Keystone in 1983.
Showtune at your funeral?
There is one song that might fit, which I happen to be singing in the MTWichita Holiday Concert. It’s an obscure Anthony Newley tune called “When You Gotta Go.”
It’s wistful without being gloomy (kind of like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and seems like it might be appropriate for a celebratory sort of funeral.
Check out It’s Wayne’s World
Check out Wayne’s World III: It’s Excellent