The term "showstopper" has come to mean something special in the annals of musical theatre. While there have been plenty of powerful, high-wattage songs that erupt onstage and define the shows they're in, the showstopper literally halts a musical in mid-performance--sometimes for minutes at a time--while an audience rises to its feet with tumultuous applause.
This year, Brad Oscar--up for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for "Something Rotten"--is not only center-stage in a showstopper; he drives it from start to finish. Playing Thomas Nostradamus, a wild-eyed Elizabethan soothsayer, he performs "A Musical," an exuberant-verging-on-delirious extravaganza that spoofs some of the most heralded production numbers in Broadway history. By the end, the audience at the St. James Theatre is on its feet and "Rotten," a zany, inspired send-up of Shakespearean England that's garnered 10 Tony nominations, is stopped in its tracks.
It marks the second Tony nomination for Oscar--who cut a memorable swath in "The Producers" as Franz Liebkind, the lunatic Nazi playwright--and the latest milestone in a Broadway career stretching over three decades. On June 9 he'll be honored with the industry's Richard Seff Award, honoring the best performance in a supporting role (this year's other winner is veteran actress Julie Halston). And in the sweetest moment of all, he'll bring his rich baritone and comic bravado to a live performance of "A Musical," along with 17 other cast members, on next Sunday's Tony TV broadcast.
All of this might swell another actor's head. But Oscar is loved--and respected--by his colleagues for being one of the most genuinely gracious performers on the Great White Way. He's dreamed of a life in the theatre since he was a kid.
Recently, theatre historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper uncovered a handwritten 1980 letter in director Harold Prince's archives from Oscar, then just 16. The 11th grader from Maryland had auditioned for Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," and got a callback thanks to a chance encounter with Prince. Although he wasn't cast in the show, the young Oscar wrote: "I would like to thank you for the opportunity to go back up to my favorite city and audition. I hope that in the future I will be able to work for you."
In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Oscar reflected on the path he's traveled since then, the best way to cope with Tony fever and how to act when an audience stops the show:
Q: When you were first cast in "Something Rotten" what was it like just reading your big number on the printed page?
A: Honestly, the first time I read it I thought it would be a fabulous number. And then I prayed it was a number I could do physically, having no idea what (Director) Casey Nicholaw envisioned at that point. I knew it would involve some tap dancing, which has never been a strong suit. But just hearing the arrangement and all of the internal references throughout, I knew it could be a number that celebrated the American musical like few I've ever seen.
Q: What does it feel like to deliver a bona fide showstopper--to have the performance halt as the audience reacts? What goes through your mind each night?
A: The number is such a celebration of the musical, and I'm very fortunate to be front and center. But there are seventeen other people up there who "stop" the show with me. It's so satisfying because I think we all grew up loving the musical form, and who doesn't want to be in a big number that the audience just eats up? Early on I kept waiting for an audience that wouldn't be as enthusiastic, for the other tap shoe to drop, as t'were, but we haven't had one yet. And so I just stand there during the applause and look at Brian (D'Arcy James) who has the next line, and try to stay in the scene, as we're both often saying "Can you believe this??!" with our eyes!
Q: Regarding the letter you sent at such a young age to Harold Prince -- what are some of the major changes separating that young man who auditioned for "Merrily" and who you are today?
A: Wow, seeing that letter was crazy. I love the enthusiasm of the letter because I still feel all of that today. But I had never been part of a true cattle call until that audition, and then an actual scheduled call back. It was all very exciting. I was old enough to know that this is what I wanted to do, so that first experience happening in that way was thrilling. And the encouragement was so meaningful.
Q: Apart from early talent, when did you know that you truly wanted a career on Broadway?
A: I guess when I started to see professional productions in Washington DC. I realized that it was something I could do professionally, not just putting on shows in the basement and the backyard. I saw many out of town tryouts, and then saw my first Broadway show in 1978. It was "On the 20th Century" at the St. James theater, how about that? And it wasn't just the show, which I adored and is still a favorite, but first seeing this neighborhood, this place where all of these shows happened nightly, a fantasy land. It became my dream to be a part of it.
Q: How does it feel to be doing the rounds as a Tony nominee, and being chosen to do your number on the Tony Awards show on June 7th? It must be a heady experience.
A: That's the word I've been using. It was always a dream to work on Broadway and in this profession. But then to be honored with the nomination and to actually perform on the telecast, I have to stay in the moment so my head doesn't explode. It has been exhausting and overwhelming to add in all of the additional events that occur in this six-week Tony window, and still do eight shows a week! But I'm loving the ride, and sharing it with my husband and family makes it that much sweeter.
Q: What's different from the first time you experienced this in 2001, as a member of The Producers?
A: Well, I did not expect to even be nominated for The Producers, so that alone really surprised and delighted me. But even I wanted Gary Beach to win! I've been very lucky to continue to work on Broadway since, but I know how random it is to get a role that can put you in that nomination pool. So it's very sweet to experience it again and I appreciate it now in a different way.
Q: Tell us about the creators of the show.
A: They all have been in the business for years, just other parts of the business. One, Karey Kirkpatrick, is primarily a screenwriter living in Los Angeles; his brother, Wayne, is a composer living in Nashville, and the third, John O'Farrell, is an English writer from, are you ready, England! They all have a love and understanding of how a musical comedy works, and with Casey at the bat, and (Producer) Kevin McCollum in full support, they've written something entirely new and yet delightfully familiar. And I am most impressed at how much they trusted in Casey, and were so collaborative.
Q: What does the Richard Seff Award mean to you -- and why did you pick Susan Stroman to make the presentation to you?
A: It's an honor to receive an award that is given through our union, and again, I'm so honored to be recognized amongst all this exceptional work done throughout the city. I chose Stro because she has always been so supportive and believed in me and given me opportunities to do what I love. And those opportunities changed my career path so much for the better, undeniably.
Q: Beyond this show what are your ambitions as an actor and performer -- are you interested in television or films?
A: My ambition is always to keep working, to keep all the balls in the air. I would love to do more film and TV and experience and explore that kind of work, but I'm not moving to Los Angeles or anything yet.
Q: What roles would you most want to play on the dramatic or musical stage in the future, and why?
A: I would love to play Albin in La Cage, though I hate the idea of shaving my chest and legs! And I've always worshiped Sweeney Todd. And it would be fun to do a comedy, without the musical part!
Q: Who are some of the key people who have influenced you creatively during your career?
A: I was very fortunate to have some fabulous teachers and mentors along the way. Doris Anderson was the librarian at my elementary school, Bruce Silver headed up the theater department at my local JCC, and Ann Amenta was my first voice teacher. Each of them guided and encouraged me at very important times in my life. And I was blessed with the most supportive and loving parents, who introduced me to the theater at an early age and were nothing but supportive in my love and pursuit of it. And I would certainly include Susan Stroman and Casey Nicholaw, again for their trust, guidance and the opportunity to learn and create.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to make a career on the stage?
A: Be true to who you are in regard to your place in the profession. We are all so unique, and the more you can bring of your self to any part of the process, starting with the audition, will only serve you well. Art is so subjective, you can't please everyone, so please yourself.
Q: If you win the Tony award Sunday night, what will that mean to you?
A: Look, it will be that crazy dream most of us in the theater have, and I would love it. And who knows how it may help me professionally. But regardless, on Tuesday, June 9, I will go back to the St. James and do the job I've been so lucky to land. And that's really what it's all about. If I don't win, I still get to go back to work and have this wonderful experience nightly.