Interview – Danny Burstein
Bruce Kimmel: Welcome Danny Burstein, wonderful actor, to haineshisway.com. As Mr. Hammerstein once said, “Let’s start at the very beginning” – where in tarnation were you born and raised?
Danny Burstein: Well, first let me say it’s great to see you again. You look great Bruce, really. And to answer your question – I’m from da Bronx. My family moved from the Bronx to Queens when I was 5 or 6 and my folks still live in Flushing. But I’m now in Manhattan. I did all the usual NYC kid things: played stickball, went to Yankee, Mets & Knick games.
BK: Very well then, at what age did you realize you wanted to be an actor, and did you always know you could sing and did you always want to do musicals?
DB: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. I was the kid in the neighborhood who put on plays in our backyard. I had cast albums, playbills &theater posters in my room. As far as singing goes, I never chose to be a singer. I’ve never really taken lessons or anything like that. I know, I know, it sounds like that, right? I started singing with the Beatles on my record player. When I got older I was told that in order to survive in the business I would have to be able to do everything. So when they asked me if I sang or danced or whatever – I’d just say yes. That’s how I started singing.
BK: Were your parents supportive of you? And did you take classes when you were young, or just take drama in school or none of the above.
DB: My dad is a professor of ancient Greek philosophy &my mom is a painter and they never discouraged me. A decision I’m sure they regret today, let me tell you. No, they were amazingly supportive. They knew it would be difficult and didn’t guide me away from it. They let me decide who I & what I wanted to be. As far as school goes, I did the usual plays & stuff in Public School &Junior High but I was lucky enough to be accepted into the High School of Performing Arts when I was 14. I was a Drama major there and spent 4 sublime years there. My time there shaped the rest of my life. Imagine being 14, going to school to learn about acting and taking in New York City five days a week. The school was on 46th street, right in the heart of the theater district. I would often second act shows after classes on Wednesdays. I saw the second half of more plays &musicals than I can remember. It was great fun trying to figure out what happened in Act I.
BK: Okay, there you are, young Danny Burstein – where did you go to college? Did you take drama there, and if so what are some of the shows you did?
DB: I went to Queens College in good old Flushing, NY. I lived in the Drama, Theater &Dance Dept. I was blessed with great teachers there. Among them were Ed Greenberg & Ralph Allen. These two men helped focus my life. Ed ran the St. Louis MUNY and Ralph wrote SUGAR BABIES and ran the Kennedy Center for a while with Roger Stevens. Ed got me my Equity card when I was 19 and I would play the lead in all the musicals he directed at the college. At Queens I was in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, BABES IN ARMS and PROMISES, PROMISES. Ed Greenberg was my mentor & cherished friend and since his passing several years back there’s not a day that’s gone by that I don’t about him. He was special.
BK: Okay, there you are, still young Danny Burstein, out of college. What was your first professional job in the theater, and did you have to do other jobs to support yourself, and if so what were some of them – my goodness I’m long-winded, aren’t I?
DB: You’ve always been longwinded, but thank God I’ve always liked listening. As I said, I got my Equity card while still IN college. The summer after my sophomore year I was in the ensemble of three shows at the MUNY: THE MUSIC MAN with Jim Dale & Pam Dawber, FUNNY GIRL with Juliet Prowse & Larry Kert (Jeez, I sound old don’t I?) and a new production of SLEEPING BEAUTY that Robert Johanson directed. I was so green. I loved every second. During college, at one point, I had four jobs at the same time – and I was doing shows at school – and I was taking a full course load. How did we all do it?
BK: So, since you were already in New York you didn’t have to hit New York like so many aspiring actors. I hit New York once and New York got angry and hit me back. Tell us how you began getting auditions for things – you know, a young actor starting out.
DB: During my tenure at Queens College I was lucky enough to get an internship with Lewis Chambers, who ran the Bethel Talent Agency. Lewis taught me more than I could ever hope about the business end of things. He would also send me out on jobs if I were right for them. I started auditioning professionally through him and I owe him a lot. I remember one early audition a funny thing happened when I started singing my song. There was just the director auditioning me in the room & the piano player. As I started singing, the director suddenly started rifling through his briefcase as if he were looking for something. He was checking his pockets, looking through papers – not paying ANY attention to me as I sang my song. Then he stood up and started going through the wastebasket in the corner of the room! Even the piano player gave me a look as if to say “I can’t believe this”. Finally I finished my song. The director looked terribly disappointed, shook his head and said “I can’t find the callback sheet anywhere. Oh well, what was your name?”
BK: All right, what was your first notable theater job in New York, New York – how did you get it, were you surprised you got it, and did it do good things for you?
DB: That would be WEIRD ROMANCE. It’s a musical with music by Allan Menken, lyrics by David Spencer and book by Spencer &Allan Brennert. We did it at the WPA. It didn’t do all that well, although the score is terrific and the cast recording has quite a cult following. It put me on the map because everyone wanted to see Menken’s newest work and I had some terrific featured stuff. I often hear the song I introduced, NEED TO KNOW, as I pass audition rooms and it always makes me smile. I loved that experience despite the fact that the show didn’t have a future and made great friends.
BK: Tell us about some of the other shows you did during this beginning time for you – for example, did you do stock, off-Broadway, Broadway. Give us a little Danny Burstein tour.
DB: Sure, I did lots of stuff like that. Shows at funky Off-Broadway houses like La Mama, Alice’s Fourth Floor, Ensemble Studio Theater and also several more shows at the MUNY &with Dallas Summer Musicals. Specifically: SHOWBOAT with Eddie Bracken, PETER PAN with Cathy Rigby, SHENANDOAH with John Cullum and a national tour of GREASE. But after getting pigeon holed as a musical theater actor I wanted to spread my wings and show I could do other things, so I went back to school. I got my MFA from the University of California, San Diego where the La Jolla Playhouse is in residence. I spent three years there. During my tenure at UCSD I was awarded a scholarship to study at the Moscow Art Theater and spent a month in Moscow taking classes in acting, movement and Chekov &Ostrovsky. Some very cool stuff.
BK: I was trying to remember how we met – I’m senile you know. Where on earth did we meet, and what on earth was the first album you did for me?
DB: We met in prison. I can’t believe you’ve forgotten those romantic nights. Actually, I’m not sure I remember where we met either – or which CD we did first. Was it the revival of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at the York? I think that may have been it. I played a few small roles and I think that’s where I met the famous Bruce Kimmel. I remember doing that recording was great fun and we ran late into the night.
BK: Yes, by gum and by golly, it was Merrily. You ended up doing quite a few recordings with me – what is your most favorite of the tracks we did?
DB: I think my favorite stuff is on I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE. That was a wonderful time. Hmmm, my favorite? I guess TEAR JERK. But the title number is my favorite ensemble number.
BK: Studio singing is a lot different than singing on stage. Do you find the adjustment easy or difficult?
DB: Easy. I do a lot of voice-over work and have spent LOTS of time in the studio. I remember feeling, at first, claustrophobic &lonely in the studio. But I grew to love it. You can fuck up and no one will ever hear it, you know? So why not really go for it and try your best?
BK: Now, as you mentioned, you did I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a show which I recorded. You were not in the original company, but you came in not TOO far into the run, if I recall correctly and, in fact, you got to do the album. Was that a fun show to do – did you like the people (hold nothing back)? And how long did you stay with it?
DB: I loved my time with I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT… and you’re right about me not opening the show. Jordan Leeds opened it but he left very soon after to do SUNSET BOULEVARD so I was asked to do the recording. I am very proud of that recording because I learned that show so quickly and was going through a very difficult time. I stayed with the show for exactly a year. That show saved my life, quite literally, because it gave me a home and a paycheck when I needed them most. I was separating from my wife at the time. Oy. Ironically, last year I got a call to go back into the show for a spell and was surprised that after so many years many of the words &even movements came back so easily.
BK: Very well, Danny Burstein, what happened after that – what show did you do following I Love You…
DB: I left I LOVE YOU… to play the lead in HARMONY at the La Jolla Playhouse. Harmony is the project that Barry Manilow &Bruce Sussman have been shopping around. We did a production out there directed by David Warren and I thought it was quite wonderful. The show didn’t go anywhere, but I understand they’re currently casting another production of it and hoping it gets to Broadway. I hope it does too. It’s a terrific show and really deserves a life.
BK: Before we move on, I don’t know how many of our dear readers know, but you are married to a beautiful woman who just happens to be a wonderful singer/actress, and who just happens to have been on a lot of my albums in addition to us having done a solo album together. Tell our dear readers about your beautiful wife and how you met.
DB: Yes, I’m married to Kitty Carlisle. No, I’m married to Rebecca Luker and not only is she beautiful, not only does she have the most beautiful (& versatile) voice I have ever heard (listen to those ARIA recordings on Astor Place Records – outrageous) but she is also the loveliest human being God ever set down on this earth. Everyday I pinch myself knowing how lucky I am. She has a beautiful light that surrounds her &you can’t help notice her when she walks in a room, and most importantly, she helped me write this.
We met doing TIME AND AGAIN at the Old Globe, but were not romantic at the time. We didn’t see each other for a while after the show closed and reconnected when we heard we’d been cast opposite each other for a reading of HARMONY. That’s when we decided to date and the rest is history.
BK: Okay, now let’s move on to A Class Act. When the show was at the Manhattan Theater Club you were the standby for Lonny Price. This is a very convoluted story, so give us the straight skinny or, at the very least, the crooked fat. Lonny wasn’t originally playing Ed Kleban – who was and why did he leave the show?
DB: Oy, I can’t remember his name. I swear! He was cast but left the project before A CLASS ACT even started rehearsing at MTC. He got a series. It happens. So Lynne Meadow asked Lonny to play the role and then they realized Lonny needed a standby. I got a call from Jay Binder on a Saturday asking me to come in on Sunday to sing for Lonny. When I got in the room it seemed all of Broadway was there. Truly, there were about 20 people at that audition, all heavy hitters. Anyway I wound up getting the job and it turned into an amazing gig. A year of work. Lonny was director, writer &star and to this day I’ll never know how he did it all. It was an amazing feat that he pulled off with aplomb.
BK: The rehearsal and preview period was very tumultuous (I heard all about it from our very own Todd Ellison). Tell us some of the goings on and what the problems were and how they were solved – hold nothing back.
DB: The main problems dealt with the story telling. How would the show begin? For a stretch there we had a different book every night. Lonny cut his teeth doing MERRILY… so he’s from that “change it – fix it now” school and it became very difficult on the cast at times. But I do believe he was right. The show needed help and if the show were to have a future life, the work needed to be done. I remember getting out onstage to do a new monologue at the top of the show and forgetting which show we were doing that night. Thank god I remembered. New songs were added, keys were changed, costumes. I think we went through three dozen opening scenes – easily. It was hectic, but the show has such a big heart – and the overall story is so beautiful that I knew it would do well.
BK: Now, you got to go on several times because Lonny was having vocal problems, plus he was also directing. Did you enjoy playing Ed Kleban – tell us about the experience.
DB: I loved playing that role. I felt a very strong connection with it. I remember his partner &co-writer of the book, Linda Kline, kept telling me she HAD to give me a tape of Ed singing his own songs on tape. She finally got it to me near the end of the run at MTC. I listened to the tape and wept. It was brilliant. He WAS a genius and it was if he were in the room with me. It inspired me more than anything. The role itself is a bear and ANYONE who played it 8 performances a week would get tired and need a rest once in a while. But I did love it and consider it a favorite. I hope I get the chance to play it again sometime.
BK: I would have liked to see you in the show, because frankly I did not love Mr. Lonny Price in the role. When the show moved to Broadway you went with it. How many times did you get to play the role?
DB: I played the show a bunch of times on Broadway. I have very fond memories of our time at the Ambassador Theater. Marty Bell, Chase Mishkin & Arielle Tepper put together a terrific production. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish the entire run of the show. I left 3 weeks before it closed because I broke my ankle playing softball with the Broadway Show League. Show Business.
BK: Let’s go back a minute, and talk about Time and Again, the musical you did in San Diego with Rebecca. I saw the show out there, and I felt the score was pretty wonderful, but that the production was a mess and the book was just not working. I talked to Skip Kennon (I would have recorded it in a second – but Skip was and is strange about such things), and I told him some of my thoughts, and I got the distinct impression that the creative team didn’t really listen to opinions. Tell us about the experience of trying out a new musical and what your thoughts on Time and Again were/are. Did you see the revised, scaled-down production at MTC? If so, what did you think of it?
DB: The score of TIME AND AGAIN is one of the best scores I have ever heard. There should be a recording of it. With Rebecca &Howard in the leads. Sadly, and I mean sadly, it just didn’t work. Despite some of the most wonderful theater minds putting their heads together it didn’t work. It quickly became clear that we weren’t moving to Broadway and then it became very sad to play the show knowing we had to be out there for another 6 weeks. But, I did meet Rebecca out there and I also met George Dvorsky who tuned out to be my best friend. Who can say why the show didn’t work. It seemed to me that Jack O’Brien told everyone to go out there and be their most creative. Unfortunately the entire creative staff seemed to come back moving in totally different directions. The book went one way, the set another, the choreography yet another – you get the idea. I did see the recent production at MTC and thought it needed to be a bigger show than it was. It’s a grand, lush musical. Not a chamber piece and I think it suffered from being in such a tight venue. I also missed the full orchestration. The two piano thing just didn’t cut it for me. But it was Off-Broadway and I completely understand.
BK: I agree with you totally about the MTC production. All right, Danny Burstein, have you done any film and television, and if so, have you enjoyed the experience?
DB: Actually I’ve done quite a lot of TV. Been on LAW &ORDER several times, ED, all the soaps in NY, commercials. My favorite is an appearance I did on the hit BBC-TV show ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. I played a character named Martin and was adopted by Edina in this year’s New York City Special entitled “GAY”. It’s aired on Comedy Central &BBC-america here and a lot of people have seen it. I’m hoping they’ll want to throw me into another episode this summer. It was an absolute blast and those two gals are geniuses.
BK: Here you are today, what’s on the horizon for you?
DB: I just got offered a role in an independent film called SPECTROPIA. So that’s the latest news. But mostly, I’ve decided to stay in town &pursue my favorite job of all. Being a dad. I’ve got two amazing sons, Alexander (10) & Zachary (7). My family is everything to me and because of them, I turn a lot of stuff down because it would take me out of town. I just don’t want to do that for extended periods anymore. Here in NYC I do a lot of commercial work (I currently have a commercial for Travelocity running), industrials (just did one for IBM), readings, recordings and I’m quite busy with those kinds of things. This week I did a reading of DUCKY, the new musical from the writers of SIDE SHOW, Bill Russell & Henry Kreiger. The show is terrific and really deserves to go to Broadway. Hopefully that’ll happen soon.
BK: Well, Danny Burstein, you’ve been an absolutely charming guest and we at haineshisway.com salute you with our favorite beverage of Diet Coke and our favorite foodstuffs – cheese slices and ham chunks. Do you have anything you’d like to say before you leave us?
DB: Yeah, this cheese is delicious – but the ham chunks look old so I aint touching them.
I love you Bruce. Thanks for asking me to do this. Can’t wait to see you again.