Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Brad Oscar: Taking It To The Max
As the line goes, "It's good to be the king." That was certainly true in the case of Nathan Lane during his tenure as Max Bialystock in the Broadway blockbuster, The Producers. However, in recent weeks, the crown has been passed on to a new Max - Washington native Brad Oscar.
Mr. Oscar's story is what Broadway shows are made of. It wasn't that long ago when Oscar was portraying Santa Claus in the touring production of Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Show. He soon found himself cast as a swing in The Producers. When actor Ron Orbach, who played Franz Liebkind, left the tryout production in Chicago due to an injury, Oscar took over the role full time as well as continuing as an understudy for Nathan Lane. Due to Lane's own health problems during the Broadway run, Oscar found himself playing Max more and more frequently. After Lane's departure from the show, British actor Henry Goodman was cast as the down-and-out theater producer. However, Mr. Goodman's time with the show was cut short and ultimately, the role was awarded to Oscar.
Now this hometown boy returns to the area to take on another role - that of presenter at the 2002 Helen Hayes Awards. Looking forward to his impending return, Mr. Oscar recently spoke with me about the awards, his career, the Internet, and coming home.
Tracy Lyon: You must be having a lot of fun right now.
Brad Oscar: Yes, I am having a lot of fun and I am working harder than I've ever worked in my life.
Tracy: How does it feel to come back to your hometown as one of the stars of a hit show?
Brad: It feels great because I got so much of my theatrical education in D.C. while I was growing up in Rockville, Maryland. I was doing stuff at school and in community theater, and at a marvelous program at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. They have a summer program for kids that I did for four summers. I got so much of my early education down there as well as going to the theatre - going to see stuff at the National and the Kennedy Center as well as the Shady Grove Music Fair in Gaithersburg which got summer tours of the big old Broadway musicals. It feels great to come back. I look forward to being able to come down there and perform at some point. Ironically, I have not performed in D.C. professionally in the last twenty years.
Tracy: Well, we would love to have you down here.
Brad: I would love it. It's my dream. At least I will actually get on stage at the Kennedy Center on Monday night for the first time - albeit in this capacity, but nonetheless, I am very excited.
Tracy: What were some of your earlier roles that you performed here in D.C.?
Brad: The first time I was ever on stage was in a production through Adventure Theatre, which is based at Glen Echo (Park). A lot of my first stage experiences were at Adventure Theatre. A very close friend of the family directed shows there. So, through that connection, I found myself on stage. Immediately, I fell in love with the whole idea of it and what it was.
After that, the first time I really started to sing and do musicals was at the JCC. Then I did some shows in school and community theater. In the early '80s I would come home from Boston University during the summer and do Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theater, which was an amazing experience. I got to play some great roles. I did Petruchio from Kiss Me Kate and Harold Hill in The Music Man.
Tracy: Is there a role that you would really like to do in the future?
Brad: Yes, there is. The role my good friend Mr. Brian Stokes Mitchell will be appearing in for several weeks at the Kennedy Center. Sweeney Todd is my all-time favorite. I think it is an amazing piece of theater. I think it is a fabulous role and it has always been something I would love to do and I wish Brian all the best.
Tracy: How did you get involved with The Helen Hayes Awards?
Brad: Actually, through my uncle who knows Linda Levy Grossman [Executive Director, Helen Hayes Awards]. She came up to see The Producers last year and I met her then. She was so sweet and so kind. We chatted after the show and then she asked me to come down and be a part of it and I am so honored.
It's so wild to be in this position all of a sudden - to be able to share and be a part of an event that I think is so important. I love the fact that Washington theater is being recognized the way that it is now. To support that and be a part of it in any way is a joy and an honor.
Tracy: I understand that you came back here a few months ago to speak to students at an area public school.
Brad: Yes, through a program called Arts Speak, which is run by Mark Shugoll. I loved it. I always enjoy being able to interact in that way with kids because I remember how much that meant to me. It is great to be a part of anything like that, where young people who are interested in theater get to ask questions. I actually taught for a while at Manhattan Marymount College. I taught some musical theater classes. I think I learned as much as the kids did. When you are in a teaching position and you are imparting your knowledge, your beliefs, and your ideas of what makes something work, it forces you to become a little clearer on your own technique.
Tracy: Nathan Lane is so identified with the character of Max. How did you approach the role in order to make it your own?
Brad: Originally, as an understudy, my job was to come in and sort of fill in that outline. It has been rehearsed and set in that way. Of course, I am me, so I am bringing my own vocal and physical self to that role. But I was there to support the piece as it has been created and to give Matthew (Broderick) what he needed and what he was used to getting. So, I don't know how to answer that exactly except to say that the more I did go on, the more I was able to make it a little more organic, and Matthew and I were able to form our own "Max and Leo" relationship.
But I learned the role from watching Nathan and that will always be the definitive Max Bialystock. It was perfect for him, so I can't compete with that. I will do what I do as Max; I know in many ways it will be reminiscent and it will echo Nathan. How could it not? That's so ingrained in my mind, and why reinvent the wheel? He was it and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to have worked with him and to in some way fill those shoes, while at the same time being myself and bringing my own take, which I can do now more than I could before.
Steven (Weber) and I are developing our own thing that works for us. We have let go of things. We have actually gotten rid of some bits or lines that developed naturally out of Nathan and Matthew working together. Now we develop our own stuff. That's fun, too. Steven and I have some new bits that are literally our own.
Tracy: How did it feel the first time you went out on that stage knowing this was now your role?
Brad: It was a little overwhelming because of the whole 48-hour window of Henry being let go and me taking over and all of the hubbub surrounding that - and going in early on Tuesday to rehearse with Steven so we could do those scenes together. So that first night I was still riding that wave of energy but it was a very exciting evening. In that opening number, "King of Broadway," at some point I say, "How dare they insult me in this manner. I am Max Bialystock!" And when I said, "I am Max Bialystock," that night, it echoed in my head and I thought, oh my god, I am Max Bialystock! It's still unreal in a way. I feel so blessed and so fortunate to just be a part of this project.
Tracy: So many people have described your story as a Cinderella story. Is that how you see it?
Brad: It sort of is. I have been working professionally as an actor for twelve or thirteen years. I have supported myself as an actor. That was my goal. That was my dream. I wanted to be an actor in New York City and I have been very lucky. I have had good steady jobs. Of course, I have often thought, will I take that next step? Will I get a role that gets me some specific attention? But I know how random this business is. I know it's not just a matter of talent. There are so many things that go into that. So, on one hand it is a Cinderella story and the whole overnight success thing, but the irony is that I have been here working for as long as I have. I think the way it all happened to me has been so extraordinary. Yes, that does feel like a fairy tale.
Tracy: What has it been like to work with this creative team?
Brad: As an actor, when you have the structure and support from the top on down, from Mel Brooks to Susan Stroman, to the twenty-five people out there on stage every night, who are the best at what they do, it all supports you. After that you have the freedom to trust that and just do what you do. You can't ask for anything more.
Tracy: I have to tell you that you are great favorite with many of our readers. When word was out that you had gotten this role, it was being discussed within minutes on our forum. How does that make you feel?
Brad: (laughs) It's wild because we live in an age where information is so readily available. People are online talking about their opinions. It's exciting on one hand. On the other hand, for me personally, it's a little dangerous to read all that stuff. Everybody has their opinion. This is a purely subjective business and I totally understand that, but I think it can be a little tricky on both sides. To read that stuff and believe it or let it go to your head or whatever - so I actually try not to (read it). Other people will tell me stuff like that and I will think, oh that's great or how wild that people are talking about me.
Tracy: Do you think as a whole, the Internet has been good for theater?
Brad: I think so, because our little world here, the New York theater, is a relatively small community. The fact that anyone in the world can find out what's going on here is great. That exposure can only help the theater.
Tracy: One final question. Jeffry Denman recently published a book called "A Year With The Producers." Somewhere down the road can we expect "A Year As Max Bialystock"?
Brad: (laughs) Good question! I better start taking notes! At this point I have no plans for a book - but who knows?