Tony-nominated actor Will Swenson stars in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of MURDER BALLAD, currently playing at The Studio at Stage II at New York City Center. A love triangle gone wrong, the musical centers on Sara, an Upper West Sider who seems to have it all, but whose downtown past lingers enticingly and dangerously in front of her. This sexy, explosive new musical explores the complications of love, the compromises we make, and the small betrayals that can ultimately undo us.
Swenson was most recently seen on Broadway in the role of 'Tick/Mitzi' in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. His other Broadway credits include Hair (Tony Award Nomination), 110 in the Shade, Brooklyn: The Musical and Lestat. Off-Broadway tours and concerts include Rock of Ages, Camelot (NY Philharmonic), The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island, Adrift In Macao, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Miss Saigon, We Will Rock You and Fame. His first feature film as a writer and director was 2005's Sons of Provo, which won several film festivals. His next film, Facing East, begins production next year.
The talented actor spoke with BWW about what makes the exciting, new musical MURDER BALLAD a "super unique theatrical experience.'
I enjoyed the show so much the other night and was particularly struck by its unique staging. Was all of that done with blocking or is some of the action improvised?
Kind of the nature of how it's staged, it's really specifically blocked. I mean we certainly discovered it in the rehearsal room. We kind of had a mock up of the whole set so that we knew what our limitations were. We're sort of playing in two narrow strips of walkway with that bar and then the area around the pool table, so it's definitely unique in that it forced us into some corners and some tricky situations with blocking. And the angles are tricky to kind of make sure that everybody in the theater gets to see a good chunk of what's going on. If we had staged certain moments on a different angle, we could have blocked two thirds of the audience. So it became a pretty technical process as far as making sure everybody could see because of our limited amount of space. But that being said, we try to make it look as natural as we could and it was brand new for all of us. I mean, certainly, the most unique staging I've ever been a part of. And that certainly kept it interesting!
Was this sort of staging always the intention or was it dictated by the space of this particular theater?
As far as I know that was sort of the idea from the beginning. We did a workshop of the show this summer up at Vassar College and we did it on a proscenium stage and so it was very different. But we already knew we were going to be at MTC's Stage II and from what I gather, that stage was altered just for our show. They've done shows there before but in a more traditional arrangement, either with a proscenium or just a small kind of thrust, so that was always the idea, to make it super environmental.
The other interesting thing is the way that you and the other actors are in a sense, immersed in the audience, yet unlike in 'Hair', you're not 'breaking that fourth wall' as they say. Does that make it even more challenging?
Yeah, I'd say that this is more challenging. The first day that we had people in the seats, I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be so helpful' and 'I'm very comfortable with interacting and having people up close' and all that, and then the second I went out there I realized that, 'Oh, but wait...I'm in another universe than they are, I'm not acknowledging that they exist.' And it was trippy, it threw me for a loop. So yeah, it is challenging. In 'Hair' if we spilled a drink or if I bumped into someone I could just touch their shoulder and say, 'Hey, sorry man!'. But this isn't the case with this show. And it's been an interesting challenge because the purpose I think, of staging it so environmentally is so that the audience has access to all that energy to a close degree. And the fact that we have to exist on a different plane, sort of speak, as the audience is an interesting challenge because you want to share the energy with them, but you can't acknowledge them, so that has been a challenge.
You've worked opposite your talented co-star Karen Olivo in the past. I assume that helps in creating the chemistry between your two characters.