GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Daniel Cooney of 'Bonnie & Clyde'
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by Adrienne Onofri
A leading man on regional stages and an ensemble player on Broadway, Daniel Cooney has been juggling two new roles this fall. Professionally, he has a role—several of them, actually—in the Bonnie & Clyde musical. The other new role is personal: Cooney, 44, became a father for the first time when his son, Gavin, was born on Sept. 29.
Bonnie & Clyde opened Dec. 1 to mostly negative reviews and has already announced it will close on Dec. 30. That, unfortunately, makes two Broadway flops in a row for Cooney: His last show on Broadway was 9 to 5, which was poorly received by critics and closed after four months in mid-2009.
“It’s just the business,” shrugs Cooney, who says that such experiences reaffirm rather than diminish his commitment to a life in the theater. He was involved in both Bonnie & Clyde and 9 to 5 from the workshop/reading phase of development and did the regional productions before they reached Broadway (9 to 5 at the Ahmanson in L.A., Bonnie & Clyde at La Jolla and Florida’s Asolo Rep). “I love getting the new material and diving in and discovering it, I love being a collaborator,” Cooney says. “Even though it’s commercial theater, we’re trying to create the best art we can. So it’s great being in that room...fully investing in the process. I do my part—show up, have a clear point of view, jump in if there’s anything I can offer up to help them see if something’s working or not. Beyond that it’s out of my hands.”
Still, Cooney says he was “shocked” by the chilly reception to Bonnie & Clyde, even knowing composer Frank Wildhorn is a critics’ punching bag. He’d heard good things from friends in the business who saw the show in previews, including Marc Kudisch, who texted him enthusiastically after seeing it. (Cooney says he trusts Kudisch’s judment because “Marc’s a savvy theater dude...a no-bullsh-- kind of guy.”) “I was expecting the reviews to be fine,” Cooney says. “I thought they were going to pick it apart but say, At the end of the day it’s really enjoyable.”
In Bonnie & Clyde, Cooney plays a variety of small parts, including a prison guard, the minister at Bonnie’s father’s funeral and one of the policemen who track down (and kill) the fabled outlaws. While all his work on Broadway has been in the ensemble, he’s had mostly principal roles on tour and regionally. For many years, he played Che in Evita—first on tour and then at regional theaters around the country. He was Perchik for a couple of years on the Fiddler on the Roof tour starring Theodore Bikel. He played Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore, an original musical inspired by Poe’s life and writing, at the Signature Theatre outside Washington, D.C., and also appeared at the Signature as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods. Other credits include Fred/Petruchio in a 2003 Kiss Me, Kate at Long Island’s Gateway Playhouse and Peter in the Company that was produced as part of the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration. Off-Broadway, Cooney was in the cast of Under the Bridge, a children’s musical written by Kathie Lee Gifford, and Joe DiPietro’s 2003 screen-to-stage adaptation The Thing About Men, where he understudied Kudisch and Ron Bohmer in the lead roles.
Cooney also runs a semiprofessional theater in his home state of Michigan. He’s the producing artistic director of the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, outside Ann Arbor. He cofounded Encore with a high school classmate, Anne Koch, and her husband, Paul. Daniel and Anne sang together in choir in high school but had been out of touch for two decades when she found him online and contacted him about her vision for a theater. Now about to begin its fourth year, Encore produces six shows annually in a converted warehouse space with 122 seats. Its 2011 season included The Light in the Piazza, and next to open is Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Cooney has directed many Encore shows—and starred in a few, including a restaging of Nevermore and the theater’s inaugural production, Evita, in 2009, in which he played Che to his wife Jessica Grové’s Eva.
Grové—who starred as Dorothy on the Wizard of Oz tour as a teenager and performed in the recent Broadway revivals of Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music—and Cooney first met through mutual friends in the business some years back but began dating when they were both taking Craig Carnelia’s musical-theater performance class in 2005. They married early last year at Grové’s family's beachfront home in Belize, and now baby makes three. “Being a parent has introduced us to parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed,” Cooney says on behalf of himself and his wife. “From an artist’s perspective, this could only be viewed as a blessing beyond words.” Speaking for himself specifically, he adds: “I now understand what 'a father’s love’ means. Being a father has brought such joy and beauty into my life that I will be forever changed for the better.”
From his own father Cooney did encounter some early resistance to his interest in performing, though it was driven more by circumstances than flat-out objection. Cooney grew up about 20 miles west of Detroit in Westland, Mich., where sports is the dominant—often the only—extracurricular activity that kids pursue. And sure enough, Cooney played baseball, football and hockey for many years. Hockey especially. His father was the president of the local hockey association and would ice over their backyard in the winter. Cooney remembers being on hockey skates pretty much from the time he could stand on his own two feet. “We lived at the ice rink,” he states. “So imagine my father’s dismay” when his middle son started acting in school plays.
Dad was still flummoxed when Daniel was considering a summer-stock job offer shortly after graduating from high school. “In his mind it was just playing,” Cooney says. “He had no way of perceiving it as a real job; he just didn’t know that world.” Cooney was working at the time in construction, which was basically the profession that boys in that area expected to go into. His mother—who’d first encouraged Daniel to perform after hearing him sing in the church choir and at home to the radio—somewhat surreptitiously bought him a plane ticket to New Hampshire, where the summer theater was located, and with that his performing career really got under way.
He’d done some community theater locally right after high school, then traveled to Florida to be in the same shows when the director produced them down there. One of those shows was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was also the musical Cooney would do—playing Judas—in summer stock in the Salem, N.H., area (right near the Massachusetts border). Many of his castmates there were based in NYC, so at the end of the summer he went back to Michigan, packed up his brother’s old VW Rabbit and drove to New York, where he crashed with friends while looking for work.
Cooney had participated in choir and musicals in high school (even quitting the wrestling team in 10th grade to be in a play) but never had any additional training in singing, dancing or acting as a youngster. To this day, he’s taken but a handful of dance classes and thinks of himself as an actor who sings. Years ago he was considering intensive dance training to improve his skills, but a musical-theater colleague warned him that if he made himself into a dancer, “you’re kind of locking yourself into the ensemble.” Cooney says the most demanding job dance-wise he’s had was probably the hand-jive scene in Grease, in which he starred as Danny Zuko at Massachusetts’ North Shore Music Theatre in 1999 (“I was terrible”), though he also mentions 9 to 5, as it was choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler in a follow-up to his Tony-winning work on In the Heights.
For the first couple of years after moving to New York, Cooney worked on the non-Equity circuit, at such theaters as the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind. At age 21 he got a role—and his Equity card—on the first national tour of Les Misérables, which he did for about two years. Les Miz would be the show in which Cooney made his Broadway debut when he was 25 and filled in briefly for an injured cast member. He eventually had a regular ensemble role in the Broadway Les Miz for about eight months.
He later got on the Evita tour, understudying John Herrera as Che. Herrera left after he’d been there just a month or so, and Cooney took over the role (eventually costarring opposite Donna Marie Asbury, our previous Gypsy of the Month, in the title role). The tour was directed by Larry Fuller, who’d choreographed the original Broadway production of Evita in 1979, and Cooney became Fuller’s regular Che in productions he directed starting in the mid ’90s at regional houses around the country, including Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, Paper Mill Playhouse, Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars and the St. Louis Muny.
In the 1990s, Cooney was also on the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, in the role of Perchik. He admired the acting technique of his castmate James Kall (who portrayed Motel) and decided to apply to Kall’s alma mater, the Yale School of Drama. Cooney’s only higher education at that point had been “a hot second” in community college, but Yale considers applicants’ professional experience in lieu of undergraduate credentials. With Kall’s coaching, Cooney was accepted to Yale on his second time auditioning for them.
So at 29 years of age, Cooney matriculated at Yale. By that time, he’d begun sensing that he was becoming more suited to character roles rather than romantic leads and felt some strong dramatic training would serve him well. He graduated from the Yale Drama School’s three-year program in 1999, receiving a certificate that will be upgraded to a master’s should he ever complete a bachelor’s degree.
He played a few more romantic leads shortly after graduating: Billy Bigelow in Carousel and Tony in West Side Story, both at Connecticut Rep. He also had his first job in a Frank Wildhorn work, The Civil War. Cooney stayed on that tour for just a short time, as he was covering more than half a dozen roles and found himself rehearsing all the time, even at home. But he did become good friends with Civil War headliner and country-music star Larry Gatlin—who would help Cooney out by performing in the concert that launched the Encore Musical Theatre.
Another valuable friendship has been with Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., whom Cooney met when Schaeffer directed Under the Bridge off-Broadway in 2005. Schaeffer invited him to take part in the reading of a new work at Signature and, much to Cooney’s surprise, chose not to recast the lead role in that work when Signature—which often hires Broadway A-listers—gave it a full production in 2006. And so Cooney portrayed Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore, which set the poet’s words to music by Matt Conner (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) in a spooky, dreamlike production featuring Cooney and five actresses playing women in Poe’s life. The Washington Post said the show was “carried aloft...on some potent performances, especially that of Daniel Cooney” and praised the star’s “virile vocals.” The following year, Schaeffer cast him in Signature’s Into the Woods.
Heading into the new year of 2012, Cooney will have some unanticipated time off with the early closing of Bonnie & Clyde (is there such a thing as time off with a 3-month-old infant at home?). While Bonnie & Clyde was in previews last month, Nevermore had its New York premiere with a one-night concert staging at The Duplex starring Cooney and Natascia Diaz. In early January, he’s scheduled to be in a reading of Secondhand Lions, a new musical based on the 2003 movie with Haley Joel Osment, Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. Just don’t say that will be back-to-back stage adaptations of movies for Cooney: Though most reviews of Bonnie & Clyde referenced the iconic 1967 film version, book writer Ivan Menchell did not base the musical on the movie; he and director Jeff Calhoun created their own telling of the Bonnie and Clyde story. “I don’t know where they're coming from comparing it to the film all the time,” Cooney says. “Ivan and Jeff weren’t interested in the film. They were trying to deal with other aspects of their lives, the relationship.”
Photos of Daniel, from top: on right, in the midst of one of the title duo’s armed robberies in Bonnie & Clyde; center, during the song “God’s Arms Are Always Open” in Bonnie & Clyde; off stage with his wife, Jessica Grové; center, with other ensemble members in Bonnie & Clyde; as Perchik, with Tamra Hayden as Hodel, in Fiddler on the Roof; portraying Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore. [Bonnie & Clyde photos by Nathan Johnson]