BWW Interviews: Will Swenson Chats MTC's MURDER BALLAD
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by Caryn Robbins
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.
Definitely! I mean this show's very, very up close and personal. So the fact that I knew her well and we worked together on stage before, it definitely helped us break through those barriers that probably would have taken longer to break through otherwise.
The show's run was recently extended at MTC. Why do you think theater goers are responding to it so positively?
I think a lot of things. One, it's just a super unique theatrical experience and I think people are always looking for something new. And we've seen the set up of a traditional musical so many times, you know we sit down, we watch a show and then the curtain comes down. And this is such a unique theater viewing experience - something that's never been seen or done. And then on top of that, I think the show's great - it's an amazing score and the cast is really top notch so I think people are really responding to it for those reasons.
Are there any plans for a cast recording to be made?
Yeah there is. We are recording one in a couple of weeks.
Oh, that's great!
Yeah, I'm excited about that.
I was looking back on your most recent shows and it's kind of interesting because it's almost as if you've been doing musical theater through the decades. It seems like you gravitate toward more modern shows than traditional. Is that just the way the chips fell or is that a personal preference?
(laughing) I think it's more just how things have worked out but I certainly have... I've done 'Hair' for the Sixties and 'Rock of Ages' for the Eighties, and I guess this show is more Nineties.
And Priscilla is sort of the Seventies.
Sort of the Seventies, yeah, so I guess I have. I've never thought about it that way before, that's very funny. I have a show for every decade. I don't know, I'd love to do something a little more legitimately musical theater, maybe I'm getting pigeon-holed a bit as the guy who sings pop scores and rock scores. But it's a nice comfort zone, I enjoy doing it. More than anything I just enjoy singing - that's my favorite.
Yes, absolutely. When I got the part, somebody said to me, 'Man, this show is going to change your life,' and I thought, 'Whatever. People just say that about whatever show they like.' But they were absolutely right. And over the course of four years, we went to so many different places, and it became so successful and I became so close with the cast and then just what it is as a show and what it means and how it's presented and my role in that. The whole thing was just mind blowing.
Well it was an experience for the audience as well! Can you tell me a little about the upcoming film you will be directing next year, Facing East?
Oh yeah, it's a gorgeous piece that originally was written as a play. It played off-Broadway for a while and got great reviews. And I grew up Mormon and the play deals with a Mormon couple dealing with the suicide of their gay son. Unfortunately suicide is really prevalent in religious communities for gay kids, so this play is hoping to make a difference in that. So the producers, knowing that I have some film background as a director and knowing that I had a foot in both worlds, the Mormon world and the secular world, asked me to direct it and I'm thrilled about it. It's just a beautiful, beautiful script and people are really responding to it well. We're hoping to shoot in summer or fall of this coming year.
Will it film in Utah?
Yeah, it will shoot in Salt Lake City.
You mentioned your background. I know you come from a theater family and I was particularly interested in your grandmother Ruth Hale. It seemed like she had a very extraordinary life and career.
She sure did!
What influence did she have in you choosing your career path?
Oh a massive influence. She was just this fireball, this go-getter. She would come into breakfast in the morning and sing 'Good Morning to Youuuu!' She would tap dance on the kitchen floor, she was just this crazy, crazy fireball of creative energy who just couldn't slow down. And she wrote, I don't know how many plays, I think over 60 and I think 40 or so of them were published. And she just always kept moving. She started all these theaters all over the Northwest, and for a good chunk of my life, lived with us. So she'd see me in plays and say 'that's not good enough. Now you're going to direct them.' And she was an amazing person as well. She was always bringing in straggling actors and they would stay with us for a while. It was the hardest thing to get her and grandpa to not pick up these actors cause they just had to help people. She was a massive creative influence. I still, sometimes when I get a note that I need to project a little more I hear my grandmother's voice going (loudly) 'Speak up boy!'
It sounds like her life can be a play in itself. Has anyone ever considered that?
You know she wrote a play that was semi-autobiographical. She was born during the years when the Mormon Church was still practicing polygamy but covering it up. And she was adopted within the ranks of the Mormon Church so she most definitely was a baby who was born out of polygamy but couldn't be recognized legally. And so this play was about her trying to discover who her parents were and she always dreamed that her mother was a famous actress, that's where she got her theater bug.
I wanted to congratulate you on your recent marriage to [five-time Tony Award winner] Audra McDonald. I loved what you wrote in your Murder Ballad bio - that you were married to a 'hack actress.'
(laughing) I think only a handful of people will get that reference, the rest will kind of go, 'Well he's not very nice!'
Do you think there is a possibility that the two of you might work together in the future?
Oh I'd sure love to! That's how we met, was working on something together and we seemed to do alright with that one. I don't know, it would be lovely.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus