Tony Nominee Danny Burstein Brings Sondheim's 'Follies' to L.A.

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus
The day of the 2012 Tony nominations, Danny Burstein is backstage in his dressing room at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, preparing to reprise his turn as lovelorn Buddy Plummer in the Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." Burstein's performance has already earned him nominations from the Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards (which he will go on to win), and just hours before, he received word of his Tony nomination, his third nod from the American Theatre Wing. Is it just as sweet as the first two times? "I think it's sweeter, I'll be honest with you," Burstein says. "The other two times, I wasn't as nervous. And this time, I have to admit, when I went to bed last night, I was a little nervous. I sort of tossed and turned and had a pretty restless night."

Burstein was awakened at 5:30 a.m. with a series of vague text messages. "I couldn't tell what they meant," he says with a laugh. "One went, 'I'm crossing my fingers.' Another said, 'I'm going back to bed now!' " Even worse, Burstein couldn't get on the Internet because his temporary digs in L.A. change the password for free wireless every month. "Because today's May 1, it changed. I was trying to find the code, scrambling. I finally got the Internet to work. And I let out a whoop that was so loud because two of my dear friends, Norm Lewis and Ron Raines, were also nominated. I swear to God, at 5:40 this morning, everyone in Building C heard me scream out loud."

In a way, Burstein has come full circle by bringing "Follies" to the Ahmanson after successful runs in Washington, D.C., and New York. It was here, in 2005, that he premiered as bumbling, would-be lothario Adolpho in "The Drowsy Chaperone" before it transferred to Broadway, where the role earned him his first Tony nomination. "It put me on the map -- it really did," Burstein says. "I was a guy who worked all the time, under the radar. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to my career."

Burstein followed "Drowsy Chaperone" with the Broadway revival of "South Pacific" -- for which he earned his second Tony nod for playing wheeler-dealer Luther Billis -- and a role in the musical "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Then came "Follies."

Having done an Off-Broadway revival of "Merrily We Roll Along" and the 1995 Broadway revival of "Company," Burstein was eager to do another Sondheim show. But his relationship with the famed composer-lyricist goes back even further, to when Burstein was an 18-year-old student at Queens College in New York. Cast as Franklin Shepard in the school's production of "Merrily" and struggling with the character, a friend suggested Burstein write Sondheim. Burstein laughed at the idea -- until the friend mentioned he could get Sondheim's address.

"So I wrote him this long letter asking him all these questions," Burstein recalls. "And something like five days later, I got a letter back from him, saying, 'Danny, all those questions would have to be answered in a letter the size of "War and Peace." Listen, maybe you and I can get together and talk. Here's my number; give me a call.' " Three weeks later, Burstein found himself in Sondheim's living room, talking about musical theater for three hours. "He literally said, 'What else -- what do you want to know? Ask me anything.' And that's rare, that spirit of giving back. And it's one of the reasons I'm always happy to give back. Because if Stephen Sondheim can do that, for God's sake, Danny Burstein can do that."

Years later, when he was again cast in "Merrily," this time Off-Broadway, Burstein reminded Sondheim of their previous meeting. "He said, 'Oh yes, Queens College. I remember,' " Burstein says. "Can you imagine that memory? How much information is in that head, and yet he remembered me? He is just so sweet and amazing."

Though Burstein jumped at the chance to join "Follies," he admits he had never seen the show. "I still haven't," he quips. "I knew a lot of the songs, but I wasn't familiar with the book. Which is good and bad in a way, because you have to do a lot of work getting to understand what's going on. But at the same time, you don't have any preconceived notions about what went on before." Burstein viewed Buddy as a tragic figure, a traveling salesman madly in love with his wife, Sally, who has never really loved him. "Halfway through, he realizes that the last 30 years of his life have been a sham," Burstein says. "Trying to make that real every single night is difficult. It's the most emotionally demanding role I've ever had to play."

A key to understanding Buddy came courtesy of on old friend, actor Evan Pappas, whom Burstein ran into on the subway mere days before starting rehearsals for "Follies." Pappas had played Young Buddy in a London production with Diana Rigg, and he talked to Burstein about the role. "Right as he was getting out of the subway, he said to me, 'Don't forget -- Buddy is a walking heart,' " Burstein says. "And it completely opened up a new way of thinking about him."

When "Follies" closes in L.A. June 9, Burstein will bid farewell to a character he has played off-and-on for more than a year. Next, he is set to film an independent film in Baltimore called "Milkshake." Beyond that, he looks forward to spending time with his two sons and wife Rebecca Luker, a fellow Tony nominee for "The Music Man" and "Mary Poppins." In addition, he enjoys teaching classes when he has time; he most recently taught master classes at NYU and Primary Stages. "It's inspiring to see young students who want to get into the business and are eager to do good work," Burstein says. "Because that's what it's all about ultimately, just doing good work. Whatever else happens -- the awards and nominations and all that kind of stuff -- that's lovely. But you have to love doing the work. And I love coming into a theater every single night."