Interview with Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune star Michael Shannon
Currently in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre, Tony and two-time Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon has formed a dream team with six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald to bring us the first-ever Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's beloved two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Set in New York City in the 1980s, Frankie and Johnny is a very simple tale of two very complex individuals who begin the play as work colleagues stumbling into bed after a first date. Whilst emotionally guarded Frankie has already written it off as a one night stand in her own mind, Johnny, wearing his heart on his sleeve, pursues her relentlessly, convinced of their connection and a future together. But when the moonlight fades and dawn brings with it a new day, what will the future really hold for Frankie and Johnny?
Michael Shannon first burst onto the Broadway scene in the fall of 2012 in Grace, starring alongside his partner Kate Arrington, as well as Edward Asner and Paul Rudd. He would return to the Great White Way and earn his first Tony Award nomination for his performance in Roundabout Theatre Company's 2016 revival of Eugen O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, starring opposite Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne. But Mr. Shannon had long since been a theatre animal, performing regularly in theatres across Chicago, off-Broadway and even in London. Whilst many will recognize him today from his high-profile, villainous turns in such Hollywood films as "The Shape of Water" or "Man of Steel," his Oscar-nominated performances in "Nocturnal Animals" and "Revolutionary Road," or his long-running TV role as Nelson Van Alden in HBO's hit series "Boardwalk Empire," he is still an exceptionally gifted theatre actor, frequently enticed back to the stage and to the thrill of performing in front of a live theatre audience.
We caught up with Mr. Shannon to discuss his latest outing as a romantic lead on Broadway, forming a bond with Audra McDonald, onstage nudity, and how Frankie and Johnny nostalgically recollects the pre-Tinder days of hooking up...
It’s an unusual time to open a new show on Broadway, slap bang in the middle of Awards Season, but I’m guessing that is due to yours and Audra’s tight schedules?
Yes. This is the way it worked out. There was a point when we were going to try and do it last fall but it didn’t come together. But, honestly, I don’t really mind. I just love doing the play and I’m so thankful to be doing it with Audra. I think it will be a nice way to spend the summer.
Yes, there are certainly worse ways to spend a summer than on stage with Audra McDonald, I’m sure! Had you ever been involved in a two-hander play before?
Yes. I had done one a few years ago. Someone that came to one of our previews recently actually reminded me that I had done a show called Blackbird by Adam Rapp in Pittsburgh back in 2002 I think it was. I’ve done two-handers. I’ve done one-man shows. I’ve pretty much done it all. In terms of theatre, I’ve done pretty much all there is to do. Except I haven’t really done musicals and I haven’t done a lot of Shakespeare unfortunately.
Is the musical genre something you would like to delve into? How are your singing pipes?
I would definitely like to take a stab at it someday, although I hear it’s much more challenging than straight plays. You have to be able to master three things instead of just one. I guess it could be pretty draining, but it sure does look fun when I go to see it.
Now, as for Frankie and Johnny, how did you go about creating that level of trust and intimacy with Audra in particular?
Well, I think it’s just about being honest with one another and saying what you’re afraid of and being honest about the anxiety of it. It’s difficult to forge these relationships out of thin air because we don’t have a lot of time to do it. To get to that level, you just have to be really honest all the time and be a good listener. That’s the main thing.
And in terms of the opening of the play and the onstage nudity, is it quite an easy mental switch for you to go from the actor Michael Shannon stood naked in a theatre full of strangers to the character of Johnny stood naked alone in front of the woman he is infatuated with?
Yeah. For me, it’s just part of the story. I’m telling a story. It’s not about how many people are out in the audience on any given evening. But it is about helping them to understand the story of Frankie and Johnny and that’s part of the story. I mean, I’ve got naked on stage before. I don’t enjoy it, but it doesn’t freak me out. I just acknowledge that it’s part of the story and it’s very important that this play begins that way.
Johnny is such a unique, unapologetic, heart-on-his-sleeve kinda guy. Are there any ways you personally relate to him?
Yeah. I’ve had my hiccups along the road. I know from a distance he probably seems like a man from The White Priory. But I’ve had issues and whatnot, particularly with feelings of loneliness and despair from time to time. I think everybody does at some point or another. I think one of the things that makes the play so powerful is that so many people can relate to it. So many people can find pieces of themselves in each character.
Speaking of modern audiences relating to the play, obviously it’s set in the 1980s, way before people started to hook up via Tinder and all the other apps. Do you think Frankie and Johnny is a true period piece in this respect and how do you think the play would differ if Terrence McNally wrote it today?
Oh, I don’t think Terrence would write this play today. I think this play is definitely a period piece. It’s inspired by what it was like in the 80s in New York City – what it was like to live in New York at that time. He explained to me what he was noticing about people on various trips to New York at that particular point. It was a hard time to be a New Yorker. That dreamy, sophisticated notion of the New Yorker – that wasn’t anywhere to be found. It was a very gritty, difficult place to be. That’s what partly inspired him to write this play.
So what can audiences expect from a trip to the Broadhurst Theatre to see this Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune?
Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily hard to try and hock this show and I will say that these are two extraordinary human beings that are engaged in something that’s extremely important to all of us and that’s trying not to be alone. With the world the way it is right now – filled with cruelty and nastiness – isn’t it nice to just spend an evening with two people trying to understand each other and take care of one another?
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune Tickets are available now for performances through August 25, 2019.
(Production photos by Deen van Meer)