Interview with Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham
As the holiday season approaches, we chat to Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham - the leading man of the Roundabout Theatre Company's new Irving Berlin musical Holiday Inn at the iconic Studio 54.
Bryce earned his Tony nomination in 2014 with his starring role as Monty Navarro in the Tony-winning Best Musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. He also starred as Carl Bruner in Ghost The Musical and as Peter Patrone in The Heidi Chronicles and made his Broadway debut in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
He tells us about the challenges of following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby, working with Corbin Bleu, adapting the 1942 movie musical for a modern audience and about his own favourite holiday:
Thomas Hayden Millward: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us, Bryce. Now, this isn’t your first time on a Broadway stage, of course, but it is your first time working with the Roundabout Theatre Company at its iconic Studio 54. How has your experience with the company been so far?
Bryce Pinkham: Roundabout is a unique place because it creates Broadway-calibre shows, but as a not-for-profit company. What they lack in their ability to provide all the bells and whistles of a commercial production, they make up for triple-fold with support, encouragement and providing a space for us to be creative without having to worry about how it affects the bottom line. So, it’s a kind of different approach, really. As an actor or as creators at Roundabout, you can afford to be a little riskier and quirkier. I think this production – whilst at the same time being an homage to classic musicals – we’ve taken a story that a lot of people know from the 1940s and we’ve updated it and made it our own. That’s something that Roundabout has made possible.
THM: Of course, Bing Crosby famously portrayed the character of Jim Hardy in the 1942 film. As an actor, when you’ve been cast in a role like that, do you tend to take inspiration from the original performance or do you actively avoid watching it?
BP: I did watch some parts of the movie when we originally did a workshop of this piece and I wanted to take some inspiration from that style of leading man in that kind of genre of movie musical. But I knew I could never compete with Bing Crosby’s characterisation, so I kinda gave myself permission to not try and recreate everything he did and take my own stab at it. It sort of reminds me of my experience doing Ghost [The Musical], where we had an iconic movie with iconic actors playing the roles. I knew I would never measure up to Tony Goldwyn. I just had to do my own version of the part. So, I’ve had that kind of experience already. Similar with the singing – no one sounds like Bing Crosby, so to try and imitate him (outside of a Bing Crosby autobiographical musical) would be foolish. We changed the keys to fit my voice. I sing them in my voice, just with colourings inspired by Bing and the genre and the time period. The creators really gave me the permission to make it my own, which I’m really grateful for.
THM: Having seen both the 1942 movie and this stage adaptation now, there are some obvious differences. Gone are the potentially offensive, racial stereotypes from back in the day and now we have your co-star Corbin Bleu playing Fred Astaire’s role of Ted Hanover. Can you highlight some of the other differences?
BP: Sure. We updated the material to our modern sensibilities and our understanding of what is acceptable to all our audience members. We encouraged the Roundabout to give us a cast as diverse as a cast on Broadway looks today. Our ensemble looks like a group of New York actors, which we’re very proud of. And as you said, one of our lead actors, who plays the Fred Astaire role, was cast primarily for his talent and not the way he looks. Initially, our book writers intended to update the female characters to give them more three-dimensionality and independence in a way that would allow our three leading ladies to have something more to sink their teeth into. At the same time, we all remember that we’re in a musical in which the main star of the show is Irving Berlin and his music. We’re spinning a lot of plates at once, but ultimately, we’ve updated the script for a modern audience as best we can, whilst preserving the nostalgia of the classic musical feel.
THM: I also noticed another change in that Corbin Bleu as Ted was no longer competing as a love interest rival with yourself for Lila and then Linda, but keeping it strictly business. How did that affect your onstage chemistry and what is your chemistry like off-stage too?
BP: Well, Corbin and I get along great. I think part of the reason we do is because he is coming to the entire process with such joy and excitement about being back on Broadway. He has spent a lot of time in front of the camera and he was excited to be able to show off his incredible tap skills. But he also came with humility and reverence for theatre-making that made it very easy to get along with him. I agree with you that they took away the love triangle aspect of it and it was to make the choice for Linda more about – does she want to settle down and have a family in the country or does she want to pursue her dream? That’s something that not only the women in the audience – the men as well – but specifically the women can understand that conflict. It makes her decision more difficult and more understandable from a modern perspective. It’s no longer just about which guys she is going to choose. It’s really about whether she wants to follow a childhood dream or stay with the man she’s in love with. I think the conflict is a little more believable then. It also lets Corbin and I have more of a friendship from the beginning rather than romantic competition and I think that also makes him more sympathetic to the audience.
THM: Well, you definitely make for a very sympathetic character too and you’re certainly earning your stripes singing, dancing, playing piano and even juggling at one point. What’s the part of the show you most look forward to each evening?
BP: It changes. Right now I’m really enjoying the beginning because it is the only time really that Corbin and I get to perform together. It’s that first song where we’re just starting out on the road. We get to do a little song and dance and it’s the time when I get to interact with and feel out the audience on any given night. So I do look forward to that opening number and who wouldn’t look forward to singing “White Christmas” on Broadway?! I love that moment in the show. Everyone knows it’s coming and you also feel the audience rediscovering how great a song it is. It truly is an honour to get to sing one of the greatest holiday songs ever written.
THM: I think my highlight of your performance was your rendition of “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” as you head towards Valentine’s Day.
BP: Thank you! I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much that song has allowed me to explore part of my voice that I just haven’t been able to use on Broadway up until now – that croony, classic sprig that all these leading men that I looked up to – the Gene Kellys and the Bing Crosbys of the world – had that sort of ring in their voices. I guess that’s the one song that I get to focus on that style the most. It’s also the song that Irving Berlin was convinced would be the runaway hit of the musical. Of course, “White Christmas” became the hit, but Irving always thought “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” would be the single from the show.
THM: What is your own favourite holiday in real life, Bryce?
BP: Oh, I would have to say Thanksgiving! It’s a nostalgic time of year before all the commercial madness of Christmas and New Year’s takes over. When I was in college, I was on the East coast and my entire family was on the West coast and for Thanksgiving, I would always get together with High School friends who were also on the East coast. We’d all gather around the same table after not having seen each other for a few months, so I just grew to love the spirit of that holiday, sitting around the table and actively taking a moment to realise how much we have to be thankful for.
THM: “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For,” as the show says! And I was certainly thankful for a night of escapism at the theatre in the midst of these politically worrying times. So, finally, could you sum up what our readers could expect from a stay at your ‘Holiday Inn’?
BP: Well, you said it. If you come to our show, we’re gonna give you a holiday from whatever is going on in your life. We’re gonna make you laugh, make you gleeful and we’ll tap our toes off to help you escape for a couple of hours.
Holiday Inn is booking through to 15 January 2017 at Broadway's Studio 54. Click HERE for tickets!