Stephen Bienskie and Ken Jennings in High Button Shoes
(© Diane Sobolewski)
Stephen Bienskie and Ken Jennings in High Button Shoes
(© Diane Sobolewski)
Stephen Bienskie is butch, handsome, hirsute, and doesn't wear glasses. So what's he doing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut playing expert con-man Harrison Floy, the part that fey, funny-faced, bald, and bespectacled Phil Silvers made famous in High Button Shoes, the longest-running musical of the 1947-1948 season? As it happens, Bienskie has played everything from one of the leading roles in Cats to Buffalo Bill (in a musical version of Silence of the Lambs) to leads in show with names such as Spit It Out and Slut!, so this is just one more acting challenge for the talented New Jersey native.

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THEATERMANIA: So before this all began, what did you know about Phil Silvers?

STEPHEN BIENSKIE: Not a thing. I had to You-Tube him, and when I did, I thought, "God, that's not me!" I called my agent and asked, "Is this a mistake? Did my name slip onto some callback sheet by accident?" But that wasn't the case.

TM: Playing a likable con-man can't be easy.

SB: Greg Ganakas, the director, and I talked a lot about it, because I said, "I can't let this audience not be with me. There really has to be a sense of longing in the character." Really, I think his goal is to be an ordinary citizen, but for now, he's just doing the best he can in what he knows how to do the best. I had to approach it from a positive standpoint, and not think of myself as a swindler who's just out to get this lovely family who doesn't want very much out of life.

TM: When did you first hear the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn score?

SB: When we did our first run-through. I'm not a stranger to this type of music; you do hear it now and then -- though the musicals I've done have mostly been guitar-heavy. I have to tell you, though, when we did our first play through with the orchestra, I was almost brought to tears.

TM: This has to be the one and only musical that takes place in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Ever been there?

SB: Sure have. I'm from Montville, New Jersey, which is less than a half hour away. I had a friend who went to Rutgers, I was in a heavy metal band called Savage Attack, and we'd play down there.

TM: Heavy metal doesn't sound too compatible with High Button Shoes.

SB: I got into musical theater completely by default. All my musical training was in rock music. I did go to Montclair State University's acting program. We did musicals there, but I concentrated more on playing Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alan Strang in Equus.

TM: That's still pretty far afield from a Jule Styne musical.

SB: What happened was that someone saw me singing with an a cappella group, and came up to me afterwards and said, "You know, you should audition for The Who's Tommy." Well, my parents were big fans of The Who, so I decided to go to an open call. No Equity card, nothing, but they did like me enough to express an interest, though they told me, "You need to work on your dancing," and they sent me to dance school.

TM: Meaning they paid for it?

SB: I wish! No, I paid.

TM: From the money you made in singing for Savage Attack?

SB: From working public relations for an art company that dealt with crafts shows. I kept auditioning for something like a year, hearing, "You're doing better, you're not there yet." But finally they took me into the ensemble for the tour.

TM: What was the best part of the experience?

SB: Meeting Pete Townshend, and getting to do it in Germany, where I covered Michael Cerveris. Michael was incredibly gracious and taught the title role to me. My next job was in Zombie Prom as one of the kids.

TM: I remember attending it at a late preview and thinking that it would be a smash, based on how enthusiastic the crowd was.

SB: The audiences were absolutely crazy for it. I think maybe, because we opened just after Rent did off-Broadway that hurt us with the critics. It was groundbreaking, we were a lighthearted sci-fi spoof, and we suffered with bad reviews and a short run. Three years later, I think we would have been a hit -- just as Bat Boy was. It's all in the timing and the trends.

TM: What were your other favorite jobs?

SB: The Last Session, as Buddy, a Southern Bible Belt Christian type who finds out that his gospel idol is gay and dying of AIDS. The Fix at Signature, playing Cal, the political candidate. I worked closely with the writers, and they brought me to meet with Sam Mendes in England.

TM: And this time, they paid?

Stephen Bienskie (center) in High Button Shoes
(© Diane Sobolewski)
Stephen Bienskie (center) in High Button Shoes
(© Diane Sobolewski)
SB: Yes! And then I was a Leopard in Just So, right here at Goodspeed.

TM: Then you played a very different kind of cat, didn't you?

SB: Yes, thanks to Cameron Mackintosh. He was involved with Just So, so when the role of Rum Tug Tugger was opening up on Broadway, he threw my name in the hat.

TM: What did Cats mean to you before you got to the Winter Garden?

SB: Not much. I didn't even know the show, and hadn't seen it. It was near the end of the run, the audiences were slim at best. It was very much a long-running show -- until they announced the closing. Gillian Lynne came back in and she and (musical director) David Caddick were amazing with me, letting me take the role into my world of rock 'n' roll, letting me do my thing, and putting my own stamp on it. There had been a few choreographic things that didn't sit right with my body, and they changed it for me. Rum Tum Tugger had been this Elvis character, but I made it closer to Marilyn Manson.

TM: And then you grew to have some affection for the show?

SB: It wasn't until that last few weeks that I really got it, and finally understood what it was and what it means to people and theater history. The audiences were unbelievable, standing on their feet in the middle of numbers.

TM: Let's hope they do the exact same thing for you in High Button Shoes.

SB: I don't think we'll get that, but I am grateful to be doing this. I know what this business is. I never lose sight of how lucky I am to be working.