But if the season's most intriguing leading man feels pressure, he didn't show it during run-throughs of the songs "Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones." With crystal clear diction and a look of wide-eyed mischief, Bierko seemed at ease with patter, song, and Stroman's acrobatic choreography. His explanation for remaining cool in the face of cameras, producers, and assorted outsiders: "I'm pretty drunk." He's a kidder, too--a quality that should serve him well in playing one of musical theater's most charming rogues. "It's the closest I'm going to ever get to being a rap star," the 34-year-old actor told CNN after winning the role. His producers will settle for Bierko becoming a Broadway star when The Music Man opens at the Neil Simon Theatre on April 26.
"It makes no sense on paper," Dodger Theatricals' always quotable Michael David says of casting Bierko. "And I must say that, when we began, we never imagined that something like this would happen. But we played the game fairly, and he won the role. He did it five times against all sorts of other wonderful people and, each time, we looked at each other and said, 'The guy is incredible.' Does it increase the risk? In some ways, sure. But you're in this business for the action, and casting him in The Music Man increases the action."
One need only look to Douglas Sills' performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel as an example of what a talented Broadway newcomer can do with a big, juicy role. (Sills did have extensive theatrical credits on the road.) And the ghost of Robert Preston doesn't seem to loom quite so large over Bierko when one considers how easily Tony winner Alan Cumming made another signature role--the Emcee in Cabaret--his own. Still, The Music Man demands a certain level of star power, a fact acknowledged by Stroman herself.
"It all rests of Craig really; he is the force of the show," says the highly respected director/choreographer. "The producers wanted me to find a fellow from the TV or film world, and we saw a lot of people. What Craig had that nobody else had was a complete command of the language. He has power in his speaking voice, and The Music Man is all about the rhythm of the traveling salesman's pitch. If you don't have command of your voice for the stage, you cannot do this show. Craig has perfect diction, he's a wonderful, elegant comedian, and," she adds with a smile, "he's not bad to look at. I feel blessed that he came in to audition, because he really earned the part."
Stroman has always had a good casting eye. Her breakthrough show as a choreographer, the 1991 off-Broadway Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes Round, featured Karen Ziemba, Robert Cuccioli, Karen Mason, Brenda Pressley, and Jim Walton (now Bierko's understudy). Last fall, she plucked former Rockette Deborah Yates--now known as the Girl in the Yellow Dress in Stroman's hit dance play Contact--from a chorus casting call.
"It's nice to trust your driver when you're in a swiftly moving vehicle," Bierko quips of putting himself in Stroman's hands. He says of The Music Man's lengthy audition process, "If Susan Stroman was interested in seeing me for a role, I was interested in auditioning. Happily, we connected, and she liked what she saw enough to cast me. Now, when I watch these actors rehearse, I just think: 'I'm okay. This is going to be fine.' It's amazing to feel so supported by such talented people."
While guiding The Music Man through rehearsals, Stroman was overseeing the transfer of Contact from the Newhouse to the Beaumont Theatre, a move which makes the show Tony eligible. "The fact that both shows landed in the same season is incredible," she acknowledges. "Contact is unbelievably contemporary, with mature, adult themes. The Music Man, of course, is a family-oriented revival, so they're very different. But they're both very much a part of me. These two shows round out my entire emotional system; to have my dark side and my musical comedy side exposed to the Broadway community at the same time is great." (Sadly for both Stroman and the community, her husband and frequent collaborator, director Mike Ockrent, died of leukemia in December.)