Still incredulous: Brad Oscar reacts to his billingon the marquee of the St. James
Still incredulous: Brad Oscar reacts to his billing
on the marquee of the St. James
To call Brad Oscar "the Shirley MacLaine of the new millennium" would be something of a stretch, and not just because he makes no claim to having lived before. When MacLaine went on in The Pajama Game in place of Carol Haney, she was spotted by The Right Person and whisked away to Hollywood film stardom. Thus far, Oscar has no film credits--but his great talent and the fact that he is a trouper par excellence have earned him the star slot in the biggest Broadway hit in years.

By now, everyone with even a passing interest in the theater knows the Brad Oscar story. Originally cast as a swing in the Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan-Susan Stroman megahit The Producers, Oscar took over the role of the insane Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind from Ron Orbach during the pre-Broadway run in Chicago. When the show opened in New York, he garnered a Tony nomination for his performance. Meanwhile, he began to go on more and more frequently in the leading role of Max Bialystock as the cover for Nathan Lane, who was often absent due to vocal problems. Then, when actor Henry Goodman was fired soon after being signed to replace Lane, Oscar was handed the plum part on a full-time basis. (He will continue as Max through the end of the year, playing opposite TV star Steven Weber as Leo Bloom.)

People love a good "overnight success" story, and Oscar has already been interviewed on several occasions about his mind-boggling experiences over the past year and a half, but he kindly agreed to provide some further details for TheaterMania. Our interview took place at the well know theatrical grazing spot Joe Allen in mid May.

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THEATERMANIA: I've heard that you're moving. Yes?

BRAD OSCAR: No! Right now, that's the last thing I can even think about. It's enough just to get through the day, juggle everything, and make sure that I still have the energy and the stamina when I get to the theater. Those two-show days are a killer. I knew at the time what Nathan was going through, but now that I'm actually doing the part week after week, I realize there's no time to regroup. It's absurd! And, when you think about it, people in lesser roles have done only six shows a week. You know?

TM: Have you been managing eight a week?

BRAD: So far, yes--knock wood.

TM: That schedule was established many years ago and people seemed to follow it without much question for decades, but I get the sense that now there's been a shift in attitude. What's your feeling on the subject?

BRAD: It's all from the actor's point of view, your own perspective according to what you're doing and what you have done. I remember when I was in Forbidden Broadway; that was certainly the hardest I had ever worked up till then because that show is ridiculous in its demands. It was great training, unquestionably; I learned a lot about how to pace myself from doing it. What I find hardest about Max isn't the singing--thank God, it's right in my range. And, when you map it out, Max only has four numbers that he really has to tear into: "The King of Broadway," "We Can Do It," "Along Came Bialy," and "Betrayed." There's other singing involved, but those are the four big ones. So the singing is not the problem....

TM: It's the screaming.

BRAD: Exactly. It's the screaming and the talking and all that character stuff. That's what I'm learning now to navigate: I'm trying to find where I can pull back and where I don't have to scream. When you pitch something at that vocal level, you have to think of it as singing, in a way, so that you're not grinding the cords. But it's hard to pull back when you're in the middle of a scene. You want to just throw yourself into it rather than have this running commentary in your head: "Okay, how am I feeling? Did I pitch that right? Did I hurt myself?" Nathan is a brilliant comedian; there are things he did that I'm just not going to be able to fill, and it's not worth the effort to try. Certainly, this has been confirmed by Stro and by Mel, that we don't need to work so hard to make some of these things work. We can change them, we can cut them, we can modify them.

TM: You've said that when you were the cover for Max you were more or less expected to recreate Nathan's interpretation of the part, but that now you have more freedom to make it your own. Are you trying to find new ways of approaching every moment--or almost every moment--in the show?

Oscar shows us where he came from (Franz Liebkind)
Oscar shows us where he came from (Franz Liebkind)
BRAD: No, because I think that's silly. To the extent that I indeed have been able to find my own line readings or things that feel more organic and more real for me, that's great. But I've never thought "I can't do that like Nathan because it's got to be me now, I need to make it my own." Let's face it, I've spent a lot of my career being compared to others: "Oh, you remind me of...you look like...you sound like..." All that stuff. It's a mixed blessing to have a ghost hanging over you! I can make things work for me in this show--but that has been hard to do, because Nathan was the definitive Max. I hope we can hang on to a vestige of what we had when the show opened while, at the same time, I can give my own performance. The show is very much based in that Mel Brooks kind of humor--that sketch comedy, vaudeville, and burlesque stuff--but there are different ways to play it. I've read where people said that Henry [Goodman] wanted to come in and not be like Nathan in any way, but I don't necessarily think that was his intent. I think he was just doing his Max Bialystock. No matter how talented you are, none of us can do everything.

TM: Obviously, Brooks and Stroman saw something in him at the audition that just didn't work well enough when he actually began to do the show.

BRAD: For whatever reason, they felt that the material wasn't landing the way they wanted it to. But the show was playing. I mean, it wasn't like we were tanking, and I didn't feel like we were going to be in real danger after Henry was reviewed. I never thought it was going to be that drastic...nor did I think they were going to make as drastic a move as they did.

TM: You've said that Henry was a total gentleman about it.

BRAD: Totally. The first thing that made me have great respect for him happened at the end of his first week in the show. The producers had a little welcome party for Henry and he came over to me and said: "Listen, I understand that this may be very difficult for you. You did the role so much and they could easily have given it to you when Nathan left. You were fantastic it." He had seen me do it several times while he was in rehearsal because I was still going on for Nathan twice a week. I thought it was so cool of him to broach the topic; a lot of times, people in that kind of situation won't even talk about it, but he did. Then, after everything went down and I had taken over the role, Henry came into my dressing room; it was after the Wednesday matinee, my second official performance as Max. He was very congratulatory and said, "You deserve it, you've earned it, you're great in the role. Do not feel bad for me--I did what I did, and it worked out how it worked out." What happened to him is an awful thing to have happen to any actor; it was a bittersweet way for me to assume the role. But Henry was very gracious and I'll always appreciate that. He was a real mensch.

TM: Between your show and Thoroughly Modern Millie, this is really the Year of the Understudy. Erin Dilly missed some performances of Millie in La Jolla, Sutton Foster went on, the powers that be decided that they liked her better in the part...and it was so long, Dillie. It must be very difficult when people feel they've made casting mistakes and then have to decide whether to stick with their choice or to create all sorts of upheaval by firing someone.

BRAD: About 90% of the time, I think, they just go with it--especially with a show that's settling into long-run status. We've all seen replacements in big Broadway musicals where we've thought, "Wow, how did that happen?"

TM: What exactly did Brooks and Stroman say to you about Henry's dismissal?

BRAD: Just that everyone had to make a very hard decision, and that this was the decision they had come to. Stro also said something to me in reference to what happened in Chicago and then what happened a few weeks ago; she said, "Well, once again, you've saved The Producers." Which is wild. When I first started to do Franz in Chicago, I think their initial thought was, "We've hired Brad as a swing for all these roles; we don't necessarily want to put him in as Franz and lose him in that capacity." But as the weeks went along--the more I got to perform, the more I got the role into my body and everything--they started to think, "Wow, he's our Franz!" It was like in the show: "That's our Hitler!"

TM: While you were going on for Nathan, didn't he also have another understudy?

BRAD: Yeah, there are two covers for every role.

TM: And that person is now your cover?

BRAD: Yes, Ray Wills. He went on a couple of times last May, the week before the Tonys, and he went on again when I took vacation in November. Now we have our new Franz, John Treacy Egan. I did so many years of Jekyll & Hyde with him, God bless him! He's one of my dearest friends, so that makes all of this so much sweeter.

TM: It's so ironic that you went from Jekyll & Hyde to The Producers, because--in my opinion--one show represents the absolute worst of musical theater while the other is the pinnacle. I don't expect you to badmouth J&H, but let me ask more generally: Is it like the difference betwen night and day to go out there when you know you're in something great as opposed to something mediocre or downright poor?

BRAD: Of course, it's easier when the material supports you. This machine has been so well put together and so well crafted from the top on down; you can't ask for anything more. When you have all that to support you, it makes it a lot easier to do your job. You don't have to go out there every night and try to fix something, try to make it play, whatever--you just have to do it. I know this show will spoil me for years to come.

The Producers' billboard in Times Square
The Producers' billboard in Times Square
TM: I've seen The Producers twice and it is truly phenomenal. I don't think I've ever heard such waves of joy and laughter in my life. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of all that?

BRAD: There's nothing like it. Especially in musical theater, there's a constant flow of energy between audience and performer. To do a number like "Betrayed," your classic 11:00 number...people ask me, "Isn't it exhausting?" And it is, in a way, but I've got to tell you that I never tire of it. Because it's the ultimate. It's what you dream of, and I love having the opportunity.

TM: Standing ovations have become commonplace in the theater, but I've always felt that laughter is a purer response. People can get caught up in applauding or cheering or standing along with the rest of the audience, but they will not laugh at something if it's not funny. It must be great to have that barometer, to hear a huge laugh that lets you know you've nailed a line or a bit of business.

BRAD: Yes...but it's scary when you miss one! When I don't get a laugh I think I should have gotten, I have to let it go right away. Otherwise, I will spend the evening obsessing: "Am I not funny tonight? What's going on?" There is one line that I don't understand and I will never understand. It always got a laugh with Nathan and Henry; now, it will occasionally get a titter. Last night, actually, one woman guffawed in a way that was so glaring because nobody else did, and I turned to Steven and said under my breath, "I love her!"

TM: So...what's the line?!

BRAD: We come to see the director, Roger De Bris. We sit down on the couch. Steven says, "Roger De Bris, is he bad?' I say "He stinks...This guy couldn't direct you to the bathroom." I think that's a pretty funny line but, I swear to God, I cannot get a solid laugh on it to save my life. I've tried it several different ways--saying it to Steven, saying it out front, all of that. It's gotten to the point where it's become a cast joke.

TM: You told me when we set up the interview that you have to be at the theater by 6:15 tonight. Do you always get there so early?

BRAD: No. A crew from this PBS show, Life 360, is going to be there; they've been working on a feature story on me for what feels like months now. They talked to my parents last week when they were in town. We walked to Times Square when the billboard went up with me on it--the whole thing. Tonight, they want to film me arriving at the theater. Thy have so much footage by now, they could do a 17-hour documentary on my life!

TM: Did they start filming right after Henry Goodman was let go?

BRAD: Actually, they started when I was Franz and was just covering Max. The whole story has been turned on end because of what happened.

TM: In what respects have you noticed that your life has changed? Do you find that people treat you much differently now that you're the full-time star of a blockbuster Broadway hit?

BRAD: Well, the attention and the recognition have been huge. And the perks are great--things like having a car when I need it. In that sense, I am being treated differently. I guess we all dream of taking a leap forward; it's concentric circles, and we want to get closer to that bull's eye. But I was always thrilled to be a part of the New York theater community and I have loved having a place in it for the past 12 or 13 years--whatever that place was. Now, for people that I idolize and worship to know who I am and congratulate me is very heady and terrific and amazing. The hardest thing has been trying to keep my life in balance and staying in touch with people, my friends and my family, when I sometimes feel like it's hard just coming up for air. But I will roll with it and do as much as I can do to keep everybody happy while primarily taking care of myself and staying focused.