James McDaniel has played a lot of great parts in his career, from Paul in the original Off-Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation to Lt. Arthur Fancy on the long-running ABC series NYPD Blue. But few roles can compare to his current one: Technical Sergeant Vernon C. Waters in the upcoming Second Stage revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play co-starring Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie, and Steven Pasquale.
"I went to military school when I was younger, so I know what that kind of life is like, how people act, how to command respect," says McDaniel, explaining why he's so frequently cast as authority figures. "I remember the first time I came home from school; everyone was so impressed by how erect I walked. Experiences like that change your bearing and the way you move, so I think people who cast me see something forthright in me -- but I've played a lot of bad guys too."
McDaniel was quite familiar with the role of Waters -- who could be categorized as a "bad guy" -- since he had a smaller role in the play's original Off-Broadway production 23 years ago. Did he ever imagine that he would someday step into Waters' shoes? "It's such a great role, like Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, that you want to think about playing it," McDanield comments. "But Adolph Caesar [who created the role] put such an indelible stamp on it that it never crossed my mind. Plus, it's a part I thought I might not play for another 15 years. I guess we stay eternally youthful in our minds."
The 47-year-old actor admits that his perception of Waters has changed significantly over the past two decades: "Back then, I think I saw Waters as more of a bad guy, but now I think he's just a little misguided. I think in part through age, wisdom and experience, you forgive people their frailties; but as an actor, you always have to be empathetic toward the character you're playing, so I'm not sure how much age really has to do with it."
There's another sense in which playing Waters is a homecoming for the actor: He moved back to New York from L.A. after 13 years to take on the role, driving cross-country to do so and dropping off one son at college on the way. "It's really great to be back in this most fabulous city," he says. "I'm hearing sounds I haven't heard for 13 years." And there's no place McDaniel would rather be celebrating his 23rd wedding anniversary: "I actually got married on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theater while I was doing the play the first time."
KEEPING HIS SONGS IN MIND
What do Audra McDonald, Rebecca Luker, Judy Kuhn, and Victoria Clark have in common, other than glorious voices? It's their fondness for the songs of Jeff Blumenkrantz. Lucky for them and for many others, 18 items written by the actor-turned-Tony-nominated songwriter (he was nominated for his contributions to Urban Cowboy) have been collected in The Jeff Blumenkrantz Songbook, Vol. 1, which is being published this month.
Blumenkrantz's latest project is setting the poems of Irishman Paul Muldoon to music. His compositions, along with settings by fellow composers Michael John LaChiusa, Kirsten Childs, and Stephen Flaherty, wlll be performed by the wonderful Darius de Haas at the Guggenheim Museum as part of its Works & Process series on October 2 and 3.
Meanwhile, it's certainly possible that McDonald -- whose husband, bassist Peter Donovan , will accompany de Haas -- will soon be singing Blumenkrantz's "I Won't Mind" (which she recorded on her CD How Glory Goes) or "My Book" (which Blumenkrantz wrote for her Seven Deadly Sins concert at Carnegie Hall). She has two upcoming appearances at NJPAC in Newark: On October 1 she will headline the arts center's annual benefit, and on November 19 she'll appear as half of the double act of a lifetime with the magnificent Barbara Cook.
WITH SIX YOU GET HILARITY
Valerie Fagan found a lot the truth in that old saw about how the more things change, the more they stay the same when updating the material for her 20-year-old revue 6 Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know, which is being presented as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival. "So much of what we wrote is still topical," she notes. "But while Ronald Reagan was scary, George W. Bush is horrifying. Every morning, I wonder if we're going to have a bio-terrorism attack before we can get this show up again."
Fagan co-wrote the revue, which focuses on everything from road rage to the secret life of Barbie and Ken, with the late Mark Houston, a dear friend whom she met on a Texas tour of Side by Side by Sondheim. A possible commercial production in New York fell apart shortly after Houston's death 10 years ago, but interest in the show revived after it was presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003. "For some reason, they used eight women but didn't change the title," Fagan notes with a laugh. "I didn't see it, but I heard they loved it because it was very 'American.' "
This go-round, Fagan is really enjoying working with the other five women in the cast: Cheryl Alexander, Amoriko Amoroso, Joy Franz, Leisa Mather, and Pearl Sun. "I'm a veteran of Forbidden Broadway, so you know I have this loud Ethel Merman voice, but these gals are even louder," she remarks. "Our opening number goes on for 10 minutes, and it's so exciting to hear these six voices blaring. But the best part is giving rock lessons to Joy. She's so used to singing Sondheim that she keeps trying to count the beats. But she's getting down now. I'm telling you, Joy is really hip!"
It's no surprise that the first few performances of Elaine Stritch: At Home at the Carlyle brought out some starry admirers. Among the lady's many adoring fans were Eartha Kitt, Michael Feinstein, Joan Rivers, Liz Smith, Barbara Carroll, and Eileen Fulton. Also on hand were superstar conductor James Levine (the subject of one of Stritch's most priceless stories) and songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who had wisely suggested that Stritch sing "Fifty Perecent" from their musical Ballroom in her show.
Elsewhere around the world: Former Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter will take on the role of Mama Morton in the London production of Chicago on September 26; Lynn Redgrave will perform her solo show Nightingale at New York's Culture Project on September 27 and Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art on September 28; former NYPD Blue cast member Bill Brochtrup will star in Theater District at Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company, starting September 30; and Phylicia Rashad will reprise her Tony-nominated role of Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean at San Francisco's A.C.T. beginning in February, 2006.
WHEN IN VEGAS
Avenue Q stars John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon aren't the only transplanted New Yorkers to be found at the beautiful and immense Wynn Las Vegas. Chef Stephen Kalt, formerly of TriBeCa's Spartina, is behind the stove at Corso Cucina, the chic Italian eatery just down the hall from Q's brand-new theater. If you find yourself in Vegas, stop in for such superb creations as bucatini with duck ragu and Dungeness crab-stuffed shells. Trust me, they're delicious!