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For Will Swenson, Being a Pirate King Really Is a Glorious Thing

Swenson stars in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage Company.

Will Swenson (center) plays the Pirate King in John Rando's production of The Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage Company.
(© Kevin Sprague)

As a youngster, Will Swenson would watch the 1983 film version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt, "on a loop."

Thirty years have passed, but the swashbuckling Pirate King always remained a role that he'd like to try, and now he's finally getting that opportunity. Through August 13, audiences can catch Swenson and fellow Broadway vets Kyle Dean Massey and Scarlett Strallen running amok at Barrington Stage Company, in a new production of the comic operetta directed by John Rando.

At the same time, Swenson is prepping to welcome a newborn with his wife, Shuffle Along leading lady Audra McDonald. It's a thrilling time for the McDonald-Swenson household, and to say they're excited is an understatement.

Kyle Dean Massey and Will Swenson share the stage in The Pirates of Penzance.
(© Kevin Sprague)

When did you first discover The Pirates of Penzance?
As a kid, maybe eight years old. We used to watch the Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt movie on a loop. It's so funny.

Have you always wanted to play the Pirate King?
Yeah, it's always been on my radar. I generally get excited by new things, because I get frustrated trying to fit into the preconceived ideas of what a role should be. So I'm usually like, "I like new stuff." I'm one of those guys. But there have been a few roles throughout my life where I'm like, "Oh, I'd like to get my hands on that one." The Pirate King was right up there.

Is it as glorious as W.S. Gilbert's lyrics promise?
"It is, it is." [laughs] It's just the stupidest, funniest part. It's a gem where anything works. In one second, you can be doing the silliest, most unbelievable thing, which works in the tone of the show, and the next minute, there can be this legitimate, beautiful love ballad that works with the same tone. I don't know how they pulled it off. Even the book scenes. I can't speak for how they communicated back in England in 1879, but the book scenes are funny and really dry. It's still hilarious. Gilbert and Sullivan just works all these years later.

Tell me about John Rando's concept.
It's pretty straightforward. John is probably the most authentically creative director that I've ever worked with. Some directors, you'll show up on day one and they're like, "Let's discuss what this is gonna be," and you ask a question and they go, "I don't know. Let's try stuff." John shows up on day one and he's like, "OK, here's my thought for this." He's just got this bucketful of ideas ready to go. It's set in 1879 and we're staying very much within those parameters. That being said, we're doing some very, very silly things with it.

The whole first part is taking place on an actual pirate ship, and they built a gangplank down the middle of the theater, so we're very much among the patrons. Because it's a very small space, we're terrorizing the audience members. [laughs] It's so good. It's the whole On the Town team: John and [choreographer] Josh [Bergasse] and [set designer] Beowulf [Borritt]. Not to mention [that] the cast is absurd. Every time Kyle sings, I'm like "Holy Crap, where did that kid get his voice?" And Scarlett, as well. Their stuff together is amazing. It's such a great theater. I'd never been up here before. It's got an older feeling to it, but it's renovated so it's new.

In other news, how are the baby preparations going?
They're good. I feel like a crappy husband for being apart from Audra for this amount of time. I'm actually amazed she's gotten this far. I can't believe it. I'm like, "Babe, you don't have to prove anything to anybody. We all think you're amazing. Whenever you're ready, please be done." But she's wrapping up her run and she'll come up here and kick back with me for the rest of my run.

Are you ready to be dad to a newborn again?
[laughs] That's a loaded question. I don't think you ever could be. It's been a while since I've had a newborn, but I'm super excited because it's my first with Audra. We're really, really thrilled.

Will Swenson and Audra McDonald will welcome a new baby to their family later this year.
(© David Gordon)