The Long and Winding Road
Charles Wright on two new books about The Actor's Life.
Jeffry Denman admits that he fancies himself "quite the young song-and-dance man." And, indeed, Denman is a Broadway gypsy. You may not be familiar with him but he aims to make his name a household word, a pretty bold ambition in an era when theater seems to recede daily from its once integral position in American culture. Yet Denman may be the guy to defy odds.
He didn't pull a Shirley MacLaine (industry parlance for attaining overnight success) upon arriving in New York eight years ago, but Denman has worked steadily in high profile, sometimes successful shows. Like thousands among the competition, he's got ample talent, plus training as a so-called 'triple threat' in dancing, singing, and acting. What's less common and, ultimately, more useful is the je ne sais quoi that's wired into folks like Denman, preventing loss of heart in the face of uncertain employment and frequent rejection. Call it drive, perseverance, chutzpah, or balls, it's that element that distinguishes dyed-in-the-wool show folk from those of us who are content to stay in the audience.
Now, Denman is the author of a slender volume of flat-footed prose, cumbersomely titled A Year With THE PRODUCERS: One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey from CATS to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit. This chronicle, culled from a daily diary, begins in late summer 2000 when the now-and-forever hit Cats was about to close, bringing to an end the author's gig as the final replacement Munkustrap. At the same moment, Denman was boarding an emotional roller coaster, auditioning (over a period of several weeks) for the dream team of Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, Susan Stroman, and Patrick Brady, who were casting The Producers. He landed a job in the ensemble and four tiny roles, including the Blind Violinist of the opening scene and Scott, the flamboyant choreographer. Later, he would become understudy for two of the musical's principal characters.
Denman's book follows The Producers' company from its formation to first reading, blocking, rehearsals, costume fittings, an enormously successful pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago, and then back to New York where the show took the public by storm, collecting a record number of Tony Awards. It ends, as the title suggests, approximately a year later, with Denman appearing as Leo Bloom for four performances, covering for absent star Matthew Broderick.
By concentrating on what some would call "finer points" and others would call "trivia," Denman gives his saga a compelling, "you-are-there" quality. He ushers the reader through the Masonic rites of auditions, opening nights, and closing performances; he explains the pecking order of production staff and company members; he illuminates the intricacies of backstage etiquette. What's most enlightening about the book, though, is the tour that Denman conducts across the emotional landscape of the professional actor. Every chapter is informed, in roughly equal measure, by the author's passion for performing and by the anxieties of this peculiar trade in which destiny is inextricably linked to bodily charms and the fleeting assets of youth. A Year With THE PRODUCERS is an opportunity not only to peep into the rarified realm of the commercial theater but also to view the world at large through the lens of an inveterate performer's mentality.
Like Bobby (Thommie Walsh's character in A Chorus Line), Denman was raised in Buffalo, where he enjoyed an early romance with original cast albums and acted in community theater. Also like Bobby, he made a hasty escape downstate, drawn like metal to magnet by the showbiz rituals of midtown Manhattan. The Chorus Line character is best remembered for noting how, in adolescence, he realized that "to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant." Denman, by contrast, would never bad-mouth the hinterlands, especially not his hometown. He's a consummate careerist, as determined as Sammy Glick to stay on the upward road. Part of his gift for self-promotion is his sensitivity to the sensibilities of potential fans--he's fully aware that Broadway is beholden to those faithful tourists from upstate, and what likelier breeding ground for his own fan club than the town that knew him when?
This isn't to belittle Denman. His self-confidence, though possiblly a mechanism of self-defense, is enviable. But how unnerving to realize, upon reaching the final page, that the author is ending his story with his personal emotional high of Monday, September 10, 2001. Basking in the glow of playing Leo Bloom for an entire weekend, Denman reflects on the past 12 months: "The dreams and hopes I had for the coming year. Did they come true? Not all of them. But others that I hadn't even thought of did. And you won't hear me complaining about any of it." Curtain. Finis. End of book.
Yes, Deman has written a protracted account of September 10, 2001 without acknowledging the terrorist attacks and resulting carnage that occurred a few hours later. Considering that on the very next day the world changed irrevocably for all of us, one might expect Denman to advert somewhere to the destruction of life and property a few blocks downtown from the Theater District. He might, at least, have noted that the performance of The Producers that should have followed his weekend as Leo was cancelled for a national day of mourning; that the entertainment community fretted that, after the World Trade Center attacks, audiences would stay away from New York City theaters. From Denman's perspective, it seems, those two evening performances and two matinees on stage with Nathan Lane trump everything--even 9/11.
The worst news about A Year With THE PRODUCERS is that Denman chose to write it alone, rather than soliciting the literary abilities of a ghost or co-author. Though there's a sense of immediacy about the carelessly constructed journal entries, the limited charm of Denman's narrative technique doesn't counterweigh his abundant bloopers in diction and grammar. His verbal errors and infelicities cry out for a stronger hand from the publisher. Still, while the book shatters the commandments of grammar and the tinhorn clatter of its rhetoric often annoys, it is nonpareil as a study of the narcissism necessary to compete for the limelight in the hard-knock world of musical theater.
Glenn Alterman's An Actor's Guide--Making It in New York City is a well-organized vade mecum for would-be Jeffry Denmans. Alterman, a playwright, actor, and acting coach, has compiled a wide assortment of data and advice that's useful--if not downright essential--to those waging an assault on the City and the Profession. Alterman describes the neighborhoods of New York's five boroughs, explains how and where to find acting jobs and survival work, discusses the performers' unions, and provides tips on auditioning and marketing oneself. The book contains handy lists, samples of appropriate résumés and headshots, and interviews with real estate experts, acting teachers, talent agents, casting directors, and actors who've made it, along with an ample bibliography of reference resources. Topics range from the mundane (how to navigate NYC) to the philosophical (the virtues of nontraditional casting, the nature of "professionalism") and the scary (scams new and old that exploit actors' vulnerabilities).
Alterman, with his humane authorial voice and practical outlook, is always respectful of the acting profession and those who pursue it. Without being a naysayer, he acknowledges the odds against pulling a Shirley MacLaine or landing, like Denman, in a life-transforming mega-hit. "There are so many reasons why a career does and doesn't take off," he writes. "You have to believe in yourself and your talent, and yes, you have to persevere, no matter what....How much you want it is everything. How many years of your life you're willing to dedicate to this dream is up to you. When is enough enough? Only when you, and you alone, say it is. You are the only one who has the power (and yes, the perseverance) to latch on to your dream."