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Wong Goes Pop

Tony-winning B.D. Wong makes his cabaret debut this month at Joe's Pub, promising Leslie (Hoban) Blake a no-show-tunes show. logo
B.W. Wong
A dozen years ago when B.D. Wong won several of theater's most prestigious awards (including the Drama Desk, Theatre World, and Tony) for M. Butterfly, no one could have predicted the twists and turns his remarkably sturdy career would take. A vociferous advocate of non-traditional casting during the Miss Saigon flap of '91, Wong is living proof of n-tc's success.

The once fragile, cross-dressing star of David Henry Hwang's Tony winner has been in some 20 films (he's currently filming The Salton Sea, starring Val Kilmer), and will perform the lead role in the new original cast recording of Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, a 1970 (flop) musical version of Teahouse of the August Moon. And let us not forget his fourth season as Father Ray, the resilient prison chaplain on Tom Fontana's starkly dramatic (and recently re-renewed) HBO prison series OZ. Along the way, he's also become a song and dance man both on and Off-Broadway.

Even before last season's Broadway audiences discovered his musical prowess as Linus in Michael Mayer's updated, multicultural You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Wong wowed audiences downtown at his theatrical home, The Drama Dept, co-starring in a stylish revival of the 1933 political musical As Thousands Cheer.

"I love musical theater," he enthuses, "and my experiences with Charlie Brown and As Thousand Cheer were great for me, because I got to do these things I hadn't done before." Now, he's readying his Joe's Pub cabaret debut, which he'll perform the first three Mondays in June. "The show isn't what anyone might expect," he reveals. "It's called Pop, and my postcard states that I'm not singing show tunes."

"I've just reached a point where I know this is the perfect creative outlet for me," he continues. "I was looking for something to do when the Pub opened. I've seen a couple of things there and I love the space and the kind of people who are working there. It's something I've never done before, and I'm really dying to do it. I'm starting from the ground up with an incredible music director named Dan Lipton, and we've been working on the Pub show on-and-off for a few months, often via email." The actor explains, "We met working on a play that I'm hoping The Drama Dept. will produce for me in the near future--a one person musical."

"Musicals are really in my heart, but I'm primarily not a singer. I'm about interpretation and more and more. I enjoy singing as an outlet for acting. What I'm most interested in right now is the kind of pop music that has theatricality--poetry and drama--songs that lend themselves to storytelling and character. All the songs we've chosen are by singer-songwriters from the last three decades, who originally recorded them as well. Some are very old, some very new, ranging from vintage Paul Simon to Macy Grey and the Ben Folds Five. (Dan and I really love this group!). I want to explore this music from an actor's standpoint in the context of the ever-changing relationship between musical theater and pop music."

"I didn't want to just do 'An Evening with...' I'm not interested in sharing myself by telling stories about my childhood or talking about the shows I've done--although I might if it relates to the character in the song." Wong explains, "At this stage of my own creativity, I still want to be the messenger, channeling someone else's work. So for me it's about choosing great material and playing different characters. I'm not a pop singer. I'm not going to wail on that little stage or offer yet another cover. I want to get to the point or the root of the song. Dan and I have even said, okay, this song isn't from a show, but what if it were the 11 o'clock [or breakout] number? And that's how I'll perform it."

So does Wong see this eclecticism as a real trend among younger performers hitting the cabaret scene? Or is it just coincidence that at Joe's Pub this May and June, three young musical theater lights (Melissa Errico, David Campbell, and now B.D. Wong) have all eschewed the "great American songbook" in favor of the pop/rock scene? Errico performed an all-Randy Newman evening, and Campbell chose fellow Saturday Night actor Michael Pemberton's music.

Wong comments, "To its credit, Joe's has become this place where anything can happen--and that's exactly what it should be. No one's making us do this [cabaret], and yet we're all doing it with a very Public-Theater sensibility that I think Joe [Papp] himself would really have loved. Maybe knowing that, on some level, has encouraged all of us as artists to do what we really want to do."

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