Final Bow: A.J. Shively Hitches His Wagon to the Next Bright Star
A.J. Shively has spent nearly three years traversing the country as the fresh-faced war-vet-turned-author Billy Cane in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's original musical Bright Star. He's been with the show since its first workshop in February 2014. He followed it through out-of-town tryouts in San Diego and Washington, D.C., it landed on Broadway this past February (his second Broadway role following his run in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles).
The Tony-nominated production (for which Shively garnered a Drama Desk nomination) plays its final performance this Sunday, June 25, at the Cort Theatre, so Shively took a few moments to reflect on some choice memories from his time living in post-World War II North Carolina. As he's learned, making a brand-new musical is a tall task — but when Steve Martin is in the room, the process gets a whole lot brighter.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say or sing?
I think it's gotta be the lyric in "Bright Star." "You never know what life will bring. Only what you bring to life." It's a good way to start the show and center yourself. It doesn't matter what's happening that day. It's like, "OK, this too shall pass."
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
We have a lot of adjusted lines that we do. But I think probably the best one is in a very, very dramatic scene when [the mayor] tells Jimmy Ray what's happened to his son. He has a line that says, "I couldn't have papers in my briefcase, I had something better." And the line is, "Had me a baby in a suitcase." But we backstage like to say, "Had something better — had me a Big Mac." It'll be something different every day but we always try to come up with something better than papers to have in a suitcase and we say it along with the mayor backstage.
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
The worst technical mishap is actually one of my favorite stories. This happened out of town in San Diego. Carmen [Cusack] has so many quick changes in the show so her costumes are all held together with snaps and magnets. In one of our office scenes she was older Alice Murphy talking with Billy and being very strict about how he needed to fix his writing and she stood up to make her powerful exit and her skirt had attached itself to the chair she was sitting on with the magnets. So her skirt stayed sitting down when she stood up to leave. She just picked it up, swung it over her shoulder and marched out of there.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
I got a card the other day. It was homemade and beautifully done, but on the front it was just my costume cut out of construction paper — so like the orange jacket and the brown pants I wear — which I thought was an interesting choice.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Well when Steve Martin is one of your creators, how can you top that? Bebe Neuwirth had seen Bright Star [and then we did] the 24 Hour Musicals together, so now I feel like I've actually gotten to know her a little bit, which is really, really, really freaking cool. Also, Joel Grey has come a number of times and I've been able to talk to him afterward. To actually have a conversation with these people that you've grown up idolizing, it's pretty surreal.
6. What's your best Steve Martin anecdote?
So Steve — people expect him to be goofy and the "wild and crazy guy" all the time. But he's just a normal person and a very, very hard worker. There was a moment we were in rehearsals in San Diego where they were just trying to figure out how to make something work and people were starting to get frustrated. So Steve got up and left to go to the bathroom or something and he pretended to get stuck in the door and did a full Steve Martin comedy bit stuck in the door for a full two minutes. It totally broke the tension in the room and got us all laughing.
7. What was it like being up for a Drama Desk Award and participating in awards season?
It was completely unexpected first of all. It felt gratifying. I'm proud of the work that we've done, and I know that working with Carmen has made me a better actor. It's something you dream about but you don't ever expect to actually happen. It's still very surreal that I got invited to go and get dressed up and walk the red carpet. I was in the same category as Chris Fitzgerald, who is someone I've looked up to for a really long time, and I was sitting next to Frank Langella. To be included in that group was unbelievable. This whole experience has been surreal and everything you imagine it would be. Except you don't imagine the lack of sleep. That's the part nobody talks about.
8. What was it like bringing a new musical to Broadway for the first time?
To be involved with Bright Star the few years prior to opening on Broadway was so much fun. I love new work. I like watching how it comes together. I'm so impressed with people who can write and who can come up with ideas from nothing. I was a happy fly on the wall for the past three years watching Bright Star come together.
9. Your character gets his first introduction to alcohol every night in the song "Another Round." What is your personal drink of choice?
I always go for bourbon. That's been cemented in the last few years [with the show] being set in North Carolina. I like beer too.
10. What do you think happens to Billy and Alice after the curtain comes down?
I think they maintain and build the relationship that they were already building. One of the takeaways for me from the show is that you have to be OK by yourself before you can be OK with others. So I think it's only when [Billy and Alice] are ready for each other that they find each other. So I don't know that the relationship really changes. I think it's just spoken out loud. It's like, "Oh, this is why we get along so well. This is why we like each other so much. And now we'll see each other on Thanksgiving."