There is nothing coincidental about Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors pairing two of theater’s most versatile comedic talents. Cowriter Steve Rosen met cast member Arnie Burton in 2011 when they both performed in Peter and the Starcatcher at New York Theatre Workshop. It wasn’t until they shared a Boston dressing room for Huntington Theatre Company’s A Confederacy of Dunces in 2015 that they realized their likeminded spirits and senses of humor.
When Rosen and Gordon Greenberg began writing this Bram Stoker makeover, they had Burton in mind for a role. As the show readies to open on September 20 at New World Stages, Rosen and Burton spoke with TheaterMania about their enduring friendship, the fang-tastic evolution of Dracula, and why Burton is thrilled to inhabit a character that he can sink his teeth into.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you get to know each other?
Steve Rosen: I was living in L.A. when I got a call to fill in for Christian Borle as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher while he was filming the pilot of Smash, but they hadn’t opened the show yet, so in six days I was trying to learn a part that wasn’t finished. Arnie was among this company of extraordinary artists. They were so kind to me while I was terrified and planted at the center of the production. I was so struck by his generosity of spirit and how he was able to create in this very strange world that Rick Elice had put together. I always secretly wanted to be friends with him one day.
When we got to work together on Confederacy of Dunces and share a dressing room, I was super excited. It was the absolute best because that’s when you really make the closest friends on a show.
Arnie Burton: I fell quite in love with this guy on Confederacy because he is an amazing comedy machine. The Other Josh Cohen is a celebration of kindness and decency, and that is in Steve’s DNA. It’s great to laugh with a friend, but if the kindness isn’t there as well, it just becomes hollow. Steve is truly a decent, kind person.
Steve: You realize I’m Steve, right?
Arnie: Yeah, but I thought you were dead. That’s why it sounds like I’m practicing for your funeral. “Steve was a decent man….”
What is it like to be working on a project in the same room again?
Arnie: Steve was one of the selling points. There’s nothing better than getting to say a funny line written by a friend.
Steve: That’s so sweet of you Arnie, but I can only take half the credit because I co-wrote the show, so every other word of the script is mine. When we were in Boston, we went to Salem to see the witch stuff around Halloween, and I got to see Arnie’s passion for the horror genre, but also his knowledge of these camp, classic movies. It is so in the pocket of what Terrors is.
When we were writing Terrors, we always had Arnie’s voice in our heads. Arnie, the very first time we read it out loud, we asked you to come and read it. It was a very different play, and we needed someone who understands this style on a cellular level, and who is genuinely funny and knows to let the words and the genre do most of the work. That’s Arnie’s specialty. He’s a comic genius in his ability to find the humor in ways that doesn’t ever make you feel like he’s trying to be funny. He just is.
Arnie: On Halloween night, we went to the Philharmonic to see the film Nosferatu played with a symphonic orchestra. Was that your inspiration, to maybe, someday, do Dracula? If not, say it was, because it will make a great story!
Steve: The seed was planted. But the true story is this play was commissioned by Andrew Kato, who runs the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. He wanted to do a funny version of Dracula. As soon as someone said “Dracula as a comedy,” the first name that comes into your head is of the guy who can provide a DVD commentary of Nosferatu walking into a screening of it.
Arnie: It is something that I’ve grown up with and loved since I was a weird kid in Idaho with very few friends. Monsters were truly my friends. The term for kids like me was “monster kids.” These kids get attached to monsters because they’re usually outcasts. There’s a loneliness and a shyness to them. My room was covered in pictures of the classic monster movies. If there is a horror film on TV I will watch it and I know almost every frame.
Steve: This is all making sense to me now because Arnie’s friends were monsters, and I have a very hairy back. I’m not a wolfman, Arnie. I’m a person!
Arnie: It all goes back to that dressing room. As soon as I saw his back…
Tell me something about one another that people would be surprised to know..
Arnie: I don’t think people know what a softy he is. He is imbued with kindness, and I don’t know if that’s the first impression that people would get.
Steve: People don’t know that Arnie can sing. I’ve sung madrigals with him in Confederacy! We were contractually obligated, but we did it! Aside from being a phenomenal comic performer, he is also an extraordinary dramatic actor. To be a truly great comedic performer, you have to understand human pathos. Arnie does it so beautifully. He has this vast life experience, and he is also so humble, which you wouldn’t expect from someone so talented.
Arnie: Steve has given me my ultimate fantasy. When I was a kid I always wanted to be in a monster or horror movie. To be in a horror play and be in this monster role where there’s lightning, thunder, wolves, creaky doors, bangs, and bats, for a monster kid, it is like heaven! I will always love Steve for giving that to me.
Steve: End the article with that, that’s a great last line.