Buddying Up To 'Follies' Star Danny Burstein Burstein has played a wide range of roles, from casino owner Lolly Steinman in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, to his current role as Buddy Plummer in the Broadway revival of Follies. He talks about his lengthy career on stage, screen and television.
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Buddying Up To 'Follies' Star Danny Burstein

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Buddying Up To 'Follies' Star Danny Burstein

Buddying Up To 'Follies' Star Danny Burstein

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring some of our favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of the year. This year, a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies" opened on Broadway. When the cast recording was released last month, I spoke with one of the stars of the show, Danny Burstein.

Burstein was nominated for a 2008 Tony for his performance in the Broadway revival of "South Pacific," which was shown on public television. In 2006, he was nominated for a Tony for his performance in "The Drowsy Chaperone." In the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," he plays a casino owner. He's married to Rebecca Luker, who's starred in revivals of "The Music Man" and "The Sound of Music."

"Follies" is set in an old theater that's about to be torn down, where there's a reunion of the showgirls who used to perform there decades ago in a "Ziegfeld Follies"-type review. The girls have brought their husbands to the reunion. "Follies" shifts back and forth between the present and the past, when the girls were young and performing in the review.

Danny Burstein plays a salesman married to a former showgirl played by Bernadette Peters. Let's start with Danny Burstein and Ron Raines singing "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," in which they remember when they first started dating the showgirls who became their wives. Burstein sings first.


DANNY BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hey, up there, way up there, what do you say, up there? I see it all. It's like a movie in my head that play and plays. It isn't just the bad things I remember: It's the whole damn show.

RON RAINES: (As Ben Rogers) (Singing) Waiting around for the girls upstairs after the curtain came down, money in my pocket to spend. Honey, could you maybe get a friend for my friend? Hearing the sound of the girls above dressing to go on the town. Clicking heels on steel and cement, picking up the giggles floating down through the vent, goddamnedest hours that I ever spent were waiting for the girls upstairs.

GROSS: That's Danny Burstein with Ron Raines from the new cast recording of "Follies." Danny Burstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to talk with you. I really enjoyed your performance in "Follies."

BURSTEIN: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to be here.

GROSS: "Follies" is such a famous show, and yet you'd never seen it before. So people are probably like arriving, comparing it to the original production and to revivals and to the cast recording, and it has such a kind of lore and even mythology surrounding it.

So, how did it feel to you when you were cast and you'd never seen a production, and you had to kind of start from scratch?

BURSTEIN: Well, I knew - the one thing I did know is that everybody had an opinion about the show, and they were all different. Everybody thought it should be this way, or everybody thought it should be that way. And everybody's opinion was very, very strong, and it was good because I had my own opportunity to form my own opinion about it without knowing anything about it beforehand.

So I just - I got the script, and I just kept reading it over and over and over again, first for enjoyment, and then I tried to start to make decisions about the characters and my character's arc, which was very important to me, and tried to make it as smart as possible.

I have this weird thing that I do, I sort of - every character I play, I try to make that guy the smartest guy in the room. And I try to figure out how to do that with the character of Buddy Plummer. And it wasn't easy at first.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting you should say that because I've seen a production of "Follies" in which it was a great production, but Buddy was played kind of like a real loser. And you don't play him that way. You play him as a decent guy whose life hasn't turned out the way he would have wanted it to.


GROSS: And he's in a marriage that's not really working out, and he has a girlfriend who really isn't that smart.


BURSTEIN: Right, well, he's got normal ideals, understandable ideals, universal ideals. He just wants to be in a happy marriage, and he wants to have a normal type of life. But unfortunately, his wife of almost 30 years has not requited his love, and she's been in love with somebody else all that time, and she's grown sadder and sadder over the years.

But he still has this pipe dream that their love will somehow be all right, and the marriage will be all right, even though it probably won't.

GROSS: Was it a conscious decision for you not to play Buddy as a loser?

BURSTEIN: Absolutely, absolutely. I have - it's sort of a pet peeve of mine: I don't like whiners - characters who whine on stage. And I tried to - in reading the script, that's what it seemed like to me, like the character was one sad-sack whiner.

And I thought; No, he's really - he really wants something. He wants the love of his wife, and so he's fighting for that. And so lines that could be read, you know, in a very sad way, instead, could be also read in a very positive way, in really wanting something from his wife, and not just complaining about how bad life is but telling her about it so there can be change, so they can move forward.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of a line that could be read as sad that you've made it as kind of, you know, a decent guy who wants something?

BURSTEIN: You know, it's funny you said that because I can't think of a single one at this moment.


GROSS: Thanks for coming through for us.


BURSTEIN: I know it's really great to be here, Terry, take care.


GROSS: OK, well, let's bail ourselves out with a song because there's a great song called "The Right Girl," and you explain the context of the song.

BURSTEIN: "The Right Girl" happens at the top of Act II. he's just - my character, Buddy Plummer, has just watched his wife Sally kiss his old best friend, and they've told each other that they love each other and that they want to run away together. And she even wants to marry him. And I watch this scene happen, and "The Right Girl" occurs right after that.

GROSS: And you're singing, in part, about your girlfriend, your mistress.

BURSTEIN: Yes. I in the middle of the song, he sings about his mistress Margie, and thinks that she is the right girl that he should marry. And then at the end of the song, he realizes that he doesn't even love - he doesn't love his mistress, and he doesn't love his wife of 30 years, who he's so convinced himself he loves all these years. And he finally is able to let her go at the end of the song.

GROSS: It's a great song, and you do it so well.

BURSTEIN: Thank you so much.

GROSS: So this is Stephen Sondheim's song "The Right Girl," sung by Danny Burstein in the new cast recording of "Follies."


BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) The right girl, yeah, the right girl, she makes you feel like a million bucks instead of - what? - like a rented tux. The right girl, yeah, the right girl, she's with you, no matter how you feel. You're not the good guy, you're not the heel. You're not the dreamboat that sank, you're real when you got the right girl, yeah. And I got...

GROSS: And that was Danny Burstein singing "The Right Girl" from the new cast recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies."

Now, you know, the yeah that you do in that, when you've got - yeah, the right girl, that's such a loaded yeah because it sounds so affirmative, and you're in such kind of doubt and kind of despair in the song. And also musically it's like real powerful punctuation. So when you were figuring out how to do the song, did you spend a lot of time figuring how to do the yeah?

BURSTEIN: Oh endlessly, endlessly. It is famously a very, very difficult song for actors to do. And one thing I had to do initially was separate who I was talking to. And so I put the character of Sally off stage left, where Bernadette has just exited.

GROSS: And she's your wife in this loveless marriage.

BURSTEIN: And she plays my wife. Yes, and then the character of Margie I put out center. And so my love of Margie, you know, is focused towards the audience, and my anger is focused off stage left. So that was a huge - actually, it sounds simple, but that was a huge epiphany for me, figuring out who I was talking to in the song because it's not always clear.

And then the yeahs punctuate whether you feel ecstatic and elated and all this love for Margie, or you feel anger and disappointment towards Sally, your wife who doesn't love you. It's - it was very, very difficult figuring out which yeah worked where.

It's a very hard song, and we tried many different versions of it. Steve had us cut it in half at first and taken a lot of the dance music out. And then we put all of it back in and then cut some of the dance music down. And then he changed the lyric at the very end.

GROSS: He changed the lyric? I didn't notice that.

BURSTEIN: Yeah, he brought in a lyric that he had originally put in in London: You miss me, I knew it. Hey Margie? I blew it. I don't love the right girl. That wasn't in the script when we first started in D.C. I don't even remember what the old lyric was, but that's what we have now.

And he told me when his next printing of "Finishing the Hat" comes out that that's the lyric that's going to be in there.

GROSS: Really? You know, I know the song, and I didn't realize that the lyric had been changed. I feel foolish.


GROSS: But that's a really great part of it. Actually, let's hear you sing that part.



BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hey Margie? I'm back, babe. Come help me unpack, babe. Hey Margie? Hey bright girl? I'm home. You miss me? I knew it. Hey Margie, I blew it. I don't love the right girl. Sally? I want to talk.

GROSS: That's a great part of the song because it ends on such a kind of tragic note. You've got no place to turn now. You realize you don't love your wife or your mistress.

BURSTEIN: And the song gets no applause at the end of it on purpose. That was a choice that Steve gave me. He said: Well, we could put a button on the song right there and ask for applause, or we could go straight into the scene, and I had wanted all along to go straight into the scene. It's not - it was never meant...

GROSS: Oh that's why the scene's on the cast recording, too.

BURSTEIN: Yeah, it was never meant to open Act II. When the show was originally played, it was played without an intermission, and so having that onus on it is - it's not fair to the song, in a way. So I thought it would be better just to go right from the song. He has this epiphany that he doesn't actually love his wife anymore. After all that they've been through, he doesn't love her.

And so now he can tell her, and that's why the scene that follows is in there, as you said, and it's only after he sings that song, and he has that revelation that he can actually tell his wife that it's over.

GROSS: So when you say Sondheim said, well, I could put a button at the end, what does that mean?

BURSTEIN: That means literally a musical button that asks for the applause at the end of a song. So it could be when I'd love the girl - boom, that musical boom is a button. And it basically tells the audience it's okay to applaud.

And we decided to forego the button and go straight into the scene because it seemed to come out more naturally and more organically that way.

GROSS: So let me ask you: Say you - say there was the button, you got the big applause, would it have been awkward for you right after this character's really unhappy epiphany to have to figure out what to do while the audience is applauding?

BURSTEIN: Yeah, it's an awkward moment. You know, that's the funny thing about the show: You always have to stay in it and keep the wheels spinning in your head. We spend a lot of time offstage between scenes before leads: Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Bernadette and myself, we'll have this very emotional scene, and then we disappear for 10, 15 minutes.

And you have to keep the emotion going while you're offstage and build it to an even more heightened emotion by the time you get out there for the next scene because of the way that the show is written. It's sort of disjointed. But it all sort of comes together at the end and makes sense.

GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein, one of the stars of the revival of "Follies." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Danny Burstein. He plays Buddy in the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." One of his songs is the show-stopper "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," also known as "Buddy's Blues." It's done like a vaudeville number, and you're kind of decked out in vaudeville clothing. You're wearing these, like, orange striped pants.

BURSTEIN: It's an incredible - yeah, it's incredible. Greg Barnes(ph), our costume designer, is amazing, and he designed this gorgeous, gorgeous striped orange costume for me with a bowler hat, and I love...

GROSS: Wait, can we mention the plaid bowtie and the plaid vest with the orange striped pants? It is really loud. It's...

BURSTEIN: Yeah, and it weighs about 25 pounds, too.



BURSTEIN: Because of all the beading, I think, and the fabric is very heavy, as well. But it's a great, great look.

GROSS: And you've got to dance in that.

BURSTEIN: Yeah, yeah, I know, tell me about it.

GROSS: It's like dancing with a backpack on.

BURSTEIN: It kind of is. It kind of is. I actually said to my dresser, Phillip Rolf(ph), last night, I was wondering how much weight I lose in the second act every night.


BURSTEIN: It's one of those shows. You know, it's really hard.

GROSS: So now what's the hardest thing about singing this song?

BURSTEIN: Dancing and singing at the same time because the song is relentless. It just continues on and on and on. And I'll be perfectly honest with you: Some more nights than not, you know that feeling where you run out of breath, and you feel the dark curtains coming?


BURSTEIN: Sometimes that happens to me during that number, you know, because you're just putting everything you have into it and singing on top of all the movement. And, you know, you just make it through the number. And, you know, it's that exhilarating feeling when you finish it.

You know, I used to dread doing it because it's so hard, the lyrics, getting every lyric as clear as possible out there and getting the emotions out there at the same time. But now it is - you know, I look at it like this fantastic challenge, and I really, you know, get myself up for it every single night. It's so exciting.

GROSS: Yeah, you have to enunciate clearly lyrics that are sung very fast.

BURSTEIN: Very fast, and they're - each line is its own joke, so, you know, is its own little story. And that was very important to Steve that I, you know, made sure I got all those little jokes and stories out because each of them is so unbelievably smart.

GROSS: So before we hear you singing "Buddy's Blues," what advice did Sondheim give you about this song?

BURSTEIN: Basically just to make it as clear and specific as possible. That was it. I mean, you know, line by line, you're going I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues. So make sure each of those lines is as specific as possible. Know where - you know, the line seems like it's going straight ahead, and then you sort of want it to take a right, and it takes a left.

GROSS: Yeah, now that line you just mentioned, oh-God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues, there's - you're singing this to separate women, your wife, who doesn't love you, and your mistress who does but who you're always leaving.


GROSS: So that line is sung, half of it's sung to your wife, and the other half of the line is sung to your mistress, the way I hear it.

BURSTEIN: Correct.

GROSS: So you have to make that clear when you're singing it, kind of like with the song you were talking about before, you have to know who you're addressing in each part of the song.

BURSTEIN: Exactly, and of course it goes at a breakneck speed. So - and you're dancing. You're doing vaudeville moves.

GROSS: Right, okay, so we've got to hear it now.

BURSTEIN: Okay, wonderful.

GROSS: So this is "Buddy's Blues," sung by my guest Danny Burstein from the new cast recording of "Follies."


BURSTEIN: BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Hello, folks, we're into the Follies. First, though, folks, we'll pause for a mo. No, no, folks, you'll still get your jollies. It's just I got a problem that I think you should know.

(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) See, I've been very perturbed of late, very upset, very betwixt and between. The things that I want, I don't seem to get. The things that I get - you know what I mean.

(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues, that long-as-you-ignore-me-you're-the-only-thing-that-matters feeling, that if-I'm-good-enough-for-you-you're-not-good-enough and thank-you-for-the-present-but-what's-wrong-with-it stuff, those don't-come-any-closer-'cause-you-know-how-much-I-love-you feelings, those tell-me-that-you-love-me-oh-you-did-I-gotta-run-now blues.

(As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) Margie, Margie, Margie, Margie. She says she really loves me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) I love you.

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says. She says she really cares.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) I care, I care.

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says that I'm her hero.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) My hero.

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says I'm perfect, she swears.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) You're perfect, goddammit.

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says that if we parted...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) If we parted?

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says, she says that she'd be sick, bleh. She says she's mine forever...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Margie) (Singing) Forever.

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer) (Singing) She says I gotta get out of here quick...

GROSS: That's Danny Burstein, from the new cast recording of the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." Danny Burstein will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Danny Burstein, one of the stars of the current Broadway revival of Steve Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies." The show runs through January 22nd.

I spoke with Burstein last month when the cast recording was released. Burstein was nominated for Tonys for his performances in "The Drowsy Chaperone" and the revival of "South Pacific." He plays a casino owner in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." In "Follies," Burstein plays Buddy, a salesman who's married to a former showgirl, played by Bernadette Peters.

Steven Sondheim was directly involved in the revival.

So you've told us a little of the advice that Steven Sondheim gave you. it sounds like he was very active in this production. Were there questions that you had about the melodies or the lyrics that you were grateful you were able to directly Sondheim about?

BURSTEIN: Yeah, I mean there're always - like I said, his lyrics, you expect them to take a right and they take a left. He does that with melodies as well. And actually, when you're learning the music...


BURSTEIN: Here's the truth. When you're learning the music - and I'm sure I can speak for every actor who's learned a Sondheim song - you're secretly cursing Steve Sondheim....


BURSTEIN: ...because it's so damn hard to learn his music. It also takes a left when you naturally want to take a right, melodically. But you realize the music, it doesn't go to a natural note, it goes to a - that's not an E-natural, it goes to an E-flat, and the reason it's an E-flat is because he's feeling something that's just off at that moment.

And it all is so smartly written and so smartly thought-out that a lot of it just sort of takes care of itself. And then when you, you know, when you're talking to him about specific things, he is, you know, so ridiculously helpful. And also so ridiculously collaborative, much more so than you think he's going to be. And this is my third show with him, so, you know, I think I've got a sort of a good rapport with him. I mean I hope I do.

GROSS: Could you give us an example of the musical line that takes a right when you expect it to take a left, and is therefore difficult to sing but very affecting?

BURSTEIN: Ah, well, if I could just go back to "Buddy's Blues."

(Singing) I've got those God, why don't you love me? Oh, you do. I'll see you later blues.

You know, you don't want to sing that. You just don't. That...

(Singing) God, why don't you love me? Oh, you do. I'll see you later, blues. That long as you ignore me you're the only thing that matters, feeling.

It's those notes there that tell you something's wrong.

(Singing) Matters, feeling.

That lets you know, that's an indicator, that's a stop sign that says whoa. Even though it's going at a breakneck speed, you know something is not quite right and that's exactly what he is setting up.

GROSS: And to make it even harder, is the orchestra sometimes heading in even a different direction?

BURSTEIN: Oh, yes. That's the genius of Jonathan Tunick, who's setting things up to go in a manic way and the orchestra has a life of its own. But, of course, together it sounds unbelievably perfect and of a piece. I can't hear all the orchestrations as I'm doing the show.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

BURSTEIN: I can hear sort of where I fit in the pocket every night in the orchestra. But it was only after I heard the recording just recently that I knew, oh my goodness, all this wonderful stuff is happening underneath me. It was really wonderful to hear.

GROSS: You've been in three Broadway or off-Broadway Sondheim musicals, "Company," "Merrily We Roll Along," and now "Follies."


GROSS: But the first time you did "Merrily We Roll Along" was a local production when you were in your teens.

BURSTEIN: Yeah, I was in college. I was 18 and I was going to Queens College and my professor, Ed Greenberg, a wonderful director and professor in his own right, and he was also a producer. He produced at the St. Louis Muni; amazing man. He was directing "Merrily We Roll Along" at Queens College and cast me as Frank in that production. And I was just 18.

GROSS: And this is Franklin Shepherd who's the leading character and he's a songwriter who starts off with really pure ambitions and becomes more, like, cynical and commercial as time goes on. But the story is kind of told chronologically in reverse order.

BURSTEIN: Exactly right.

GROSS: So, now I read this, tell me if it's true, that when you were in this college production, you actually wrote Sondheim and asked him for some advice.

BURSTEIN: I did. I did. I wrote him a long letter, a very, very long letter.

GROSS: What did you say in this letter?

BURSTEIN: Oh, God. I asked him all the questions about the show, how it came to be and what about the character, what the key to playing his character was, and so many questions. And he wrote me a letter back saying, all these questions, my goodness, you know, I'd have to write a letter the size of "War and Peace," and I simply don't have the time for that right now. But here's my phone number. Why don't you call me and maybe we can figure out a time that you can come over and we can talk about the show.


BURSTEIN: And I couldn't believe that I had this letter in my hand and that he'd given me his home phone number. And so I called him. I was, you know, unbelievably nervous and shaky on the phone, this 18-year-old kid talking to Stephen Sondheim. And he said, Yeah, great, you know, in two weeks on this day at - in the afternoon, 3 o'clock we'll meet. Great.

You know, and he hung up. And he gave me his address and sure enough, I walked in and Jim Lapine was just walking out as they were working on "Sunday In The Park With George" at the time. And we sat there in his living room with a carafe of white wine for three hours talking about musical theater.

And I remember having, you know, the greatest time of my life and finding it unbelievable fascinating. And, you know, that was quite an introduction to me about what it is - what it means to give back and I've been trying to do similar kinds of things my whole life because I had the best example.

GROSS: Well, Danny Burstein, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for doing this.

BURSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. I absolutely love you. I'm such a huge fan.

GROSS: Danny Burstein costars in the current Broadway revival of "Follies," which runs through January 22nd. You can hear more of his singing on the new cast recording.

Coming up, the interview that got the most listener e-mails this year.

This is FRESH AIR.

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