The ‘Follies’ of Danny Burstein

Danny Burstein led a master class on musical theater on monday.
Danny Burstein led a master class on musical theater on monday. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Danny Burstein had a good year: He recently garnered a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and his third Tony Award nomination for his leading role as Buddy Plummer in Follies, Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical about a showgirls’ reunion. The 48-year-old Burstein has also acted in popular TV shows, like Boardwalk Empire and Louie, and in the critically acclaimed movie Transamerica. The News interviewed Burstein after a Monday master class in musical theater he led through the Theater Studies program.

Q: When did you start acting?

A: I started acting professionally when I was 19. I got an offer to do a job at the St. Louis Muny, which is an outdoor theater in St. Louis, obviously — it is the largest outdoor theater in the country — and I did a production of the Music Man with Jim Dale and Pam Dawber.

Q: You’ve been in movies, plays, musicals and TV shows — how does your acting differ in all those different modes?

A: You know what, each one is different … It’s all about honesty. You have to be honest in every one of the different media that you work in], and once you can fake that, you’re golden.

Q: You’re married to an actress, right? What’s it like for an actor to be married to an actress?

A: It’s wonderful. If she is doing well, I’m happiest. In a weird way, I’d rather her to really be wonderfully successful and shine. I love her so much. We help each other on various projects, we’re the eyes and ears for each other and I think it works out pretty well. I know some peoples who are actors and are married to other actors, and they become competitive, but that’s never even occurred to me to be like that. Not with your spouse, for God’s sake. You love them with all your heart, and when they shine, you shine.

Q: You just starred in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies. Did you meet Sondheim?

A: I’ve known Stephen Sondheim since I was 18. I met him when I was a kid. I was doing a production of [Sondheim’s] Merrily We Roll Along in college, and I wrote him a letter with all these questions, and he wrote me back and said, “You know, all those questions would have to be answered in a letter the size of War and Peace, but here’s my phone number. Why don’t you come on over, and we’ll talk, and I can answer your questions.” So I went over, and we spent three hours over a carafe of wine at his place in New York, and I had a mini master class that I [will] hold onto for the rest of my life. He’s a very generous, brilliant, wonderful man.

Q: So what did he teach you in that master class?

A: I couldn’t make it about one particular thing, but basically it was about integrity, that it’s all about the work, not about having an ego, but making sure that it’s always about the work.

Q: And you taught a master class today, at Yale. What did you try to teach?

A: I taught basically that. I tried to impart those same words, and I mean it, that it’s all about the work. We all are very sensitive creatures, but you have to leave your ego at the door and really come together: It’s a collaborative art.

Q: You recently won a string of awards for your performance in Follies. How do you deal with the attention?

A: That’s nice, that’s icing on the cake, but that’s never what you do it for. It’s a nice pat on the back, it’s always nice to be invited to the party, but everyday I’m just thinking about how to make the role that I’m playing better, at any particular time. I love the work, so that’s why I’m there. But when those [awards] come along, it’s a wonderful pat on the back and it certainly feels good.

Q: You’ve done the voice-over for a few video games, such as “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Do you enjoy video games?

A: You know what, I don’t. I don’t even own the ones that I’ve done. But having said that, my kids love them, and I had a great time doing them, but at a certain point I stopped doing them because they were so ridiculously violent that I just had to go, “You know what, this is ridiculous. I gotta stop.”

Q: Back to Yale. In 2006 you played in The Drowsy Chaperone. That musical is actually the Fall Dramat Mainstage here at Yale. Any advice about that show for the actors?

A: Just have fun. If they have half the fun that we had when we did the show, they’ll be just fine. It’s a show with a lot of heart and a lot of love, and, meeting all the kids that I met today — talented, smart, wonderful kids — if they’re any indication, they’re gonna have a great show.

Q: Have you ever gotten too close to a character?

A: Never. I don’t believe in that. I’ve had friends who’ve gone over the edge sometimes — they take it home — but that’s psychotic behavior. I don’t believe in that. No, you can’t do that.

Q: So what character have you played and had the hardest time identifying with?

A: God, I don’t know. I love the challenge every time, and I use my imagination to make myself hopefully fit in with each particular character. I know, it sounds dramatic — you know, “Oh, I identified with this character so much that I pulled my hair out when I got home at night” — but it’s not really like that for me, anyways.

Q: But for some people it is?

A: Sure, it can be, when they cross that line. But that becomes pathological, and that’s crazy. It’s all about being able to play [the character] and not bring it home — not if you want to have a wife and kids, and a house and a car and normal things.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: The next project I’ve already started. It’s another Broadway show, it’s a 1937 play called Golden Boy, and that’ll be on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.

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