We love it when Brad Oscar, Washington’s gift to Broadway, gets to play in his home town. Brad can always be counted on to kick the laugh meter up a few notches in any musical or comedy as we saw him do in The Mystery of Irma Vep and Damn Yankees, both at Arena Stage, and in The Producers and Spamalot on Broadway. His most recent swing through town was with the national tour of Mel Brooks’ musical version of Young Frankenstein. We caught up with him then, and started out asking about Mel Brooks.
Joel: When did you first meet Mel Brooks?
Brad: I met Mel at my first day of rehearsals for The Producers, as I was cast at the last minute, and he couldn’t be at my audition.
Joel: What is he like to work with and for?
Brad: He is one of the most joyous and hilarious persons I’ve ever met. That said, he is the master of his craft and can be very demanding in finding just the right joke, the right reading, and that can be very intimidating because, well, he’s Mel F*#cking Brooks!
Joel: Why is Mel Brooks still so popular?
Brad: Because funny is funny, and Mel was politically incorrect before we even put those two words together. There is something universal in his humor, something we all can share.
Joel: What is your favorite Mel Brooks movie?
Brad: Tough call between “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”. Can I also add “High Anxiety” to the list?
Joel: Yes you may, and you just did!
How did you get involved with The Producers, and how did you inherit the role of Franz Liebkind, which won you a Tony nomination, and Max Bialystock which you played more than anyone – including Nathan Lane, who originated the role of Max, and who won a Tony for his performance?
Brad: I auditioned very late in the process, and was initially cast as a stand-by to Nathan Lane, but by the time the contract was signed, I was a swing, covering Max, Franz, Roger DeBris, and all of the character men in the ensemble. So when the actor (Ron Orbach) playing Franz had to have some minor knee surgery when we were trying out in Chicago, I ended up going on as Franz for most of that run. The Powers That Be then decided to let that actor go, and I inherited the role. It was a very strange and random turn of events. I still covered Max during that first year, and went on many times, as Nathan was justifiably exhausted by the role. And when Nathan and Matthew (Broderick) left the show, the PTB were not happy with his replacement (Henry Goodman), and I inherited the role for good, playing it on Broadway on and off for three years, as well as opening the second national tour, playing London, and finally six months in Vegas! So that’s how I ended up playing Max over 1,300 times!
Joel: You made your West End debut as Max Bialystock at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. How did you land in up in London?
Brad: Nathan opened the show in London (opposite Lee Evans) but was only contracted to stay for a few months, so I was asked to head over and step in once he left.
Joel: How were the London audiences?
Brad: London audiences were great. Perhaps a bit more reserved, and there were a few jokes that were too “American” to translate, but they laughed and cheered just as audiences all over did.
Brad’s on the road again, this time with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which played at The Kennedy’s Center’s Opera House, and just closed in Baltimore, on its way to Atlanta. Audiences were cheering and laughing as Brad performed his two roles. First, he sported an eyepatch, an overly creaky wooden arm, and a thick-as-molasses accent, to play Inspector Kemp, and then he was out-of-sight as an overly hospitable Hermit, whose tea-pouring skills were just not his bag.
Joel: How did you get involved in Young Frankenstein?
Brad: I was going to join the Broadway company last January, but the show closed in NYC, so when the tour came along and they made the offer, I accepted.
Joel: What did you sing at your audition?
Brad: I didn’t have to audition, as I have some history with this creative team, and they seem to like me!
Joel: How similar or different is this musical version of Young Frankenstein to the original Mel Brooks film?
Brad: Very similar in many ways, with the addition of the score and a slightly more dramatic resolution.
Joel: You have this wonderful, show-stopping number in the second act – when you play The Hermit – called “Please Send Me Someone”. Please set it up for us.
Brad: Well, poor Harold has been living for years all alone in his cottage in the woods, he is very lonely and yearns for some company, some human connection. It’s a great number, with a wonderful Jolson moment.
Joel: You have worked with Roger Bart before in The Producers, where he played the outrageous Carmen Ghia, and with director Susan Stroman. Is there any Carmen Ghia in Roger’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein?
Brad: The brilliance of Roger is his constant ability to surprise. He’s so inventive, so very funny. So I occasionally see flashes of Carmen (to compliment my flashes of Franz Liebkind, I’m sure), but only because I worked with him for so long in The Producers, and both pieces live in that zany world of Mel Brooks. It’s been lovely working with Roger. I only wish we had more to do together on stage.
Joel: How is Susan Stroman’s direction for YF similar and/or or different from her direction of The Producers?
Brad: Similar and different as the material demands. Again, it’s the world of Mel Brooks when it comes to the style of comedy, the pacing, etc. But it’s also a tribute and send up of all those great Universal monster movies, so that requires its own sensibility.
Joel: It must have been a thrill performing at The Kennedy Center on the tour, since you grew up in the DC area.
Brad: The first night on stage at the Opera House was a little trippy. So many times I’ve sat in that house, since I was eleven! I’ve always wanted to perform there, so it was a dream come true.
Joel: What is the first memory you have about performing on the stage?
Brad: I was putting on shows and such as long as I can remember, in the backyard, the basement. But my first real stage experience was in a production of Robin Hood at Adventure Theater in 1972 or ’73.
Joel: Where did you get your theatre and vocal training?
Brad: I started with classes at the JCC in Rockville, which had a wonderful theater department at that time, and also started some vocal training there. I ended up at Boston University for four years. But I also consider all the theater I was able to see here in DC and NY as training as well. I still do.
Joel: Is the real Brad Oscar as funny as the very funny Brad Oscar we have seen on the stage, especially in Forbidden Broadway?
Brad: That is not for me to say! I like to think I have a pretty good sense of humor, and I do love to make people laugh.
Joel: Then let me say for the record – you are a very funny guy! Speaking of Forbidden Broadway, did working in it influence your later performances?
Brad: Forbidden Broadway was a crash course on comedy, as you need to land the jokes, the impressions, and all in a very short time, so it must be exact, clean. Nothing ruins comedy more than a muddled approach. The commitment and specificity are so important. So it did teach me the value of that, and to not be afraid of that leap of faith an actor must take trusting one’s own judgement and instincts, as comedy can be a very subjective thing.
Joel: Do you enjoy being on the road?
Joel: There is something wonderful about going all over the country, playing some gorgeous and historic theaters, and exposing audiences to the “Broadway” experience (for better or worse!). But the older I get, I do miss my home, my life in NYC, and most importantly, my partner, Diego. It is a sacrifice, I love what I do, but the work dictates where you’ll be, and there just aren’t that many jobs in New York. The flip side is that I also get to go and play roles that I wouldn’t get to do in NY.
Brad: I played P.T. Barnum last year at the Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida, then the production transferred for a run at the Maltz Jupiter Theater. It was exactly the opportunity I referred to above, a role that I would most likely never get to do in NYC. It’s such a wonderful score (“I Like Your Style” has always been a favorite of mine) and a delightful show that is rarely done due to all the circus requirements, and was a kick to do in Sarasota, the winter home to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
And I spent last summer in San Diego at the Old Globe with FWC, playing Morty Cushman, one of the “First Husbands”. It’s always an adventure to work on a new piece, and though it was certainly not ready to bring in (to NYC), there is a great show there that will hopefully be realized in the near future. I had a crazy number called “Morty’s Got It All” wearing a huge red fright wig as Morty was filming a commercial for his electronic store chain, Madman Morty’s. I got to do a Wonder Woman spin. Need I say more?
Joel: What is happening with The First Wives Club?
Brad: I know that a new director is coming on board, and have been told that it is still moving forward, but I really know nothing more.
Joel: You are known as “Mr. Reliable” by many in the theatre biz. Care to comment?
Brad: Well, I’m flattered. I’ll take it. Better than “Mr. Unreliable”, and trust me on that – I’ve worked with him. I also love it because it’s a name my grandfather would call me when he saw me doing different roles, both on and off stage.
Joel: What is the state of the Broadway musical today?
Brad: Certainly in flux, I’d say. First off, the recession we’ve been going through is just really rearing its ugly head on Broadway, as many shows that would have been financed last year for this season – never happened, and many are ready to go but don’t have the backing. Ticket prices have always been an issue, but that too is even more pronounced now. So there is much less product and far less risk. But thankfully there are writers, both established and just starting out, who continue to explore the form and keep it moving forward. It’s just getting the work produced that is harder. But I’ll tell you, the state of the “reading” of a new musical is booming.
Joel: Which roles that you have not played yet, would you like to play?
Brad: I’ve always wanted to play Sweeney Todd.
Joel: What advice can you offer students and young actors, who are considering a career in the theatre?
Brad: First, make sure you truly love it, for it is more and more a ridiculous profession to make a living in. Then study, take classes, and see as much theater as you can.
Joel: Where is the Young Frankenstein tour now?
Brad: We are now currently in Atlanta, and I am looking forward to returning to Toronto in mid-March. I spent about six months there with Aspects of Love in 1992. and loved it.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Young Frankenstein?
Brad: I hope they’ve laughed a lot, enjoyed the performances, and feel that it was time and money well spent. They should take their Playbill too.
For more information about the Young Frankenstein tour, click here.
Podcast of Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman on The Mystery of Irma Vep at Arena Stage.
Podcast of Brad Oscar on playing the Emcee in Cabaret at Arena Stage, growing up in Maryland, and the road to Forbidden Broadway.