“Danny found me. I didn’t find him. And he keeps finding me.”
Brian Childers was talking to me about his current —and, it seems, his on-going —role as Danny Kaye. At The American Century Theater (TACT), Childers is performing the solo play An Evening with Danny Kaye. It was at TACT in 2001 that Childers played Kaye in Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story, a role for which he won a Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Actor in a Resident Musical. In between, he played Kaye again in The Kid from Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Musical, and he also took Danny and Sylvia to New York City for a three-year run Off-Broadway.
As Childers looks back, “I had no idea that it would be 2014, and I’d still be playing Danny.” It’s been 13 years in the role, on and off, he told me. “I’m very lucky. Every time I think I’m done, a request comes, ‘Can you continue?’ It’s exciting to constantly have it in my back pocket. I love playing him. I never get tired of playing him. The material is so fantastic. For an actor, it’s a perfect challenge, to do this kind of work. It doesn’t come along every day. Nobody does this kind of material nowadays. It’s a joy playing him after 13 years.”
For readers less familiar with Danny Kaye (or, um, younger than me), I will point out that he was a major star of stage, film, and TV in the middle of the last century. For my parents’ generation, he was a household name. He was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. (The highest paid at one point, according to Childers.) Multi-talented, he has three stars on the Hollywood walk of fame —for film, radio, and recording. He was among the earliest of the Kennedy Center Honors awardees, receiving his in the seventh class (1984). As Hollywood shifted away from musical comedy during the 1960s, Kaye successfully transitioned to television. In other words, though praised for his stage performances and his one-man concert appearances, Kaye left behind a hefty legacy on film and tape.
I presumed that Childers had watched a lot of that tape as he assumed the part originally, but wondered if he needed to dip back into primary source material now that he’s been “doing Danny” for so long. “Actually, it’s not fallen away, I still watch and read anything I can get my hands on.” He told me that he recently got hold of some stuff that wasn’t readily available. Kaye hosted a weekly variety show for about four years on CBS during the 1960s. A friend of Childers put material from that series onto a DVD. “It was magnificent to watch.”
Childers explained: “I would say that, at first, I was voracious about watching everything. Then, I cut down a little bit, but I never stop watching him, I never stop learning from him, I always learn something new and see a different side of Danny.” What was new from the material on the DVD of the variety show was that, at the end of each broadcast, Kaye would come out and talk to the audience. “There was a warmth, and an honesty, that you don’t get to see” in other Kaye material —his film roles, the skits on TV, his one-man performance at the London Palladium. As Childers studies more of that primary source material, he is “still learning so much about him, I still find stuff to work on. Even though I’ve been doing it for 13 years, I find new and exciting things to implement.”
Childers spoke about the “wide spectrum” of audiences he gets for the show. There are the aficionados “waiting to see every movement” of the classic Danny Kaye songs and routines. These people might have seen Kaye at the Palace Theatre, Childers told me, or seen one of his films (say Up in Arms, his first major film role) in movie theaters. Then, there are those who know Kaye from his best-remembered films, such as Hans Christian Anderson and White Christmas, but who aren’t aware of the breadth of his achievements. Finally, there are those (often the children or grandchildren brought along to the show by people in the previous categories) who have no awareness of Kaye before seeing Childers play him. Childers told me that the last category includes kids as young as seven, eight, or nine, and “they love it. They think it’s funny, it’s silly —it’s great!”
I remember that when the actress Rue McClanahan died, Childers posted a lovely memory of her on Facebook. When she saw Danny and Sylvia (she was at opening night), she “loved the show” and she hung out afterwards and was very gracious when Childers’ mom kept referring to her as “Blanche” (her character on The Golden Girls). Childers told me that he was “blessed” to have had a number of celebrities take in the show. He mentioned Shirley Jones, Joan Collins, and Carl Reiner (who had co-starred with Kaye in the TV movie Skokie).
Childers pointed out that the Off-Broadway version of Danny and Sylvia was distinct from the version that ran at TACT. Referring to the former as “version 2.0,” he told me that they “tweaked” the piece and added “more Danny material,” increasing from three to six or seven the number of songs included that were from Kaye’s career, balancing them with the material that was original.
“I love this show in particular,” Childers said about the current incarnation in An Evening with Danny Kaye. “It represents all of those Dannys”— the stage work, the movie star, the warmth of personality he saw on the TV show. While the other plays dealt with Kaye’s life story, this one doesn’t go backstage at all. “It’s the Danny we want to remember. You see the show and you want to remember more. I love it.”
We talked a little about the fact that Kaye is part of a generation of stars (others are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) who at one point were central to the cultural zeitgeist but who seem to be receding into a distant cultural haze. “I tell friends around my age what I’m doing, and they don’t know who I’m talking about. My mission, my goal, is to keep his legacy alive, both the memory of him and keeping him current, in the public eye.”
Childers stressed Kaye’s influence on contemporary comedians and mentioned in particular Jim Carrey and Martin Short. I can attest to the fact that Kaye is in high rotation on the Direct TV music channel “The Playground” with the song “The Ugly Duckling” from the biopic Hans Christian Anderson and also that he is very fondly remembered for that role in Denmark.
And we talked about the perennial holiday classic White Christmas, in which both of us think Kaye steals the show. Childers told me that the performance “is not typical Danny. He’s playing second fiddle to Bing [Crosby], but he’s so good in it. He knew where to pull and when to push.” Childers told me that Kaye was third in line for the role, after Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor, both known primarily as dancers, had to drop the project because of illness. But “his dancing is brilliant. And they didn’t change any of the dancing. He learned it as Fred or Donald would have done it. He was a man of many talents.”
What about those persistent rumors that Kaye was bisexual and had a notorious affair with Laurence Olivier? Childers told me that Bob McElwaine, the Danny and Sylvia playwright who, for ten years, was Kaye’s publicist, told him that he had never seen any inkling of that, that it was “never men, always women.” (Kaye was eventually estranged from his wife, Sylvia Fine Kaye, though the two never divorced.)
Childers continued by making the points that he can’t answer the question definitively but also doesn’t feel that it is important: “I wasn’t in the room, but…it doesn’t matter. My job is to portray the Danny that people do remember. I could speculate, others could speculate all they want, but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the artistry, the genius, the work —the patter songs, the dancing. He was wonderful on all accounts.” (Those patter songs, frequently written by Sylvia Fine, include custom lyrics of “When the Saints Come Marching In” for a duet with Louis Armstrong (shown above) and the song “Tchaikovsky” from his breakout stage performance in the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical Lady in the Dark, in which he stopped the show nightly as he spouted the names of 50 Russian composers in 38 seconds. Here, from the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine collection at the Library of Congress, watch as Danny and Sylvia discuss the opening night of Lady in the Dark and Danny smashes his own record performing “Tchaikovsky.”
Childers, of course, hasn’t just been playing Danny Kaye for all this time, and we talked about some of his other projects, including a couple that are lining up for next season. He’s playing the lead in a stage version of film’s original “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. Flipping to the other side of the footlights, he is directing Love Quirks, a musical in development with a book by his brother Mark (who co-wrote The Kid from Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Musical).
Describing the piece as “very current” and about “four twenty-somethings in New York City,” Childers said that a Kickstarter campaign is in the works and that a run could begin as soon as this Fall. (No stranger to directing, Childers shepherded his Danny and Sylvia co-star Kimberly Faye Greenberg in Fabulous Fanny: The Song and Stories of Fanny Brice.) Looking forward to both projects, he said he is very excited about the immediate future.
But first, An Evening with Danny Kaye continues here until August 16th. Childers effused about “the great team we had around in the creation of this show” and made special mention of Stephen Nachamie, the Director, and Jeff Biering, the Musical Director.
Check out the show, and check out this picture of Childers. Those cheek bones, that nose, that smile —the resemblance is undeniable. Plus he has the musical chops to do those challenging Danny Kaye numbers —It’s no wonder that Danny found him.
An Evening with Danny Kaye starring Brian Childers continues at The American Century Theater through August 16, 2014.
Details and tickets