By Gerard Raymond
The recently announced Tony and Drama Desk nominations confirm what New York audiences already knew: the season has been great for Bobby Steggert. Last fall, the 29 year-old Maryland native gave a white-hot performance in the role of Mother’s Younger Brother, the romantic lad who is ready to “blow things up” for a cause, in the regrettably short-lived Broadway transfer of The Kennedy Center revival of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical Ragtime.
He followed his Broadway success with the lead role in David Zellnick and Joseph Zellnick’s new World War II musical Yank! Off Broadway at the the York Theater. He delivered an immensely heartfelt portrayal of Stu, a young soldier in combat coming to terms with his sexuality, while falling in love for the first time with a slightly older serviceman. He received Drama Desk nominations for both performances, and a Tony nomination for the former. Steggert talked to TheaterLife about his career so far, the possibility of a Broadway transfer of Yank! and his upcoming role in a new A. R. Gurney play at Lincoln Center next month.
Over the past three years New York audiences have come to associate you with musicals. Did you aspire to this when you were growing up?
Musicals weren’t on my radar. What I really wanted to do was straight theater. I did sing in choirs and I had classical music training, but I didn’t connect that with my desire to perform professionally. I was a late bloomer and my voice hadn’t really matured, so perhaps underneath not being interested was insecurity. I went to NYU and studied classical theater and did a bunch of Shakespeare while I was there. Then I went to RADA in London for a year as well. My first job out of school was standby for the part of Hallie in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys [the 2003 Broadway revival starring Danny Glover].
I was doing 110 in the Shade [2007 Broadway revival of the Harvey Schmidt, Tom Jones musical] that changed the whole trajectory of my career. There is singing and dancing, but I was able to approach it totally from the point of the view of the character. That kind of broke the ice and gave me the confidence I needed to start really studying voice. I honestly think that I got 110 in the Shade because I had no stake in it. Sometimes when a performer auditions without that desperate need for the job, they smell a confidence on you, which must be attractive, I guess. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was to be playing opposite Audra McDonald and John Cullum.
With The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island  Off-Broadway, you got an opportunity for a very different experience – a pop rock score, a whimsical book and cartoons. What was that like?
It was a whimsical experience, so I’m glad it came across that way. It felt like experimental downtown theater, which is something I’m interested in, and it was good training in how to form you own reality out of randomness. During tech we had to ask at times to go out and look at the scene that we were inside of. Because when you are up close to something like that, it’s like a Monet painting. You had to stand back to see what was represented behind you. It was a lesson in trust. Ben Katchor’s images were really beautiful and vivid. It was wonderful to be able to live inside that. I auditioned for it blindly and really I was just going with the flow. I still try to hang on to that. I think it’s responsible for a certain amount of success because I don’t have any specific expectations.
Was your involvement with Yank! also “going with the flow”?
I did Yank! out in Brooklyn [with The Gallery Players] three years ago. After doing 110 in the Shade, I thought it was a really cool switch, going from this Broadway show to this tiny theater in Brooklyn. I was planning all along to do it when we transferred to the York but then Ragtime happened [at the Kennedy Center April 2009]. I tried very hard to get a leave of absence from Ragtime when I was negotiating my contract for the Broadway transfer but I couldn’t, and understandably so, because there are concerns about the original cast being in place for at least the first six months. It was really a difficult thing because with Yank! I had never been so close to a creative team, nor had I ever been so close to a role before. But you know, I have a mortgage. So I can’t believe it all worked out in such a strange way. When Ragtime announced its closing it was the last week when I could possibly do Yank! I think the producers had to have someone cast by the following week and they already had options, but they held off very generously. I’m not grateful that Ragtime closed, but I feel grateful that I had something that I feel so passionate about to go to.
Let’s backtrack for a moment to Ragtime – can you talk about the role of Mother’s Younger Brother, which you played with such remarkable intensity and passion?
It humanizes him in a way that enables people to understand where he’s coming from. He felt so invisible to everyone around him. I think it’s something we can all relate to on some level. I wanted to ground that need – the need to be seen, to be acknowledged by someone. My goal was to let him lead with heart and mind. I knew he had to come from a visceral, emotional place. It’s important to me to find that kernel of need in a character, because that’s what is most interesting about people, I think — finding how they operate emotionally. That’s what drives us all to do everything we do.
Moving on to Yank! — you mentioned that you felt very close to the role. What is it that drew you to the part of Stu?
I think what’s fascinating about it is the question of what makes someone a man. Stu is physically smaller and weaker and less masculine than his fellow soldiers, but in the end, what really makes him a man is that he believes in who he is, and because of that he is able to walk away from the single most important thing in his adult life. So I felt responsibility to portray someone with that much integrity and I have taken that with me all the way. I definitely struggle with what it is to be a man and what is true strength.
Now it appears the production is headed for Broadway. How do you feel about that?
I’m aware that one of its biggest strengths is its intimacy and the simplicity of its story telling. And my concern, as we move forward, is that the design and the space remain extremely intimate. So if they make the right decisions in that regard I have faith that we will find an audience. If they don’t, I have to say that I’m concerned that it will lose its intimacy. So I have mixed feelings about the transfer. This show is remarkable in the sense that it hasn’t had the support of big money industry, yet every step along the way it has emerged. It feels like the little show that could. I do feel it is very special and I think an original book musical with real heart is becoming rarer and rarer…
Did you have to train as dancer for Yank!?
I’m an actor and if the character dances I’ll figure it out. I want to approach it purely from character. I don’t think it will benefit me personally to become a technical dancer, and think it’s probably too late too. It was just Jeffry Denman teaching me over the past three years how to tap. He was very patient. We started very simple and got more and more complex. I was a drummer in high school so I understand rhythm very well, and he says I have a natural musicality so that must help. I took it on as a welcome challenge. And let’s be honest, Stu shouldn’t be a great tapper because he is inexperienced at sex, for which tap is the metaphor. So it would have been inappropriate if I was a wizard tapper. I was just good enough!
What was the most difficult thing for you as an actor in Yank!?
It is really hard to be the host of the evening and to be inside of all the scenes dramaturgically because the shifts are so immediate and your responsibility as a narrator is very different from your responsibility within the scene. So I had to be incredibly flexible. I had to make sure that I was connected to the audience with levity and with pace, which is also hard for me because I love to pretend the audience isn’t there. And then to immediately switch into very intimate, very serious circumstances. That was the hardest.
Has your training in Shakespeare prepared you for the roles you have played recently?
Absolutely, because verse in Shakespeare is nothing but heightened language and musicals are nothing but heightened language in a different way. So my training in how to make Shakespeare conversational and vernacular as much as possible has helped me to approach singing from an incredibly conversational way too. I try not to ever think about singing as something different from speaking. I’m not the best singer in the world, but I know that I can make the music as seamless as possible to the scene. And that’s my goal.
And now you are getting back to do a straight play. Tell us about it.
I’m shocked that things have worked out so beautifully and I’m grateful to create a part in a new play at Lincoln Center. The play is The Grand Manner by A. R. Gurney [starts previews June 2 and opens June 24]. It’s a love letter to the theater of the 1940s and is based on Gurney’s real-life encounter with Katherine Cornell, the very famous actress, when he was about 19. His grandmother, who had been friends with Cornell, introduced him to the actress after a performance. In this case the play is Anthony and Cleopatra but in real life it was another play. It’s about this very temporary, but very intimate, connection between this famous actress and this young man, who was inspired to become a writer after meeting this woman. Kate Burton is playing Katherine Cornell, Brenda Whele is playing her general manager, Gert Macy, who was also her lover, and Boyd Gaines plays Cornell’s husband, Guthrie McClintick, who was clearly homosexual.
Have you talked with Gurney about the play?
I have. He was kind enough to come to see Yank! after I was cast. He is so personable and really friendly. I could tell from the auditions that he really wanted me to do well, as I am sure he wanted everyone else who auditioned as well. And I’ve heard that he is incredibly accommodating to his actors in all his plays. That he will come in with rewrites that are very specific to the actors. I find that fascinating. I have a feeling he has very little ego and for someone as prolific as he is and who has been working for so long, I think that is rare. I think his strength is character, and it’s exciting to play someone fully realized on stage.
Looking forward, do you have any dream roles that you want to play?
I want what’s been happening for me to keep happening. And that’s simply to have varied opportunities. I don’t know how I have been so lucky not to be pigeonholed, because I have so many friends — brilliant performers — who have done something that the industry recognizes and all they get to do is that same thing. There are very few musical theater performers that are given a chance to do plays. So I want to continue to be given opportunities to do varied forms of theater – classical, new works, plays, musicals, revivals, all kinds of stuff. I go forward with non-specific expectations so that I can take everything at face value and I can really invest in each thing. I don’t have a plan. I’m not as ambitious as people may assume, but it keeps me focused.