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by Michael Portantiere

Steven Weber Uncensored

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    Some of the actors who succeeded Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers gave less than successful performances. But Brad Oscar and Steven Weber, who immediately followed Lane and Broderick, were terrific as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. (I hope you got to see them.)

    I interviewed Oscar shortly after he got the role of Max, and ever since then, I've wanted to speak with his co-star; but Weber, who's best known for his work in Wings and other TV series, has only now returned to the New York theater for the first time since his stint in The Producers ended. As it happens, he's appearing with Broderick in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, which opened to largely negative reviews including a sharp swipe from Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. So it's not surprising that, when I recently got Weber on the phone, he had much to say about the critics in general and one critic in particular.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: It's a pleasure to finally speak with you, Steven. How's The Philanthropist going?

    STEVEN WEBER: It's going quite well, in spite of our unbelievably bitchy reviews, which I think were a little unfair. Ironically, younger crowds seem to be enjoying the show most of all; it's such an intellectual play that I thought it might not appeal to that age group, but they're involved and very responsive. The Philanthropist is not Mamma Mia! It's not fluff. It requires the audience to be present and clear headed. The play is challenging, but people really seem to be engaged by it.

    STARS: Can you speculate on why so many of the reviews were so negative?

    SW: I don't know. The thing is that the one review you generally count on, the Times, was so spectacularly bitchy and weird and unfounded. This is a play that was lauded in its first productions overseas and in the United States, so for it to be completely tossed aside is more of a reflection on the people reviewing it. Whether you like the play or not, it certainly isn't a piece of disposable crap.

    STARS: And you feel that the Times review was particularly unfair?

    SW: Yes. For such a good writer -- which Mr. Isherwood is -- to slag it off in such a ridiculous manner was really quite shocking. I don't mind a bad review; Variety gave the show a more well-considered negative review. This is a British play with a lot of words. It's not the kind of play that prompts people to fly to their feet and scream "Yeah!" like they do at Blue Man Group. But audiences can rise to it.

    STARS: I saw Matthew Broderick interviewed on TV, and he said that you had the author with you for some of the rehearsal period.

    SW: Yes, for most of it, in fact. It was great, because there were aspects of the play that were difficult for us to understand, and he was there to help. Moreover, he was very supportive; he wasn't an imperious, egomaniacal author. He was there to collaborate on this production.

    STARS: I'd like to take this opportunity to say a belated bravo for The Producers. You and Brad Oscar were a terrific team in that show.

    SW: We had the best time. I saw Brad just the other night. He's doing very well.

    STARS: When you went into the production, did you work directly with Susan Stroman and/or Mel Brooks?

    SW: Yes, they were there all the time -- Stro and Mel and the original creative team. At first, it was me and Henry Goodman rehearsing. Then poor Henry got removed, and I almost did, too.

    STARS: Really?

    SW: Well, they realized that, somewhere along the line, an error had been made. So I think for a moment they were considering purging the entire show. But I worked extra hard, threw myself on the mercy of the court, and they kept me. It's tricky to re-cast a long-running show that becomes a franchise. It's like making dupes of videotapes; every successive generation is a little fuzzier, or certainly a little different. That original production with Matthew and Nathan was brilliant, but it was also lightning in a bottle. I think the show's producers were surprised that it was impossible to recreate that phenomenon.

    STARS: Now you're working with Matthew in The Philanthropist. Did you know him beforehand?

    SW: Yes, I got to know him a little bit when I was taking over for him [in The Producers]. I count him as a buddy now. We have a very good time on stage, and we hang out after the show. We drink our drinks, we lick our wounds...

    STARS: I know you did Hair for the Reprise! series in L.A. Have you had a chance to see the Broadway revival?

    SW: I haven't had a chance to see anything! I wish I could see Hair. When we did it in L.A., the response was fantastic. People went berserk; they wouldn't let us off the stage. I can only imagine how amazing a fully produced version of the show must be. It's a great show, and it hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years. And although the music was at one time relegated to pop status courtesy of The Fifth Dimension and The Cowsills, it really is a fantastic, impactful score.

    STARS: Can you remind me which of the two leading roles you played?

    SW: I was Berger, the Gerome Ragni/Treat Williams character. I was the oldest hippie on stage, even though that was about eight years ago. I was 40. I looked sort of like a meth addict. Like Iggy Pop.

    STARS: My god, you're 50 now? You look great.

    SW: I'm 48. Don't "50" me yet!

    STARS: Sorry, my math isn't very good.

    SW: Apparently not. You'd better get on that.

    STARS: Your Wings co-star Tim Daly has done Broadway. If you guys could do a show together, what would you want it to be?

    SW: I'd like to do The Maids with him.

    STARS: The Maids by Genet? You've got to get that into production.

    SW: With your help. We can start a tidal wave of interest. A tsunami!

    Published on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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