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by Michael Portantiere

Will Swenson vs. Superman

  • WillSwenson-final.jpgI can think of at least three major Men(c)kens, each notable in his own way. There was H.L. Mencken, the brilliant journalist-essayist-critic who gained great fame during the first half of the 20th century. There's Alan Menken, composer of such stage and film musicals as Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, and Newsies. And then there's the fictional Max Mencken, a character in the musical It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman. Possibly named in homage to H.L., Max is a columnist for the Daily Planet newspaper who becomes intensely jealous of the lovely Lois Lane's attraction to the Man of Steel. (Tough competition, one must admit.)

    The deliciously juicy role of Max was created by Jack Cassidy when Superman opened on Broadway in 1966 and had a brief run of 129 performances. Now that City Center Encores! is reviving the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams-David Newman-Robert Benton musical, the part has been handed to Will Swenson, whose two most famous roles to date have been the no-boundaries hippie Berger in Hair and drag queen-absentee dad Tick/Mitzi in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The cast also includes Jenny Powers as Lois Lane, Alli Mauzey as Sydney, David Pittu as the evil Dr. Sedgwick, and Edward Watts in the title role. I recently spoke with Will about his first Encores! experience, and we also touched on his home life with spouse Audra McDonald (!!!) and their kids.


    BROADWAYSTARS: This is only your second day of rehearsal. Have you begun to get a sense of the show yet?

    WILL SWENSON: A little bit. We had our first read-through and sing through yesterday. I'm starting to get excited about it.

    STARS: How well did you know the show before you began rehearsals?

    WILL: I didn't know it at all. I knew it was a title, and I knew that Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh did a production of it in Texas a year or two ago. That's about it.

    [I pause for a moment to greet Ward Billeisen, who's in the ensemble of the show and who recently appeared in the New York Philharmonic concert performances of Carousel. This gives Will the opportunity to take a brief phone call. Then he's back with me:]

    WILL: Sorry. Pesky wife.

    STARS: That's okay! Did you get to see Carousel?

    WILL: Yes, I did. Pretty gorgeous, right? Nathan [Gunn] and Kelli [O'Hara] together with the Phil was just unreal. It's a shame that people don't get to hear that big of a sound very often these days.

    STARS: Back to your show: It will be interesting to see how it goes over with today's audiences.

    WILL: The whole thing's a satire. I'm a satirical jerk in it. It's sort of like Mad Men; you see these misogynists of the mid '60s treating women so terribly. It's entertaining because it seems so incomprehensible in today's terms.

    STARS: The part of Max was created by Jack Cassidy. Are you familiar with his work?

    WILL: Yes. I guess the role was expanded because it was very much a vehicle for him to show off his glorious voice, even though Max doesn't necessarily have much to do plot-wise other than to sort of jump on the evil villain bandwagon with David Pittu's character. That's the reason I wanted to do this part more than anything, for the duet in the second act, where the two bad guys realize they're on the same page and it turns into this fantastic vaudeville number.

    STARS: Have you ever played an out-and-out villain before?

    WILL: Yeah, I've played lots of bad guys. I kind of enjoy it.

    STARS: I've read that you and Audra are set to perform on the R Family Cruise that's coming up in July. I'll be you're looking forward to that.

    WILL: Very much. We did one before, and it's so beautiful to see all those families.

    STARS: Now, how many children in total do you and Audra have living with you?

    WILL: I have two boys, and Audra has her daughter.

    STARS: What's a day in the life like for you all?

    WILL: It depends on the day! The kids are back and forth between us and our first spouses. On a busy day, it's get up at six, get them to school, and then run to whatever activities we have.

    STARS: Career-wise, what do you have coming up after Superman?

    WILL: It looks like Murder Ballad is going to be done again. It's a really cool piece, really innovative and unique in its storytelling.

    STARS: I'm glad to hear it will have another life, because I missed the MTC production. But I saw and loved Priscilla. That show was such a blast for the audience, but was it difficult to perform in terms of sustaining a tremendously high energy level?

    WILL: It was incredibly taxing physically, with the heels and the headdresses. The three leads were onstage for almost the whole show, and when we weren't, we were racing offstage to change clothes and then racing back on. It beat up your body pretty good, but it was a happy, bubbly, joyful show.

    STARS: How did the experience compare to Hair?

    WILL: Hair was even higher energy in shorter bursts, and then we'd sort of slow down and sit for awhile. But we were onstage the whole time for that show, as well.

    STARS: Superman is your first Encores! production. How do you feel about the highly concentrated rehearsal period?

    WILL: It's a challenge -- high stakes, high adrenalin. Very nerve-wracking. I don't know why we, as actors, decide we want to put ourselves in these situations where we can crash and burn so easily in front of thousands of people. But it's fun!


    [It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman runs March 20-24 at New York City Center. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit nycitycenter.org]

    Published on Sunday, March 17, 2013

    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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