This weekend, award-wining professional stage performer Brian Childers brings his critically-acclaimed one-man performance as Danny Kaye to the stage of Workshop Theatre for two shows only. An Evening with Danny Kaye is co-sponsored by The Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center as a fund raiser for the theatre. Show dates and times are: Sat. December 7 at 8 pm, and Sun. December 8 at 3 pm.
Childers, a Columbia native and veteran performer on local stages, took time recently to talk with Jasper about his career and this special production.
Jasper: Tell us a little about your background, and how you became involved in theatre locally.
Childers: I was born in Columbia, SC, and graduated from Irmo High School. My first “role” was in a production at our school assembly. I played the Narrator, and my mother says there was no stopping me. I was singing from the time I was able, and sang in church and school all the time. I did my first children’s theatre rroduction with (Bette Herring’s) Upstage Children’s Theatre in Columbia many years ago, but I really cut my teeth on working with such theatres as Workshop Theatre, Town Theatre and the Lexington Arts Association.
Jasper: What were some especially memorable shows at Workshop, and some people you really enjoyed working with?
Childers: Growing up in Columbia, I always wanted to be in a show at Workshop Theatre, and I got the privilege to be in several shows there. I did And the World Goes Round, a play called Scotland Road, Scrooge, the Stingiest Man in Town, and one of my all time favorite theatrical experiences was playing John Adams in 1776 at Workshop. I worked with such directors as David Swicegood, Cindy Flack, and Clarence Felder. I loved every set I have ever seen built by Randy Strange. I really love the staff and crew at Workshop.
Jasper: At what point did you make the transition into acting professionally?
Childers: I finished college, and came back home for a year and a half, not sure what was the next step to take. I actually did a full season and a half of back-to-back shows at Town Theatre and Workshop Theatre. Those were some of the best times that I can remember. After that season I decided it was time to head up north and try my wings in show business. I decided not to move directly to New York. I had many friends who had up and gone to the Big Apple and had not worked since! Instead, I decided to move to Washington D.C. There was, and is, a thriving theatre scene there. I thought that if I couldn’t get cast in Washington, I certainly was not going to get cast in New York. I was incredibly lucky in Washington: I worked constantly for the next 5 years. (After) my first audition, I landed the role of Emory in Boys in the Band at my first professional theatre company, The American Century Theatre. It was this theatre that brought about the life changing role of Danny Kaye.
Jasper: You first played Kaye in Danny and Sylvia; how did you initially get cast?
Childers: I was in a production of Hollywood Pinafore with The American Century Theater. I was playing the role of Raif Rackstraw. When Jack Marshall (the show’s director and the artistic director of the theatre) and I discussed what to do with this character, unbeknownst to us at the time, we really shaped him as a Danny Kaye-type without meaning to. There was one scene in particular that Jack saw me play and apparently the lightbulb went on. Jack had had the script on his desk of Danny and Sylvia, but was convinced he needed someone who really could be Danny. So when Jack saw the scene in the show he ran back to me at intermission and said, “You are going to play Danny Kaye, and I have a script on my desk.” I immediately said “Oh, I love Danny Kaye”, but the truth was I knew very little if nothing about him. I went home that night and googled Danny Kaye… and then I thought “WHAT HAVE I GOT MYSELF INTO??” Once we started rehearsals with Jack Marshall, I knew all was going to be fine. He directed me and taught me how to play Danny Kaye. And that was the start of this incredibly long wonderful journey. I have been playing Danny Kaye on and off for over 13 years.
Jasper: Kaye was a huge star at one point, but perhaps not as well known now to modern audiences, apart from his iconic role in White Christmas. What do you think about him as a performer, and then as a character to play?
Childers: Danny was really a genius. He could sing, dance, act, clown, and hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He was a true entertainer. That word isn’t used much these days. You have a singer, or a dancer, or even a triple threat, but Danny was much more than all those things. At one point he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Danny conducted symphony orchestras, was a professional Chinese chef, a pilot and was fascinated by surgery of any kind. Versatile was definitely a way to describe Danny.
Playing Danny as a character has been one of the greatest challenges and most fulfilling things I have ever done as an actor and performer. Danny was complicated offstage and yet was so wonderful with an audience onstage. It’s a dream for any actor to dive into a role like that.
Jasper: What are some particularly enjoyable roles and shows that you have done?
Childers: Of course playing Danny Kaye Off-Broadway for three years was pretty spectacular. Danny still remains my favorite role. When I first arrived in DC, I landed the part of Emory in Boys in the Band. Perhaps because it was my first real professional experience,or just the great character that it is, I loved that role. I was fortunate to be cast in a brand new musical called 90 North at the Kennedy Center, which made me a member of Actor’s Equity, the theatrical union. I played Tom Sawyer on the National Tour of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and loved the cast and the role. And starring in a national tour was a very big learning experience. I actually loved playing John Adams at Workshop Theatre in 1776. When I got the call that I was cast, I was floored. I told the director I was entirely too young, and I was performing with some terrific actors in the theatre scene there at the time. He told me trust him, and it would be fine. I did, and I loved the role and the cast of that show.
Jasper: What can audiences expect from this performance in Columbia?
Childers: An Evening with Danny Kaye is just as it sounds. I have been in several different book musicals of his life, (including) Danny and Sylvia and another very successful show I did called The Kid from Brooklyn. Both covered his life story. This show is not that. Danny used to perform one-man concerts all over the world. Many people over the years came up to me and said “Why don’t you do a show that was like the concerts he used to do?” So I put together this show. The idea is that the audience is coming to see Danny in his one-man concert. There is nothing but music and stories. I perform some of his greatest material, from ”Tchaikovsky”, “Minnie the Moocher” to ”Hans Christian Andersen” and of course “White Christmas”. The show is filled with great music and laughter – a fun and exciting evening at the theatre. My hope is that it will bring nostalgia to some and for others (introduce) this great performer to a new generation.
Jasper: Finally, why do you feel organizations like Workshop Theatre are important to a city like Columbia?
Childers: I believe that theatres such as Workshop play a vital role in both the community and in the cultivation of young talent. Community theatre enriches the lives of those who take an active part in it, as well as those in the community who benefit from live theatre productions. On either side of the footlights, those involved represent a diversity of age, culture, life experience, and a strong appreciation of the importance of the arts. Places like Workshop Theatre are essential and must be preserved and nurtured. I know that I would not be where I am without actively taking a part in Workshop Theatre. It is a privilege to be able to return and perform at Workshop Theatre.
Brian Childers won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor in a Musical for Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story, as well as the Mary Goldwater Award for his portrayal. The New York Times wrote that this was “an outstanding performance by Brian Childers as Kaye,” while Talkin’ Broadway said: “Childers makes you feel as if you are watching the real Danny Kaye. Every gesture is perfect and he has mastered the mimicry and dialects that were such a great part of Kaye’s performances.” In 2014, Childers will play the title role in The Jazz Singer Off-Broadway. You can also learn more about his career at http://www.brianchilders.net.
~ August Krickel