One of the challenges faced by actors playing historical figures is not to let research overwhelm their creation of a vibrant character who has to live and breathe on stage.
Bobby Steggert, who is playing the great French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the new musical “My Paris,” said he had to put aside the “tons of research” he did before rehearsals started so that he could zero in on playwright Alfred Uhry’s take on the painter.
“It’s a challenge (when you play a real person), but I came to realize that this is not a docudrama; it’s Alfred Uhry’s vision,” Steggert said during a rehearsal break for the Goodspeed production that starts performances Thursday, July 23.
Still, it was very important for the New York actor to steep himself in the artist’s life before he arrived in Connecticut. “I read all the bios. I saw all the art. ... I learned to draw nude models. That’s where I started, so that it could all swim around in my brain.”
Steggert also talked with a doctor about how Toulouse-Lautrec might have walked (with his physical impairment) and what other limits the painter might have faced in his day-to-day life.
Norma Terris Theatre, 33 N. Main St., Chester. Thursday, July 23, to Sunday, Aug. 16. $55.50. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org
“Then I threw it all out,” Steggert said of the research. “Some people believe the biggest mistake an actor can make is to think too much (about a part).”
“My Paris” is being given a developmental staging by Goodspeed, which is open to the public but will not be reviewed. A gathering of major theater talent is working on the show. In addition to Uhry’s script, the score and lyrics are by French actor-songwriter Charles Aznavour, with English translations by the Tony-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown. Broadway veteran Kathleen Marshall is directing and choreographing the musical and the cast includes Tony-winner John Glover.
Aznavour’s music is distinctive and challenging, Steggert said.
“It’s authentically French; it’s not a pastiche like (Jerry Herman’s) ‘La Cage Aux Folles.’ The musical expression is so much looser, so much more off-the-cuff (than in American musical theater scores),” he said of the appealing “rash freedom” of Aznavour’s style.
Steggert has worked on many musical theater workshops in New York City, but they are no substitute for putting a show on in front of a real paying audience.
“Places like this are rare,” he said of the Norma Terris Theatre. “And I think musicals are the hardest art form to pull off because there are so many people involved. I’ve done lots of workshops where you are basically presenting the show to rich (potential) investors. It’s a gift to be able to do (a new musical) in front of real people.”
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