Will Swenson has had a varied career on Broadway. From playing the charismatic ringleader hippie in “Hair” to the sensitive drag queen in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” to the steadfast Inspector Javert in “Les Misérables,” the 40-year-old star is one of the most versatile actors working in the industry today.
He’s also been absent from Broadway for the past 10 weeks, on a hiatus from “Les Mis” as he stars in the world premiere of the new musical “Bull Durham,” now open at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA. Based on the beloved 1988 film, Swenson plays Cash Davis, a veteran catcher playing out the last years of his career in the Minors. (It’s the Kevin Costner role from the film, though good luck finding traces of Costner in Swenson’s commanding performance).
On the heels of his return to “Les Mis,” Swenson speaks to NBC about “Bull Durham,” Javert and how his wife Audra McDonald prompts spontaneous bouts of sobs.
NBC 4 New York: What drew you to “Bull Durham”?
SWENSON: This is a man’s man show. It’s sexy. [Susan Werner’s] score has this southern rock feel to it that I haven’t heard in any musical before. And it’s thrilling to see how they’ve translated baseball on stage. It’s very masculine and different from what you’ve seen before. There’s always something super appealing about being able to do something brand new. You don’t have somebody else's bases to touch (so to speak).
NBC4NY: Cash is such an iconic character.
SWENSON: You watch Costner in that movie and he’s just so cool that you can’t help but want to be him. In the past, I’ve played these very flaily characters, from “Hair” to “Priscilla,” where I’ve had to be large and frenetic. But I really love Cash’s stillness. That’s been my lesson to learn this year, between Javert and this role; that I can stand still and still hold some power. It’s hard to do and hard to trust.
NBC4NY: Nowadays, it seems every out-of-town production of a new musical has the “Broadway-bound” tag attached to it. Do you feel pressure to deliver a hit?
SWENSON: You really just do yourself a disservice by putting that extra weight on your shoulders. It’s always hanging in the air, but all you can do is concentrate on the moment and try and make the best show you can.
NBC4NY: But the out-of-town experience has changed a lot in the past few years, hasn’t it?
SWENSON: Sadly. It isn’t nearly as under the radar as it used to be. Because [New York] critics are still coming out and reviewing. You have to let artists experiment and find a show before a negative vibe gets out there. Because it’s really hard to overcome. My hope is that as the information age continues, we’ll understand that we need to allow the art form to progress the way that it should. Keep the reviews local and let a show get ready to come into town.
(Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench)
NBC4NY: You’ll be coming back to “Les Misérables” Oct. 9. Was it hard to walk away?
SWENSON: It was always my dream to do “Les Mis” as a kid. And to get to do Javert is a thrill. I’m really proud of it. One of the frustrations of success on Broadway is the long runs. And it’s a double-edged sword. You’re on Broadway and you’re living your dreams, but there’s a redundancy with doing your long-running show. So you can get into a rut, creatively. Even though you’re doing great work, by your 500th performance you’re looking for any other creative outlet. “Les Mis” was generous enough to give me the hiatus, and flex some creative muscles.
NBC4NY: This revival of “Les Misérables” made some bold changes from the original production – to much success and acclaim.
SWENSON: With any standard that you do, you want to make it fresh and resonate. Much like Diane Paulus did with “Hair.” And that’s what our creative team on “Les Misérables” were able to accomplish. Reimagine and reinvent. They rethought the piece in a really story-oriented way. Most of them had been with the original company in London and had 25 years to just sit with the show and go “What if this scene was there? What if that?” They were really smart about it.
NBC4NY: You’re just approaching your two-year wedding anniversary with your wife, Audra McDonald. Tell me about life with a six-time Tony winner.
SWENSON: She blows my mind. I live my life next to her. We go about our daily routines, and we take our kids to school and we eat dinner. And I’ll go months at a time without seeing her perform. And then schedules will work out and I’ll be able to go see her in a show or go see one of her concerts. And I’ll just sob because I’m reminded of the power of this woman I’m married to. She’s just a force of nature unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She’s amazing.
“Les Miserables,” with an open-ended run at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Tickets: $57-$139. Call 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com.