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Brian Childers

Actor Brian Childers, currently onstage at the El Portal in NoHo, has been playing Danny Kaye in various shows since 2001 and won a Helen Hayes Award in the process. Already booked for a second extension until February 24, The Kid from Brooklyn is the most popular and most successful show in the history of the El Portal, in grand part due to the brilliance of this man’s performance as Danny Kaye. In our conversation he talks about Kaye’s hold on him (“He chose me.”), why he thinks it is so relevant at this point in time to do a show on Kaye’s life and career, the show’s ongoing evolution into a big Broadway musical, and his fierce commitment to the stage, which, I believe, makes him every inch
a winner.

Q: Where were you born?
BC: Columbia, South Carolina.  I’m a Southern boy.  People think I’m Jewish. I’m part Scot, part Cherokee Indian, part German. Quite a mix! My father worked in pollution control, so we lived all over the United States. We came back to Columbia after I finished the 6th grade, and that’s where I spent my middle school and high school years.

Q: Where did you go to college?
BC: Tennessee Tech University. I went through Music Education. They have a very good vocal music department. I didn’t go for Theatre, even though I was offered scholarships, but my father and mother and I agreed that I needed to be able to depend on something, so I kind of forwent my theatrical training. I came out and taught for 2 years, but was always doing theatre. I lived in DC for 5 years.

Q: That’s where you first did Danny Kaye, right?
BC: That’s where it all began. Danny was really a turning point. This was the role that I was going to play. I realized that I could not devote and focus all of this energy and time to becoming Danny and learning all this stuff, because it’s a lot of work. I couldn’t teach all day and do Danny at night. That was the cut off point – the last time I taught music education. I took the plunge into professional theatre completely.  I had already had my Equity card, but it was the final commitment to my life and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q: What is your favorite role besides Danny Kaye?
BC: I played Tony in West Side Story. I love that role and that show, and Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That was a blast. I also played Emory in The Boys in the Band. This was one of my favorite roles. I walked into the audition and they wouldn’t read me for it. They wanted me for Donald. I finally said “May I please read for Emory?” I got it. He’s flamboyant, but what I brought to that character … he gets so stereotyped, it’s that 60s and 70s time frame where everything was very repressed in terms of sexual and being gay – he comes across as a bitchy queen. I brought much more of a humanity to him, that makes him come to life in many different ways. He’s a very sensitive soul with an outer shell, a sarcasm that keeps the real self from being revealed. I loved playing him … and I loved Tom Sawyer on the national tour in 2003. There was that fun and energy every night – to just go out there and be a kid. Again, which is a little bit of what Danny (Kaye) is in a way. So, I definitely identify with that mentality in terms of roles that I get.  

Q: Let’s talk about The Kid from Brooklyn. Why do you think this is the right time to do a show about Danny Kaye?
BC: Sad to say, but I believe that Danny Kaye’s legacy is fading. Most people of my generation aren’t even aware of who he was or what he did. At one point he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to this brilliant performer and such an interesting person.

Q: What do you feel are his greatest assets as a performer?
BC: Danny was a comical genius. He could hold the audience in the palm of his hand. He was a singer, actor, dancer and an overall amazing performer. He actually hated the term ‘comedian’ probably because he was so much more than that. He could see the innocence and humor in any given situation. He never had a singing or dancing lesson in his life, and he just naturally knew how to tell a story. You felt as if you knew him, as he had an impish child-like quality about himself – very charming. It can suck you right in, which is what Danny did with an audience.

Q: Is the LA audience different from the Florida audience?
BC: The people that came and saw Danny in Florida grew up with him. Our audiences there were much older. We were supposed to run for 6 weeks, and ended up running 7 months. The Jewish population, because Danny was Jewish, that came was huge; we were overwhelmed. What was neat there was that we had this constant audience; we could try new things and shape the show in different ways. We always had feedback, which was a dream. We’re still doing that, but that was definitely one kind of audience.
It was different in New Jersey. It ran for a month, but they were a much more sophisticated crowd. LA is a much younger crowd than we’ve ever had before and sophisticated too. And we see now what the show needs in terms of elevating it to a completely different level. The jokes that worked in Florida are not going to work here. And they’re not going to work in New York, if and when he head that way.

Q: What changes are you making?
BC: We’re adding a new opening number…and we need to elevate the comedy and the depth and the compelling quality of the show to a different level. We’re at a crossroads right now, trying to decide in which direction the story needs to go. We’re rehearsing new things. Things are not set in stone.

Q: You and Karin Leone, who plays Danny Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine, worked together before this show, didn’t you?
BC: We did Lucky Stiff together. Peter (Loewy), Karin, and Susie Paplow (the choreographer), we all got to know each other – and from that birthed this, so I’ve been working with Karin for almost 2 years now. They are friendly; it’s really quite a family relationship that we have.

Q: Do you have any mentors besides Danny Kaye? What other actors have influenced your work?
BC: I’ve always been theatrical, and I love all kinds of actors. I love to watch Anthony Hopkins or the brilliance of Maggie Smith all the way to someone as real as…I watched Julie Christie last night. Have you seen her in Away From Her? It’s a brilliant performance. It does stimulate me, but I really don’t have one favorite. All these classically trained actors inspire me to excel. A good performance is a good performance. A bad performer in one movie may find his niche… and you go, “That is great!” And I want to see if I can implement whatever they’re doing into my own work.

Q: What is your goal as an entertainer?
BC: I want a Broadway show. I feel like I’m just coming into my own and about to take off in terms of theatre. If I do theatre for the rest of my life, I’ll be a happy man. If I can sing and dance for the rest of my life, I’ll be a very happy man. I want to be of that caliber, of that status, a respected Broadway performer that can do whatever is asked of him. That’s my immediate goal. Ask me in 10 years, and I may say “I’m going for the Oscar!”
(he laughs)
No underestimating Brian Childers! This is one hell of an actor who will end up on Broadway and win a Tony Award within a very short space of time. I predict it. In the meantime, don’t  miss him at the El Portal until February 24 as Danny Kaye in The Kid from Brooklyn!



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