If there's any doubt that we're living in a golden age of creative nonfiction, the nominations for this year's Tonys, which will be awarded Sunday night, should squelch it.
Have there ever been more actors nominated for playing real-life characters? Glancing through the names of performers and parts, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Biography Channel had recently been hijacked by a squadron of Broadway all-stars.
The roster for best lead in the play and musical categories includes Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, Brían F. O'Byrne as the radical Russian writer Alexander Herzen, Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion, Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill, Donna Murphy as Lotte Lenya and Christine Ebersole doing double duty as Jackie O's eccentric relatives Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Beale.
How does an actor go about playing a figure who's not merely the figment of a playwright's imagination? Are there special burdens, special concerns about getting it right?
These issues were taken up by Langella ( "Frost/Nixon"), Ebersole ( "Grey Gardens") and Cerveris ("LoveMusik") backstage at their respective theaters, and their thoughts on the matter reconfirmed that, in the right artistic hands, truth can indeed be more compellingly strange than fiction.
FRANK LANGELLASO what's the trick to playing Tricky Dick? According to Langella, who's delivering one of the most lauded performances of the season in "Frost/Nixon," Peter Morgan's drama about David Frost's infamous TV interviews with the ex-president, it's portraying the man, not the political piñata.
"The biggest challenge is probably in how identifiable he is," Langella says. "And he's not just identifiable like Truman, Roosevelt or John Kennedy. There's an added burden in playing him because he is so caricatured. The question I had is, how do I portray him in a way that people don't find unnecessarily funny even when I do the things that are objectively funny?"
Langella, who is slated to star in Ron Howard's film version of the play, was determined not to fall back on the clichés of Nixon, "not to make him a clown, not to make him foolish," but to piece together a plausible inner life, something not everyone suspected Nixon possessed.
"When you look at a politician on television, you are or are not curious about them based on their personality and what they get across. Nixon didn't seem like a person because everyone was waiting and watching for those bizarre behavior patterns — the stoop, the way he moved his hands, the timbre of his voice, the funny way in which he did all these things. And I thought, 'Well, I have to get behind that, go into the soul and find out how much had to be covered and what exactly he's covering.' "
This entailed delving into a "deep well of inarticulate loneliness," which Langella attributes to Nixon's childhood, in which poverty, parental disfavor (Nixon's brother Harold was the favorite) and romantic insecurity (Pat apparently didn't want him at first) left indelible scars.
"How difficult it was for him to have a simple colloquy," Langella says. "He could never quite relax. He was always so on-guard against everything. He was so frightened, his dukes were always up, so he couldn't ever really hear or see anyone else because what he called the voices in his head were often so much louder."
Was there anything to admire? "I liked what I like about most people — their faults," says Langella, who, at 69, feels liberated to portray unsexy characters. "I admired his brilliant mind and certainly his tenacity and determination. Of course there are many things to loathe about him. If he wanted to step on someone for political gain, he would ground them into the ground."
Langella's research went beyond reading Nixon's memoir and the many biographies on him. He interviewed members of his staff, went to the presidential library and birthplace and studied the Frost interviews along with other video footage.
"It's the most thorough I've ever been," he says. "I don't always do a lot of research because imagination takes over with me and too much fact can be limiting. But I wanted to be utterly true to him. I knew I was going to have to play what we have all come to know. I'm a lot taller than him. I think I'm a little better-looking. And my temperament is so completely different. I felt that I had to kind of climb inside of him and enter his soul."
Did his own politics ever get in the way? "No, because I'm playing a male human being, which I am," he says. "I'm playing a living, breathing heart and soul full of anger, full of rage, full of self-pity, full of insecurity — there just wasn't any time to care about that."
CHRISTINE EBERSOLEEBERSOLE'S transformation into Edith Bouvier Beale and Little Edie Beale in "Grey Gardens," the musical based on David and Albert Maysles' cult documentary, began even before she had heard anything about the show.
She had been independently exploring the film about Jackie Kennedy Onassis' outré cousins who lived in a decrepit East Hampton mansion overrun with cats and raccoons. "It was almost as if the universe was preparing me for this," she says. "But it had never occurred to me that this would be a musical. As an actor, I was just fascinated by the question of how these two gorgeous women who were in such an elevated station of society could end up the way they did."
Ebersole plays mother Edith in the fictionalized first half as well as middle-aged Edie in the documentary-inspired second, where she's supported by Mary Louise Wilson, who deftly portrays Edith in her dotage.
How did she build her roles? "Because you see Edie on film, which is like indelible ink, it was a matter of absorbing the character, while Edith was more out of my imagination, though partly informed by seeing her as an older woman in the movie."
For a musical, "Grey Gardens" is unusually psychological, a study of two upper-crust bohemians who refuse to adapt to patriarchal expectations and wind up ambivalently bonded to each other like Beckettian castaways.
"It doesn't feel like a musical," Ebersole says. "It's not presentational in that sense. It's a more inward representational journey."
Yet she says that her musical background (which includes a Tony for "42nd Street") was instrumental in finding the characters. "The rhythm and cadences of Edie Beale, just the way she spoke — her score, if you will — really informed a lot of who both these people were. The accent suggests their isolation, because it wasn't tied to anything in particular, except perhaps the past."
The same could be said about Edie's unusual flair for fashion, which makes her seem like a cross between Norma Desmond and a full-figure Twiggy. Ebersole's external accuracy is mesmerizing, but it's her internal truth that allows us to accept the outlandish nature of what's before us.
"I don't understand the process," Ebersole, 54, says when asked to explain her process. "A lot of it is intuitive. Of course it's coupled with 30 years of being in the business. But beyond that, there's a mysterious element, because so often the comment is, I'm channeling Edie. And it feels like that. Even the relatives were saying, 'You brought her back to life.' "
In Ebersole's view, mother and daughter aren't tragic figures. "They weren't shallow. They were highly intelligent, sophisticated, educated, beautiful and refined. And they were unapologetic. There's a power and strength to these staunch women that I identified with. To me their story is resolved, because I don't think Edie ever regretted taking care of her mother as she was taught early on, 'The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility.' "
Ebersole says that she's long been drawn to stepping into other people's experience. As a girl, she once spent a day not allowing herself to walk after seeing a crippled woman and when she studied the pioneers in school, she took to sleeping on a sled. She calls the process "inhabiting" and while she understands it as a function of her imagination, she's open to the spiritual aspects of it — the compassionate connections that allow us "to climb on board each others' bus, as it were."
MICHAEL CERVERIS"WELL, I have to confess to having been not extremely well-learned about Kurt Weill before we started," says Cerveris after a Wednesday matinee performance of "LoveMusik," in which he stars opposite Donna Murphy as his risqué wife and foremost interpreter, Lotte Lenya. "I knew 'Threepenny Opera' and I remember seeing a production of 'Happy End' in a regional theater when I was in college. But I knew surprisingly little about him. He somehow slipped through my net."
The production, directed by Harold Prince, features a book by Alfred Uhry that was inspired by the letters of Weill and Lenya, a volume of which was published in English under the title "Speak Low (When You Speak Love)." But the main attraction is the astonishing catalog of Weill's music, a treasure trove of cabaret-inflected songs for cosmopolitan highbrows.
Cerveris' multiple successes with Stephen Sondheim (he won a Tony for his performance in "Assassins" and was nominated for another last year in John Doyle's inventive revival of "Sweeney Todd") have given him confidence to embody this icon of musical edginess.
"Because of the complexity of Sondheim's music, you feel that if you can master that, you should be able to tackle just about anything. Both he and Weill have pushed the boundaries of what musical theater can be. The ironic thing is that Sondheim is not at all a fan of Weill's. When he came to see the show, he was very complimentary, so I asked if it changed his mind about Weill. But it was a case of, 'Great show, shame about the tunes.' "
In preparing for the role, Cerveris visited the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York, where brief film footage of the composer helped him discover little mannerisms and a sense of Weill's physicality. Cerveris immersed himself in the letters, listened to numerous recordings and stared at black-and-white photographs "while trying to imagine moving within them."
"It's all raw material, that you soak up, and little by little it starts to manifest itself in a way that hopefully you're less and less in control of as you go along," he says. "Eventually you'll come across things that are either irrelevant or even contradictory to what's been written," he says. "So there's a point where you either stop reading or start skipping pages because at the end of the day, while you feel a responsibility to the essence of the person you're portraying, you have at least an equal responsibility to the writer of the piece."
Cerveris, 46, says that his "strongest entry points" were a couple of Weill recordings with the composer singing and accompanying himself.
"I was so struck by the voice," he says. "Most composers are not the greatest singers, but you feel as though you can hear the soul of the initial intent in their performance. And what I got was, for all the wit and intelligence and passion of Weill, there's this delicate, very sweet, unpolished and unaffected, pure kind of spirit. This was the thing that I connected with immediately, and it's responsible for the pathos that has seeped into the character."
McNulty is The Times' theater critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times