Thursday, August 11, 2016

2016 Interview with Actor/Director Thomas James O'Leary

Thomas James O’Leary’s recent directing credits include Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Nine, Dusty de los Santos, The Debut of Georgia, A Horse with a View, and currently Sunday in the Park with George. Thomas is best known for his three-year run (over 1,000 performances) in the title role of Broadway’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Other acting credits include Miss Saigon (Broadway original cast), Les Misérables (First National original cast), Chess (First National), You Never Can Tell (Yale Rep), Last Sunday in June (Century Center), Travels with My Aunt (Colony Theatre), and Take Me Out (LA Weekly Award, Celebration Theatre).  

O’Leary is currently directing Next To Normal, a contemporary rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, featuring a live five-piece band.  Next to Normal explores how one suburban household is torn apart by mental illness and fights to stay together.  Next to Normal, a guest production at The Pico Playhouse, runs August 19 – September 25, and is produced by Triage Productions and SRO Productions.

by Steve Peterson

How did you first become involved in theatre?

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be involved in theatre until I was in college. I started doing musicals at UConn where I got a BFA in acting, but it was all very new for me. So after college I trained at Trinity Rep Conservatory in Providence, RI, where I got down and dirty with both acting and directing. There I got to work with some amazing actors, directors, and teachers, including Richard Jenkins, Larry Arrick, Suzanne Shepherd, and Adrian Hall. I remember I’d watch Richard Jenkins’ performances as often as possible – I snuck into the back of the theatre to watch the last 45 minutes of Death of a Salesman every night for that show’s two-month run, just to study his work!

What was you first professional job?

My first professional acting gig was doing a season of musicals at Nutmeg Summer Theatre, UConn’s summer theatre back in the ’80s – that summer I did South Pacific, Damn Yankees, and Dames at Sea. I performed in so many musicals during my college years that by the time I went to Trinity Rep, I swore off musicals because I felt “I needed to be taken more seriously as an actor.” Ha! I’m embarrassed now by my judgmental attitude toward musicals at the time, but I’m also grateful I focused so much on acting and directing during my conservatory training!

What was your most memorable performance as an actor?

I think the year I played the Phantom in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera before I took over the role on Broadway was my most artistically fulfilling time as an actor. I remember I got a mixed review from the local paper in the first city I played, and I was crushed! Luckily I was working with a dream of an actress, Diane Fratantoni, as my costar. We were both so committed to the work that we just worked off each other, moment to moment, night after night.  By the end of those seven weeks, I knew we had something special happening, and from the next city on, it seemed the critics thought so too.

Did you have a mentor or mentors along the way? If so, who?

Larry Arrick, the artistic director of Trinity Rep Conservatory, probably taught me the most about directing in my early years. He always pushed me to pursue a directing career. But once I was in NYC, I focused on acting only, and after taking a lot of classes (and cleaning a lot of apartments), I landed my first big acting gig, Les Miserables, which led to a long period of work. I was very fortunate!  And during the six years I worked on Phantom, the legendary Hal Prince was my inspiration and teacher – though I was working with him as an actor, I look back at those six years as a master class in directing. I think I learned the most about research work, concept work and visuals from Hal.

When did you start directing?

After I graduated from Trinity Rep Conservatory, I directed a production of Equus at a small theatre in Rhode Island. The actors and I were so motivated that we built our own theatre space, using donated sheets of plywood and borrowed nail guns, in a small prep school auditorium. I placed the entire play in a boxing ring/hospital operating theatre and created the horse Nugget with the ensemble using the white cords of the boxing ring. It remains one of my most fulfilling experiences. And since moving to LA about 10 years ago, and discovering the rich theatre world here, I have put directing back on the front burner, and am so glad I did.

You also work as a full-time member of the faculty at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood.  Is there one point you work at getting across with each of your students?

I think a lot of musical theatre actors get a bad rap as not being true actors, and I’m trying to change that in whatever ways I can with my students. I teach the various approaches I’ve used in my past to help them treat sung material as any good actor would approach the text of a play. The main difference is that characters in a musical sing when the circumstances are beyond words, which means the stakes need to be higher. But it’s surprising how easy it is for a singing actor to get lulled into just singing a song, because it feels so good to sing, which just doesn’t cut it in musical theatre today. 

How did directing NEXT TO NORMAL come about?

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Selah Victor and Rory Patterson through the Actors’ Co-Op in Hollywood. Selah reached out to me regarding Next to Normal, and as soon as she mentioned the name of the play, I knew I needed to make this work. Meeting Zach Lutsky confirmed for me that I would love to work with this company. They are such wonderful producers and just great people! I’m very grateful to them for this opportunity of a lifetime!

Tell us a bit about the musical and what drew you to the material?

I was blown away by this play when I first saw it on Broadway and again at the Ahmanson. Next to Normal offers an incredible fusion of a strong naturalistic and contemporary dramatic story with a sometimes searing, sometimes tender rock score. A lot is written about how the play deals with someone’s mental illness in relation to the medical profession, but I’m much more drawn to how boldly and sensitively the play deals with the family. This play puts everyone on the map in such an accurate way, and with such specificity and nuance. And in the end, each character’s struggles in this play lead him or her to the priceless gift of self-acceptance, which frankly took me years to find on my own life journey.  

Is there something you want the audience to experience having seen the production?

Because we get to do this gem of a musical in an intimate theatre, I think we can draw the audience in to the story in a way that can be a lot more challenging in a 2,000-seat theatre. Of the various characters’ journeys, I suspect that any audience member can relate to at least one of them, if not a few. And though the play is wisely leavened with some select doses of comedy, it doesn’t pull any punches with heart-rending moments that can pack a wallop. It can be an emotional rollercoaster, but in the end, I hope that our production can offer an inspiring and touching, if not transformative, experience for audiences.  

Next to Normal, garnered three 2009 Tony Awards, and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.  August 19 – September 25, 2016.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.  Tickets: $32 – 36.99.                                         
For tickets:
Information: or 310-204-4440

The Pico Playhouse is at 10508 West Pico Blvd

No comments: