Flying Over Sunset flew away from Lincoln Center Theater on March 12, 2020, after its final dress rehearsal, owing to the pandemic. As it lands again on the Vivian Beaumont stage this Thursday, for its first preview, I wanted to know what it was like for the production’s actors to return to their roles after an interim of 19 months.
Tony Yazbeck, who in the show portrays Cary Grant, said, “I always had hopes that we would come back, but initially there was uncertainty about when. For the first six months after we went away I didn’t want to let go of the role at all. In the following six to eight months, I felt like I had to let go.” He added: “I had to find new creative ways to make money to support my family.”
Aria Braswell, one of the show’s understudies, who is making her Broadway debut with Flying Over Sunset, echoed Yazbeck’s point about the need to explore other avenues to pay the bills. “I took a job at a bakery on the Upper West Side, a cream-puff place.” Braswell had spent several months after the shutdown cleaving to home. “I’m a writer and composer, and I looked forward to working on projects that were on the back burner. But, Braswell said, she eventually felt herself “getting stir crazy.” She added: “I could have done with about year less time-off from Broadway. I missed doing the show and am so grateful to be back.”
Harry Hadden-Paton, who is Sunset's Aldous Huxley, spent most of his time away at his family’s rural property in Dorset, in southern England. Like many of us, he spent some of his isolation renewing his interest in food. “I grew vegetables,” he said. “I baked sourdough bread, I reared pigs.” The porcine part is accurate but a bit of an exaggeration. “Where I live in Dorset is rural, but it’s not a full-scale farm, even though we have small-scale agricultural pursuits.”
Like most actors, Hadden-Paton said that he spent much of 2020 conducting his professional life online. “There was a flurry of Zoom readings, mainly in the U.K. Then that died down.” Hadden-Paton’s full-scale return to performance came this past summer, with the filming of Downton Abbey 2, the second cinematic extension of the popular television series. Once again, Hadden-Paton is the Marquess of Hexham, the man who put Lady Edith out of her miserable search for a marital match.
Hadden-Paton has often played well-born characters, and when he talked about one of them, George VI in a stage version of The King’s Speech, the discussion turned to the differences in how the Flying Over Sunset actors approach their roles now compared with their approach early last year.
“In the first go-round,” Hadden-Paton said, “I still carried some of the King with me. I still had what are called shadow movements – gestures you’re not even aware of. Vocally, my Huxley carried some of the King’s inflections.”
But those inflections are now gone. Referring to James Lapine, the director and book writer of Flying Over Sunset, Hadden-Paton said: “The time off has freed me up to do James’ version of Huxley, not the version I had learned from my extensive initial research.”
Yazbeck also said that the interim strengthened his approach to his role. “I feel like I now have more to add to my Cary Grant. Something as serious as a pandemic has a way of deepening your emotional take on everything you do.” He added: “My emotional connection to Sunset was always strong, and a break of 19 months has added more layers.”
But while all actors said that their connection to “Sunset” never abated completely, performing in a musical has technical demands that can’t be faked. During the time off, how did the actors stay match-fit?
Braswell said that she sang around the house regularly – “as much as you can living in a New York apartment, where you try not to bother your neighbors. I would do little warm-ups and exercises. I feel I should have been doing a little more than I did.” She went on: “As time went on, I found that thinking about singing and acting was a little painful, because I missed them so much. Working on musical-theater material almost made me too sad. I avoided it more than I expected, as part of a coping mechanism.”
For Yazbeck, staying in shape had an added dimension because he, a superb dancer, carries much of Sunset’s choreography. “I’m a workaholic,” he said, a characteristic immediately apparent to anyone who has sat in on the show’s rehearsals: Yazbeck is constantly refining his movements even when everyone else is on break. “But my workaholism is usually related to the demands of being in rehearsals or nightly performance. During the time-off, I found that I didn’t have external deadlines, which was harder for me.” He added; “But Broadway is coming back, so we have to be ready.”
The aspect of the interim that was least demanding for the show’s performers was remembering their lines. Yazbeck said: “I never forgot a note or a lyric. I always sang this music in the shower or in the car.” Braswell explained: “The lines came back pretty quickly. What comes back more slowly is the little details of actually doing the show – where you need to be before an entrance, knowing where you’re heading during quick changes, and where a particular prop might be.” Hadden-Paton concurred that the words returned promptly. “I’ve found myself remembering lines I hadn’t looked at in almost two years. But with a difference: I’m listening to them afresh. The pandemic has been horrible in so many ways, but it is allowing an evolution of our show. It’s fascinating.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com
Photo courtesy: Tony Yazbeck, Instagram