Will Swenson is perhaps best known on Broadway for his Tony-nominated role in Hair and for his memorable Javert in Les Miserables. While he’s grateful for those opportunities – he says doing Hair was “a wild acid trip of a show” and Javert was “a role I’d long fantasized about playing” – he confesses that “the truth is that I really love new stuff” and thus “doing Nantucket Sleigh Ride is a dream for me.”
He told me these things as we sat in the seats of the Newhouse theater an hour before curtain, as crew members were doing their pre-performance tech checks. He explained why new work is pleasurable. “Nobody’s done it before so there aren’t preconceived ways about the correct way to do a part. It’s virgin territory and I love that.”
In Nantucket, he plays McPhee. The character, Swenson said, “has turned into a different guy than I thought he was going to be. In the course of rehearsals and with Jerry’s suggestions” – Jerry is the director Jerry Zaks – “I’ve brought this whole workman feeling to him. He’s probably a fisherman or in construction.” References in a script have also helped mold the character. “There’s one point when I’m talking about someone who’s ‘in a freezer in a drawer.’ So I couldn’t resist a Boston-type accent: ‘in a free-zah in a draw-uh.’”
Swenson, who last appeared on Broadway in the musical Waitress, said that with Nantucket “I don’t think I’ve ever put my performance in the hands of director as much as I have with this one. I normally have my ego up and I’ve got ideas about how to deliver the role. But I know that, given Jerry’s familiarity with John Guare’s work, he knows the world of delivery and tone a heck of a lot better than I do. As an actor you never want to feel like a puppet, and I don’t feel like a puppet here. But I’m allowing for more guidance than usual.”
Swenson spoke about Guare the playwright and Guare the colleague. “His voice is so strong on the page that as an actor it makes no sense to try to improve upon it. The whole purpose of the thing is to hear the play. Much like with Shakespeare, it’s about the words. Swenson mentioned that his last electronically unamplified performance before Nantucket was in Shakespeare: Trevor Nunn’s production of Pericles, at Theatre for a New Audience, in Brooklyn.
Swenson is used to amplification because of his frequent work in musicals. Does he take care of himself differently when doing a play than when doing a musical? “Not really,” he replied. “In both cases, the two biggest things are sleep and hydration. I have a two-year-old so sleep is not always an option.
Swenson last appeared in something associated with Guare in 2005, in Central Park: the musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, for which Guare wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book. “I was just in the ensemble,” Swenson said, “and John was so kind to me. Part of me thinks I got this new part because John remembered me from Two Gents.”
And if Nantucket Sleigh Ride were also given a musical version, how would Swenson’s character, McPhee, sound? “My part would probably have a rock beat,” the actor answered. “But right now I’m working on the sound of McPhee without any instrumental accompaniment. As with all new work, it’s scary. Also thrilling.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com