Danny Burstein, center, with Jennifer Foote and Kiira Schmidt in the Kennedy… (Joan Marcus, Center Theatre…)
There's a flicker of uncertainty in Danny Burstein's friendly brown eyes as he greets a reporter backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, as if he half-expects her to step around him on her way into the dressing room of one of his "Follies" costars.
"When I heard that The Times wanted to talk to me, I said, 'Are you sure?'" he says, after being persuaded that he, and not Ron Raines, Victoria Clark, Jan Maxwell,Elaine Page,or any of the show's other big guns, is meant to be the subject of this interview.
Burstein, 47, is nominated for a Tony award for his performance as Buddy Plummer, the salesman forced to acknowledge that his wife has always been in love with another man. He is reprising the role he played on Broadway, and has performed since this production began inWashington, D.C.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it his "best work to date." Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty described his rendition of the caustic vaudeville showstopper, "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues," as "definitive."
Others apparently agree: Burstein will perform the "Blues" at the June 10 Tony Awards ceremony, after crossing the country with fellow nominees Raines, Maxwell and Jayne Houdyshell, as well as music director Jim Moore, on a red-eye flight to New York after the final performance of "Follies."
Still, this actor with 30 years of stage experience and two previous Tony nominations (for"The Drowsy Chaperone"and "South Pacific") isn't used to being the center of attention.
"I've always played 'the other guy,'" he says — completely without the bitter edge Buddy might give this line.
In fact, although Buddy's tux is hanging in his dressing room, disposition-wise he scarcely resembles the glad-handing, disappointed salesman he portrays eight times a week."I hope not!" Burstein replies.
"Buddy is a tragic figure. It's Greek in his epic sadness. He has this epiphany when he realizes that the last 30 years of his life have been a sham. Going through that every night is … depressing!" Burstein exclaims with a beatific smile.
We don't require our actors to be miserable, pill-popping wrecks (although we certainly enjoy the spectacle when they are). But we don't necessarily expect them to be modest, grounded and brimful of grateful contentment, either. Burstein is happily married, to actress Rebecca Luker, and they have two sons, 19 and 16, of whom he is, he says, "ridiculously proud."
And he worries that he won't be able to sleep on the overnight flight to the Tonys, because "I can never sleep on planes, I'm one of those people."
"Only theater people would do this," he says and laughs. "You wouldn't ask a movie actor to perform his scene, live, during the Oscars, then change back into his tux and sit down in the audience to watch the rest of the show. I admit my eyes crossed when they asked me, because it's a hard song. But how often in your life do you get to do something like that?"
Here is a man who really, really likes his job.
Modesty aside, Burstein has amassed credits and made friends that many actors would kill for. He first met "Follies" composer Stephen Sondheim when, at 18 years old, at Queens College, New York, he was cast as Franklin Shepard in a school production of "Merrily We Roll Along."
"It's a famously difficult role. The Broadway production had just closed, and a friend of mine said, 'You should write Sondheim and ask him what he was thinking.' So I did. About a week later I got a letter back, saying my questions would have to be answered in a letter the size of 'War and Peace,' but here's my number. I could barely dial, my voice was shaking, but a few weeks later I was in Sondheim's home in Turtle Bay. He had a huge carafe of white wine, and we spent the next three hours talking about musical theater."
Tony Randall, who died in 2004, was an early mentor. He put Burstein in his company, the National Actors Theatre, and would invite him over to run lines. "I still miss getting those phone calls out of nowhere: 'Danny! Tony Randall!'"
Burstein credits his almost absurdly healthy attitude to his upbringing. His father, who teaches ancient Greek philosophy at Queens College, and his mother, a painter from Costa Rica, discussed Plato and Socrates at the dinner table and encouraged their children to follow their dreams, however impractical.
Grateful to be doing what he loves, happy to have earned the respect of his colleagues, never coveting widespread celebrity, Burstein may yet have to readjust his expectations. After seeing him in "South Pacific," Martin Scorsese cast him in "Boardwalk Empire" as the recurring character Lolly Steinman. And since "Follies" came to L.A., he has spent his free time "taking meetings" about future movie and TV projects.
A burst of music through the wall alerts him that costar Ron Raines is starting his vocal warm-ups. Raines plays his romantic rival in "Follies" and is also up for a Tony. Surely there's a touch of hostility in the air between these two dressing rooms?
"Are you kidding?" says Burstein. "I've known Ron forever. We did 'Showboat' together in summer stock in 1986. I've never taken a singing lesson in my life, so I learn from him.... Listening to him warm up," he sighs, closing his eyes. "It's like listening to Caruso."