A veteran of the New York stage, Bryan Batt has stepped into some of Broadway's most beloved, definitive musicals across his multi-decade career—including four Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (Cats, Starlight Express, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Sunset Boulevard). In recent years, he's starred as a series regular on hit television shows like Mad Men. But lately, he's been spending his time writing a play or starring in a play. He's currently the lead in Pay the Writer: an aptly—albeit coincidentally—titled new work by Tawni O'Dell, currently running Off-Broadway at The Pershing Square Signature Center. In it, he plays a gay literary agent who has worked in the publishing industry for about as long as Batt has in the theatre.
Batt stars in the play alongside fellow TV/film stars Ron Canada and Marcia Cross. Batt chatted with Playbill about his years in the business, the current Writers Guild of America/SAG-AFTRA strike, and that time an audience member dressed as a cat tried to rush the stage during Cats. Pay the Writer runs through September 30.
This play comes at a time where there’s very important discussions happening about the value of writers. The title alone is powerfully relevant. What do you think Pay the Writer lends to that conversation?
Bryan Batt: The title was coincidental, I did the reading and workshop of it last year and that was the title then. Pay the Writer can be taken literally of course, but it also figuratively and metaphorically can be pay the writer his due, pay the writer his respect, pay the writer homage…all these different things to acknowledge the gift of writing and the problems that come along with it, especially genius writers. Our protagonist that I play opposite of, Ron Canada, plays this immensely successful writer, but he comes with a lot of issues, too. And what do you forgive? What are you able to accept?
What has your relationship been with writers, as the person who gets to perform their works onstage and onscreen?
Without them, we're nothing. Having written a piece myself—I have a play that I wrote called Dear Mr. Williams, which hopefully you'll see next year on the boards—the one thing I had to really take into consideration is just telling the story. Yes, you have to think structurally. Yes, you have to think about all these other literary and theatrical aspects. But am I creating an emotional journey? It was very interesting that Tawni, this wonderful novelist—she was very open to what the actors had to say about Pay the Writer and what we brought to it…certain things we’d say, she would come back the next day with a whole new monologue or a whole new scene. It’s our job as actors to take these words and bring life to them. It’s like a little puzzle as you're putting it all together.
With your experience in television and film, what’s the energy been like—especially at this moment with the strike, working with a cast comprised of mostly television and film stars?
What's great about them is because, like myself, we all came from the theatre. Our roots are in the theatre. Your approach to character—whether it's film, television, or stage—is from the same core, just different levels. One thing that I learned years ago from Betty Buckley—we were doing Sunset Boulevard together...I had to do a cabaret show, and I’d never done a cabaret, and I knew that she had done it. We went to dinner, and I asked her some questions. She said: "Just play the room you're in. No matter where you are, play the room you're in."
I took that to heart, especially [on my] first television series. One time I saw a friend in a show, and it was a wonderful play, but my friend was in a tiny off-Broadway theatre, and she was doing it for the St. James. It stands out. You know, the actors in this play…we’re in a 200-seat house. It's not a 2000-seat house. I think we have 10 or 12 rows. So, you have to be able to tell the story without hitting Row Z.
There’s always been a lot of intersection between the theatre and television and film industries, but we're seeing a number of television and film performers migrating to the theatre scene during the strike. Do you have any wisdom to share as someone who's worked extensively across both disciplines? Is there anything about the theatre industry and community that you wish was more present in other sectors of the entertainment industry?
I really wish it was more of the family aspect and the camaraderie and the sense of community that we have in the theatre. My first show was right when Broadway Cares first started. I was in Starlight Express, and we started fundraising at intermission. That year, I think, was one of the first Easter Bonnets, and the Red Bucket Follies, and it just grew and grew and grew. I'm looking forward to being able to host the Broadway Cares auction for the Flea Market again; I haven't been able to do it for the last couple of years, and I've done it for decades. The sense of community, that's what I missed.
On set, you did have something like Friday night cocktail lounge, when everyone's set up a bar in one of the trailers. But you can do a film with actors that you admire, and you don't have any scenes with them. You never see them. But every night in the theatre, you see these people, you interact with them.
You’ve played a number of gay characters across your career, and a question actors get a lot is what parts of themselves they bring to a role. But has playing these roles shaped your real life experience in any way, or taught you anything throughout your journey?
I think always, as a gay man, I used humor as a way to deflect or survive…I could make a joke before someone else would at my expense, or be witty and have people laugh before they would say something insulting. A lot of gay men do that, a lot of gay people use that as a defense. A lot of characters that I’ve played are witty, and when someone says, “Oh, it's so stereotypical, you know, that a gay man would be so witty.” And I'm like, "Well, a lot of them are." A lot of them have to use humor, especially my generation.
Looking back on some old interviews you’ve done, I actually found one in Playbill from 1999 where you were asked what your dream role was, and you said you just really wanted to star in a brand new play. You’ve done that a few times since, and you’re doing that right now. How does it feel to tackle new work onstage and be at the forefront of something in that way, knowing it was once your ultimate goal?
It’s interesting you brought that up, I remember that interview. I was doing Saturday Night Fever at the time. And I love musicals. But one of my favorite experiences was always doing a play. To be honest, I'm really not good at auditioning. I know my strengths: I'm good in rehearsal, I'm good at performing, I'm good on stage. I love getting to do what I love to do…it’s what we all love to do. It's what we signed up to do. All I ever wanted was to be a working actor and do quality work with quality people. I would be lying if I said that I wasn't a little nervous at the beginning of this play, and I think that serves me well.
You’ve stepped into so many of Broadway’s most classic, quintessential musicals: Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Sunset Boulevard, La Cage aux Folles. What’s it like, all these decades later, knowing you were right at the center of musical theatre history? And what have you noticed or appreciated about the artform as theatre has evolved?
I'm one of those people that think gratitude is one of the most important emotions, and it unfortunately is often not expressed enough. I can't begin to express the gratitude that I feel. I have loved every minute of it. I loved it even when I tore the cartilage in my knee one night! When I first moved here towards the end of 1985, there was almost nothing on Broadway. There was a poster that said, “Go see a Broadway show, just for the fun of it!” I think it was Big River that year, another show called Quilters…A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, and a few others, and that was it. What really helped was the British Invasion.
There was an interview with Emmanuel Eisenberg that said the ticket price has really inhibited people from coming to the theatre. I think a lot of people are finding alternative ways to get tickets. There's some people that can always pay full price, but the majority of people that really love the theatre…it should be accessible to them. But especially following the pandemic, I think we're finding our way. There are new voices that are emerging in the theatre that I find so exciting. This year, there were such diverse kinds of musicals that were on Broadway. I mean, you had Shucked, which was this original story with that country music feel. Then you had Kimberly Akimbo, which is heartwarming. And then you had Some Like It Hot, which was this great old-fashioned tap dancing musical. I love that there's something for everybody.
As a Broadway veteran, I’m sure you have endless anecdotes about the business. Do you have a go-to “party story” or funny memory?
We were on the road for Cats, and I think we were in Indiana. And one night in the audience, there was a man dressed in full Cats drag. He made his own cat suit. Makeup, wig, everything. My friend went up to him, and said, “Hey, what are you doing out here? You should be up on stage!” And this guy responds, “Oh, I wish.” He came to every performance and wrote these letters to backstage with these cartoon drawings of us that were just kind of…anatomically suggestive. So everyone’s getting a little creeped out. At the final performance, we’re all clapping to the audience during the last song, and from the back of the house, we see this man running for the stage, and a security guard chasing him. They tackled him right before he could get up onstage. I’ve never seen that kind of commitment from a fan.
You’re working on getting Dear Mr. Williams up next season, but what else is on the horizon?
I'm doing the Playbill Tahiti cruise. I'm going to be one of the ambassadors on it. If anybody reads this and is ever thinking of taking a trip with a lot of Broadway people, do it! These cruises are magical, there's nothing like it. If you're a fan of Broadway, these cruises are nirvana.