Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Angie Schworer, Brian O'Brien and Patricia Phillips on their 25-plus-year careers in musical theatre
The expression "Broadway veteran" gets thrown around a lot, but performers Angie Schworer, Brian O'Brien and Patricia Phillips have more than earned that title. All three have been treading the boards in Broadway musicals since the 1990s. Collectively, they have almost a century's worth of experience and retirement is not on their busy schedules.
Classically trained singer Phillips, who's currently in the ensemble of Sweeney Todd, recalls that casting directors didn't know what to make of her when she was starting out decades ago. As a biracial woman, she had "dark curly hair in the era of Marcia Brady," she says with a laugh.
Although the call for Broadway to accurately reflect the diversity of our society continues, a lot has changed since those days. In fact, Phillips made history by being the first woman of color to portray Carlotta in the longest running show in Broadway history: The Phantom of the Opera.
Phillips had made her Broadway debut in The Secret Garden in 1991 but found she was never considered for leading roles—unless she wanted to be the understudy. At age 28, when she landed the part of Phantom's outrageous opera diva, it felt like a breakthrough. "I really grew in that part," she says. "It was always a huge release to get my frustrations out by singing that transcendent music every performance."
Schworer also made her Broadway debut in 1991 in The Will Rogers Follies. She's currently singing and dancing in her 12th Broadway production as Minnie, the drummer in an all-women band in Some Like It Hot.
"I love Broadway, love everything about it—but it ain't for sissies," she says. "But Broadway is always going to need older characters. I'm glad I'm on the more mature end of the scale."
All three vets are used to supporting above-the-title stars, especially O'Brien, currently playing Fred Casely in Chicago. Over the past eight years, he's portrayed many different characters during multiple stints in the long-running musical, which is known for its celebrity stunt casting. Those boldface names rarely stick around long. "Some are only in it for four weeks," says O'Brien. But he relishes being one of the Chicago stalwarts, especially since he didn't originally train as a dancer. Ironic, considering seeing A Chorus Line is what inspired his theatrical dreams and he made his Broadway debut in 1997 in Steel Pier, a musical about a dance marathon.
"I've been in six Broadway shows and my great ability is I can move well," he says, adding that he even managed to overcome a near career-ending injury at age 25. "I did a barrel turn, twisted my foot and was laid up for six months with a broken ankle," he recalls.
Schworer, who jokingly said she was 105 on a podcast a few years back, loves working with Gen Z up-and-comers on Broadway. "They're so fierce, real triple threats and they never question their choices or their confidence," she says. "I was 25 when I did my first show and I still don't have that kind of confidence!"
Now that she's a real-life grandma ("Grangie" as she jokingly calls herself), she enjoys dispensing advice to her juniors—"Always say yes to everything that comes your way and don't ever pigeonhole yourself!"—and getting together with her peers from shows past. "My besties include Jerry Mitchell, Cady Huffman and the Will Rogers Follies girls, we text one another all the time," she says. "We're like a family because we've watched kids grow up and people get married and so on."
Phillips, whose real-life son David is in his twenties, has similar maternal instincts when it comes to her much younger castmates. "I drive them crazy. 'Do you need help? Need a Band-Aid?'" she says, chuckling. "Being a mom has made me take caregiving to the next level." It's even factored into the backstory she came up with for her nameless Sweeney Todd character. "Her name is Phoebe Smith, she's a single mom like me, her child has grown, and she still has to take care of herself," Phillips says. "She cleans and cooks for people, hard manual labor."
Although they're thankful to be doing eight shows a week, all three interviewees agree that they're slowing down. But they're not yet ready to hang up their dancing shoes. In fact, they're still learning new tricks… and steps.
"The dance was the biggest challenge for me in Sweeney," says Phillips, who saw the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical on a high school trip. "We didn't use a mirror; it was very hard. I'd get the same notes over and over. I really struggled, but I knew I would eventually do it well. Look, I'm giving it my all. I'm facing my mortality. I'm 60 years old and I know the number of performances I do on Broadway is limited. Everything on that stage is sacred to me. I just do the best show I can do every day, act my heart out."
Top image: Angie Schworer in Some Like It Hot. Photo by Matthew Murphy.