Danny Burstein has an acting secret he uses in every role, including his latest turn as scheming Seabee Luther Billis in Lincoln Center's rapturous revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific
"I have this thing I do where I imagine that every character I play is the smartest person in the room in any given scene," says Burstein, who was nominated for a Tony for his work as an over-the-top Latin lover in The Drowsy Chaperone
, and for whom South Pacific
represents his 10th show on Broadway. "My character has always got something going on underneath--he has an ulterior motive for anything."
In the case of the wheeling-and-dealing Billis, whose motivations include a lust for money and status even more than a hankering for the company of the opposite sex, the ulterior motive is as American as apple pie: cutthroat competition.
"Billis' chief rival is Bloody Mary," Burstein points out, referring to the fierce Tonkinese beach peddler who undercuts Billis' grass skirt business, as well as horns in on a handsome young officer, Lt. Cable, who might provide a ticket off the island. "When we started out, I initially thought we might be allies, that Billis and Bloody would be helping each other out. Once we discovered that we were adversaries, it really helped the show. So now everything is a contest, including who can lure Cable to Bali Hai."
In fact, after Bloody Mary delivers her mesmerizing siren call to that tropical paradise, "Bali Hai," Billis does his own mock-rendition. This gave Burstein a chance to invoke a favorite reference point.
"I used to love the way George Burns sang," says Burstein, a Bronx native. "He'd come out and sing, 'I'm just a gigol-ohhh,' " Burstein recalls, letting the last syllable dwindle away from any recognizable pitch . "I thought, 'That's fantastic, I have to use that.' So when I sing, 'Bali Hai will whisperrrr...' " It sounds very Burns-ian indeed, now that he mentions it.
And this isn't just a throwaway joke. "It sounds to me like Billis would sing it, as a New Yorker from that time," Burstein says.
Actually, Burstein says he's holding back a bit from the real thing.
"We had some veterans from the Intrepid come talk to the cast," Burstein recalls fondly. "We spoke to them for a few hours; we peppered them with questions and they regaled us with stories. I don't even come close
to the real accents from that time."
Apart from the accent, Burstein got the inspiration for a great piece of comic business from a chat with one New Yawk-talking veteran.
"He said, 'Make sure you give yourself wings,' " Burstein says. Say what? "He said, 'Bend down your hat and give yourself wings on the side.' So I did." Indeed, throughout the show, Billis repeatedly adjusts and/or smushes down his white sea-cap so it has twin flares worthy of Hermes.
Honoring a character's reality is something that Burstein, though a funnyman, is very serious about.
"It sounds pretentious, but you try to remember that everything is reality, no matter the genre," Burstein explains. "It's just a matter of where the boundaries are set for that reality. It was hard finding a balance in South Pacific
, especially coming from a show like Drowsy Chaperone
, which was nothing but a slapstick good time."
, on the other hand, is a message musical about race and American character during wartime. Though it has its share of comic and romantic relief, it could hardly be described as frothy. Accordingly, though Billis is in many ways the show's funniest character, Burstein wasn't satisfied just to play the laughs.
"I wanted a unique take on the character, so he wouldn't come off as Sgt. Bilko in the tropics," Burstein says. "I had to keep him grounded in reality. There's humor, but you have to make it come out of the situation. I see him as kind a loner who will persevere no matter what."
The resonance of a play with race and war as its primary themes hardly needs to be mentioned, but one moment near the show's end does stand out: The stage fills with American G.I.s in military greens, alongside some military nurses. They fall into formation and sing a slow, almost dirge-like rendition of the comic song "Honey Bun" as they trudge offstage to war.
Strikingly, Burstein's Billis is among this pointedly anonymous crowd.
"I don't think Bart Sher, the director, would ever say it out loud, but he's hoping people will realize the relevance," Burstein says. "It's a terrible picture: those people you had seen through the whole play with distinct personalities are suddenly nameless and faceless--part of a crowd that's marching away from you, out of your life, out of your memory. Each of us becomes just a number. It's a terrible thing to watch, as the numbers continue to mount in our current war."
Burstein refers to back to his experience talking to WWII veterans.
"The show is about how people act during wartime, and how they behave when every day could be their last day," Burstein explains. "It's terrifying, but also, from what the veterans say, there's something exciting about it. Every moment you're on the edge. That's the craziness of war."
A musical, now nearly 60 years old, that speaks to our current moment? As Billis himself might say: Who'da thunk it?
Click here for more information about South Pacific.