by Brian Sands, New Orleans, Louisiana
When Bryan Batt was 10, he had to lie about his age to Ty Tracy to get into
the NORD production of "Li'l Abner." Now, as one of the stars of New
York's newest runaway smash hit "Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!", Batt has no need to lie about anything. As Gerard Alessandrini, creator and director of "FBSB," says, "talent like Bryan's is clear right away."
Like its predecessors, this revue fiendishly pokes fun at the Great White Way. With such a wonderful current crop of Broadway shows and juicy brouhahas to satirize, this edition has been dubbed by many critics to be the best "Forbidden Broadway" yet. And in it, Batt's prodigious talent is stretched in more ways than there are bars on Bourbon Street.
Beginning as John Davidson vapidly singing of himself "Oh, What a Beautiful Moron," Batt metamorphoses into a gangly kid from "Big" trying to look oh-too-cool. He quick changes into Lou Diamond Phillips as the King of Siam for "Shall we Bunk?" In the Disney production number ("Be Depressed"), he's an adorable Quasimodo. And his transfiguration into Andrew Lloyd Webber, who gets shot by Patti LuPone, is positively scary-how does he do that with his lips and nose?
But Batt's brightest moment comes in the "Rent" parody, "Rant." Originally, the drag queen Angel sings "Today 4 You" outfitted in a chic little Christmas eve number. In "FBSB," Batt explains that "Rent"'s producers thought of toning down the show for Broadway's suburban audiences. Then, looking like a demented oversized elf, he launches defiantly into "Too Gay 4 You, Too Hetero 4 Me." Batt's over-the-top characterization leaves the audience in tears of laughter and, as one critic noted, "could land Batt the role in the real 'Rent."'
It wouldn't be Batt's first time on Broadway. Coming to New York from New Orleans ten years ago, Batt says that he "really had no game plan but wanted to be in a Broadway show within five years." He did it in two.
First with "Starlight Express" then as the Pharaoh in a revival of "Joseph..." and Munkustrap in "Cats," Batt appeared in a steady succession of Lloyd Webber's hits. Yet when "Sunset Boulevard" came along he had to prove himself again through the open audition process. (In "FBSB"'s delectable "Cats/Chorus Line" parody, "Meow, I hope I get it," Batt knows from whence he purrs.) He was cast in a variety of roles as well as understudy for Norma Desmond's boy toy Joe Gillis.
Batt went on to play Gillis opposite Glenn Close a number of times, as well as when Betty Buckley took over the lead. She showed up with a huge bouquet of flowers for him but, because changes had been made in the show, his first performance with her was "like jumping off a cliff." Yet when he was almost hit by "Sunset"'s massive set, says Batt, "that was the most frightening thing to happen to me."
Batt's time in "Sunset" serves him well in "FBSB" when, in one of the stand-out numbers, Ethel Merman shows up to teach Joe Gillis how to sing without amplification. Batt/Gillis drolly laments "I keep singing, though my voice is air."
In addition to Batt's Broadway goal, he says he "wanted to originate a great part." He got that opportunity in Paul Rudnick's "Jeffrey." As Darius, the chorus boy living with AIDS, Batt advised "Fear AIDS, Jeffrey, not life," as he returned from Heaven still wearing his "Cats" costume. (Though "Cats" seems to be a leitmotif in Batt's career, he actually reminds one more of a big, friendly dog-a St. Bernard, perhaps, or a sheepdog.)
"Everything out of Paul's mouth was hysterical," says Batt. "Even the stuff he cut was brilliant." Going to audition for "Jeffrey," Batt, strapping and dark-haired, thought that they were looking for "some cutey blond little chorus boy." He decided to play the character as sweet and rather innocent, won the role, and went on to give a performance that was funny, touching and memorable. No one who saw him will ever forget Darius planning his memorial service at the Winter Garden Theater where everyone would sing to the tune of "Memory," "Darius, we all thought you were fabulous."
Starting with the original off off-Broadway production, Batt moved with it for its wildly successful off-Broadway run (Greg Louganis eventually took over his role) and then was the only original cast member to be in the movie version with Patrick Stewart playing his lover. Reviewing the film, the New York Times said "Mr. Batt is perfect as the good-hearted, bubble-headed Darius, a role he played deliciously onstage too."
Although the stage is Batt's first love, after doing "Jeffrey," he fell equally in love with doing film and TV work. But he "wants to do the right thing" and says that post-"Jeffrey" "I was offered lots of poorly written gay roles." So he decided to return to the East Coast-LA's loss is NYC's gain.
Director Alessandrini realized that immediately when Batt came in to audition for "FBSB." "In just five minutes he seemed perfect for the show," he says. "Bryan's hysterically funny, not to mention incredibly handsome and stunning to look at." Sometimes looks can be deceiving but not in Batt's case. As the show moved into the rehearsal process, Alessandrini says "Bryan was a joy to work with. He has a wide range of talent and a lot of wonderful ideas."
For example, when Batt offered a Jerry Lewis impersonation, Alessandrini developed that into a parody of star-laden revivals, a somewhat surreal "Kiss Me, Kate" with Lewis and Liza Minelli. Batt seems genuinely pleased that "FBSB" is such a "very, very collaborative endeavor."
The cast's collaboration has paid off. Reviews rarely singled out any one performer but rather described them all as "a terrific quartet of quick-change artists," "supremely talented," "absolutely hilarious," "gifted funmakers all," "astonishing as singers, actors, dancers and buffoons," and simply, "a perfect cast."
Such all-inclusive, glowing notices are a boon in a production Batt describes as "insane" with its multitude of costume and wig changes. "There's no time to think," he says. "We're flying by the seat of our pants." The audiences, however, remain blissfully unaware of all the behind-the-scenes hard work. This is probably just as well since now "everybody's coming to see it," says Batt, "from Bob Hope to Angela Lansbury."
"FBSB"'s success may prevent Batt from getting back to New Orleans for the near future, although he tries to return here "as much as I can." With his family still living here, and having put in thirteen years at the Newman School followed by a degree at Tulane, Batt's Big Easy roots run deep. With the perspective that comes from being away from a place, Batt says "I don't think people realize and appreciate what they have there." Were it not for his bicoastal career, "I would be there."
To make up for it, Batt joins with other New Orleans expatriates in the New York theater community who bring king cakes to the theater during Carnival season. "At first they [other cast and crew members] don't understand it," says Batt, "but then they love it."
Despite having to miss Mardi Gras, Batt says that he "is having a good time. It really is fun. I'm basically so grateful to be a consistently working actor. My career has been steady-like blips on a heart machine."
If Batt's career has been steady, one gets the feeling that life in the Big Apple has been a continual learning experience for him. After ten years in New York, he says "I'm never shocked by how cruel people can be, but I'm never shocked at how kind and Christ-like people can be." Batt maintains some tranquility in his life by living on Manhattan's Upper East Side which as he puts it is "away from everything." Fortunately, for now, the biggest disappointment in his life seems to be that, because of scheduling problems, "Forbidden Broadway" wasn't able to get an Al Hirschfeld drawing of the cast done for the New York Times.
At present, Batt doesn't have time for too many disappointments. He is involved in a number of new musicals including Charles ("Annie") Strouse's latest. He is also at work on writing a musical of his own. And with all of Broadway's producers coming to see "Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back," things seem to be very bright on Batt's horizon.
Certainly, his current director Gerard Alessandrini sees it that way. "Bryan deserves to be a very big star," he says. "When you have it, you have it." Bryan Batt has it.