Nathan Lee Graham (Photo: Bradford Rogne Photography)
By Ryan Leeds
Mainstream audiences know Nathan Lee Graham primarily for his hilarious role as Todd in both Zoolander movies. Broadway geeks recall his fabulous turn as the Turner-impersonating drag queen, Miss Understanding from Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Last year, he received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for “Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical” for Off Broadway’s The View UpStairs. He’s currently featured in the FOX television comedy LA to Vegas (now on Hulu).
This Thursday, he’ll have a musical homecoming of sorts as he returns to his musical theater roots. Graham will present All Things Bright and Beautiful: A Sondheim Salon at The Green Room 42.
The Broadway Blog recently spoke with him about his affinity towards Stephen Sondheim’s music and the vulnerability he’s allowed himself to have throughout the rehearsal process.
Sondheim is often the go-to choice for musical theater performers. Why did you decide to do a show around his music?
Well, I do have a degree in musical theater, but this is the first show that I’ve ever done that is only musical theater. I’m accustomed to doing the great American Songbook. But now I’ve moved back to my roots. I figured if I’m going to do that, let’s do my favorite—the standard bearer and poet laureate of Musical Theater: Stephen Sondheim.
It is an actor’s music. I’m an actor first who happens to be able to carry a tune. His music has always appealed to me even though someone who looks like me and is the embodiment and essence of me doesn’t get the opportunity to perform his music 99 percent of the time. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong to me and to all of us. His music is the one that appeals to me first and last when I think of musical theater. It’s dangerous to sing because it forces you to tell the truth. I called the show Bright and Beautiful because he uses that phrase in several songs in several different musicals. Everything is so vulgar, crass, and commonplace right now so I thought it would be nice to do something more heady and romantic.
From a technical perspective, what is more difficult: Sondheim’s lyrics or his music?
Hands down, the lyrics. The more difficult the music, the more signature the sounds and that’s easier for me. That’s just the way my brain works. The lyrics are so conversational that it sometimes feels like I’m making it up if I’m doing it correctly.
Let’s go back to what you said earlier about people who look like you not having the chance to sing Sondheim. His music does, in fact, have a universal quality. What have you learned about yourself in the process of this show?
I’ve learned that I’m a romantic much more than I care to admit. I try so hard to up the level of everyday events that seem so mundane. Here’s the convoluted thing: I’m a romantic, but I’m also a modernist. Being modern is actually an old idea. I don’t sweat the small stuff, but I look at the long range. That can be frustrating for people who want immediacy.
I discovered throughout rehearsal that the songs I chose are reflective. In Sondheim’s music, there are ballads and up-tempos within the same song. In that way, the listener doesn’t get bored. I thought that it was a metaphor for my life. I have a lot of variance on the themes, but what maintains is my consistency for good work and wanting the bar to be set high. The music that I chose is a reflection of who I am as a human being.
Is there a particular genre of music in which these songs have been arranged? Are they drastically new arrangements or are they just slightly tweaked?
Because it is Sondheim, I’m only tweaking them a little bit to suit my timbre, my tone quality, my voice and breathing patterns. If anything, they will lean towards a jazz feel but Sondheim already does that by being dissident or blue.
Is there a chance that you can sing “Losing My Mind” as Tina Turner?
(Laughs) That would a whole different kind of show, honey! As a matter of fact, I would love to hear Tina Turner sing “Losing My Mind.”
She’d knock it out of the park!
She would kill it! It’s funny that you bring this up. This will be the first time that I’ve been able to sing musical theater music in my own natural voice as opposed to taking on what I think the character sounds like. In most musicals that I’ve been hired to do, I always sing how the character would sing, not as Nathan Lee Graham would do it. For example, In Priscilla, I was doing my best version of Miss Understanding singing like Tina Turner and not as Nathan Lee Graham would sing. It’ll be nice and fun for me to sing in my natural voice.
Well, we’re excited about seeing it.
Thank you! I hope that if it goes well, I’ll do Kander and Ebb next. That would be my next project. Their songs suit me just fine, too!
Nathan Lee Graham in All Things Bright and Beautiful: A Sondheim Salon
The Green Room 42
570 Tenth Avenue at 42nd Street< NYC
Thursday, October 11
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on @Ry_Runner or Facebook.