Bryan Batt Press - BroadwayOnline
BroadwayOnline, August, 2001
Bryan Batt Lights Up Broadway as the New Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast

by Michael Buckley

NEW YORK -- That special glow emanating from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre these days is because Bryan Batt has taken over the role of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. Says Batt, “Someone pointed out to me that half of the roles I’ve played on Broadway are not human. [Laughs]” He’s played a train in Starlight Express, which marked his debut; two felines (with hat in Seussical; without in Cats), and now he’s a candelabrum.

We meet, following a day of rehearsal, on the Thursday prior to his assuming the role (Aug. 14). Batt’s still not accustomed to the weight of his costume. “It’s quite cumbersome. The arms, the flames in each hand, are between five and seven pounds. After a while, it starts to hurt in the shoulders. The strange thing is that you spend so much time concentrating on the fingering to make the flames go. Learning the part is one thing, handling the pyrotechnics is completely different.

“You’re completely flame-proof. Knock wood, nothing goes wrong. No one’s ever caught fire. I don’t want to be the first, and I don’t want to take anyone out [in a blaze of glory]. I’m a giving performer. [Laughs]”

His baptism of fire has received the blessing of Broadway’s original Lumiere, Gary Beach, who’s still flaming, but in a different way, in The Producers (where he does a mini-tribute to the candelabrum at the start of “Springtime for Hitler”). “He’s a lovely man,” says Batt. “He hugged me and wished me well.

“I feel so lucky to be here. Beauty and the Beast is a long-running, wonderful show. Audiences go crazy; kids just love it! My nieces [his older brother’s two daughters] can see it.”

His nieces, Bailey and Kelly Batt, haven’t seen their uncle in many shows. “Saturday Night Fever wasn’t appropriate.” They saw him as the Cat in the Hat in Seussical, during the weekend matinees that he went on for Rosie O’Donnell. “The older [niece] did see me in Forbidden Broadway when she was very young, but she didn’t get it. They’re coming up for Thanksgiving, and they can’t wait.”

Batt went on with a total of six rehearsals (two in costume) that were overseen by “the stage managers, the resident director, and the dance captain. I must say, it’s a great group of people -– very positive and supportive -– which is rare for a long run. To keep it like a family is very, very hard.

“Taking over is so much harder than creating a role. I’m one of those actors who doesn’t really come into the role until the second week [of performances]. And kids are the hardest audience to play for. If something’s not truthful, they will let you know right away.”

He had no qualms about joining a long run rather than waiting for a new show to come along. “I love to work. I cannot sit still. That’s one of my flaws. I don’t like collecting unemployment. And Disney was wonderful with the contract. If something great comes up, down the line, they’ll let me do it.

“I just finished a workshop of a musical revue called Vices. Gabe Barre directed it. It was quite well received. I hope something happens with it, because the people involved are wonderful.”

Batt credits his experiences in two Forbidden Broadway shows -- ... Strikes Back and ... Cleans Up Its Act -- as “the best training ground. I learned so much in such a short amount of time. Of course, if that’s the only thing that people have seen me in, they tend to think of me just as a mimic.”

Has his current employer mentioned Batt’s spoofing of Disney’s The Lion King, playing an outrageous ‘Rafreeki,’ complete with Mickey Mouse headdress? Comically shrinking in his seat, he cries, “Not yet! [Laughs] It’s the only time I’ve gone into a show [in this case, another Disney musical] after I’ve spoofed it. When I spoofed Sunset Boulevard and Cats, I’d already been in those shows.”

Playing the weekend matinees for O’Donnell in Seussical made him, Batt believes, “the first male actor to cover a character woman.” O’Donnell, says Batt, “was very giving and gracious, a wonderful, down-to-earth member of the company.”

He was able to create his own interpretation of the Cat in the Hat. “That was one of the reasons I took it. I went on a few times for David Shiner [who originated the role] and almost once a week for Cathy Rigby [who succeeded O’Donnell]. She had a lot of dates that she had to do.

Seussical,” he says, “was a bittersweet experience. Going in, ‘hit’ was written all over it. Look what happened. I feel so bad for Lynn and Stephen [songwriters Ahrens and Flaherty]. Their work is always so great. I think everyone’s attempt was noble. But [adapting the Dr. Seuss material] is a hard nut to crack. It’s a hard thing to get right.”

Batt had taken the standby job due to a knee injury he’d sustained while playing the DJ, Monty (“sleaze personified”), in Saturday Night Fever. One of the platform shoes he wore broke and a surgeon told Batt that he could either undergo surgery or therapy. He chose the latter, and opted for the less strenuous job of standby.

Recalling Monty, Batt says, “I’m really glad to have been cast in that role and have it so well received. Most casting directors would not have seen me in the part. I love getting to do different things.” It afforded him the opportunity to perform “Disco Inferno” and “Disco Duck.”

He was standby for Douglas Sills in the second version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. “When you’re a standby, you don’t have to be at the theatre. You’re on beeper. Some people love it, and some don’t. I don’t. I’d rather be onstage. I went on about 50 times as Percy.”

In Sunset Boulevard, he was part of the ensemble, as well as understudy for Alan Campbell as Joe Gillis. “I was on vacation when Betty Buckley took over [as Norma Desmond]. Alan had never missed a performance [while Glenn Close starred]. Lo and behold! I came back, and Betty showed up with a huge bouquet of flowers. She said, ‘You’re going to be great!’ I thought, That’s class! Betty and I became really good friends.”

Batt played Reuben and understudied Pharaoh in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Michael Damian. It was the first of Batt’s four consecutive musicals at the Minskoff. When he was doing the fourth show, the Minskoffs gave him “a crystal plaque from Tiffany’s [signifying his achievement]. I asked Scott Ellis [who was directing the Minskoff’s next show, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer], ‘C’mon, rethink Injun Joe. He can be funny.’”

Other Broadway experiences include Cats (he played Munkustrap for a year-and-a-half) and Starlight Express (as Rocky I, and understudy for Greaseball). When Batt auditioned for Paul Rudnick’s Off-Broadway play, Jeffrey, the playwright asked him if he were really in Cats. Replied Batt, “Yes, now and forever.” Then and there, Rudnick cast him as Darius, and slightly rewrote the part. “Originally, Darius was a dancer in Grand Hotel. At the first read-through, the script said, ‘Darius enters in a Cats costume.’ I said, “Oh, no, not again!’ [Laughs]” Batt reprised his role in the 1995 movie version.

When Batt arrived in New York, he gave himself five years to be in a Broadway show. He made it in two. The actor sharing his dressing room said, “Now, the trick is to stay here.” Says Batt, “It’s not easy [to maintain a career]. Knock on wood, I’ve been very fortunate to continue working. It’s a crazy business, but I love it!”

* * *

Born and raised in New Orleans, Batt is the younger of two sons. He goes back to his birthplace “as often as I can. There’s nothing like it. It has a unique cuisine. A lot of people think that it’s Cajun, and it’s not. Cajun is country food. New Orleans cuisine is usually Creole. Spicy, but not necessarily hot. And it has great architecture, great music. The attitude’s so different.”

His family owned the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. “Imagine growing up, and your family owns an amusement park! My grandfather used to be an iceman and had a horse-drawn carriage. One day, he passed a Model-T on the other side of the road, and it was carrying a refrigerator. He knew that it was time to change businesses. So, he started the amusement park.”

As a child, Batt used to come to New York with his mother and grandmother to see Broadway shows. His first was Annie. “We saw Gilda Radner Live at the Winter Garden. We were in box seats. My grandmother was the type of lady who wore gloves to the theatre. Gilda came out and sang the first number, ‘Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals.’ That worried me. I looked over at my mother and grandmother, but they were holding each other, with tears of laughter running down their faces. When I was doing Cats at the Winter Garden, I remember looking up and seeing a mother and son in the same box, and thinking back.”

Much earlier, Batt had made his nonprofessional debut as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in a third-grade play. During high school, he played Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun, and Emile de Becque (“with gray streaks in my hair”) in South Pacific.

At a community theatre, he played in Godspell and Helen Hayes attended a performance. His parents spoke to her afterwards, telling her that their son wanted to be in show business, and they were trying to discourage him. The actress said that Batt was very good, and that he should be encouraged. She had lunch with the Batts the next day, and later invited them to visit her at her home in Nyack, New York. “It was called ‘Pretty Penny.’ We spent the whole day there, and went out to dinner.” Years later, when Batt made his debut in Starlight Express, he received an opening night telegram (which he keeps framed) from Hayes: “Welcome to Broadway. May you have a triumphant stay.”

Says Batt, “I went to Tulane. I wanted to go to a more theatre-based college, but now I advise anyone who wants to go into theatre to go to a league school. You’ll make contacts. You’ll be working with the people who’ll be working in theatre later on. My father was very ill at the time, and I lived at home. I’m glad I did.” His father died soon after Bryan graduated.

Regionally, Batt played Che in Evita, Kenicke in Grease, Dick Dickerson, Teen Detective, in Trixie True, Paris in Romeo and Juliet, John in The Lover, and Jeep in Action.

His first job in New York was in a production of Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls at the now-defunct Equity Library Theatre. “It’s sorely missed. That was the best place for actors just coming here. It was a great showcase to get agents. That’s how I got my agent, Bill Timms. It’s so hard for young actors to get seen.”

At the York Playhouse, he appeared in The Golden Apple. Between his two editions of Forbidden Broadway, Batt did a play with the Rattlestick Company, “and a wonderful revue, I Love New York, at Rainbow and Stars -- with Janet Metz, Heather MacRae, and Lewis Cleale. I also did Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning, which was directed by Gerard Alessandrini.”

In Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back, Batt’s favorite routines were the spoof of Big (“so much fun to do”) and his takeoff of Jerry Lewis (who was paired with Liza Minnelli in Kiss Me, Kate). “It was a number called, ‘So Miscast’ [sung to the tune of “So in Love”]. I grew up imitating Jerry Lewis.”

He also parodied John Davidson (“Oh, What a Beautiful Moron”), an intense Mandy Patinkin, and producer Barry Weissler, who told him, “You played me like an old Jewish salesman.” Says Batt, “He was kidding. I said, ‘Barry, don’t kill the messenger.’

“You have to be fearless [to do the parodies]. There was some wonderful stuff that few, if any, people saw. There was a Cabaret parody, in which I was the ugliest Kit-Kat Club girl you’ve ever seen. Sometimes, I like going to the offensive, ugly place. That’s why I liked The Producers so much. Everyone’s so careful [about being politically correct]. I said, ‘Bring it on!’ I had a great time.”

Might he consider replacing in The Producers, somewhere down the line? Says Batt, “From your mouth to God’s ears.” Which role would he like to play? “Cady Huffman’s part. [Laughs] I’m kidding. Anything!”

He stopped doing Forbidden Broadway because “after I’d been on Broadway awhile, I didn’t want to keep making fun of it. Although it’s all tongue-in-cheek, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Considering roles that have brought him the most satisfaction, he says, “There were two I never got tired of -– Darius [in Jeffrey] and Percy [in The Scarlet Pimpernel].”

Does Bryan Batt have a dream role? “Well, I love doing new parts, creating new characters. So, my dream role is the one someone’s writing for me right now.”