Bryonha Marie Parham has been featured in Broadway performances such as “The Book of Mormon,” the stage adaptation of the 1993 film “Dave,” and “Prince of Broadway.” She has also made television appearances in the CBS drama “Madame Secretary,” “Showboat” and “Sweeney Todd LIVE at Lincoln Center for PBS. Currently, she is touring with the show “Falsettos,” where she plays Dr. Charlotte. I recently sat down with Bryonha and asked her about “Falsettos” and her role as “Dr. Charlotte.”
How did you get started in Broadway?
I went to Illinois Wesleyan University, which is in Burlington, IL, and I got my Musical Theater BFA, which literally, that’s all you can do is perform with that degree. My Broadway debut was actually “Ragtime,” which had an out of town try out in D.C. at the Kennedy Center, so I spent two to three months in D.C., and then they transferred that production to Broadway in 2009. That’s kind of how that started for me, and I just made a home in the community and New York for the last ten years.
The fact that you’re doing Broadway—I’ve never seen a Broadway show because I’ve never been to New York. I would love to see something like that.
Oh my God, you’ve never been to New York?
I’ve been through New York while traveling to another state, but I want to.
Lauren, you must go. You must go. It’s very fun to visit. I don’t know about living there, but I was there and it’s great.
That’s something that I would love to experience is seeing New York and seeing a Broadway show, especially if you’re doing a show.
Oh, yes! Well, hopefully—I did a show at Arena Stage recently, last summer called “Dave.” It’s based on the 1993 film that came out with Kevin Klein, and they adapted it into a musical. So I was there doing that this past summer, and that’s supposed to transfer to Broadway…you know, we don’t know, but possible the fall or spring of 2020. So, we’re crossing our fingers for that, and if that happens, then you can come to New York and see THAT show and know that it originated in D.C., which is crazy. Everything originates in D.C.
And that’s exciting. That’s so exciting for us because most of us are from D.C. areas, so that’s perfect.
In regards to “Falsettos,” what was the audition process like?
For me? It was pretty simple. I went into an initial audition with James Lapine the director and writer. So, I went in for my initial audition and had him in the room and the associate director, which is Brenda Fine, and the casting directors and we auditioned; we did cut of the song I sing, just small cut of it. And I got to sing my own song, and that was really it. This is a sung-through piece. There are no monologues, there’s no spoken dialogue in it. It’s all sung. So that was all I had to sing, and the call-backs I was not in town for because I was on vacation in Palm Springs. I ended up booking that audition. Of course, they had me on videotape to show Bill Finn, who is the composer of the musical, so he had the final sign off on it. So he basically did that off of a video that was taken of my audition. So, my audition was pretty simple and quick and easy. Painless.
You said your audition was “easy and painless.” I always thought auditions involved standing in front of a group of people. That definitely sounds better than what I imagined
We are standing in front of a group of people. The casting director, the associate director. Sometimes there are up to 15 to 20 people in the room, but this was not that. So there were only about six or seven folks. You are standing in front of them. That becomes your job in auditioning. You learn how to do that really well. It doesn’t scare me. I don’t get nervous. I actually kind of thrive on that. I love having immediate reactions from people. So yeah, when I say “easy and painless,” you’re still going through that whole thing, but the process of having to do call-backs was not an issue for me, which just means that you have to go back and do it over and over again for more people and more people. I didn’t have to do any of that.
What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming performances of “Falsettos?”
Well, I’m looking forward to being back in D.C., and I was just there Monday because I was nominated for a Hellen Hayes award for that production of “Dave” at Arena Stage. So I came back for that ceremony on Monday night, and I love D.C. because that’s kind of where my career started. I’m not from D.C., but because Broadway transfer career started there, it’s sort of the beginning of—every time I go to D.C., it feels like I’m going home. I’m just really excited to do that and be back in the city and see all of the people, and I haven’t performed at the Kennedy Center since 2009, so that’s going to be great just to be back in that space with all of the people that I know and love. So yeah, I think that’s what I’m most looking forward to about being in D.C. with “Falsettos.”
Well, let me be the first to say welcome home!
Yes, thank you! It’s good to be home.
Well, this is your home, so from one D.C. native to another, welcome home! We’re happy to have you home.
Oh, thank you!
Very groovy! (laughs)
What can you tell us about your character, Dr. Charlotte?
The big thing about Dr. Charlotte is that she does not come in until Act II. Act I is just the audience getting to meet a very quirky family that is going through some interesting shift of dynamics in their relationship, and they meet Marvin and Trina, who are married; Whizzer, who becomes Marvin’s boyfriend, and you meet Jason, who is Marvin and Trina’s son. They’re very quirky, they’re very funny, super Jewish, the storytelling. It’s about a Jewish family, and it’s really cool. It’s all fun and light, for the most part.
And then, act II introduces two new characters who are coined, “the lesbians from next door.” And that is Dr. Charlotte and her girlfriend Cordelia. And I’m sort of the grounded voice of reasoning, and we are very much the comedy relief of the show, but she’s kind of the quirky, flighty cook that’s a terrible cook. And we come in in act II, and there’s a big plot shift middle of act II, which Charlotte kind of finds out some interesting news about Whizzer, one of her very good friends, since we are very good friends with the quirky guy you meet in act I.
And she has to deliver the news about what’s happening. This musical was written in the ’80s—well, it takes place in the ’80s, right before the AIDS crisis, before anyone knew what was going on. Dr. Charlotte is kind of in the middle of all of that. She has the natural responsibility to kind of share what’s going on and what that means for this group. So, it’s a really interesting thing because I only get one act, but I get to be funny, I get to be that comic relief. So, it’s a moment when it all drops and becomes very grounded and very real and very serious.
That sounds really interesting.
It’s super interesting. The show is very different, but very ahead of its time, and I think it’s really important, understanding what the LGBTQ and the history of what it’s overcome, and how far we’ve come in the medical industry. It’s just really cool, and you don’t have any indication of that through act I, and you don’t know the charter that’s going to take until Dr. Charlotte is introduced and it goes there.
That sounds entertaining, but it also sounds like it’s going to leave an impact on your audience as well.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. We spent four weeks in San Francisco, and we thought that was going to be a huge market, because it’s a very big LGBTQ community and it wasn’t as big as we had hoped, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that issue—HIV and AIDS—is a very sensitive subject. And I know a lot of people lost friends and family and children at that time, so we’re in San Francisco, we’re collecting for Broadway Cares, which is an organization that does give money to AIDS research and AIDS foundation, and a lot of people were coming up to me in tears and sharing their stories of what they’ve gone through and who they’ve lost and it was really amazing, because if you really don’t know the piece—most people know the piece, because it’s so quirky and it’s so different, and it did win a lot of Tony’s, so a lot of people do know the piece, but those who don’t they never expect it can go that way, and they’re very moved by it.
It’s a piece about flawed human beings that are wonderful but are going through real-life issues and like a huge shift in dynamics in their relationships and their friendships. It’s a story a lot of people can relate to because it’s real life. And I like musicals that are like that. I love musicals that are happy go lucky and make you feel wonderful, but I love musicals that—I just love art that moves me, and sometimes it feels good to just cry things out, so I do enjoy that sort of dichotomy that we offer in the show.
I like how that sounds. I never considered it that way, a play that is not only entertaining but moves you. I never considered it in that light.
Yeah, I think theater nowadays, especially in what we’re living in, we’re living in a really interesting time right now, and I think art should really reflect that. It should make you think and celebrate where we are, but also question and help move us forward. And I think “Falsettos” was a piece that definitely did that, which is why I think it deserved to be riveting, and I’m really glad.
It’s such a quirky show. A lot of people walk out because they’re not ready to feel such a subject matter. They don’t want to see that, and I get it. But I think it’s worth revisiting because we’ve come so far in that time, you know? Just a nice reminder.
It definitely is.
What was it about “Falsettos” that made you want to audition for them?
I have to be really, really honest. I’m an actor who just likes to work. So, I had seen the show. I had seen the Broadway revival of it, which was August 2016, and I liked it a lot. I didn’t see myself in it. I thought, ‘yeah, there’s a role I can play in it.’ It wasn’t a dream role for me; a lot of people ask me that.
It wasn’t that, and mostly because the Charlotte character only comes in in act II.
I’m an actor. You want to be present for the whole journey, but this has been a really interesting thing, because I’ve never done a piece where I had a whole act to just be, and for that story to be set up without me. It’s really cool, and I think for me, I auditioned because I wanted to work, and I was also interested in touring.
I had never toured before, and it’s been such now that I’ve been on the journey—actually, from the moment we went to Arkansas, we took the show to Arkansas. And I saw how important it was to our young fans. And our fans are, very interestingly enough, are not the people—they are the people who were around in the ’80s, but it’s mostly kids who are anywhere between 13-18.
We have a lot of super fans in that age range, and they love it because they can see themselves. And there are a lot of people in the LGBTQ community who have never had a representation onstage like that.
So—and who loves theater, or don’t love theater, but just have never gone to a show and thought, “that character’s like me!” And so, I’ve kind of realized how important this show is as it’s gone on, and I think that’s why I was originally drawn to the piece now, I love being part of the representation, especially as a black woman in the theatrical community. I understand how important it is to be yourself; whether it’s in theater or film or television or whatever. I think that my job is really important and I’m happy. I’m happy to be on the tour because it means so much to those kids, you know?
I definitely see that.
It is cool.
What advice would you give to an up and coming actor?
I have a lot of advice to offer I don’t often practice. (laughs) I think the biggest thing I would say is, you spend a lot of your youth, your younger formative years…for years I learned to sing by listening and mimicking other people, and things that I could do that I was hearing and it took me into my early 20’s to realize, “ok, what is my own voice?” And I want up and coming actors to figure it out sooner what their voice is, what they want to say with their art, and knowing that is enough, that is special, that there’s a place for it. Because you can just get lost in emulate what other people are doing, or have the same journey as other people, and the important thing to know that what you bring to the table is credible and appreciated and special. That’s my advice. My overall advice to young kids is their voice is special and they need to figure out what they want to say with their art.
I can see someone taking that advice, especially hearing that their voice is special. To me, not only is that advice, it’s perfect to hear.
It’s not just for acting. That can apply to any career. You can be valuable in anything that you do and the knowledge that what you do, no one else does it like you. It’s really important for actors to know that, and to live in that and to stand in that. When you’re up auditioning, when you’re in front of people performing, just be confident in the fact that you’ve been given this gift, and no one delivered it like you and that’s it.
There will be more doubt and more questioning because that’s what this career is, but if you can start from a place that’s really open and grounded and confident like that, that’s what makes the journey much better and kind of makes it a little bit easier. I try to tell my students that when I do those classes, but it’s very much easier said than done though, (laughs) ok?
It’s truly uplifting to hear. I know your students, and anyone who hears you say that will truly appreciate that.
I feel like—I grew up in a time where the emphasis was all on the craft, and it was wonderful. I learned how to do things, but then, it was this whole other part of life was figuring out how to put myself in that craft, so that it doesn’t feel like work, that it’s just me doing this thing. That’s the journey of being an artist. It’s very, very cool and it’s a lot of responsibility in it and also take a lot of pride in it. Yeah, I think it’s very cool and it can be uplifting. That’s kind of our responsibility as artists as well.
“Falsettos” will premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from June 11thto June 23rdof this year, so get your tickets and get ready for an amazing performance.