Friday, April 29, 2016

Spotlight On...Benjamin Eakeley

photo by Matthew Murphy
Name: Benjamin Eakeley

Hometown: Short Hills, NJ

Education: B.A., cum laude, from Yale, where I double majored in Music and American Studies. The American Studies department let me give a lecture recital on Gershwin’s popular music as part of my senior thesis…so I guess they first taught me the value of singing for my supper!

Favorite Credits: 
I had the time of my life doing the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret with Alan Cumming and the most extraordinary group of actors. I understudied Clifford Bradshaw and performed the role opposite Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller. This means I got to make out with all of them, too. That was pretty special. 

My Broadway debut was also thrilling: I was the standby for Anthony, Tobias and The Beadle in John Doyle’s revival of Sweeney Todd, so I had to learn the score on piano and clarinet, as well as vocals, text and blocking for each character. I made my debut as The Beadle, and Patti LuPone started hitting on me during the “Sweet Polly Plunkett” scene in the second act. And I thought: “Holy crap! I’m making my Broadway debut and Patti LuPone is feeling me up in front of 1000 people. Now FOCUS!!” 

But the show I’m most proud of is my solo cabaret, Broadway Swinger. It’s the first time I’ve had real autonomy creating a program, and it has been so rewarding working with my brilliant collaborators James Olmstead, JV Mercanti and Tim Murray. And the show is about sex in the 1960s, so the research has been really fun.  

Why theater?: Theatre is collaborative. Unlike film or television, it depends on a live audience for survival. The audience gives actors information that changes the nature of the show every night, and this is what makes theatre special—each performance is unique. Once the final curtain goes down, this group of people in the audience and people on stage will never be assembled in the same configuration.

In terms of intimacy, cabaret is collaborative theatre on steroids. The audience is directly in front of your face (or at your feet), and they literally become the pulse of the show. I thought it would be difficult speaking directly to audience members in Broadway Swinger but it turned out to be a non-issue. During the show’s debut I looked out and saw this sea of beautiful, smiling faces—how could I not use them?! Bye bye, fourth wall! Boom.

Tell us about Broadway Swinger:
 Broadway Swinger is a nightclub act that takes the audience on a romp through the swinging ‘60s. I sing with a four-player band of world-class jazz musicians (piano, bass, reeds, drums), and together we chronicle the unbuttoning of American society as revealed in stage musicals from the 1960s. And along the way, we sing from some of the most classic scores of all time—Oliver!, She Loves Me, Funny Girl, Cabaret, Hair, Promises, Promises, to name a few. The music is extraordinary. We sold out our debut in January, and I am so excited to do our encore performance—with great new songs!—at Feinstein’s/54 Below on May 9.

What inspired you to create Broadway Swinger?: 
I have a special connection with theatrical music of the 1960s. Three of my four Broadway credits to date are musicals from the ‘60s (She Loves Me, Cabaret and On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever) and I happen to think all questions in life can be answered by studying The Apple Tree. But the biggest influence on Broadway Swinger was my music director and orchestrator, James Olmstead. James and I met doing a production of White Christmas at the Engeman Theatre a few years back, and he plays with technical bravado and a rare and profound sense of rhythm. In White Christmas I found myself singing “Love and the Weather” and “Blue Skies” with an ease I had never experienced. Singing with James I feel anything is possible. He brings out the best in me.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?:
 My parents took me to see a fair amount of cabaret growing up, and I was lucky to have seen a number of the greats in small rooms—Susannah McCorkle, Bobby Short, Michael Feinstein, Barbara Carroll, Andrea Marcovicci. And I have to include Elaine Stritch and Alan Cumming as cabaret performers who have inspired me in more recent years. To me, the most moving cabarets are the shows where I have walked away with a deeper understanding of a composer, a time period, or my place in the world. I wrote Broadway Swinger with this in mind—and I think the audience walks away not only having had fun, but also with more of a sense of how music and society both evolved in the 1960s.

I feel similarly about Theatre with a capital “T”: it has a responsibility to entertain me or provoke me, but the best shows will do both. I’m still thinking about The Pillowman 11 years after I saw it on Broadway. That’s good theatre.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: 
John Tiffany.

What show have you recommended to your friends?:She Loves Me, of course! Although I’m incredibly excited about Tuck Everlasting, which was composed by one of my closest friends, Chris Miller. I am so proud of him, and EVERYBODY should buy a ticket to see his show!

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?:
 Hmm…I’ve always been hoping to play Prince William in the E! True Hollywood Story of his life, so it’s hard to think the other way around. How about Dan Stevens-playing-me-playing-Prince William in the E! True Hollywood Story?

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?:
 I would go back and see Barbara Harris and Alan Alda in the original 1966 production of The Apple Tree. (sigh)

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: 
The guys in my dressing room at She Loves Me call me The Cookie Monster.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?:
 Just as poor. I would be an architect!

What’s up next?:
 She Loves Me has been extended to July 10, and then I’ll hopefully head out of town for a little vacation. I have two movies scheduled to be released in 2016—My Art and The Unattainable Story—and with any luck Broadway Swinger will get to travel a bit. I am ready to take this show on the road!!

For more on Broadway Swinger, visit