The first thing I noticed about David Burnham is how classically handsome he is. He’s also extremely talented, and apparently that mix of good looks and talent has been enough to keep him working steadily as an actor and singer since he crashed his first major audition. He’s wrapping a unique residency at a performing arts school in the San Gabriel Valley by performing with a lucky group of students, and the public is welcome. In the spirit of luring all of us to the show, David agreed to reminisce with me about the process of bringing Wicked to Broadway, fortune throwing him into his first national tour and what it’s like to nurture young artists.
Leona Laurie: Let’s start with who you are outside of the theatre. As far as your bio goes on your website, you sprang into existence on-stage and have always been performing.
David Burnham: Pretty much, that’s it. Yeah. (Laughs) No, I grew up on a small farm, actually, about an hour outside of L.A. in a town called Fontana. I grew up milking goats, and we had cattle and hogs and the whole thing. I didn’t even know that I could sing until I was a junior in high school. I was trying to get into woodshop class and it was full, so the only class that they had available was choir. Reluctantly, I went in, but then I opened my mouth and I could sing. And the choir director kind of jumped up and down, and was like: “Yes, a guy in choir! I’m so excited.”
He took me under his wing, and really encouraged me to sing more and got me involved in the musical. I auditioned for the musical and got a part in that, and I was hooked. I just loved it. And then I went to school. I got a scholarship to Cal State Long Beach. And then from there, I just auditioned for things.
LL: Your “big break” was taking over for Donny Osmond in the national tour of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. How did that happen?
DB: They put on a two-year search for somebody to replace him, because he wanted to eventually leave the show. At the time, I think I was still in college. I didn’t have an agent yet or anything. I decided I was going to crash an audition for a show called Ragtime.
So, I showed up at this audition. I had long hair, like halfway down my back, and I wore ripped jeans, a tank top and flip flops. I was so young and green, and they looked at me and said, “You are not right for Ragtime, but you’re perfect for something else we’re casting. Can you come back tonight to the callbacks for Ragtime? But we want you to sing what you sang at the audition today.”
And I said, “Yeah. Okay.”
So I sang what I sang at the audition: “Close Every Door” from Joseph. And they said, “We’re actually seeing you for the show Joseph. So you picked the right material.”
After I sang, it was crazy, because I sang for Terrence McNally and Ahrens and Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime. And Garth Stravinsky was the head of live entertainment at that time. And after I sang “Close Every Door,” he said: “Kid, we want to fly you to Canada tomorrow. Can you go?”
DB: Yeah. And I said, “Oh, okay.”
He said, “I want you to meet with the director of the national tour of Joseph and audition for him.”
So the next day, I found myself on a plane to Canada. Got off the plane, went to the theatre, met the director and sang for him. After I sang, Garth said: “Hey kid, we want to make you a star here in Canada. You’re gonna replace Donny Osmond, the star of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. You have a costume fitting, right now. And a photo shoot in one half hour. So thank you. And we’ll see you soon.”
So literally within a half hour, I took all the publicity photos for Joseph. And those are the publicity photos they used. It was crazy because I had my own long hair. I just had to put the coat on and start spinning around. That was a surreal thing that happened to me at a really young age. I did that tour for a year, and it was amazing. It was just so fun.
LL: Right now you’re participating in California School of the Arts – San Gabriel Valley’s (CSArts-SGV) Performing with the Pros as the “Pro.” How did that happen?
DB: Well, this program is the brainchild of Karen Rymar— she’s our director. I’ve known Karen since we were super young, and a few years ago, she started this program (at Orange County School of the Arts, CSArts-SGV’s sister school), and she asked me if I would come be a part of it. The idea is that a professional working in the industry, who has done Broadway and things like that, would come and work with the kids for a few weeks and impart their knowledge, and do master classes with them, and kind of put a show together.
By the end of those couple of weeks, that’s what you do. You put this show together where they actually perform with the pro. You know, doing duets, and quartets and different types of things, and group numbers.
LL: One of the things that I think is interesting about you, is that you’re a theatre actor based in Los Angeles whose IMDb page is not full of things like “Cop Number Two” or “Corpse,” which I think is kind of the norm if you’re based in L.A. and really trying to be a theatre actor. How is that for you to be a live performer and a theatrical performer, but based in the city of movies and television?
DB: The truth of it is that I live here, but I work elsewhere most of the time. I lived in New York for about five years, and that’s when I did Wicked on Broadway and The Light in the Piazza on Broadway. It’s funny, because my family still lives in the Southern California area, and I’m such a family guy and this is my home. Somehow it’s worked out, I don’t know why, that I can kind of live here and then I’ll audition for things, and they usually take me out of the state, which is kind of strange. But I don’t know. It’s worked for me. I’m kind of lucky that way.
I have got to do some TV and film, however that is mostly in animation, where I just go into the studio and sing, or do a voice. I’ve done South Park, and a number of Disney films, and The King and I, and stuff like that, where I’m maybe not in front of the camera, but my voice is there. So that’s been a lot of fun.
My goal has not ever been necessarily TV and film. If it comes that would be amazing, but I’m a theatre animal, and I go where the jobs take me.
LL: Let’s go back a step to your involvement with the development of Wicked. That must have been amazing!
DB: Yeah. I was actually a part of Wicked for five years before it went to Broadway. I was the original Fiyero in all those workshops. That was interesting to be a part of how a mega-musical is birthed. It was such a fascinating process. And at the time it was going to Broadway, I got another show. I got The Light in the Piazza instead. I took that show, so I didn’t open Wicked in New York, but I got to do it after The Light in the Piazza, which I did for a year and a half on Broadway, and I did the National Tour. As soon as that finished, I got to go into Wicked, so I got to kind of finish that journey as far as doing all the workshops and then actually getting to do it for a year on Broadway.
LL: Weren’t you in The Light in the Piazza at South Coast Repertory, too?
DB: Yeah, I did the original Broadway cast and then I was the original Fabrizio in the national tour as well. Then, a few years later, when it was released regionally, South Coast Rep was one of the first to do a major production of that. So I did that production as well.
LL: I cover SCR a lot for Geek Girl Authority.
DB: It’s one of my favorite places to work ever. I just love it. I’ve done Ordinary Days there, and I’ve done The Light in the Piazza there, and they are one of the most professional companies I’ve ever worked with. What they bring to the table… they just bring top-notch designers, top-notch directors, top-notch actors. They do everything in the best possible way. And they do it with the right attitude. They are there to bring interesting pieces of art and interesting shows. They do new stuff, and they’re always trying to push the limits and do different things. I really appreciate that as an actor. That’s so much fun to do. You always feel like you’re in good hands, and you’re always going to see a great, great product. I mean, it’s just gonna be a great show.
LL: OK- back to Wicked again. How dramatic was its transformation over those five years you were workshopping it?
DB: When we first did Wicked, they only had the first act done. They handed us this binder that was probably five inches thick– it was this huge thing– and so it took us around four hours just to get through the reading of the script and singing the songs.
When they first did it, it was much darker. And it was much closer to the novel. It was very dark and very political, and it really centered around just Elphaba. I think Stephen Schwartz… his score was even influenced by Carmina Burana, which is very scary music.
It had this real heaviness to it. And it was dark. And it was really cool. But as each workshop progressed, you could see it was just lightened up. They discovered what was key to the story was the relationship between Glenda and Elphaba, so that relationship started getting stronger. The politics kind of faded away a little bit, and as it went on, it developed its own voice. It didn’t veer drastically from the novel, but it didn’t do all of the same stuff as the novel. It also changes when you add people like Kristen Chenowith. You get somebody of that caliber, you want to write stuff for her.
DB: And she can do specific things that other people can’t do, so you want to highlight her comedic skills, and you want to highlight that stunning soprano voice. Things would be written to highlight that more. Every time we did it, we just got tighter and tighter and more specific.
It’s fascinating though. A lot of the same music was not in it. For instance my number, “Dancing Through Life,” went through many, many incarnations. Every workshop basically it was a different song. But then other songs stayed pretty much like they were. Like when Stephen Schwartz sat down at the piano and started playing the song “For Good,” I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a musical theatre standard. And that song has remained the same ever since he first played it for us. So you know, it’s interesting to see what stays and what goes and how it changes and morphs.
LL: That song has such brilliant wordplay, and I really love it.
DB: Oh, it’s beautiful. I am actually doing that with the kids in my Performing with the Pros show. We are doing a whole Wicked section, which is kind of cool.
(In Performing with the Pros), there’s a little Joseph section, there’s a Wicked section, there’s a section from Showstoppers, which was a show I did in Las Vegas. There’s all these sections, but then I’ve plugged in the kids and found where they fit in and what their strengths are, too. So a lot of it’s tailor-made for them. It’s almost all Broadway, but, for instance, we have a songwriter, a girl named Ella. She’s a great songwriter, so she’s playing a little bit of a song she wrote, and then I’m kind of singing backup on that. Then we are segueing into a song I wrote, and she’s singing with me on that– so we can highlight what she does best. It’s been fun to find out what their strengths are and to show that off.
What I try and teach the kids is that what we do is something unique and special. We create art, and we speak truth. We speak the truth that’s in us. And it doesn’t matter what color you are, what gender you are, what age you are– anything like that. What matters is if you tell the right story. And if you tell a story of value and worth. And you tell a story that’s true to you, none of those things matter. We’re storytellers, and it transcends all that other stuff. That’s what I try to stress to the kids: just be true to who you are, and just be open and honest. Then you will have a place at the table.
Performing with the Pros is part of CSArts-SGV’s Master Artist Series, which brings talented artists and arts professionals to the campus to provide students with once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences and master classes. The show is open to the public and takes place Saturday, March 31, at 7 p.m. at the Bonita Center for the Arts, 822 W Covina Blvd, San Dimas, CA 91773. Tickets are $25 online, $27 at the door and can be purchased at sgv.csarts.net/boxoffice.
If you can’t make Performing with the Pros, catch David in David Burnham – Live! at Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles on April 26!
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