Bad things can happen to good people, and Danny Burstein is good people. Broadway audiences have come to love Burstein for his soulful showmanship in such musicals as South Pacific, Follies, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof and most recently Moulin Rouge! The Musical, in which he earned his seventh Tony Award nomination for playing the ingratiating nightclub host Harold Zidler. Within the industry, he has earned a reputation as a bona fide mensch. But while 2020 was a difficult year for most people in the theater world, it hit Burstein especially hard. Shortly after the Broadway shutdown began last March, he was hospitalized with a near-fatal case of COVID. And in December, his wife of 20 years, the luminous Broadway leading lady Rebecca Luker, died after a brutal year-long battle with the degenerative disease ALS. (You can make a donation to ALS research in Luker’s honor here.) We talked with Burstein about what he’s learned from his ordeal and the paths that lie ahead.
Moulin Rouge! is set to reopen on September 24. Have you started preparing for it yet?
I actually just looked over the script today. I had the whole day off. I have been doing other projects and trying to live my life and not, you know, put too much pressure on myself; I've been doing a lot of TV and film, and I took a vacation to Croatia recently with my best friend, George Dvorsky. It's been a year and a half since I actually worked on the show. I start rehearsal next week so I'll have about two weeks of rehearsal and then two weeks of tech.
Have you done any particular physical or vocal work to get yourself back in shape?
I’ve always kept working out and kept myself busy. I ride my bike. I go on long walks. I lift weights. I sing to keep my vocal cords up to speed. That's an actor's life and that's the way I've kept going, because you have to be ready for the door to open; the business is so fickle and the door can open at the most inopportune times, so you have to be ready when it does. This time is no different, except now I have a real goal. And I've been lucky throughout my career. There hasn't been much time that I haven't been working—even during the pandemic, through voiceovers and Zooms and films and TV shows. And thank God I kept the TV and film stuff going, because that kept up my health insurance. So many people lost their insurance, or had to go on a Cobra plan and pay $1,400 a month. I don't know who can afford these things.
No one in the industry seemed prepared for what this turned out to be.
From the beginning, it seemed obvious to me. They were talking about hundreds of people dying in Italy and it was spreading to different countries. And then they closed our show: We were the first show to close down that Thursday, March 12th, because we were the earliest show that day, and one of the members of our company was at the doctor and might have contracted this illness. The house manager said, "Wait a minute, what do I tell the 400 people who are already lined up around the block?" And the producer said, "You just have to tell them that there's been an emergency and the show has been canceled. And then we're going to cancel tonight. And then we'll clean the theater and hopefully we'll be back tomorrow." But that night Governor Cuomo canceled all Broadway shows for a month. That was initially—and then, you know, for months and months. But as I was went upstairs, I started packing my stuff. And my dresser, Ryan, said to me, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I just have a feeling it's going to be bad. I have a feeling this is going to be Broadway's lost year." I'm usually not that prescient, but at that particular moment I guess I was.
I have seen you onstage so often in the past 20 years. You seem like someone who is always working. Has this been the longest you've gone without doing a show?
Yeah, it's probably the longest without doing theater—not necessarily on Broadway, but either in New York or on the road or somewhere. I've been an Equity actor since 1984. And there wasn't a year that I wasn't working, you know? And as time went on, I worked more and more and more. I've quietly had this career where I'm happily—and I mean happily!—not famous, but I'm one of those guys who's always been under the radar and kept working.
Well, not quite under the radar. I mean, you're the Susan Lucci of the Tony Awards!
I have better legs. [Laughs]
The Tonys will be a little weird this year, right?
Yeah, it will be unusual. But the thing I'm learning, without Rebecca, is that this whole year is going to be a year of firsts. And going back to work will be all about getting back on the bicycle, but knowing it will be different. The turns will be different. The path that we ride the bike on will be different. We all know how to do it—it's just that things have shifted. But I truly believe that as artists we're the perfect ones to handle it, to maneuver the new road.
What are you expecting when you get back to rehearsal? Among other changes, Moulin Rouge! will have a new lead actress, Natalie Mendoza.
Normally you have five weeks when you start rehearsal and then you have about a week and a half of tech and then you're up on your feet starting previews. We're going to be hitting the ground running because we were open already, but I imagine we'll need time to get our bearings and feel the ground underneath our feet. About a third of the company is new—it's not just Natalie coming in—and I don't know if anything's going to be changing because of COVID. Our show is very demanding, and we're all over each other and normally we would be all over the audience, talking to them in their faces and touching them. I have no idea what this new time will bring. I know that whatever we wind up discovering will be just as valid and just as fun, but we haven't discovered it yet. It’s kind of an exciting time sometimes when constraints are put on you in this way; you discover new things that you never would've thought of before and they wind up being your favorite things. So I'm looking forward to that kind of creativity and playfulness within the rules of the new game that we're about to play.
But one challenge is that it’s a game with a constantly shifting set of rules.
Yes. We're starting now and hoping for the best and hoping that people get vaccinated and hoping that we won't have to shut down like they did in London—they started for two weeks and then they had to close again. I was talking to my counterpart Simon Burke, an actor who was doing Harold Zidler in Melbourne, and they've had issues with the release of the vaccine in Australia. I'm hoping that we can avoid a situation like that by people being smart, getting vaccinated and caring enough for the people around them—not just themselves, but the people around them—so we can all go back to living a “normal” life.
That issue blew up this week with the Laura Osnes case. I don't want her career to end forever or anything like that, but I do want people to know that they shouldn't do this.
Yeah. Yeah. She… Hopefully, she'll get on board and realize that there's a greater good.
You had a harsher personal brush with COVID than many others have, as you wrote about very eloquently in two columns for The Hollywood Reporter. Has that experience changed you as a performer?
I almost died in the hospital. People were dying around me. My room was right next to the nurses' station, so I could hear what was going on, and I heard people dying, and I heard about the deaths of many people in other rooms near me and in the ICU. And it did change me. And I also, of course, lost my wife, and it made me… If I learned anything this past year, and I've learned many things, but the most important thing was that you have to live as much as possible and keep going despite all and—and be kind, I'm not kidding. I mean, that's what lasts: being kind and putting goodness and love out there first. That's what matters at the end of the day. Not to be overly dramatic, but watching Becca in the hospital and holding her hand: That's what lasts. All the good things that she put out into the world. The love that you put out into the world, and the love that I felt for her and she felt for me. That's what lasts. That’s why when you have the opportunity to do something for other people that is kind, you should take that opportunity. And when you have the opportunity to do something that you've never done before, that is exciting, do it. I encourage people to live out loud and to live as much as possible.
Is there any part of you that was sort of glad to have a year and a half away from performing? Or have you been missing performing all along?
I have been missing it, of course. But you know, I have a special circumstance because of Becca. If there was a silver lining for me, it’s that it gave me time with her that I never, never, never would have had. And I'm grateful for that time because I got to spend all my time with her, taking care of her, and our relationship—as difficult as it may seem—our relationship blossomed in ways that I could have never imagined. We became closer friends and deeper friends, and something beautiful comes about when one person is sick and you discuss things very frankly. I'm grateful for the time I had with her. And it was intense, God knows. But it was also really important and beautiful and filled with love.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical resumes performances on September 24, 2021. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.