After more than a decade of appearing in Broadway musicals like “Spring Awakening” and “Waitress,” Alex Wyse is relishing the opportunity to be a part of new stage and screen projects that don’t require him to sing.
The Ohio-born actor can currently be seen in “Good Night, Oscar,” now playing at New York’s Belasco Theatre. Primarily a biographical piece, “Good Night, Oscar” has moments of innate theatricality and even melodrama. Still, Wyse says the play’s “grounded reality” affords him a chance to inhabit a character with nuance, even when he’s providing comic relief.
“It feels like there was some kind of cosmic reason I’m supposed to be doing this, and I haven’t had too many moments like that,” he told HuffPost in an interview. “Not to speak ill of musicals, which are still a major part of my life, but I feel like I’m finally getting the chance to show theater audiences that I’m a legitimate actor, which hasn’t always been validated by the industry around me.”
Written by Doug Wright, “Good Night, Oscar” stars Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant, a classical pianist, composer and occasional actor who achieved global fame during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but is best remembered for his acerbic late-night talk show appearances during the 1950s and ’60s.
During his lifetime, Levant was also frank about his experiences with depression and drug addiction, prompting some to brand him “America’s first publicly dysfunctional celebrity.”
Wyse plays Max Weinbaum, a Hollywood nepo-baby-turned-production-assistant who is tasked with keeping a strung-out Levant — who has recently been checked out of a psychiatric facility under false pretenses — in line before a 1958 appearance on “Tonight Starring Jack Paar.”
The role of Max was played by actor Ethan Slater when “Good Night, Oscar” debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year. When Slater was unable to reprise his performance on Broadway after joining the movie adaptation of “Wicked,” Wyse actively sought out the role, auditioning for producers numerous times over a two-month period.
“I felt like it was meant to be from the moment [the script] came across my desk,” he recalled. “It was answering so many questions I had about the kind of work I want to be doing and the kind of people I want to be working with.”
Levant, who died in 1972 at age 65, isn’t a well-known entertainment figure among modern audiences. Likewise, Wyse wasn’t familiar with Levant’s work beyond his supporting role in 1951’s “An American in Paris.”
Still, he believes “Good Night, Oscar” offers a look at how attitudes surrounding depression and addiction have shifted since the late 1950s by examining the way artists often “put their mental health on the line in order to put their work forward.”
Hayes’ portrayal of Levant has garnered widespread acclaim, and the “Will & Grace” actor is considered a front-runner for a Tony Award next month. For his part, Wyse describes his co-star as “relentlessly positive, fun and grounded.”
“He’s incredible in the play — we all know that — but he was incredible in the [rehearsal] room and backstage, too,” he explained. “I’ve never seen someone have such an understanding of their own power and harness it only for good. Nothing about him is a diva.”
He went on to note: “Sean has been a hero of mine for so long, and getting to work with him feels like it lifts my soul into the stratosphere every day. I’ve been on sets before, where a lead actor has been unkind or kept their distance, closed themselves off, and that really reverberates to every department. But Sean is here for the hang. He wants to make you his artistic equal.”
“Good Night, Oscar” is actually Wyse’s second major project this spring. “Summoning Sylvia,” an independent film he co-wrote and co-directed with longtime pal Wesley Taylor, was released in March. The LGBTQ-inclusive horror-comedy follows a motley crew of friends who embark on a gay bachelor weekend getaway to a haunted house, and boasts an ensemble cast that includes Travis Coles, Frankie Grande and Michael Urie.
“The most important thing to us is that we didn’t want to kill off gay characters,” Wyse said of the film. “We’ve seen that enough. But we wanted to use the conventions of the horror genre to reveal things about queerness, and also for comedy and horror to work together in tandem to create different kinds of suspense throughout the movie.”
Wyse and Taylor, a fellow Broadway veteran, previously worked on “Indoor Boys,” an award-winning digital series. They’re hopeful the release of “Summoning Sylvia” will allow them to move forward with plans for three additional film projects, as well as a stage play.
Though Wyse is tight-lipped about what those forthcoming projects may entail, viewers can expect a deeper exploration of queer identity beyond the coming-out story, as well as a dynamite performance by a leading lady or two.
“I don’t take one step out the door with my queerness each day. I take one step out the door with my foot, and then I keep going,” he said. “That’s one of the best ways I feel I can best be political without being overtly political — just showing that we’re human beings who exist in the world and have problems that aren’t tied to our identities.”