Tony Nominee Spotlight: Damon Daunno on Breaking With Tradition in 'Oklahoma!,' Plus Watch 'People Will Say We're in Love' (Exclusive)

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Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in "Oklahoma!"

Since premiering off-Broadway at St. Ann's Warehouse in the fall, director Daniel Fish's new production of Oklahoma! has become one of the most talked-about musicals in New York theater, period. The stripped-bare take on the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic -- now on Broadway and nominated for a best revival of a musical Tony -- brings into relief the very modern themes of the show, from its revelatory take on gender politics to its spotlight on the messier aspects of our country's founding.

That's thanks in large part to the singular character interpretations of its young cast, led by Damon Daunno as the traditionally romantic hero Curly McClain. But Daunno, 34, is no traditional leading man: an accomplished musician (he plays guitar onstage), he's spent the majority of his career thus far in the "downtown" theater world, working with the likes of Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, and in fact was once involved in another Tony-nominated production, Hadestown, in its off-Broadway incarnation.

Now, his revelatory take on Curly has earned Daunno a Tony nomination for lead actor in a musical. He spoke to Billboard about the particularly adventurous Broadway season and how musicals are evolving now.

Was the world of Broadway one you always dreamed of or expected to be in, or feel at home in?

I loved Broadway as a kid, shows like Cabaret and Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, and I always did the musicals in high school, but I knew I didn’t have a traditional trained sound, and on an acting and music front, I was a bit more to the left, stylistically. But as nature would have it, I’ve been allowed to not stop doing theater, and most of the things I do involve playing music, so I’ve always been able to maintain that balance with music and acting through theater. In my plodding along with that, Broadway seems to have sort of unfurled a bit and opened its arms to a bit more of an unconventional way of storytelling and singing. It does feel like change is afoot, but it also feels natural -- like the thing I’ve been doing my whole life, now it's OK to do it on Broadway. There were definitely years of questioning my place in this business. So it’s great to be reminded if you don’t quit, things can still happen.

Were you always able to reconcile the actor and musician sides of yourself?

It used to be a real identity crisis. When I was in drama school, it was: "Should I quit one thing to excel in the other? Am I an actor or a musician?" But now it behooves a person to do both. I used to say, “I’m a fella who does stuff.” Now that feels like a totally reasonable thing to say.  

Your take on Curly, playing guitar and swaggering around the stage, definitely has some cocky rock-star energy. Are there any performers who inspire your take on him?

There’s always the ghosts of my heroes swimming around. In particular for this I listened to the old cowboy songs from the '20s and '30s, Roy Rogers and some early Elvis. But then just trying to let my own voice come through. The overarching goal with this was to maintain authenticity; we’re playing characters, but there’s room to bring ourselves as well, so that’s very freeing. When you get up on a mic and you’re singing in front of a band, it does feel like you’ve sprouted some wings and you feel a bit taller. Those moments tighten Curly’s bravado. But I do plenty of silly nonsense -- dropping the guitar stands, dropping a pick, and those messier elements add to the authenticity. The day they filmed the show, there’s one moment I ran and jumped on a railing and completely fell backwards into a man’s lap, and it took me like five minutes to distentangle myself and I gave him a big hug and kiss.

This really feels like a production of Oklahoma seen through the eyes of the women. How do you think about how your character fits into that? He's a little bit of a creep...

We definitely lean into things like manipulation and egomania and bullying. But I can’t come at the work with those judgments. Everybody keeps saying this is such a different take on Curly, but to me I’m just taking the material at face value and trying to put my heart into it in all three dimensions. The human condition is very complicated and it’s not always good and bad and hero and villain. [Director Daniel Fish] really challenged me to lean into the darker elements of this situation. I guess it surprises me -- there’s no shtick involved, I’m not pretending to be a darker version of him. The language is the language, and there’s darkness inherent in it. It’s my job to win some sympathies even though what I’m doing is pretty monstrous, but not feeling like a villain in my heart. If someone’s arrogant, it’s because they’re insecure.

Do you think the approach taken is super specific to this production, or would other “classic” musicals benefit from similar reinventions?

I think it definitely speaks to Daniel's brilliance to be able to see the truth in the material. This was here the whole time, and I think Rodgers & Hammerstein were significantly more punk rock than they’re given credit for. When Oklahoma! dropped in 1943, it was radical as hell. They knew exactly what they were doing. I think they’d be hip to what our production is trying to achieve, and in fact we’re celebrating what they created. A lot of folks on our creative team think it’s the greatest musical ever created. [The approach] might be successful with other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, but it runs the risk of being considered a deconstruction or some sort of shtick -- let’s just thin it out and make some moody lighting and have people act more naturalistically and see what happens. That’s all very surface, topical. So I think it is the material and the unique vision of Daniel’s that makes this work.

What was Tony nomination day like for you?

It sort of felt like my birthday, but one that I got to share with a dozen other people. I woke up to a phone call from my agent who very enthusiastically told me I did it. I celebrated with a very eyes-closed fist bump in the air. I rolled over and told my wife and we tried to sleep for a little bit. And then the phone calls started. I’ve never made or received as many phone calls, text messages and emails in my entire life. All very exciting and very grateful. I spent the bulk of the afternoon on my couch. It was important to try to sleep! Our director gave a little speech and later that night there was a diner down the street that renamed their chili bowl after Aunt Eller so we had a little bit of a toast there. You know you’ve made it then...

Having spent time in both Hadestown and Oklahoma!, what do you think is making this a moment when audiences are not only embracing these unconventional productions, but making them some of the buzziest shows on Broadway?

I think people have come to appreciate a more real sort of authentic voice. People respond to seeing real people. Maybe the sheen of the Broadway of yore is sort of fading with this new generation that wants to see people more like themselves. Something like the music of Hadestown, or the voices of Oklahoma!, probably sound more authentic and maybe a bit more accessible or uniquely entertaining than more polished things [musicals have] previously almost exclusively been. Particularly with pop music, the genre is dead, and that’s a testament to the future-minded youth and the state of the world with cross-pollination. You don’t have to be a country or a hip-hop artist; you can do both, you can do anything you can possibly think of, and not only is that OK, it’s encouraged. And I think that’s bleeding over into theater in a great way. It does feel like a bizarro world.

Watch the premiere of Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones performing "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma! below.