Talkin' Broadway


Robert Petkoff and Rob Campbell
All the Way

by Beth Herstein


Bryan Cranston and Robert Petkoff
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
With the popularity of shows like "House of Cards" and the growing cynicism of Americans about our flawed political system, Robert Schenkkan's new play All the Way is particularly timely. It begins with Lyndon Johnson's inauguration as President following President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and follows Johnson as he simultaneously tries to push through Kennedy's Civil Rights Act and strengthen his chances for winning the upcoming presidential election. Johnson, the master negotiator, soothes, threatens and makes promises in order to get what he wants. Though the story is true and the outcome is preordained, Schenkkan keeps the play suspenseful and engaging. This is also due in large part to the masterful performance of Bryan Cranston as Johnson, and to a strong supporting cast of Broadway veterans and newcomers.

This show, the first in a projected trilogy, sets out to remind people of Johnson's legacy. Though President Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act, it was Johnson who signed it into law. Because Johnson increased the United States' involvement in Vietnam, "people seem to forget that 11 months before people were protesting him for Vietnam they were praising him for the Civil Rights Bill. And the War on Poverty and Medicaid. There are a lot of socially important things he did that unfortunately have been obscured," says Robert Petkoff, the veteran actor who plays Minnesota Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey.

As depicted in the play, Humphrey was a liberal and idealistic man who—with the promise of the vice-presidential slot on Johnson's ticket dangling before him—served as Johnson's liberal liaison in the Senate and helped gain the support of Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and other significant black leaders of the period. To achieve these goals and to win a place on Johnson's ticket, Humphrey must forge compromises and also make compromises of his own.

"Robert [Schenkkan] has written this beautiful arc for [Humphrey]," Petkoff says. "He [weighs] his ambition to one day become President against his own morals, his own ideals. How much does he have to compromise to accomplish the goals that his ambition has set forth for him? Through the journey of the play—as we all have to do sometimes—he has to compromise to get what he wants."

As Petkoff notes, this lesson is still relevant. "Now you're demonized if you do cooperate with the other side. If you're a conservative Republican who agrees with the Democrats on one point, you're no longer [considered] conservative enough. A liberal Democrat who says to the Republicans that he's with them on an issue, suddenly he's not liberal enough. That is unnatural to our democratic process. There's no way that we can accomplish things if both parties don't reach across the aisles."

As for Humphrey, Petkoff says, "I'm madly in love with this guy. I have such great admiration for who he was and what he accomplished." He also relates to Humphrey, as his parents grew up in Minneapolis, with Humphrey as their Senator, and with whom he shares a Midwestern sensibility. "As with many of my fellow actors, I describe myself as more of a liberal thinker, and Humphrey is the ultimate liberal. He's a liberal that I can look up to because he's not dogmatic, he's someone who understood [the importance of] compromise."

Prior to its Broadway premiere, All the Way played in Oregon and Boston. Unlike many actors in the cast, Petkoff joined the production in New York. "I'm always a little nervous coming into a production that someone has done before or a group has done before," he says. From the start, however, "it was a welcoming environment" in which he had the freedom to interpret his character. "With such tremendous actors no one is set in their performance or thinks, 'this is how it has to be,'" he explains. "We found ourselves rehearsing from day one as if it were a brand new play. [T]he new people came in a week before it started and just worked with Bryan [Cranston] to get us up to speed. My first day, Bryan, Christopher Liam Moore [who plays Stokely Carmichael] and I rehearsed a scene where I'm sitting in a chair and Bryan is over me, grabbing me ... So from day one I've got Bryan Cranston grabbing my shirt and yelling in my face. A part of me was thinking, 'Oh, this is so cool! This is really great.'"

In all respects, Petkoff has enjoyed working with Cranston. Among other things, he admires his humility. "I always think when actors have had what I call 'The Journey' or 'The Struggle'—when you didn't hit at 16 years old—you tend to appreciate what you've got when it does come," he noted. "Bryan is someone who's been a working actor for so many years, and when the amazing success of 'Breaking Bad' happened, he already was a fully formed human being, and it didn't go to his head. He treats every actor with such respect, because he's done that all his life. You see it spin out of control with some younger performers because they've never known what it's like to have to work hard to get success."

Also, he says, Cranston's work ethic and respect for his fellow performers "sets the tone for everyone else. As a company, we get along so well. Someone was saying the other day, when you walk in you're always glad to see any of the other actors. It's not one of those shows where you go, 'I just hope I don't see that person today, except on stage.'"

A versatile actor who also has recorded more than 80 audio books, Petkoff is known for his many roles in musical theater as well. Among other things, he appeared in the 2011-12 revival of Anything Goes and in last summer's Encores! revival of And the Cradle Will Rock. "I always think it's going to be a giant difference [preparing for a musical or a play]. But in each case I find myself doing the same work. Ultimately, it's the same focus. I still have to go out there and figure out the basics. What do I want, how am I going to get it and how do I make sure that I'm listening to what the other people are doing to try to get what they want from me. Basic acting is always the same, whether you have a musical or a drama."

One of the bigger differences is the demand on his voice in a musical. "You wake up every morning going, 'How's my voice, how's my voice?' There's a quality to the cords that you absolutely have to have in order to produce the sounds in an interesting way. I'm going through a cold right now, and in a musical that would be really stressful because I wouldn't know if I'd be able to sing as well. I still have to project enough to get the voice out there, but it's not as stressful as with a musical," he said.

Petkoff notes that he is not miked in All the Way. "I don't have a body mike, though there are mikes on the floor and mikes around the set. Some of the other actors, who have a lot more to say, do have mikes on. It's because the range of what they're doing requires them to have really softer moments and then loud ones. [With] the timbre of my voice and the way I pitch it as Humphrey, I don't really need a mike. Because I'm portraying Hubert as someone who's very passionate and very energetic, all of that helps to put the sound out there more."

Petkoff's enthusiasm for this production is obvious. "It's such a great play and I'm really happy to be doing it. The first attraction was, 'Oh, my gosh, Bryan Cranston's doing the play. I'd love to do it with him.' Then, reading the play, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, this is a great play. If Bryan Cranston weren't doing it, I'd still be doing this play.'"


Susannah Schulman, Rob Campbell and cast members
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
Rob Campbell is another integral part of the ensemble. Unlike Petkoff, Campbell plays several parts, most notably the segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama. "My first show in New York was Mad Forest, a Caryl Churchill play," he said. "That premiered in the early nineties, and we all had to play multiple roles in that. You could have much more distinctive shifts between different roles. Here, the biggest challenge is that in the early sixties there wasn't a real range in how the men dressed or wore their hair. There is only so much of a shift one can make physically. For me, for example, I have three different wigs. I have one that is relatively distinctive for Wallace's hairstyle."

As he is portraying real people, he says, he feels responsible to be as accurate as possible. "Yet our real priority is how the story is being told," he says. Therefore, they make some adaptations to differentiate among the multitude of characters and to increase the sense of drama that prevails. "Wallace wasn't necessarily a really fast talker, and his metabolism wasn't so high speed. Bryan is a much faster, more frenetic version of LBJ. If you were to listen to tapes of LBJ, he was much slower—a rather dry, methodical at times, laconic even at times. But for the sake of the story, you have to let go of this."

There are personal challenges to performing multiple parts as well. "There is a fear that every once in a while, very, very early on I'd walk on when there was a quick change from Wallace to [United Auto Workers President Walter] Reuther, and sometimes a little Wallace would creep in," he says. Campbell, a theater veteran, is up to the challenge. "During my quick change I talk to myself, getting the complete different dialect into my mouth and brain, so that I'm a little more conscious than normal to make sure none of these characters are bleeding into each other."

Like Petkoff, Campbell tries to connect in some way to the characters he plays. "One of the things I find easy to hook into is zeal. It's not difficult for me to connect to his drive, his ambition, his desire—as wrong as he might be," he says. Also, he adds, "With Wallace, there is a debate about how much of an extremist he really was. Was he simply an ambitious politician who used the fear and hate that was so accessible in the White South, the Deep South, in order to [get elected]? Not committing to segregationist policies early on in his political career, he was defeated by a racist, a more outward segregationist. It's debatable how deeply he felt about these things." Because of this ambiguity and because he was a colorful character, "he's a really fun guy to play, and it would be great to play him really fleshed out."

Though Campbell has performed the classics to critical acclaim on many occasions, he finds it especially exciting to work on new shows. "I always find it extremely thrilling to be part of the origins of a new work, having the responsibility of going through it with the playwright," he states. Campbell did not join the cast of All the Way until it moved to Broadway, but "even now, some things completely change. It's continuously evolving as a play. The ending, for example, was adjusted quite a bit during previews. That's all something I want to be a part of. It's a tangible thrill."

It helps that a strong collaborative spirit exists, enabling him and the other new actors to make their own imprint. It also makes it a nice place to work, he says. "We're all off on this three-hour mission together. As you walk by people, almost everybody pats each other on the shoulder. Ensembles can be lovely that way, when all or most of the people have that attitude." In a piece like this, he states, collaboration is particularly critical. "It's like a machine and everyone has to do their part, as small or large as it might be. There's a lot of synchronized stuff. There's a lot of orchestral score, in a way, how it's organized." He also enjoys "witnessing," from time to time sitting on stage and watching a scene evolve. "We don't watch different scenes every time, instead we watch the same scenes at every performance. People warned me, 'After a month of watching you might get tired of it.' I find it really engaging. When you're witnessing, you're just backgrounding, but it's an interesting responsibility." As Petkoff earlier stated, it also stays fresh because of the flexibility in the way the actors witness—sometimes as a character impacted by the events, other times as an actor watching the scene and the performers.

Working with Cranston, Campbell says, has been a treat, and has added to the overall feeling of mutual respect. "I've worked with a lot of famous movie star types over the years, and some of them are difficult. He handles his relatively recent major celebrity with serious grace. Clearly he knows what it's like to have been a supporting person. When he has ideas for the other actors, he says, 'Let me pitch something to you' [rather than force his interpretation on them]. He's extremely respectful."

He also admires Cranston's acting chops and the work he's done developing his role. "He's a wonderful actor, a real true actor. He's obviously done his homework. He was genuinely channeling the man in his own way. I feel like it's shaman-like at times. It's very powerful, what he's found."

"When I first walked into rehearsal, within five minutes I knew I made the right choice," he concludes. "I'm proud to be a part of a piece that goes back to 1964 and tells about something [passage of the Civil Rights Act] that got buried shortly after by Vietnam. Hopefully, in a theater, the audience can connect in a personal way with that time. That's when theater's at its best, when that transformation happens."


All the Way through June 29, 2014, at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. For more information, visit allthewaybroadway.com/.


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