What Anna Uzele and Colton Ryan Learned From Working with John Kander | Playbill

Special Features What Anna Uzele and Colton Ryan Learned From Working with John Kander

The leads of New York, New York tell us how starring in Broadway’s newest Kander and Ebb musical was a chance to learn from some of the greats of the American theatre.

Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele Michaelah Reynolds

According to New York, New York's Jimmy Doyle, true success means finding your own major chord: money, music, and love. For the musical's stars Anna Uzele and Colton Ryan, that might also include getting to create theatre with Kander, Miranda, and Stroman. Yes, this new musical has stars on both sides of the curtain, counting true theatrical legends John Kander, the late Fred Ebb, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Susan Stroman, David Thompson, and Sharon Washington amongst its creative team. According to Uzele and Ryan, the experience has been a blessing—but a daunting one.

“I mean, the stress got even deeper as I went down the line [of names],” says Ryan, recalling reading the first email he received a year ago asking him to audition for the musical. “It scared the shit out of me.” We spoke with the two New York, New York stars shortly before the musical began previews in March.

The new musical, which opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre April 26, brings the landmark 1977 film’s spirit and beloved Kander and Ebb songs (including the stirring title theme that everyone who’s ever celebrated New Year’s in North America knows by rote) to the stage. The World War II-era story follows two young artists (a musician and a singer) chasing love and career dreams in New York City—put another way, it tracks their attempts to “make it there.”

READ: Name That Tune! A Comprehensive Guide to the Songs of New York, New York

Having this group creating any show would be impressive, but the story of New York, New York makes the pairing uniquely appropriate. After all, if anyone knows about making it in NYC, it’s the people that have brought you such shows as Chicago, Cabaret, Hamilton, and The Producers.

“I’m not feeling scared,” Uzele says assuredly. “This thing’s baked, ya know? And it was baked before any of us got into the recipe. We’re working with people who, as my character says in the show, ‘got the bona fides.’ I have never been more calm in my entire life for an opening of a show.”

Uzele is no stranger to pre-baked success, having created the role of Catherine Parr in the much anticipated Broadway transfer of the international sensation SIX: The Musical. But the young Broadway star says her calm working on New York, New York is thanks to not just the quality of the work happening around her.

According to Uzele, that all-star creative team has fostered a working environment that couldn’t be more warm and supportive. She cites a special moment rehearsing a full-ensemble song called “Light,” when Kander gave her an experience she’ll never forget.

Anna Uzele and Colton Ryan in New York, New York Paul Kolnik

“‘You guys, you’re singing it to Anna. Everything you’re doing is beautiful, but it has to be for her,’” Uzele remembers the 96 year-old, three-time Tony winner saying. “So he grabs me and he stands me in front of the room, and he says, ‘Everyone look at her and everyone sing the song to her.’ If you’ve ever had 27 people singing at you and staring at you at the same time, it’s overwhelming." Uzele says it's extra moving because her character, Francine, spends the majority of the show alone—trying to find success as a singer. "She doesn’t have any friends. She doesn’t have any family. She’s going it by herself and just trying to figure it out by herself. It’s the one moment in the show where I get to step back and be held by the company and be told that they’re there for me, and [Kander] made sure I got that.”

But it’s not all mushy. Uzele also remembers another cherished piece of Kander wisdom, a verbatim axiom that illuminates the Broadway legend’s wicked sense of humor: “Aside from really, really, really good sex, the best thing in the world is making art with your friends.” Exclaims Uzele: “And that’s totally true!"

Both Uzele and Ryan say working on this particular show with this group has been “healing,” especially because it gives them a chance to celebrate an art form—and a city—both immensely beat down by the pandemic.

“For the last two years, it has been hard to be told that, quite literally, what we do is non-essential,” reflects Ryan, who plays Jimmy in New York, New York, a struggling musician who is also battling PTSD from World War II. “I think a lot of people really punched down on this city and said we’d never get back up." It didn’t help that Ryan, a veteran of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and Girl From the North Country, spent some time away from the theatre during the pandemic. His screen work in the Dear Evan Hansen film and TV’s Little Voice, The Girl From Plainville, and Poker Face was “making a lot of other dreams come true on camera, but the whole time it felt like I was grieving something, missing something.” 

For Ryan, another often-uttered Kander quote comes to mind. “He has said to me often, and with such contentment, that a life in the theatre is the greatest life anyone could ever live.”

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And so, starring in a big, Broadway musical being created by an all-star A-list creative team, do these young actors feel like they’ve made it, as the beloved song says? Both hedge at the question. “I think I’ve made my own dreams come true,” says Ryan proudly.

For Uzele, the entire notion is moot. “It’s not the success part that’s gratifying. It’s making art that’s so fulfilling. These songs move me to tears. These songs can turn a bad day around. These songs are powerful. It’s about collaborating on material that is so enriching and actually makes this world better."

But remember, the musical says to make it you need money, music, and love—a major chord. Regarding their financial situation, we're letting Uzele and Ryan keep that to themselves. But starring in New York, New York, it looks like they've got music and love on lock—a perfect fifth, perhaps?

See Photos of New York, New York on Broadway

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