(New York Jewish Week) — Broadway actor Oliver Prose and I met on a bench outside of the iconic Bow Bridge in Central Park in the middle of a sunny afternoon. He’s nearly six months into his Broadway debut in “New York, New York” — and two days fresh off a performance at the Tony Awards — but he shows no signs of slowing down.
Prose chose this scenic spot for our meeting because it’s the real-life inspiration for one of his favorite sets on the show, which nabbed a Tony on Sunday for Best Scenic Design of a Musical.
“In all of the scenes — Grand Central, Bow Bridge, Penn Station — all these iconic locations are recreated with the sets,” he said. “It’s aesthetically one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen.”
“New York, New York,” is a dance-heavy musical from legendary songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. It weaves multiple narratives about musicians trying to make it in New York City in 1946, portrayed here as a post-war era of possibilities and potential. Among a diverse cast of characters, Prose plays the musical’s lone Jewish character: Alex Mann, a young violinist auditioning for Juilliard who fled Poland just before the Holocaust began.
As tourists strolled by scarfing down cart hotdogs, taking selfies and listening to tour guides, Prose and I talked about what it’s like to be Jewish on Broadway right now — both in and out of the dressing room — in a moment when Jewish stories are receiving a lot of attention. Case in point: Antisemitism-themed “Parade” and “Leopoldstadt” won the Tonys for best revival of a musical and best play, respectively. The theme will continue with Alex Edelman’s “Just for Us,” which opens this summer, followed by Barry Manilow’s “Harmony” in the fall and “Prayer for the French Republic” in the winter.
As we chatted on a bench across from the bridge, I happened to notice a blue “chai” pendant peeking out of his casual black collared shirt. I asked him if the necklace is part of the show, like Michaela Diamond’s Jewish star that she wears as her “Parade” character, Lucille Frank.
It’s not, “but I did buy this for the opening of the show,” he said. “I’ve never worn any jewelry really, ever. There was never really a moment for me before that made me feel like I needed to project: ‘This is my Jewishness.’ But for this show, it really felt right.”
“I never really felt super comfortable, or the need to say ‘I’m Jewish,’ because I don’t practice that often,” added Prose, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and now lives in Brooklyn. “I haven’t been to temple since I was a teenager. I celebrate holidays with my family, but it’s always been something that I relate to my family. I’ve never really felt it personally before, but because of this role, I have really started to feel proud to be Jewish.”
Playing a Jewish character as his first role on Broadway feels “appropriate,” he said. And, as it happens, the part in “New York, New York” is one of the first shows, on or off Broadway, that he has worked on since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2019. For the last few years, he has been working as an administrative assistant at NYU while sending out self-tape auditions.
“When the semester ended, I had no idea what I was going to do,” he said.
After sending out an audition tape for the musical in late December last year, Prose had one in-person callback in January — later that night, his agent called to tell him he got the role.
“I never would have expected to be in a Susan Stroman-directed Kander and Ebb musical for my first Broadway experience,” Prose said, emphasizing that he’s “not a song and dance guy” — his last role was in a three-person show in Arizona. “If you had told me a year ago that I was going to be doing that — specifically at the Tonys — I would have said you’re completely crazy.”
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“It’s been an eye-opening experience as a young, emerging artist,” he added.
“New York, New York,” designed for Broadway’s tourist crowd, is loosely based on the 1977 Martin Scorsese film of the same name, although Alex Mann and several other supporting characters were written specifically for this production, as part of the book by David Thompson. It features the catchy tunes from the movie, including its title song — you know the one — as well as new songs written by “Hamilton” legend and “Fiddler on the Roof” fan Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The plot centers around the volatile relationship between bright-eyed, aspiring musicians Francine Evans (Anna Uzele), who has come to New York via Philadelphia, and the jaded, multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Doyle (Colton Ryan). Along the pair’s up-and-down journey to success they cross paths with several other musicians trying to make it in the big city — like Prose’s Alex Mann, a violin protegé.
“It’s a show that’s trying to cover a lot of stories,” Prose said. “A lot of them really don’t have to do with being Jewish and what Judaism meant to that time.”
But Prose acknowledges how “Jewish stories are being explored on Broadway in a variety of ways,” right now, he said. “From a broad perspective, on Broadway, it’s something that’s being celebrated and recognized. But it’s also being opposed, which is what really tells me that the world is listening. People are hearing this and like, people don’t like it — and that makes it even more important.”
“I feel a part of all of that,” he added.
We finish our interview walking across the bridge and out of the park. Prose described how he’s still getting used to the nighttime work schedule. We say our goodbyes; I head to Midtown to write this article, while Prose makes his way to the St. James Theater to take a nap in his dressing room before that evening’s curtain call.