Brandon Uranowitz
Brandon Uranowitz. Photo by Josh Wool.

Tony winner Brandon Uranowitz is back onstage, this time in a concert revival of Titanic. No, not the James Cameron blockbuster, but the 1997 Broadway spectacle that played 804 performances and sailed into the night with five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

While productions have popped up through the years (including a site-specific production set on a lake, in which cast members plummeted to their fate), New York has yet to see the mega-musical revisited … until now.

City Center Encores! marks its 30th anniversary celebrating American musicals, many of which have transferred to Broadway, including the long-running hit Chicago and the upcoming revival of Once Upon a Mattress starring Sutton Foster and Michael Urie.

For Uranowitz, Titanic is another opportunity to deep dive (in this case, literally) into character exploration. The actor portrays White Star Line official J. Bruce Ismay, who was famously raked over the coals by the media for his actions during the ocean liner’s sinking. But there are two sides to every story.

Brandon Uranowitz in New York City Center's Encores! production of "Titanic."
Brandon Uranowitz in New York City Center’s Encores! production of “Titanic.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Directed by Anne Kauffman (who also helmed this season’s stellar production of Mary Jane, starring Rachel McAdams), Titanic promises to deliver an epic night of musical theater. The epic cast of 32 overflows with Broadway’s best, including Bonnie Milligan (fresh off Kimberly Akimbo), Jose Llana (Here Lies Love), Andrew Durand (Shucked), and more.

Queerty caught up with Uranowitz just before opening night amid a condensed rehearsal schedule packed with music rehearsals and staging to learn more about his dream collaborations, theater inspirations, and guilty pleasures.

The cast of New York City Center's Encores! production of "Titanic."
The cast of New York City Center’s Encores! production of “Titanic.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Titanic is an epic show to learn and stage in two weeks, but even I have my limits. My favorite way to unwind after a long day of rehearsal is to…

Make out with my dogs, Bessie and Winnie, as soon as I walk through the front door. Then it’s straight into comfy clothes and off to the couch with my partner Zach for some dinner (sometimes cooked if I have the energy; sometimes take-out if I have the money. We live in the New Jersey suburbs, so some classic local Jersey Italian usually hits the spot. Stretch’s Chicken Savoy is *chef’s kiss.* Look it up.), and, finally, some TV.

After a long rehearsal day, my brain is usually completely non-functional, so I’ll often lean hard into reality TV. Our current rotaysh includes Real Housewives of New Jersey (obviously?), Top Chef (shout out to new host Kristin Kish, who is absolutely slaying), RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and a litany of true crime docuseries that’s literally too long to put here. 

In Titanic, I play J. Bruce Ismay, the highest-ranking White Star Line official, who survived the ship’s sinking. Many reports and subsequent portrayals condemned his lack of concern for other passengers, but it’s a bit more complicated than that …

Now, don’t get me wrong, Ismay (as Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line) played a key role in certain design decisions that led to an insufficient number of lifeboats onboard the Titanic. Namely, the expansion of 1st class deck and stateroom space, which came at the expense of those lifeboats. It was reprehensible, classist, and unforgivable. Additionally, during the hearings following the sinking, it was testified that Ismay had been overheard demanding the captain increase Titanic’s speed. For these reasons, Ismay could justifiably be considered— and has been portrayed in many creative interpretations of the Titanic’s story — as a villain. It’s easy to imagine him twirling his mustache, smoking a cigar, and laughing maniacally as Titanic increases her speed to 23 knots.

A scene from New York City Center's Encores! production of "Titanic."
A scene from New York City Center’s Encores! production of “Titanic.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

However, our brilliant director Anne Kaufmann and I were much more interested in moving away from that kind of two-dimensionality and making Ismay a three-dimensional human being, not so much as a means of garnering audience sympathy, but to understand how and why Ismay may have behaved the way(s) he did. Because, after all, he was a real person. Just as an example: Ismay inherited White Star Line from his father, so Anne and I wondered if, perhaps, Ismay was too eager to overshadow his father’s legacy, or perhaps he just wanted to make him proud; was this why he so desperately wanted Titanic to arrive in America earlier than scheduled and insisted on increasing speed? It’s dynamics like this that we felt were essential to explore to make Ismay as human as possible. As an actor, I’m always, first and foremost, interested in the humanity and truth behind a character’s — good, bad, or ugly — behavior. 

I’ve been blessed to appear in seven Broadway shows. Each theater is unique and has its own personality, including New York City Center, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. If I were to compare New York City Center to a gay bar, it would attract this type of crowd 

All I can say is that the space is … gaping. The crowd is … eager. And it’s a little out of the way. So, I dunno: The Eagle?

My biggest onstage mishap happened when …

I once decided it would be a good idea to work out between the matinee and evening shows of An American in Paris and then not eat dinner afterward. As a result of actual starvation, I entered the “White Room” (theatre lingo for forgetting your lines) like five minutes into the evening performance and absolutely could not recover. Max Von Essen miraculously got us back on track by just skipping straight to the opening number, “I Got Rhythm”; however, the audience was deprived of literally all the exposition (delivered by my character) needed to set up the evening’s entire story — all because of my low blood sugar. There was actually a moment in my “state” when I seriously considered pretending to faint just to put myself out of my misery. 

A scene from "An American in Paris."
A scene from “An American in Paris.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The show that changed my life the most …

It’s really difficult for me to say there’s one show that changed my life the most because so many shows have changed my life in huge and different ways. My parents took me to see Peter Pan on Broadway when I was three or four, and my mom says she’d never seen me so enraptured or awed by something, so it feels like the seed was planted that day. Then, there was Harry Groener’s flashy yet utterly grounded and honest performance in Crazy for You and Veanne Cox’s unhinged but painfully human performance of “Not Getting Married” in the Roundabout revival of Company, both of which taught me how to be a truthful musical storyteller. Then, there was An American in Paris, which gave me my first Tony nomination and “put me on the map”; and Burn This, where I got to play my first openly gay character on Broadway. And, of course, there was Leopoldstadt, which not only won me a Tony but also taught me that you must, must, must dive headfirst into the things that scare you the most. I guess this is all to say: theatre is f**king magical, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.   

The LGBTQ+ artist I’d love to collaborate with …

Cole Escola. Cole Escola. Cole Escola. I feel about Cole the way I felt when I saw my first John Waters film or when I read my first Paul Rudnick play. They are unhinged, unapologetically queer, and f**king brilliant. I would do literally anything they asked me to do. Anything. And, if you didn’t see Oh, Mary! Off-Broadway, there’s something wrong with you, and you need to heal it, then go see it when it moves to Broadway this summer. Also, do yourself a favor and YouTube “Cole Escola Mom Commercial.” You’re welcome. [Or watch below!]

Before a performance, I always …

My pre-show ritual changes with each project. No matter if I’m doing a play or a musical, though, I will always warm up my body and my voice. It’s never the same exercise or group of exercises — it all depends on a) what’s required of me for that particular show and b) where I’m at physically and vocally on that particular day. I also try to make a point of stepping on stage sometime before the house is open just to feel connected to the space. I think it’s partly my way of leaving real life outside the walls of the theatre and priming myself for the world, characters, and relationships of the show, which all exist inside those walls.

Also, I’m so sorry for being such a corny gay theater nerd, but I’m not a religious person, and the theater (oh God, sorry) is the closest I’ve ever felt to spirituality (I know, I know) — so standing on stage in that empty theatre, before the audience files in, is a sacred, spiritual practice for me (seriously, I’m so embarrassed). Honestly? The Emcee describes it best: “Leave your troubles outside. In here, life is beautiful.” I hate myself. But I LOVE THEATER. Can you tell?

Titanic plays at New York City Center through June 23.

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