As it turns out, the tuba is not like the bicycle: mastering it does not snap back after years away.
Colton Ryan learned this lesson while preparing for a number in the new, hotly anticipated Broadway original “New York, New York,” based on the 1977 Martin Scorsese film and featuring a new score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (open now at the St. James Theater). His character, Jimmy, tries to impress his date with his various musical talents, which shows Ryan playing several different instruments on stage back to back.
The only instrument he plays in the number that Ryan had prior knowledge of was, interestingly enough, the tuba.
“I don’t remember this time very well, so I have to be reminded of it, but from sixth to eighth grade, I was first chair of all-county, on the tuba, three years in a row,” he says. Not that it all came flooding back to him.
“No, it’s not like riding a bike,” he says. “It’s funny because throughout this process, I’ve kind of realized I’m a little more of a thrill-seeker than I thought. My thrills are just not roller coasters. They’re more like playing the saxophone for the first time, only after picking it up in December. And then the thrill was, ‘I guess I’ll either fall on my face or I’ll fly for 1,700 discerning, paying citizens.’”
Ryan, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, leads the play opposite Anna Uzele in what is a feel-good return to the theater, one that makes you fall in love with New York City all over again.
Ryan first learned about “New York, New York” while he was finishing up work on the Hulu series “Girl from Plainville,” opposite Elle Fanning. The onset of the pandemic had halted his turn in the Bob Dylan production of “Girl from North Country” on Broadway and Ryan had been pleasantly surprised to find work in TV, which had him shooting in Georgia so much he jokes he was able to vote there. And then an “untitled New York, New York” project landed on his desk — no music yet, just dialogue.
“I’m a snob when it comes to musical theater, because I think a lot of it…and I can say this because I love it with my whole foot: a lot of it’s really bad. And I’ll put that in print,” Ryan says, seated at Amy’s Bread in Hell’s Kitchen not too far from St. James.
Despite not yet being presented with the music, he saw the names attached to the project: new score by Kander and Ebb, original story by David Thompson and Sharon Washington, additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreography by Susan Stroman.
“It’s a legends-only club. It’s an embarrassment of talent,” Ryan says.
Playing Jimmy is the most “natural” thing Ryan has done thus far in his career, a thing he’s realized by noting how calm he’s felt throughout the entire process.
“I grew up learning how to sing by singing old torch songs that made my grandparents happy. I’m actually the son of an Irish immigrant [like Jimmy], and I actually have my Irish passport and everything,” Ryan says. “It’s just weird. As more and more I play it out, I just feel calmer and calmer about it. It’s actually the most natural thing I’ve ever done.”
Case in point: following the curtain call each night, Ryan hops in the car for the one-hour drive up to Bedford, New York, where he and his fiancée have recently purchased a home after six years in the city. The David Zwirner podcast called “Dialogues” is his go-to listen to unwind.
“That’s my chamomile tea on the way home,” he says.
The show opens on the heels of “Phantom of the Opera” closing after 30-plus years (incidentally, across the street), at a time when the theater world of New York is still very much struggling to regain its footing post-pandemic and getting people excited enough to go.
“All of us felt like we can’t do this fast enough. People need this. I usually hate saying that, it feels silly or trite to say ‘people need this play,’” Ryan says. “A lot of this country was, I think, pretty convinced, like many times or through many cycles, that this place is dead. ‘It’ll never be what it once was.’ And I think that’s why people, when they leave the show after hearing that ending, they kind of walk over to Times Square, because the promise has been fulfilled. If it’s not back, it’s itself again, or it’s promising it’s coming. Maybe it even is. Who knows? But it feels good to be honoring that moment, honoring this.”
Without giving much away, the show does include the famous song that bears its name, which was originally composed by Kander and Ebb for the Scorsese movie original — and made famous by Frank Sinatra. It’s a moment in the show that will make even the most jaded New Yorker beam with love for their city.
Ryan says he worried initially that the whole number would come across as “gaudy.”
“But then I forgot about what the song is, and baby, it’s gaudy, because that’s what it is. This is New York, baby,” he says, sounding exactly like Jimmy. “If you don’t put your full foot in it, then go home.”