Alex Brightman
Alex Brightman

Alex Brightman on His Broadway Return in The Shark is Broken

Earlier this year, Alex Brightman wrapped up a five-year journey in the fan-favorite musical Beetlejuice, taking his final bow as the titular role when the show closed at the Marquis Theatre in January. But he couldn’t stay away from the stage for very long.

The two-time Tony nominee is back on Broadway in the new play The Shark is Broken, which begins previews at the Golden Theatre on Tuesday, July 25. Ahead of his first performance, Brightman spoke with Broadway Direct about starring in his first play on Broadway, why The Shark is Broken is more than just a Jaws story, and the concussion he suffered during his final weeks as Beetlejuice.

You weren’t away from Broadway for too long, but how does it feel to be back?

It’s that beautiful thing of like, “I think I’m going to step back,” and they just keep reeling me back in. No pun intended. I’m over the moon to be back in this. I would be excited to be working at all, but a play is what I wanted to do. I really desperately wanted to be able to do something that wasn’t the thing I’ve been doing for the last 15 years.

At the end of Beetlejuice, I had a big meeting with the people who wonderfully represent me, and they said, “What do you want to do next?” And without even blinking, I said, “A play.” Months, months, months before all this happened, so it feels really validating and really fulfilling and exhausting, but it is exactly what I was hoping it would be.

And this is your first play on Broadway.

Yeah, it’s my first one. This is my seventh Broadway show, and after two of them, you’re like, “I feel like I’ve done everything here.” But you forget that there are just things you haven’t done. So it’s really cool to check another thing off the list, something I didn’t necessarily know was in there, but as time went on, it’s time. I want to do something without song and dance, and having to focus everything onto one part of my creativity, which is just the acting part.

Does that make it all the more exciting, all the more nerve-racking? You don’t have that song and dance to rely on for storytelling. 

You completely hit it on the head. It is so nerve-racking. It really is. For me, it feels like doing a trapeze without a net. It’s that thing of, like, if things don’t go well on stage, I can’t just go, “But check out this song that I do really well” or whatever. So my options are limited, and it’s fun. It’s a cool challenge, but there’s no hiding that it is totally nerve-racking.

Tell us about The Shark is Broken.

This is gonna be a strange answer. It is a very strange play about three very extraordinary men trapped inside one of the smallest places you could ever be out in the middle of the ocean. So that’s number one. Number two, it is about the frustration and madness and spiraling into madness that happens when you just have to wait. So there’s that, coupled with the idea that these are three movie stars. They’re egomaniacs and they’re maniacs in general and competitive. It’s about these three megastars competing, trying to see each other for who they are. And then the third level is, it’s really, truly about fathers and sons, a little bit of alcoholism, ego, and the trauma that leads us to who we become.

And it’s about, you know, a shark being broken on the set of Jaws. I forget that it’s about Jaws — I mean, one of the biggest blockbusters in the world. But it is funny because the play right away is about Jaws, but for the most part isn’t about Jaws. This is a weird reference, but it’s the same idea that Wicked had. You’re familiar with something, and that still exists in the storytelling, but just the camera moves slightly right of what’s going on or keeps rolling. That is always interesting to me as an audience member, so to be a part of it is really cool.

And you’re playing Richard Dreyfuss. 

Yeah, I play Richard Dreyfuss, who is a real person, and also the only one out of the three [stars of Jaws] who is still alive. I play the youngest of the three, the kind of upstart who believes he is going to be famous. This is going to break him, and he is hell-bent on fame and adulation and accolades, and so a lot of his story in the show is, “Am I doing this for the right reasons?” You learn a lot about the complicated layers of an actor, the sort of imposter syndrome that happens when you get a lot of success.

Did you study Dreyfuss at all, like his mannerisms, or is it more about tackling the spirit of the man?

I think it’s both. There are some times you give an homage, there are some times you give a one-for-one mirror-image mimic, but this is a bit of both. I think there’s a little bit of educated guessing going on. And mannerisms, thankfully, there are hundreds of hours of footage to go through. And then, for me, at least personally, letting it all go and just running with the little guidelines that I’ve given myself. All three guys are really complicated, so we’re still figuring out what that means, singularly and also as a group.

Alex Brightman, Ian Shaw, and Colin Donnell of The Shark is Broken. Photo by Bruce Glikas.
Alex Brightman, Ian Shaw, and Colin Donnell of The Shark is Broken. Photo by Bruce Glikas.

Speaking of those three guys, you star opposite Colin Donnell and Ian Shaw, with Shaw playing his own father, Robert Shaw. Since it is just you three on stage, what is it like to form that bond? I mean, that’s a crazy amount of trust you have to instill in each other.

It’s also very claustrophobic, so you hope that you like your other two costars. And I do. I’ve known Colin for a very long time, we’ve just never worked together. So that was beautiful, because that’s instant chemistry. We get along, we like each other, we deal with each other, and in this process, it has really felt like I’ve gained a really cool soul brother in him who I personally already liked, but now, like more and know more.

And with Ian, I was already impressed with some of the stuff I’d seen him do and his sort of résumé, but watching it up close is a master class. It is a dream. It’s intimidating. It makes me want to be a better actor ’cause he’s just so stellar. And when he does his father, it’s uncanny. I mean, if you’ve seen Jaws and you know who Robert Shaw is, it is as if he has come back to life through Ian, and it’s really remarkable.

Also, the meta of it all. There’s a line in the show that I don’t mind sharing because it’s not a spoiler, where Roy Scheider asks Robert Shaw, who has a lot of kids, do any of them want to be actors? And he says, as Robert, “Christ, I hope not.” It’s like Inception. It’s that thing where it’s like a man inside of a man playing another man. It’s uncanny, watching him do his work. I’m very, very lucky to be inches away from that.

You, of course, garnered many fans by creating the role of Beetlejuice on Broadway. What would you say to them that would entice them to come see The Shark is Broken, besides, obviously, getting to see you perform again?

I would say to them to take the leap from musicals and the things that you know me in. However, I can guarantee you that the wackiness and sort of energy that I have to do here is not dissimilar to the School of Rock/Beetlejuice of it all. It’s just that I’m not singing. But out of the three — Richard, Roy, and Robert — I am the one who bounces along the stage in a Beetlejuice-like fashion, just no voice. But the energy is still very that. I don’t know why I keep playing characters who take this much out of me physically, but so far so good, and so far so fun.

I can also promise them that it’s fun. I mean, I think that when you hear it, that it’s a play about three men waiting on a boat, that can really turn a few people out. “I don’t need to see that.” It’s so much more exciting than the idea of three men. It’s just such a thrill ride and it changes energy so fast, not unlike Beetlejuice. I would say it’s also a really cool contemporary thing, and I think that Beetlejuice fans are always looking for the next cool, hip thing. This is it. This is that.

I mean, that line out the box office the other day was nuts.

Yes! And a wonderful surprise. Like, I know people love the movie, and I just — I’ve underestimated how many people love the movie and how many people want, kind of, more of the fringe stuff too. They want to know it all, they want to know everything, they are superfans. But also I think theater fans are really going to love this. I think it’s a really lovely, cool, interesting, contemporary piece of theater.

You mentioned the physicality of the many roles you’ve played, including Beetlejuice. You were very public about a concussion you suffered during the final weeks of the Beetlejuice run in late 2022 and into the beginning of this year. Did you feel a swell of support coming your way in hopes of a safe return for the final performance?

I did. And you know what’s great about that, actually, is that’s what I felt. I felt support and not pressure. And I think that that could really have gone the other way of like, “How could we get him back quickly?” And I think everyone from inside the building of Beetlejuice to the fans to anybody who cared about me, none of it felt like, “Are you going to be able to do the last show?” It was more like, “Are you OK?” I always think that when humanity wins over business, I think that is always a beautiful thing.

I would say it was heartbreaking at the idea that I wouldn’t finish, but I really was hurt. I was really taken out by it and really suffered for about eight to 10 days of true symptoms and things like that. So I was thrilled to get back, I was thrilled that they made modifications, but I’m also thrilled that everybody who reached out was supportive and loving. And so I really, really appreciate that.

Alex Brightman and Elizabeth Teeter in Beetlejuice. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Alex Brightman and Elizabeth Teeter in Beetlejuice. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Building off that, how did it feel to be able to close that Beetlejuice chapter of your life properly on Broadway? I know it was cut short in 2020, and then due to your injury seemed like it might not happen this time around.

Oh, yeah. Even without the COVID shutdown, taking those years away, it still is five years of my life. It was like losing a piece of yourself, but gaining this experience that filled in the void. I was thrilled for it to be over; it was time. Not thrilled because I didn’t like it — I could have kept going — but I think it was a nice chapter closing and I felt really, really thrilled that I could close it on my own terms.

Boy, that was one of the wildest nights I think I’ve ever experienced, and also because I was still suffering from a concussion. [Laughs.] So part of me is like, Did I? Was that just a fever dream? Was I actually there or what? It was so wild; that was great. I had the best time, and I can’t imagine doing it any better. And the dismount was so cool.

What will be going through your mind moments before bringing this play to a Broadway audience for the first time?

A lot of nerves. A lot of, I don’t know what the word is, but like positive doubt. Cause you never know. I think it’s really good, we’ve had a few audiences that think it’s great, which is really nice and comforting and encouraging. I get nervous in the best way every single performance, so the first performance adds that little layer, but it’s mostly just excitement. And also because it’s a small theatre, it’s the smallest theatre I’ve ever performed in on Broadway.

You’ve gone all the way from the Gershwin [where he played Boq in Wicked] to the Golden. 

Exactly, which is 1,200 seats less, which is just insane to say.

You can catch Brightman in The Shark is Broken, now playing at the Golden Theatre through November 19, 2023.

Photo by Bruce Glikas.

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