“I don’t speak German,” says Wesley Taylor. “But my Broadway debut was as a German in Rock of Ages.”
Taylor is now playing a far more storied German character at Signature Theatre, where he’s the Emcee in a production of Kander and Ebb’s classic musical Cabaret, set during the Nazi’s rise in 1930s Berlin. Taylor has big boots to fill, taking on a role made iconic by Joel Grey and Alan Cumming.
Until now, Taylor has mostly charted his own course. In addition to Rock of Ages, he’s appeared on Broadway in The Addams Family and enjoyed a small role as Bobby, the gay snark on NBC’s short-lived series Smash.
Both reinforced a valuable lesson Taylor learned while working at theme parks in Orlando: The magic doesn’t last forever, sometimes not even for very long. “You have to keep dreaming to stay happy,” he says.
The 28-year-old has no shortage of dreams to pursue. “In five years I want to be a series regular on HBO,” he says. “And on my hiatuses I want to be doing plays on Broadway.”
Taylor has written, produced, and starred in two web series with Mitch Jarvis, a fellow cast member in Rock of Ages. Most notable among these is It Could Be Worse, a backstage drama about an awkward, struggling actor, partly inspired by his experience on Smash, that has since been picked up by Hulu. He’s also written a one-act play that his boyfriend, Gregg Wiggans, will direct next month at Manhattan Repertory Theatre.
At the moment, Taylor is waiting to hear back about two prospective Broadway shows: the hotly anticipated American Psycho by former D.C. writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and composer/pop star Duncan Sheik, and Nerds, about the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Taylor played Gates in a developmental lab production pitched to New York theater owners last month. “Imagine me in a blonde wig, without the Emcee haircut, with glasses,” he says. “You’ll see a transfor-fucking-mation.”
For now, though, Taylor’s back in Deutschland via Shirlington, in director Matthew Gardiner’s bold and hyper-sexualized production of Cabaret. It’s a staging sure to surprise even longtime fans of the musical with the extent of its sexuality. Says Taylor, “Every single member of the cast gets spanked by me at some point during the course of the show.”
METRO WEEKLY: Have you ever played the Emcee in Cabaret before?
WESLEY TAYLOR: I have not. Cabaret is one of my favorite shows of all time. I’ve seen it a lot. I saw the movie a million times. I saw the last revival three times on Broadway. It’s made an impact on my life.
MW: Are you modeling your Emcee on anybody — the original Joel Grey or the most recent incarnate, Alan Cumming?
TAYLOR: I’m sort of stylizing vocally after Joel Grey. But Alan Cumming revolutionized the role and the way people see that character and I think, with no disrespect to Joel Grey, who is an icon, I feel it is the more realized version of Cabaret. I think that Cumming’s take knocked people over in the best way. I’m not trying to copy Alan Cumming. Of course, subconsciously, because I worshipped his performance, it’s going to inevitably be a part of my mental makeup.
I feel like you’re allowed to steal from genius, you’re allowed to use what works and it will be different because you’re a different person. So that’s how I look at it.
MW: Is the production itself different from what people have come to know of Cabaret?
TAYLOR: This may be blasphemous to say, because those other productions were so perfect, but there are parts of this production that I prefer to the Broadway version. I just love Matt’s choreography, the way he flows a show, through transitions and interstitial content and movement. There’s never a moment where it lingers — it just keeps going. There are bold choices he’s making in this show that will shock people, and I don’t want to give that away. Bold as in not expected, and bold as in really dark. The show is extremely sexualized and this version is probably the most sexual version I’ve ever seen. We all had to sign our nudity riders.
MW: So you’re getting your kicks and your fix.
TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. I don’t think there’s anyone in this show that doesn’t get spanked by me.
MW: Let’s back up and talk about where you came from.
TAYLOR: I was born in New Jersey, but after like a month we moved to Florida. My parents wanted to raise their family in a wholesome family town. So I hail from Orlando, Florida, which is a very strange place to grow up. Not to crush anyone’s hearts, but the magic died at an early age. When you spend 18 years of your life at Disney World, it gets old.
MW: So you worked at the Magic Kingdom?
TAYLOR: [Laughs.] You have to work there if you live there! Obviously. I was a strolling mime. I was a living statue. I was an acrobatic stilt walker. I worked mostly with Universal, but I worked all over. I was never hired by the theme parks directly, I was hired through a third party vendor for crowd, atmosphere, entertainment. I had to train for about a month to do the mime stuff. The acrobatic stilt walking — which is called “power skipping” — they have little trampolines on the bottom, and you jump and do flips and tricks and stuff. So I had to train in a gym for that for a month. That’s a really high-paying gig for a 17-year-old kid. I wasn’t waiting tables like my friends, and I was happier, and I was making more money. But you know, it was 105 degrees plus humidity, wearing a lizard spandex costume in stilts, sweating all day — I feel like I paid my dues. When people say, “You never waited tables or pounded the pavement,” I’m like, “You guys, I was a mime at birthday parties for years! I don’t know what you want from me!”
MW: Did your parents encourage your interest in the arts?
TAYLOR: My mom was a music teacher for a long time, so music was always a part of our lives. I knew I wanted to be an actor since I could speak. I liked making people laugh and the attention. When I was younger my parents were more, “Oh, let’s see how long this lasts. It’s cute.” I was taking it so seriously in high school my parents were like, “Okay, this is it. I guess we’re going to have to take this drama school thing seriously and take a huge risk.” I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. That’s when I left Orlando. And after I graduated from there I moved to New York –- seven years ago.
MW: Did you always know you would move to New York, or did you think maybe L.A.?
TAYLOR: I never thought L.A. Because I grew up in a wannabe L.A. you know? Orlando is so trying to be like Hollywood. So I’d had enough. I love the weather and the water, but I knew — my family took a lot of vacations to New York City. The way they saved their money was for family trips, which I really appreciate about my family. We must have gone to New York about four, five or six times growing up, and I saw like a chunk of Broadway shows every time. So I was facilitating a dream. My parents would book the flight and then I would give them the list of shows that they needed to purchase. I was a brat!
MW: Was coming out to them a challenge?
TAYLOR: It was, because I was raised very religious. Everyone in my family is either a preacher or a teacher.And there was a fundamental clash with the way that my family and I view the world. But through time — I think for anyone who doesn’t know gay people and then they get to know someone who is just like them but happens to be gay — once you have someone in your life that you can identify with, then they can make sense of it. But if you only surround yourself with people that believe the same exact thing you believe, then you will never grow as a human being. And you will never evolve.
I went to a private Christian school until I went to an arts high school. It took a lot of convincing for me to be able to go to that arts high school, like begging and tears and everything, because they were very nervous about what was going to happen when I left the school that was literally connected to the church. I was taking Bible class, I was at church three times a week, I was in a private Christian school every day. So it was pretty ingrained growing up. And then as soon as I started going to drama school, I started changing and evolving into a hopefully more interesting individual, who is open to a lot more ways of thought. And openly gay.
MW: And your family has come around?
TAYLOR: Yes, yes absolutely. Absolutely, and they love my boyfriend and they fight over how much time they get with the two of us for holidays and stuff. So it’s cute.
MW: As far back as you can remember you wanted to be an actor, but you’re doing other things than just acting now, especially writing.
TAYLOR: What I’ve realized the older I get is, you have these dreams and you accomplish them and then you say, “Now what?” And so I have to keep dreaming to stay happy. My dream my whole life was to be on Broadway, live in New York City and live with a man that I love. And within a year out of school, all of that happened. All of it. And I was almost going into depression: “Shit, what now? What do I do now?”
So I was like, “Okay, now TV and film.” Then as soon as I was on set for television, I was like, “I can write better shit than this. I can do this.” I’ve always written, I just never took myself seriously as a writer. But as soon as the web series started being passed around, and I was shopping it to Amazon and Hulu and getting a literary manager, and getting repped as a writer and stuff, I was like, “I guess I should start taking myself seriously. I’m getting paid as a writer.” So I’ve been writing a lot more lately. And writing has become such a new pulse of excitement for me.
MW: I understand It Could Be Worse, the web series you created with Mitch Jarvis, was partly inspired by your experience on NBC’s Smash.
TAYLOR: It was during the second season of Smash, when my part got smaller and I was just unhappy. I was unhappy because I felt like the writing declined and the overall quality of the show was on the downfall. I felt like it was getting worse. I was on set 16 hours a day. They had so much money — the budget was so insane that they didn’t care about going overtime. So we would just be on set all day, and then like every other day, I’d say a “gay liner” and have three takes and they’d move on.
MW: A “gay liner?”
TAYLOR: That’s what I call it. I would usually have a couple of little zingers each episode and they were snarky gay lines, just whatever they wanted to put in Wesley’s mouth to make him sound really snarky and gay. It got really old. The first season was very exciting for me. Other than soap operas, it was my first real television job. The budget was 4 million dollars an episode, and then Angelica Houston and Debra Messing and all these people. I was so smitten and starstruck and like “I’m here, I’ve arrived.” A few months later, the magic died.
So the second season happened, and I was just feeling creatively empty. So I called up Mitch and we started brainstorming and outlining. Our favorite things to watch are self-deprecating protagonists that aren’t necessarily people you root for — things like Veep and Louie and Girls. People who are lost and searching and lonely — or they keep fucking up, you know? And that’s sort of what we wanted to do. And we wanted to make it show business because that’s the world we have access to.
MW: You and Mitch first worked together when you were both part of the cast in Rock of Ages, your first show on Broadway. Was that a good experience?
TAYLOR: It was the best experience of my entire life. I know those are fighting words. And I mean them. It was the gift that kept giving. I had just graduated from school, and within half a year I was on Broadway. It was a debut that people dream about. You know, I had an 11 o’clock number in Act II. “I can’t believe I get to do this. I’m 21. How is this happening?” And the expectations just kept on.
I booked the national tour of Grease right out of college, and I thought that was what I was going to go do. I was going to be Sonny in Grease for a year on tour. And I was like, “It’s great. I’m going to pay off these student loans. I’m gonna have a job for a year. That kind of security is awesome.” But then I got Rock of Ages — at that point no one knew what Rock of Ages was, and it had this L.A. creative team, and New York was sort of like, “Uh, I don’t know.” And I read the script and I was like, “This is going to close in a week — it’s poop jokes and Whitesnake songs, that’s not gonna play. New York is way too highbrow for this show.”
Cut to: We’re transferring to Broadway. Cut to: we get amazing reviews. Cut to: we have a Tony nomination for best musical. Cut to: it ran six years. That show opened the same year as artistic hits like Next to Normal and Billy Elliott. Those shows closed within a year or two, and we ran for six years, becoming one of the longest-running Broadway shows in history.
MW: Which says something, and it’s not necessarily good. I mean, it’s a good show, but…
TAYLOR: I would disagree with you. I understand what you’re trying to say, because it’s commercial fluff. It’s a great transitional experience for people who don’t like theater. And they serve drinks in the house and it gets rowdy, and there are sexy girls dancing on poles. I understand that that’s sort of like an anti-classic Broadway ideal. But it’s incredibly smart. And it takes a lot of comedy technique — the original cast of Rock of Ages were all brilliant comedians. That original company were all so good — some of those principals were doing Shakespeare on Broadway before Rock of Ages. So, you know, I just don’t like the stigma of people putting Rock of Ages in a trash bin, because of the class of it. Because it’s dirty and raunchy and sexy and not classical musical theater. It took real comedy timing to make that sail.
I mean, I judged it before I was in it, too. I read the script and was like, “No.” But then when we got in the room and we were surrounded by really, really gifted comedians, I thought, “Oh, shit, this is going to be hilarious.”
MW: And yet, it’s still a jukebox musical built around pop hits. It’s another example of how to have a hit on Broadway today — the show often needs to be familiar in some way. It also often helps to have Hollywood or Disney connections, or both.
TAYLOR: That’s true. Well, what happens on Broadway unfortunately is that there’s a lot of safe producing. So producers are like, it’s always money first. At the Tonys, the best musical seems to go to what’s going to tour well, or what’s going to make the most money and generate revenue for the theater. That’s not necessarily the craziest thing, but it makes people upset, because it’s not fair. It feels like it’s been rigged. Or it feels like it’s been encouraged.
There’s a perfect example from this year’s Tony nominations. Something Rotten is a show that would make a lot of money on the road. Something Rotten is a huge, flashy Broadway musical. That could be something that does very well for revenue. Fun Home is a tiny-assed show. It’s a play with music basically, in a small theater that won’t make a lot of money on the road. But just look at Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times. People want Fun Home to win. It’s just interesting. I don’t know what’s going to win. I haven’t seen either musical so I don’t have a point of view about either, but I do find it interesting what the community decides to accept.
I also find it interesting that Finding Neverland seems to be the The Addams Family of this year, from my experience with The Addams Family. I came off Rock of Ages into The Addams Family and here’s this show with Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Carolee Carmello, Terry Mann, Kevin Chamberlin, Jackie Hoffman — all of the stars are aligned. The budget is $20 million. Music by Andrew Lippa. The book writers from Jersey Boys. Creatively, everything was the right formula. The problem is when producers start from the top. When the producers say, “Okay, I have a brand, The Addams Family. That’s going to make a lot of money.” And then they start picking their pieces, right? So they’re like, “Okay, I love this guy’s music. It’s really dark and eccentric, and I love this guy. I mean, this guy –- if we cast him — then he’ll fill the house every night and we can sell out for two years. And if we pick these guys, the show will move really fast. And if we pick this guy…” But they don’t think about how everyone is going to gel together. When you start from the creative team — when writers are like “I have a good idea,” and then they acquire producers, that’s a much more successful route, I think, than the other way around. And the other way around is what usually happens. Money first. Broadway.
MW: Did you like The Addams Family?
TAYLOR: I was cast in The Addams Family before Rock of Ages opened. So you can imagine I was on cloud nine. I felt invincible. I felt like I was conquering the world. And with that came arrogance and a little bit of not quite being grounded. I was floating. I was so excited.
My whole time in Rock of Ages was probably a year, but that is counting Off-Broadway and Broadway. On Broadway, I did it for over six months. I was in Addams for a year on Broadway. And Addams was just one of those things, unlike Rock of Ages, which kept exceeding our expectations. The Adams Family was something that we all expected to be the next great American musical. “Oh, this is going to be the next Producers. This is going to be ‘it.'” And things kept happening and we kept getting new pages and you started slowly seeing that this is not going to be what everyone is hoping it’s going to be.
We had two very experimental directors, who had never directed a musical, let alone a 20-million dollar musical with Nathan Lane as its star. That is a different animal, completely. You need to have someone who knows how to direct a Broadway musical with millions on the line. And it just wasn’t working. And they had to fire them, and they brought in Jerry Zaks. So, we were getting a new director. I mean, I felt like I got my Ph.D. in show business. It was a dark winter in Chicago on the three-month out-of-town tryout, because my part kept getting smaller, and there were a lot of tragic clowns in the same building, all miserable during the coldest winter ever in the coldest city ever. My parents were getting a divorce. I was breaking up with my current boyfriend at the time. Everything was happening at once, and I had a meltdown. On Broadway, once we got in a groove, it was manageable. But it felt like the community shunned us. It was such a highly anticipated show, that they were “angry” that it wasn’t what it should have been.
MW: What did you learn specifically from The Addams Family?
TAYLOR: I think the best thing I got from that experience was just watching Nathan do what he does. I mean, with the phone book he could make it funny, you know? There’s just something about the science of his comedy. It’s like math. It’s musical. And I would just learn comedy technique from Nathan. I don’t think he wasn’t happy with the material he was working with, but he made the most of it. I mean he made it into gold.
MW: Do you want to get married? Have kids?
TAYLOR: I do want to get married. I do. I go back and forth on kids. I have a puppy dog. He’s a Cavalier King Charles and a Bichon Frise, so a Cavachon. He’s about 20 pounds. He’s ten months old as of today.
I love my dog so much. It is good for me to have responsibility for someone other than myself, and to have to take care of something other than myself. I know that having kids changes you inevitably. It forces you to grow up and be less selfish, but right now it’s hard for me to even process it because I am entirely too selfish currently in my life, and I think that’s okay right now.
I dream of weddings, too, but I don’t know if I’m going to have a wedding because I’m also tired of being invited to weddings. All of my friends are getting married. I feel like I get a wedding invite every single week. And it’s pissing me off because I don’t want to send a wedding gift to my personal trainer at the gym. Or I don’t want to send gifts to someone who I did a one-week reading of some play with. I don’t know you! And yet, you have to. If you get an invite, it is expected that you RSVP, send a gift, whatever. I’m just tired of it. I want to make it easy for my friends. I don’t want people to feel obliged to shower me with love and attention and gifts. I want people to feel excited to come be with me, not, “I’ve got to buy an outfit and I got to buy a present and give a bachelor party, I got this and that.”
MW: You were in the area when the Supreme Court heard arguments in this year’s marriage equality debate. Have you been following that and the rally that happened on the court steps?
TAYLOR: Absolutely. I feel like I almost get too invested in the politics of gay rights, because it really ends up depressing me. I read all my news in the morning over coffee. I’m digesting all this information, and I follow on Twitter and stuff the Human Rights Campaign and all the things that give me just the daily disappointments of people you know, and bigotry. And it just depresses me. I’m not going to be like Sally Bowles in Cabaret and go “La la la. I don’t want to handle it, I don’t want to process it.” But at the same time, it consumes me, and I end up feeling full of rage at middle America or the Republican Party or whatever. And that’s not healthy either, you know?
There’s got to be more tolerance, but also I have to be more tolerant as well. Something I’m dealing with right now with my family is, tolerance is a two-way street. It’s not just “accept me, understand me.” It’s also “accept them, understand them” for what they love and believe and want to spend their lives doing, and what makes them happy.
Cabaret opens in previews Tuesday, May 12, and runs through June 28, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org.
For more information on It Could Be Worse, visit hulu.com/it-could-be-worse.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!