Broadway vet Thom Sesma has been nominated for his first Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his work in Classic Stage Company’s revival of Pacific Overtures.
Over the past year, Sesma has commuted to the Village from his Upper West Side home for three gigs. Last Spring, he appeared in Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage Company. In the Fall, he played Leo Tolstoy in Primary Stages’ New York premiere of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord by Scott Carter at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
In February, Sesma joined the cast of Tooting Arts Club’s terrific immersive production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre, to star as Sweeney Todd opposite Sally Ann Triplett’s Mrs. Lovett. The production celebrated its one year anniversary last month, continuing its streak as the longest running musical to play New York’s Barrow Street Theatre, and has been extended through August 26, 2018.
I sat down with Thom in Father Demo Square, a few days after he was nominated to talk about the diversity of this year’s nominees, Asian American Representation on Stage and on Screen, and all things Sondheim.
Lia: Congratulations on your Lortel Nomination in a season of many Asian American nominees and probably the most diverse class of nominees. What do you think this says about Asian American Representation on the New York Stage?
Thom: We are here. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay. Get used to it. I feel such a great mixture of pride and humility, being in the same landscape of great actors, writers, designers, directors, visionaries, really, many of whom I’m just so lucky to call my friends. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, maybe I can be lulled into a sense of security that things are changing, that there’s a shift in consciousness in the institution. It’s a credit to the Off-Broadway Producer and Theatre’s League to have recognized this. They’ve always been more ahead of the game than their counterparts on Broadway, but this year feels… special…It’s exciting and extraordinary and should be celebrated as such.
2018 Lucille Lortel Award Nominations Announced including KPOP, “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” “Mary Jane,” “The Lucky Ones,” “Pipeline,” “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” and “Pacific Overtures”
Lia: How did you find out about the nomination?
Thom: I was coming home from noon mass at Notre Dame Parish in Morningside Heights and my wife, Penny, sent a text saying “You’re nominated for Pacific Overtures!” I thought she meant the show was nominated for best revival, because I never thought I’d be singled out, because I was just one part of this amazing ensemble. The way we worked together, as a company, really as a family, we were all sort of inseparable from each other, it was a very singular thing. In my mind, this nomination has everyone’s name all over it. I couldn’t have done a single thing onstage without the contributions of everyone else – and I’m not sure I would have wanted to.
Lia: Was this your first time working with John Doyle?
Thom: Oh yeah. And he’s ruined me – the standards of everyone I’ve worked with since then or will work with again are held up against John. And luckily, everyone I’ve worked with since is pretty much right up there. I hope it’s not the last time we work together. John really changed my personal aesthetic in a lot of ways, the approach you take to working, to allowing yourself to immerse yourself in not knowing what the next beat is about, being present, discovering that singular moment, embracing the value of failing at rehearsal every day. We give lip service to things like that all the time, but I don’t think I ever really experienced it in day-to-day practice.
Lia: Had you done Pacific Overtures before?
Thom: Yes, way back in the 90s. I did a regional stock production, really a re-creation of the original production at what was then San Jose Civic Light Opera. It was a beautiful show, all made of plywood and canvas flats, but it was gorgeous. Mako recreated his role as the Reciter in it, Diana Schuster directed it. I played Manjiro, the sailor – in my younger days. I was very proud to be a part of it, but honestly I’d forgotten it. When I auditioned for the production at CSC, John asked if I’d ever done the show before and I said in complete honesty, “no,” became I’d quite forgotten it. It was only when I was walking out of the room that I remembered and turned around to correct myself. Embarrassing. The brain… it goes.
And here you are a year later, you’re doing another Sondheim classic, Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre. Are you becoming an expert interpreter of the master’s work?
Let’s just say, I’m really lucky.
Lia: He’s one of your favorites?
Thom: I think he’s one of everyone’s favorites, without question. The closest we have to Shakespeare, maybe, at least in the musical theatre? He’s the Apex. You know, the original production of Pacific Overtures changed my life. I saw it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when it was on tour, when was it, 1977? 1978? I was finishing up college, getting ready to head to graduate school, studying modern European history, no intentions of becoming an actor. Then this show began and I was floored, from the get-go. I saw a universe I’d never seen before, a landscape filled with people who looked like me, and a story – well, in many respects a story I was familiar with, at least the telling of it: a story of Asian history told through a distinctly American lens, yet couched in the appearance, the physical images of an Asian culture. Yeah, it was in a way, my story. It was so audacious and courageous in its telling, and it never let me go. It still hasn’t. Anyway, from the moment I left the theatre and made the long drive home from downtown LA, I knew the graduate school would only be a detour from the journey that has brought me here. But I gotta say – I never in a million years dreamt that I’d end up doing the show here in New York.
Lia: Had you worked with George Takei before?
Thom: No. I loved working with George, and hope it’s not the last time. He’s so lovely, one of the kindest, most humble and generous people I’ve ever met. I love him to death.
Lia: What characters did you play in Pacific Overtures?
Thom: I played several characters, including a wannabe geisha, I guess. But my main role was Lord Abe, the de facto Shogun. He’s officious, cynical, not without a sense of humor – he knows the world is changing and has to dancing between holding up the appearance of tradition and easing those changes into the culture – all to maintain Japan’s idea of itself, adapting without changing, as it were. Abe does a very delicate dance between the past and the future. Whether he does so successfully is the great question mark at the end of Pacific Overtures.
Lia: Can you talk a little about the differences between doing Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd?
Thom: Well, the one thing that makes them similar, at least in these productions, is the reduced scale of both from their original iterations. The original PO was huge, epic, it attempted to tell two stories, an intimate, personal tale of a doomed friendship against the backdrop of a clash between two very real civilization, and to tell it in an epic theatrical style – kabuki. The original production Sweeney Todd was also pretty gigantic in scope, and was as much a metaphor about society as it was a deeply personal story of one man’s personal loss and his quest for revenge, right? And in both productions, we now have brilliant visionary directors who’ve ripped away the size and the texture of the originals to dig deeper into the personal narratives. I guess you could describe both as immersive. Sweeney Todd is much more site-specific, I mean the tale unfolds in a pie shop, for God’s sake, and it’s immersive in the sense that the audience is plunged into the activity of the play itself, sometimes as witnesses to Sweeney’s and Mrs. Lovett’s deeds, sometimes as victims! Is that a spoiler?
Anyway, our production of Pacific Overtures was immersive insofar as part of John’s concept was inviting the audience in less as an audience then as witnesses to how the changing world affected the two central characters Manjiro and Kayama, how it created and ultimately destroyed their friendship – which is really the only thing we wanted to care about in the story the play tells. This was done by John’s very intimate design concept which put the audience on both sides of the stage – we were really playing in an alley between the audiences who were watching not only us, but each other. That’s something that’s shared in the pie shop. The configuration of the seating actually makes the audience participants in the production as much as the action does. People in row B will be watching people in Row E, not realizing that they’re being watched by people in row G, etcetera, etcetera. And their reactions to our actions become part of the action itself. It’s very, very cool, and given the intimacy of the room, we actors are able to watch this happening, which has an affect on how we play out our parts.
Lia: What were your favorite moments in Pacific Overtures? And What are your favorite moments in Sweeney Todd?
Thom: Oh, wow – If it hadn’t been for the pressure of having Stephen Sondheim watch me singing what he’s described as the favorite of all the songs he’s written, I’d say singing the Old Man in Someone In A Tree was the definite high point. Of course, I’m partly kidding. Singing that trio with Austin Ku and Kelvin Moon Loh in this production, for himself or not is definitely something I will never, ever, ever forget. What a privilege, what a blessing. For an actor who sings – it’s the perfect song, about character, about remembering, about forgetting, about what truly matters in the great tides of our lives. You can’t help but make new discoveries about the song, about the show and about yourself every time you do it.
And again, in Sweeney, the pressure of singing for the man himself is undeniable, but when he came to see the new cast, we’d only been performing for a week and change, and we were still finding our feet as it were, which kind of took the pressure off. Believe me, it’s much easier on the ego to be thinking about, “let’s see, do I hold the razor in my left hand and the towel in my right, or is it the other way,” than to think, oh shoot, I feel him watching me he’s shaking his head he hates me. That aside, though, I have so many favorite moments in what is probably one of the only perfectly constructed musical ever written. It changes and I can’t single one out. My Friends is extraordinary, terribly satisfying to get to sing. It keeps me engaged, too because it demands an emotional truthfulness in expression that it keeps me from losing myself in the joy of singing something so beautiful.
Other than that, all of my favorite moments have nothing to do with me – it’s all things that Sally Ann Triplett is doing as Mrs. Lovett. She’s an actor’s dream, a brilliant comedienne and brilliant tragedian, and an absolute love of a person. God broke the mold after he made her. I swear there are some moments during the show when I wish I could just check out and watch Mrs. Lovett at work. She constantly teaches me so many things. Who’s lucky? I’m lucky, that’s who.
Lia: You have been in the performing arts for many years and have had the opportunity to be cast non-traditionally in lead roles. How has this changed over the course of your career?
Thom: It’s changed a lot with my age – I actually think I’m working more now as an older character – I’m not going to say “mature” because that would imply that I know better now… But I also suppose it has something to do with a body of work that I’ve established. I’m always surprised that people have seen my work or have heard of me, or that I’m supposed to have this reputation as a guy who’s working all the time. Most of the time, whoever I’m working, there’s a little voice inside my tiny little brain telling me I’m never going to work again. But more to the point – when I was younger, there were fewer casting directors, or directors who were actively, and by that I mean self-consciously, trying to cast non-traditionally. But those few who were, did so with a passion, like it was a mission to create an onstage landscape that looked like America. A lot of time it was just in stock or in the regions, but certainly not as much was being done here in New York. People like Jack O’Brien at the Old Globe in San Diego, Steve Woolf at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Ed Stern at Cincinnati Playhouse, Wayne Bryan at Music Theatre of Wichita and others. And I was fortunate enough to work in those places, with those people, and others of like mind. There was an effort here in New York, in commercial theatre, but it was a little limited – there would be, like, one African American woman in say 42nd Street, or one Asian American (that would be me) in the original production of La Cage Aux Folles. But never much more than that, unless a show was actively and purposefully depicting characters of many backgrounds – A Chorus Line, a perfect example. But there was no regular place for, say, a Condola Rashad to play Saint Joan, or Phillipa Soo to play Rebecca in The Parisian Woman. I don’t know what or how things changed – maybe it was Audra that opened traditional people’s eyes that actors of color could be not only qualified but unsurpassable. Or maybe it was something like the literal hundreds and hundreds of incredibly talented people coming out of Miss Saigon – numbers can create results. Slowly, sure, sometimes painfully, but it works. For myself though, to reduce it to basics, it might’ve been classical theatre that opened a lot of doors for me, maybe? I don’t know if it’s still the case, but classical theatre at the time I was young, had a serious cache to it – somehow you were more of an “actor”, or more on an “ah-ctor” if you could pull of a difficult, lesser well-known Shakespearean monologue. And I do know there were a number of casting people in the 80s who wouldn’t take you at all seriously if you didn’t have any classical training – go figure. But I had a couple of lovely credits – which I guess you could call “non-traditional” early on which led to other plays, contemporary pieces, and musicals, and all of a sudden I was being seen for more than Asian or Asian-American roles. I have to say, this is not something I set out to do, it’s just something that happened, with the support of my agents, who were far-sighted and probably had more confidence in my non-traditional potential that perhaps I had. I guess that’s one of the requirements, too, it’s having people on your side who are going to do more than just sympathize, people who are actually going to go out on a limb for you. Anyway, I was certainly pleased, I’m pretty sure I was awfully full of myself, too, but for the most part, this was something I wasn’t in control of. And I was still playing – or just being seen for – the most offensive stereotypes imaginable. Some of these were well-meaning, I guess: I did a deservedly short-lived musical on Broadway called Chu-Chem, also billed as the first Chinese-Jewish musical, which was slightly less authentic than a can of Chun-King Chow Mein, and even less appealing. The opening number was titled “Orient Yourself,” and the show was so indifferently directed, designed and produced that I’m guessing audiences were slightly offended before the overture even began. We played at the Walter Kerr Theatre, then called The Ritz, for something like six weeks, played to tiny, tiny houses, and twenty minutes into the show, we could see people seated in the orchestra climbing over each other to get out.
But then a couple years later I also got to play a guy named Martin Mirkheim – a universe away from Prince Whatever My Name Was in Chu Chem – in a profoundly beautiful and dark play called Search and Destroy by Howard Korder, also on Broadway, which also ran for only six weeks. But oh, what a satisfying six weeks!
Lia: Have you experienced many of the new younger Asian American voices -new works by new playwrights?
Thom: Yep – not as many as I’d like, but mostly I’ve been involved in developmental readings of plays and musicals but a new and younger generation of Asian American writers and composers, which is very exciting. But it’s not just young voices, I mean, kids coming out of conservatories. These voices have been around for awhile, and we’re just getting noticed. But we’re all over the place. We’re everywhere. And this year, a play by an Asian American playwright will for the first time open on Broadway (Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men). Isn’t that something?
Lia: Have you noticed a change in casting of Asian Americans on TV or in film?
Thom: Oh my God, yes – network TV, we’re everywhere. It makes me so proud, so excited. Asian Americans, mostly younger, are playing, guess what, contemporary Asian Americans, but also are NOT playing hookers, dragon ladies, opium dealers, kung fu masters, math nerds. Okay, some of us are, stock stereotypes will always be there, right? But Sandra Oh, Daniel Day Kim, Daniel Isaacs, Constance Wu, Li Jun Li, BD, BD, BD freaking Wong – who can play anything, he’s so brilliant. Am I saying, “Is the playing field level?” No, by no means. But God, oh God, it feels like we can take a rest, even if it’s a short one, from fighting the same battles we fought for decades, just to be taken seriously as real, breathing, feeling, multi-dimensional people!
Lia: What roles or directors are on your wish list?
Thom: Well, all the ones who influenced me in my youth, most aren’t as active as they were in their heyday, – Hal Prince, Tommy Tune, Gregory Mosher, John Tillinger, is Michael Blakemore still directing? Or they’ve passed on – Mike Nichols, Peter Hall, or course, Michael Bennett. And I’m never going to complain, I’ve gotten to work – even briefly – with James Lapine, Michael Greif, Chris Ashley, Jerry Zaks, Bart Sher, blah blah blah… Now it sounds like I’m bragging. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve been very, very lucky.
Lia: How often do you strive to be part of projects where the cast really reflects what the world looks like?
Thom: Well, ideally, that’s something I strive for all the time. I’m just in a position to ensure that something like that is happening. The only thing in my power – in any journeyman actor’s power, I suppose, is the ability and the willingness to say “no” to something that offends my makes me question my sensibilities about how I may think the world is supposed to look.
The real question should be, how is my work supporting or encouraging how the traditional world can change or evolve so that it more easily can begin to reflect what the real world actually looks like. Am I doing everything I can to serve the play, the production and, I guess, the industry, so that I’m not just a qualified Hapa Asian American actor, but that I’m qualified enough to level the playing field. So, here I am, playing the title role in Sweeney Todd – part of what has to go through my process is not that I’m a Hapa Asian American playing Sweeney Todd but that I may be the only Sweeney Todd a person may ever see. That means I’d better up my game and be as complete a Sweeney as I can be. And being Hapa Asian American in appearance and consciousness is only a small part, a very small part of that, and ultimately one I have no control over.
Lia: What are the three projects over the course of your career that you would say are your favorites?
Thom: Wow. Honestly, I can’t say… I’m not trying to be glib or politic, but I’ve been blessed time and time again with extraordinary experiences, in production, or in workshops, sometimes just readings. I’ve never taken a, you know, a “survey” amongst friends or associates, but I hope everyone feels this way. To tell the truth, it would be easier for me to pick out a small number of things that were NOT my favorites than the ones that are. But – I gotta say, being able to do Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, both in New York and both in a 12 month period — that’s a lot of icing on a really delicious cake.
Lia: What do we have to look forward to from Thom Sesma?
Thom: I’m in Sweeney Todd until August. I hope you’ll come by and visit the pie shop of Fleet Street. I’m perfectly content upstairs by the barber chair.
The cast of Sweeney Todd also features Stacie Bono (as Pirelli & Beggar Woman), Michael James Leslie (as Judge Turpin), Zachary Noah Piser (as Tobias), John Rapson (as The Beadle), Billy Harrigan Tighe (as Anthony) and DeLaney Westfall (as Johanna), and Matt Leisy, Liz Pearce, Danny Rothman and Monet Sabel. Click here for tickets.
Thom Sesma is no stranger to the role of Sweeney Todd, having starred in productions at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 1997, and the Arden Theatre Company in 2005.
Sesma has starred on Broadway in The Times They Are A-Changin’, Man of La Mancha, La Cage Aux Folles, Search and Destroy. National Tours: The Lion King, Miss Saigon, Titanic. Other Off-Broadway credits include Awake and Sing! (NAATCO/Public Theatre), Othello (Public Theatre), Cymbeline (NYSF), A Hard Heart (Epic Theatre). Regional appearances include McCarter Theatre, Yale Rep, Arena Stage, Old Globe, Cincinnati Playhouse, Signature Theatre, Centre Stage, Music Theatre Wichita, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Pasadena Playhouse. TV includes “Madam Secretary,” “Gotham,” “Jessica Jones,” “The Good Wife,” “Person of Interest,” Over/Under, “Single Ladies” and more. Instagram @thsesma; Twitter @ThomSesmaNYC.
2018 Lucille Lortel Award Nominations Announced including KPOP, “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” “Mary Jane,” “The Lucky Ones,” “Pipeline,” “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” and “Pacific Overtures”
Thom Sesma and Sally Ann Triplett Take Over the Pie Shop in SWEENEY TODD at Barrow Street Theatre Tonight
Photos: BD Wong, Cindy Cheung, Brooke Ishibashi, Thom Sesma, Manna Nichols, Steven Eng, Ariel Estrada, Lori Tan Chinn at Leviathan Lab’s Ghost Stories
Photos: Backstage Q & A with Thom Sesma and the cast of Signature’s Miss Saigon
A Summer in Bangkok for Thom Sesma, Star of Signature’s Miss Saigon
Production Photos: Music Theatre of Wichita’s The King and I Starring Thom Sesma, Kim Huber, Alan Ariano, Karl Josef Co, Kay Trinidad, Tami Swartz at Century II Performing Arts Center through July 14, 2013
Thom Sesma, Francis Jue, Robin de Jesus and John Tartaglia set for MUNY’s Aladdin
Thom Sesma is the keynote speaker for the Library of Congress celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) at the Mary Pickford Theater
Photos & Video Disney’s The Lion King Las Vegas-In the Makeup Chair with Thom Sesma
Spotlight on Shanghai Moon’s Thom Sesma
Photos: Highlights of Shinsai: Theaters for Japan (3pm) with Andre Bishop, Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Lim, Angela Lin, Philip Kan Gotanda, Thom Sesma, Sab Shimono, Richard Thomas, Jay O. Sanders, and more
Photos: Highlights of Shinsai: Theaters for Japan (8pm) with Oskar Eustis, Patti LuPone, Lisa Emery, Ann Harada, Paolo Montalban, Thom Sesma, Sab Shimono, Henry Stram, Richard Thomas, John Weidman and more
Extended through 8/23- “In Rehearsal” Lia Chang Theater Portfolio at Library of Congress Featuring Robert Lee and Leon Ko’s Heading East Starring BD Wong, Thom Sesma as Scar in The Lion King Las Vegas
Backstage at The Lion King Las Vegas with Thom Sesma
Thom Sesma, Peter Kim and Andrew Cristi star in Durango
Thom Sesma Stars in Jeanne Sakata’s Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi
Thom Sesma in The Epic Theatre Ensemble’s A HARD HEART
Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.