Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance was first performed in New York City in 1870. Now you can catch this operatic comedy on stage at The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul. Prior to hitting the stage as the Pirate King, Broadway vet Brandon O’Neill sat down with me to discuss the show, his career and returning to Saint Paul.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
It was accidental. I moved to Seattle looking to start a new band. The first musician I met was a keyboard player named Rob Knop (Harvey Danger) whose pet project was writing and composing a rock opera. He had me sing on the demo recording for the show. A few local theaters showed interest and he booked a couple readings based on the demo. Rob asked if I’d be interested in performing the lead male role in the readings and I said yes. Twelve years later and I’m lucky enough to still be saying yes.
Every performer has that moment where it just “clicks” and they know performing is what they want to do for a living. What was that moment for you?
I was bit very early with the music bug. I performed my first solo in church at age 8. At age 12 I was given the only solo in the Spokane All-City children’s choir and I think it was then that I realized I may be on to something. I never really dreamed I would be on Broadway, I just hoped that somehow I would be able to support myself by singing.
You’ve done Broadway and regional theatre. What do you like about the gypsy lifestyle being a working actor provides? What do you dislike?
I love to explore new places. I buy a bike in every city I visit and do as much exploring as I can. I also love thrift stores. Each place seems to offer its own array of particular items. I see a lot of breweriana related items in the Twin Cities. The gypsy lifestyle can get a little lonesome at times. I’m used to having my wife and two sons around and I often miss their affection and companionship.
You were in the Ordway’s production of Cabaret a few years ago. Are there any restaurants or local attractions you’re looking forward to visiting, now that you are back in town?
I bought a great fedora at Heimie’s Haberdashery last time I was here and the 2 Ginger’s Whiskey at the Liffey has been known to occupy some space in my days off. The Mexican food at the El Burrito Mercado goes down as some of the best I’ve had (and my wife is a Latina so that’s saying something).
You play the Pirate King, how would you describe your character?
The Pirate King is a man-boy. I imagine that he was adopted to rich military parents and raised in “respectable” society but rejected his upbringing and chose instead a life without structure. He adopted the playful, fool-hearty persona of the King of the rebels.
What do you hope the audience takes away from The Pirates of Penzance?
We all can, at times, take life, love, religion, and politics too seriously. The Pirates of Penzance reminds us to play, laugh, find common ground, and be courageous. Or, as Gilbert and Sullivan put it themselves…Take Heart.
For more information on Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, playing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through August 16, visit their website.