Brandon Uranowitz is in the midst of a creative metamorphosis. The four-time Tony nominee, known for his deft comic delivery and warm tenor singing voice in the Broadway productions of An American in Paris and Falsettos, is currently appearing in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, a multigenerational drama exploring Jewish identity in Vienna from 1899 through 1955. For Uranowitz, the project came along at exactly the right time.
“This show is very personal for me. There are so many parallels to my own family's history,” Uranowitz explains. Descended from Holocaust and pogrom survivors, Leopoldstadt has allowed him to join his ancestral history with his chosen theatrical community for the first time. “The only thing I sort of ever wanted, before this play, was to be a part of this community," adding that Leopoldstadt is, "the only place I've ever felt safe. It's the only place I've ever felt authentic.” While he has played a bevy of Jewish characters on stage before (including his Tony-nominated turn in Falsettos), there is something gratifying for Uranowitz in dramatizing this particular period of Jewish history.
In Leopoldstadt, Uranowitz plays two members of the same family: Ludwig Jakobovicz, a mathematician possessed by an enduring curiosity, and Nathan Fischbein, Ludwig’s great nephew and an Auschwitz survivor. Both men hold fierce opinions about Jewish assimilation, with Ludwig detailing extensively in the first scene of the play how assimilation is a form of erasure.
“That scene is what really drew me to the play, more than anything else. It's the first time I’ve really seen the assimilation question, that identity piece of Jewishness really investigated and interrogated in a theatrical way on stage,” Uranowitz states. “I'm constantly asking myself ‘who are we when the chips are down? Is assimilation a worthy endeavor?’ On some level, I agree with Ludwig. That argument about perceptions and perspectives around our identities that are created by others, and then superimposed onto us (rather than us freely saying who we are and getting to then live freely) is what drew me to this play more than anything else.”
You’d be forgiven to think these questions originated for Uranowitz during the Leopoldstadt process. While many of his most public-facing roles have been in brightly lit musical comedies, he has been mining for meaning in the shadows for years. The clearest connective line to Leopoldstadt can be seen in his work at the New York City Center Encores! program, where he played Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel, and Addison Mizner in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Road Show.
“It’s the same desperate, passionate desire for freedom and autonomy that drew me to Grand Hotel,” Uranowitz explains. “Similarly, there are a lot of parallels to Addison on Road Show.” While Addison was not Jewish, he and Uranowitz shared a similarity: homosexuality, and the question of how to represent that to the wider world. “The roadblocks that I experienced as a person in my own life are in the characters.”
These roadblocks remain a complex minefield for Uranowitz to sort through, both personally and professionally. “Growing up in a fairly conservative Jewish town, I did not feel safe enough to be my authentic self. I felt constrained, and I felt unsafe. I made a lot of concessions, and I made a lot of compromises. And I compartmentalized a lot of my identity in order to survive,” Uranowitz explains, referring to the homophobia he experienced growing up in suburban New Jersey during the deadly peak of the AIDs crisis. “I felt very constrained. So many of these roles scream into the ether about wanting to escape whatever constraints they may feel, whatever oppressive systems they may be victim to. They feel empowered to speak out against them, in ways that I feel much more empowered to do now, but didn't necessarily when I was younger, and even into my early 20s in college.”
As for his Jewish heritage, Uranowitz’s family history is a patchwork of memory. “I believe that my mom's side of the family came from Russia a long time ago; my grandmother on my mother's side was born here. My father's side of the family escaped Poland. His grandparents, so my great grandparents, we know perished in the camps. We think it was Auschwitz, but that's debated within my family.”
What follows next is not up for debate. “My grandparents, their children, escaped in the 30s and came out to New Jersey, via Ellis Island. And my dad's mother's sister, Millie, stayed. She couldn't escape early enough, and she lost her husband and her three-year-old son in the ghettos before being transported to a camp. She was in a camp, I think, for about a year. When she was being transported to another camp, her mother pushed her off the train.”
That motherly desperation succeeded in saving Millie’s life, and after emigrating to the United States in the 1940s, she was a living testament for the family. “She was very forthcoming about talking about her experience; she was never one to really mince words. I feel like ‘never forget’ is a bit of a trope these days, but it's a trope for a reason. For many survivors, that sense of duty was deeply felt. And for so many of the people who barely made it out, the need to ensure that we continue to retell the story—no matter how repetitive it might feel, no matter how well-known it might feel to some folks—is a responsibility.”
In a world where erasure can lead to denial of history, Leopoldstadt is achingly relevant for Uranowitz. “A criticism of our play is that ‘we know all this, so who is this for?’ I think there's a cynicism behind that. I feel that similar responsibility that I think my Aunt Millie felt, which is that we must keep telling the story so that these memories don't fade. We are actively, constantly speaking these things out loud.”
When Uranowitz exits Leopoldstadt midway through the play and then returns again later as Nathan, he is stepping into the shoes of an Auschwitz survivor not unlike his Aunt Millie. The experience of living in Nathan’s reality has been ground shaking for Uranowitz, bringing inherited trauma to the surface that is incredibly difficult for him to shake off after the curtain falls. “As soon as I read the play, I felt a personal responsibility to it, and an obligation to it in a way that I've never felt before with a piece, as an actor. I felt that as a Jewish actor, with deep personal and historical connections to the play, that there is really nothing else I should or could be doing...I’d be lying if I said the emotional tax of it wasn’t affecting me in some way, but that sense of responsibility does help.”
That obligation has only been heightened by the current onslaught of antisemitism in American culture. “The threshold between the [world of the play] and the real world was blurred. To come back to reality and find that reality is still steeped in all the things that makes our show a clarion call was deeply disturbing, and it made that emotional lift even harder. But on some level, it felt like bashert.” Bashert is a Yiddish word that means destiny. “Bashert is often used in the positive sense, and this is definitely not positive bashert, but I think having Parade on Broadway at the same time as Leopoldstadt, right now during this sense of urgency and responsibility, did help me walk through the stage door every night to go and tell this story.”
In many ways, Leopoldstadt has helped Uranowitz identify a purpose to his artistry, and therefore his life. “I do think art has an uncanny and unique ability to change minds and change hearts. As an artist, it does fill me with a very visceral and vibrant sense of purpose. Which, to be honest, I hadn't felt. I think the pandemic forced a lot of us to reflect and to find purpose. I felt really lost for a while. My sense of purpose was very much restored with this play.”
As Leopoldstadt inches towards the ends of its Broadway run on July 2, the question of what comes next looms overhead. Uranowitz confesses it's a question he's "deeply afraid of," saying, “I have loved every single project I've been on, but there's something about the marriage of both myself as a person and myself as an artist on display here that has made me feel whole in a way that I haven't felt quite so fervently as an actor before, and as a person. It’s hard for me to even visualize what I could possibly do after this that will bring that sense of purpose.”
Before facing the unknown, however, Uranowitz has one more mountain to climb with Leopoldstadt (alongside the nightly journey of retelling the story). The play has netted him his fourth Tony nomination, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. To be nominated for Leopoldstadt is an affirmation for Uranowitz that appearing on stage in his full state of self, without sacrificing any part of himself in order to do so, is more than enough.
“That's the lesson that I wish I could go back and tell my younger self. The things that you're going to do in order to feel like you're accepted… those things are actually the polar opposite of what you should be doing. My work ultimately suffered from that assimilation journey. My work is best when I am my most authentic self, unashamedly and unabashedly. I feel like I'm being seen on and off stage as my full self, and that's the greatest reward I think of.”