Behind ‘Maestro’ is a raft of theater stars supporting the story of Leonard Bernstein

(Photo courtesy of Netflix)

NEW YORK (AP) | Leonard Bernstein was a towering figure on Broadway. So it seems only fitting that the new film drama of him leans on the Great White Way to get the story right.

Bradley Cooper’s movie “Maestro” is studded with theater stars — 29 of the 38 principal cast members have a background in the theater, including Gideon Glick, Michael Urie, Greg Hildreth, Nick Blaemire, Ryan Steele, Zachary Booth and Gaby Diaz.

Look closely and you’ll find actor-turned-director Scott Ellis playing Bernstein’s manager, Harry Kraut, and rising stage star Jordan Dobson — whose credits include “Bad Cinderella,” “Hadestown” and, significantly, “West Side Story” — playing a young conductor.

Casting director Shayna Markowitz said she didn’t necessarily set out to land theater pros but it came naturally when she was trying to populate Bernstein’s world authentically.

“There’s kind of this amazing synergy between casting theater actors to portray people of the theater world and of Lenny’s world,” Markowitz said. “I just feel like we got really lucky with just these wonderful New York actors that are here and that wanted to be a part of this.”

Markowitz worked with Cooper on telling the story of a conductor, composer, pianist who helped create such musical theater classic as “West Side Story,” “Candide,” “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town.” Cooper stars alongside Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife.

Some selections seem inspired, like the casting of dancer Ricky Ubeda by choreographer Justin Peck. In 2015, “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Ubeda made his Broadway debut when joining the ensemble of a revival of “On the Town” and in “Maestro” he can be seen in a dream sequence of, yes, “On the Town.”

But perhaps the best Easter egg is a scene in the movie when the cast is rehearsing “Candide” with Cooper conducting. Actor June Gable approaches Mulligan’s character to ask a question. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize that’s the same Gable who was nominated for a Tony Award in the mid-1970s for “Candide.”

“She knew Lenny Bernstein and so was having a full-on, out-of-body experience being in that scene with Bradley,” said Markowitz. “She was like, ‘It was crazy. I was crying. It was as if he was there.’ So that was a cool moment.”

Casting directors like Markowitz use a service that alerts talent agents and managers about upcoming roles and she will makes up her own lists of actors she thinks would be perfect, which she did for “Maestro.”

“Every director works a little differently. Every project is obviously different and the needs are different. I adapt to how the filmmaker likes to work,” said Markowitz. “I think you want to find the very best actors who are most suited for the roles. That never changes.”

Glick, who has appeared on Broadway in “Spring Awakening,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and was Tony-nominated for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” auditioned on tape for the role of Tommy Cothran, music director at a radio station in San Francisco and a lover of Bernstein.

“Bradley created a very loose and immersive environment that was very, very playful and it sort of reminded me of that stage in the rehearsal process when you’re doing a play or a musical where you’re not being result oriented and you’re just exploring and taking chances,” said Glick. “I think you can feel that in the film.”

Some parts in “Maestro” are very small roles — just a few seconds of film needing a day’s work — but have deep significance for the theater community, like the legendary songwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green — played in “Maestro” by Mallory Portnoy and Nick Blaemire.

“Actors sign on to do projects or audition for projects because they want to be a part of it. And so they understood the significance of both of those parts,” Markowitz said. “Some actors just want to be a part of it no matter what and no matter how.”

Ellis, a multiple Tony Award-nominated director, was coaxed back to acting by Cooper, a friend and colleague who had worked together onstage, most notably on “The Elephant Man” on Broadway.

Cooper thought his warm and loving relationship with Ellis could infuse the onscreen relationship he wanted to show between Bernstein and his manager.

“It was so relaxed and an incredible experience and something way out of my comfort zone,” said Ellis, who estimated he last acted 30 years ago.

“I’m sitting there in a dressing room surrounded by these incredible actors who, as a director, I would go, ‘God, I’d love to work with you on a piece.’ But, all of a sudden, I realize, ‘No, I’m just one of them.’”

In many ways, “Maestro” is the latest artistic watering hole for Broadway veterans, joining ”Law & Order,” “Glee,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,“ ”The Good Fight,” “The Gilded Age,” “Fosse/Verdon,” “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” “Only Murders in the Building” and “Smash.”

Markowitz, who works across film and TV and who has cast “Dash & Lily,” “Ocean’s Eight,” winning the inaugural BAFTA Award for best casting in 2020 for “Joker,” said “Maestro” is special.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime milestone film for sure,” she said. “I feel so lucky to have had this experience, and I’m so happy with how people are receiving it as this really special thing, because it’s it’s very special to me.”

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