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Meet the Tony Nominees: Damon Daunno, of 'Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Why Daunno first turned down the offer to audition for ‘Oklahoma!’

Damon Daunno plays Curly McLain in the hit revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! The brilliantly distilled production is hailed as one of the most powerful and potent versions of Oklahoma in the musical’s history. Directed by Daniel Fish, the production was launched at Bard College SummerScape, and then performed to sold out crowds at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Now playing at Circle in the Square Theatre, Oklahoma! was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including a  nomination for Daunno. A prolific performer, Daunno has starred in The Lucky Ones, Beardo, Hadestown and Brief Encounter. Daunno is also a talented musician and multi-instrumentalist who has scored several films. 

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in ‘Oklahoma!’ on Broadway (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in ‘Oklahoma!’ on Broadway (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

When did you first hear about Oklahoma!
Damon Daunno
: I got an email asking to put myself on tape to audition for a production of Oklahoma! At the time I was touring with a theater company called Kneehigh doing Tristian and Isolde. I said, "Thank you, but no thank you." 

Why did you say that? 
: Truthfully, because I didn't think I stood a chance to realistically get the job. I was told the part was for Curly. Historically, folks like Hugh Jackman and Patrick Wilson have played that role. As much as I'd like to say I have self-confidence, I didn't think I appealed in that sort of sensibility. I thought, in a traditional production of Oklahoma!, I wouldn't have been their guy. So I said, “No thank you.” 

Then they said, “Well, it's not your grandmother's Oklahoma! Just have a chat with the director.” I did. And (director) Daniel Fish is very clearly a super-inspired, brilliant man. I couldn't wait to see if our visions matched up. And they did. 

What specifically drew you to Daniel’s vision? 
: It was the authenticity and truth of the piece – the unapologetic exposing of the underbelly. It has a three-dimensional complexity. The not caring that I wasn't six -foot three and super muscular. It’s more that I understand this man's heart and what drives him. It was the distillation, getting rid of all of the frills and finding its absolute minimalist truth. 

What do you love about Curly? 
DD: Absolutely everything. I love all the dimensions of him. He's the lovable rogue. He’s a cheeky chappie, but he has a serious darkness to him. Like most people, there are contradictory elements. It challenged me to explore those depths and not fear them. Curly is open and receptive to the beauty of the poetry of life. He is equal parts clown and absolute darkness. People say, “He’s bad, and bit of a monster.” I know there’s a level of manipulation that happens. But I think that is ego and wanting to win.

Curly has such an interesting connection to Jud, and the scenes between them are so powerful. 
: When I first approached this material, I was flabbergasted that it was written in 1943. I couldn't make sense of what the scene with Jud was about. There's an investigation, but there's manipulation and there's a symbiosis and there's fear. It's like they are animals sniffing each other out. 

And Curly sings that gorgeous song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”  
: It’s one of the most beautiful songs in the world. The song is about seeing what really exists. It’s the definition of song – the idea that something moves you so much, you just have to sing.

When did you first discover Oklahoma!
: When I was in the third grade, the high school kids were doing the show. I remember thinking the guy who played Jud was really cool. I didn't really know Oklahoma! until this project came around. I remember watching the movie and falling in love with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and the grandeur of it all. Now I feel that I discovered new friends in Rodgers and Hammerstein. They are names you hear your whole life, and they are obviously genius artists. But I didn't quite appreciate them on a personal level until a few years ago and realized, “Oh, that’s why.”

Do you remember when you knew that you had to be a performer? 
: I grew up in a very traditional Italian American household. People like Frank Sinatra were always in the air. I also loved and responded to old Hollywood types like James Dean, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando. I was super into them at a very young age, because my grandfather and my mother were into them. The first time I was ever on stage, I performed at the Mount Airy Lodge at Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. My grandparents lived there. When I was about six years old, my aunt Barbara taught me this little routine singing “New York, New York.” She even gave me a little fedora. I won a trophy, which I have to this day. From there, there was no turning back. The safest, most pleasurable place for me in the world is on a stage in front of a room full of strangers.

For more of the best of Broadway this Tonys season, check out our full list of the 2019 Tony Award Nominees.

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