"For BIPOC artists, conversations on justice, inclusion, and reconciliation are our existence."
This week Playbill catches up with Phillip Attmore, whose Broadway credits include Hello, Dolly!; Shuffle Along…; On the Twentieth Century; After Midnight; Irving Berlin's White Christmas; and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The actor, who is a three-time Astaire Award Winner, an ACCA Award Winner, Playbill’s Breakout Performance Award Winner, and a NAACP Theatre Award nominee, has also been seen in the City Center Encores! productions of I Married An Angel, Me and My Girl, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His screen credits include So You Think You Can Dance, The Bold and the Beautiful, Judging Amy, Sisters, and Silent Tongue.
Attmore is currently starring in The York Theatre Company's world premiere of Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood, a song-and-dance celebration featuring the music and lyrics of composer-lyricist Berlin. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Tony nominee Randy Skinner with a book by Barry Kleinbort and music direction by David Hancock Turner, performances are scheduled through January 2, 2022, at the York's temporary home at the Theatre at St. Jean's.
What is your typical day like now? I am an early riser. So, typically I get up in the morning, go and make a cup of tea or coffee (depending on what I am in the mood for). Then I sit and have some quiet time—time that I usually set aside for reading, writing, plotting story/choreography ideas, prayer, and meditation. I do this until I hear my baby stir in his room, because my favorite roles that I play offstage and off screen are husband and father. So, I go and collect him from his crib, change his diaper, serve him heated milk (and eventually breakfast), as well as make my English wife a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea with milk. Then I spend time with my family. If I have audition material to study or self-tapes to make, I spend time working on those things and then enlist my wife to be my reader (who is actually a very good self-tape partner). Then, when it is time to make my way to the theatre, I kiss my wife and son and head out to make it in time for my half-hour call. When I come home late from a show, I am usually hungry, so I eat lots of food and pass out on the couch watching my latest faves on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Then, eventually I pop up and make myself go to bed.
How did this role come about? I have a longstanding relationship with Randy Skinner, our director and choreographer. We have worked together on several productions, and I consider him not only a respected choreographer and teacher (and my boss at times), but a friend and a mentor. Anytime he calls, I am inclined to answer. I was contacted about the show and offered the role directly. When I heard the names Randy Skinner, Melanie Moore, and Jeremy Benton—all people that I love dearly and respect as artists (as well as the names of the rest of the people in the cast I had not known personally but had heard of)—I was sold. So I gave an excited, “Yes.”
Can you describe how it felt to be back in a rehearsal room on the first day you and the cast assembled? Well, just to preface, I have been one of the fortunate ones who have been able to work on several projects throughout the pandemic—from developmental labs to filmed productions that were streamed online and some very recent shows that involved having audiences. So this is not my first gig since the 2020 shutdown. That being said, it was a very joyful experience to be able to step into the rehearsal room on the first day, mainly because it was a reunion for many of us who were friends before Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood. Also, in light of everything that has ensued in the last year and a half, it is truly a gift to be able to gather once again (safely and responsibly) and to be able to do what I love with people I love. So, in short: "How do I feel? Everything is a gift."
Do you have a favorite Irving Berlin tune from the show? My favorite Irving Berlin tune from the show is “My Walking Stick” because I get to become Fred Astaire. Irving Berlin was a master at writing music that not only sings, but also dances. In “My Walking Stick,” I get to strut onstage with a cane, sing about it, and then tap dance. What more could I want as a song-and-dance man?!
Are there any parts of the production that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past 18 months? There is a moment in the show where it is shared that Irving Berlin, even in his seventies, was still writing music for a new movie. However, in the midst of this process, there was a change of studio heads, and suddenly the new regime declared that movie musicals were a thing of the past, and his work was essentially "halted and vaulted." I think this moment is both poignant and relevant for me because movie musicals seem to be reemerging in mainstream culture now. My hope is this: that this reemergence of movie musicals would not just be another industry trend but an opportunity to foster a newfound respect for the musical theatre “triple threat”—one who acts well, sings well, dances well, and not just "well enough." As performers as well as casting, producing and creative teams, we must bear a reverence for the giant shoulders we are standing on and the well-worn shoes we are stepping into, and the only way to demonstrate that reverence is to do the work right. I recognize, on the business end of things, the need for stunt casting (sometimes). However, the reality is this: They do indeed make them the way they used to. Each time we ignore that fact, and pass over talent for ratings, we diminish the work.
What would you say to audience members who may be feeling uneasy about returning to live theatre? I would say, “I understand. We are living in unprecedented times. We have never been through this before.” But I would also say, “You are not alone.” Sometimes taking a risk to gather (safely and responsibly), especially in a live theatrical experience where we have an opportunity to be reminded of and celebrate the creativity and resilience built into the human spirit, can incite a love and a hope that kills the paralyzing fear that can dominate us over long periods of intense isolation. Eventually we must take a risk and come out of hiding. Who knows? Perhaps you will be received with open arms.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further? I want people to be aware that for some, conversations on justice, inclusion, and reconciliation are mere subjects—and optional. However, for BIPOC artists, conversations on justice, inclusion, and reconciliation are our existence. They are our very experience. I am so glad that this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry is proving to be fruitful. I want my fellow artists, audiences, and those in power to know that while something amazing, and good and true may be birthing in them as far as being able to finally recognize what actions need to be taken—and I celebrate that—please remember that this conversation is not new for BIPOC artists. As it relates to bringing stories to life, there have always been BIPOC communities that have existed in this world. It’s just that their stories have been muted, as it relates to mainstream culture in different periods—particularly in the periods that are being highlighted in Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin In Hollywood.
I want people to further consider that there was always a world outside of MGM that existed—a world that in some ways shaped MGM; a world filled with beautiful, Black unknown artists who created jazz, and several styles of dance, including tap dance. This world not only inspired what you saw white artists doing on screen and onstage, but it was also the place of origin for many of the art forms presented to a “white world.” There is a long list of forgotten BIPOC artists who were not just “influencers” but “originators” who were stolen from—and many who are still actively working in this industry. In light of 2020, we know enough to begin making significant strides. Before we can move forward, we must reexamine how we tell period piece stories and also tell the truth in the midst of it. The longer this process of necessary deconstruction is delayed by “taking our time to learn and grow” while carrying on with “more of the same,” the more BIPOC people are left in the dust of a trail blazed with white privilege and whitewashed stories that do not tell the full truth. This, in itself, betrays our very role as artists. It is our job to tell stories. If not us, then who?
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest? I would say, “Be kind to yourself and others. Stay true to yourself and remain accountable to others. Do not remove yourself from community. Know that there is someone that loves you. Your life matters. Your story matters.”
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past year-and-a-half that you didn't already know? Given everything that was illuminated in 2020, I learned just how much I had been speaking in code for a long time as it relates to being a BIPOC artist and a Black man in the world that we live in. I have learned to place value on things that I previously hesitated to speak on. I also learned that I absolutely love being a father, because my son was born in February of 2020, and he has given our family and the community around us so much hope.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change? In addition to the larger organizations that we are all aware of, there are some other smaller, non-profit organizations that I’ve come to love and respect immensely in the last 18 months. One of those would be Be the Bridge, which is a faith-based organization that champions racial reconciliation in organizations and communities. The other organization I want people to learn more about or donate to during this time of change is the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (recently a Tony Award-winning organization). To quote their mission statement: "The Broadway Advocacy Coalition unites artists, experts, students, and community leaders to use storytelling and artistry to combat systemic racism.” I think that pretty much sums up the work ahead of us in this industry. While it is daunting, it is necessary. In my opinion, change is good. Change gives way to possibility, and possibility inspires hope. And everyone needs hope.