“For me, acting used to be like sex,” Alec Baldwin said to a group of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance students on Sunday morning, the day after his performance. “I would just do it with anybody, anywhere. And then, I got a little bit older, and, well, I thought, maybe it’s time I got a bit more selective.”
The night before, on Saturday, Sept. 29, Baldwin joined a group of SMTD students and faculty to perform a dramatic reading of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the Power Center. The play was performed in its entirety, running for almost three hours, to a sold-out audience of over 1,300 people. Baldwin, who had never played the role of Willy Loman before, arrived in Ann Arbor that Friday night. He’d been here once before, “a million years ago,” he said, during the time he was a college student himself, to visit a friend.
Baldwin began his own college career at George Washington University in D.C., majoring in political science and intending on going to law school. He attended for a few years before a friend convinced him to take an audition at NYU Tisch for their acting program. He took the audition and was awarded a full scholarship.
“My parents flipped out when I told them,” Baldwin said of breaking the news to his parents that he planned to transfer. But then, he said, he broke down the financials for them, proving that, as a New York State resident (he is originally from Long Island), it would actually be cheaper for him to attend NYU. “And then suddenly,” Baldwin said, “my dad was like, ‘Wait. Let’s hear him out.’”
In the early ’80s, not even a year into acting school, Baldwin was working at a restaurant and waited on a casting director. The director was casting a new soap, and told him he was exactly what they were looking for. He took an audition for “The Doctors,” got the part and started working. He went on to work steadily from then on, proving himself as a versatile actor and force to be reckoned with, starring in material across all genres — drama, comedy, romance, animation, etc. — and excelling in each.
His personal life closely parallels his professional life. His role in “30 Rock,” one of his most famous and recent roles, was offered to him right after his divorce from actress Kim Basinger. The job was in L.A. where their daughter, Ireland Baldwin, lived, and so he decided to take the job to ensure he would be in L.A. often — close to his daughter. He commuted every other weekend for five years.
“It turned into one of the best jobs of my life,” Baldwin said of his time on “30 Rock.” “It ruined me. I was working with some of the smartest writers I’ll ever know — the funniest people alive. Other people don’t know what funny is (compared to them).”
A theatre student in the audience quipped that in Amy Poehler’s (“Making It,” “Parks and Recreation”) book, “Yes Please,” she writes that Baldwin is always the funniest person in the room, wherever he goes.
“Amy Poehler smokes a lot of weed,” Baldwin whispered in response.
Throughout his time here, Baldwin was glowing with paternal pride. Every chance he got, Baldwin spoke of his wife and kids — he has four kids with Hilaria Baldwin, all under the age of five — joking that she pops the children out “like popcorn.”
A lifetime New Yorker, Baldwin is also heavily involved with the New York Philharmonic, having donated one million dollars to them in 2011, as well as serving on their board and hosting their nationally syndicated radio show, “The New York Philharmonic This Week.” Matthew VanBiesen, the current president of University Musical Society — who presented this production of “Death of a Salesman”— was president of the New York Philharmonic until 2017, a time during which he and Alec Baldwin met and became close friends. When the prospect of doing the dramatic reading was proposed to Baldwin, he agreed. Baldwin explained his wife’s surprise: “She was like, wow, I didn’t realize you liked Matthew that much!”
Ultimately, the production was pulled together in under 24 hours. The rest of the cast — theatre students Jack Alberts, Nico Dangla, Ted Gibson, Juliana Tassos, Jackson Verolini, AJ D’Ambrosio, Lolly Duus, Georgia Spears, Marty McGuire, Sam Schoenfeld and Skylar Siben, and professors Priscilla Lindsay, Eva Rosenwald, Leigh Woods, Alex Leydenfrost, Blake Griffey and Daniel Cantor — had been rehearsing for a few weeks, but only had one full rehearsal with Baldwin on the day of the show. He and the cast rehearsed for around four hours, running through the entire show, took a dinner break from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., and then were back at Power Center to prepare for curtain at 8:00 p.m.
With no scenery, costumes, props or music to distract from what Arthur Miller had written, it was quite an intimate experience: All we had were the words — the emotionally heavy prose that has earned itself the reputation of being one of the greatest plays ever written. (Fun Fact: Arthur Miller graduated from the University in 1938 and wrote for The Michigan Daily! There is a theatre named after him on North Campus.)
Baldwin’s performance as Willy Loman was searing, emotional and compelling. The story, which follows the Loman family — Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy — centers on the conflict between Willy’s dreams of being well-liked, financially successful and happy, and his opposing reality of being an aging, defeated salesman. It switches between present day and flashbacks, which show Willy’s complex and flawed relationship with his sons and wife.
“A great play is both of its time, and beyond its time,” said director Daniel Cantor, during his opening remarks before the beginning of the show.
“Death of a Salesman” has proven to be both. It is a story that still holds incredible relevance, and has a fierce impact on audiences. Saturday’s production was one of utmost professionalism and poignancy. The chemistry on stage between the students, professors and Mr. Baldwin was raw, organic and gripping.
At the reception that followed the marathon of a performance, Baldwin remarked that the University, with its campus life, sports, academics and arts, is regarded, indubitably, as one of the best schools in the country.
“Next time,” he said, exciting guests with the possibility of there being a “next time,” “we will have to do this as a fundraiser.”