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UC San Diego grad Danny Burstein calls 'Moulin Rouge' Tony nod a 'wonderful rush'

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 10/15/2020 Pam Kragen
a man wearing a red hat: UC San Diego graduate Danny Burstein earned a 2020 Tony nomination for his featured performance in "Moulin Rouge!" on Broadway. (Courtesy photo) © (Courtesy photo) UC San Diego graduate Danny Burstein earned a 2020 Tony nomination for his featured performance in "Moulin Rouge!" on Broadway. (Courtesy photo)

Danny Burstein, the UC San Diego graduate who has been a perennial star on Broadway for the past 30 years, said he was thrilled Thursday morning to earn his seventh Tony nomination for "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."

The 2020 Tonys announcement arrived six months later than usual this year due to the pandemic, which shuttered all Broadway theaters on March 12. Last week the Broadway League announced that theaters will remain closed through May 30, at the earliest.

Burstein, 56, was nominated in the featured performance in a musical category for his scene-stealing portrayal of the shady nightclub impresario Harold Zidler in "Moulin Rouge!" His nomination was widely expected after he won the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award for the role in June.

Danny Burstein looking at the camera: Danny Burstein (Courtesy photo) © (Courtesy photo) Danny Burstein (Courtesy photo)

"As with any original cast, the roles are subtly geared to the original actors’ strengths," Burstein said in an email on Thursday. "(Bookwriter) John Logan was very open to working with the company while maintaining a firm grip on the story. This experience is particularly poignant for me because the company is so wonderful and the friendships I’ve made will last a lifetime."

Based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, "Moulin Rouge!" was the first Broadway show to close when the pandemic struck New York. Burstein was one of several cast members who contracted COVID-19, and in two harrowing essays for the Hollywood Reporter last spring he described how the disease nearly killed him during a six-day hospital stay.

"Well, I nearly died of COVID-19, so every day on this side of the ground is a good one," he said. "I miss the work and the life force that is live theater. You can’t keep New Yorkers down for too long. We always come back. I can’t wait until the folks on Broadway are back on the boards thrilling audiences."

Burstein's wife of 20 years, Broadway veteran Rebecca Luker, also contracted COVID-19 last spring. She had a milder case of the virus, but has been facing much bigger health challenges. Since last year she has been battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), an incurable muscle-weakening disease. She is now confined to a wheelchair, has a hard time speaking and can no longer sing. Burstein is her primary caregiver.

"I thought having children was the most unselfish thing anyone could do for another person. I was wrong. It’s being a caregiver," said Burstein, a father of two. "But it’s also a privilege. My wife is the strongest person I know and watching her deal with this insidious illness has been both heartbreaking and inspiring. We have to deal with mortality every single day. And we’re both scared, but we’re also moving forward."

The date for the 2020 Tony Awards ceremony has not been announced. Burstein has won three Outer Critics Circle and two Drama Desk awards in past years, but so far the Tony has eluded him, despite six nominations for "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret," "Follies," "Golden Boy," "South Pacific" and "The Drowsy Chaperone." He said he still gets excited whenever he's hears he's nominated.

"Yes, it’s always thrilling to be nominated and a wonderful rush. Having said that, this year it was tempered by the fact that I am a caregiver to my wife who is suffering from ALS and there is worldwide pandemic. So, naturally, it’s just not the same," he said.

Luker and Burstein are working together to speed passage of HR7071, a federal bill that would provide ALS patients quicker access to medical trials and new drugs. They're launching a national letter-writing campaign for the bill on Monday on the BroadwayCares.com website.

The couple has a sentimental connection to San Diego. They met while performing onstage in "Time and Again" at The Old Globe in 1996. That was six years after Burstein graduated from the master's acting program at UCSD. While studying there, he appeared in "Macbeth" at La Jolla Playhouse.

"When I think of UCSD I mostly think of my classmates and my teachers," Burstein said. "I miss them more than I could ever say. I stay in touch as much as I can, but my heart still yearns for them all."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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