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In Conversation With ‘The Music Man’s’ Charles Esten and Nikki Renée Daniels

Lure of Pittsburgh CLO show proves irresistible to stars

By SHARON EBERSON

If you see a gent walking around Downtown, carrying a straw hat that seems like something out of the 19-aughts, you may want to say, “Welcome back to Pittsburgh, and break a leg.”

That’s sure to get a smile from Charles Esten, and perhaps a reminder that he’s forgotten to take off his “Harold Hill hat.”

Esten, a star of TV’s Nashville and Outer Banks on Netflix, is back in town, co-starring with Broadway soprano Nikki Renée Daniels in The Music Man, at the Benedum Center July 9-14, 2024. 

He left Pittsburgh at age 9, but has been a frequent visitor ever since. Esten has built a career on screen and as a recording and touring artist, including 170 appearances at the Grand Ole Opry

The title role in The Music Man marks a long-awaited return to musical theater – he starred in The Buddy Holly Story, in London circa 1991 –  and an iconic piece of Americana at that. 

Charles Esten and Nikki Renée Daniels

Pittsburgh also has the opportunity to welcome back Daniels, for whom the stage is the thing. In the past two summers, PCLO has allowed her to fulfill two bucket-list roles: last year, as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, and now as Marian the Librarian. 

After debuting at PCLO in the summers of 2000 and 2001, Daniels’ is headed to her 11th Broadway show, in Once Upon a Mattress, beginning July 31. She is the first African-American to have played the role of Bobbie in Company, and has played Angelica and Eliza Schuyler in different companies of Hamilton

In a first for Daniels and her family, she is in town with her two daughters, ages 7 and 11, who are part of the show’s children’s ensemble.

What lured Esten to the show was, foremost, hearing the word “Pittsburgh” in the offer. The role has other attractions, too. His father, also Charles, was a business partner of former Steelers center Ray Mansfield (Esten’s social media accounts are filled with evidence of his Pittsburgh family ties and Steelers’ fandom). The aspect of Harold Hill, the “never say die” salesman, also appealed to him, as a tribute to his father.

Esten had come close to Broadway twice in his career. He turned down the male lead in Aida, choosing instead a TV salary in support of his family. 

“It broke my heart to say no,” he recalls.

And then came another heartbreaker – he was “hired and then let go” from Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

“I was not a legit Broadway dancer, and that’s what they needed. It definitely stung, but I understood,” Esten said. “I think my singing audition had been really good, and, in a sense, I sort of Harold Hill-bamboozled them. They hired me, and then they said, ‘Wait a second, do you dance?’ And I said, ‘That falls under things you should have asked at the audition.’ ”

He’s looking at The Music Man in Pittsburgh as a sort of redemption, but more than that, a chance to get reacquainted with the city.

About carrying around that old-fashioned headpiece, Esten says, “My brain is operating on so many levels … of the five days of rehearsals so far, three of the days at lunch, I’ve gotten a block away with my Harold Hill hat on, and I had to turn around and leave my hat back here.”

This was one of those days. 

As Esten exited a Benedum Center conference room, headed back to rehearsal after a break, he grabbed his Harold Hill hat and said,  “Very few hats fit me, but this one fits me perfectly.”

Here’s more of what Esten and Daniels had to say about appearing in The Music Man for Pittsburgh CLO.

Nikki Renée Daniels as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls for Pittsburgh CLO in 2023. (Matt Polk Photography)

NIKKI RENÉE DANIELS

Question: What was it like when you first came to Pittsburgh CLO in 2000?

Daniels: I had great memories from being here when I was in college [Cincinnati Conservatory of Music], working with a lot of my heroes who were the principals when I was in the ensemble – Sutton Foster, before she did Millie, Beth Leavel, before she won a Tony Award, and Bob Cuccioli, and all the people that I looked up to were the stars of the shows here. So at that time, the ensemble would do all of the shows, so we would rehearse one show during the day and then do the other show at night. It was a great training ground as far as being able to jump in and create something special within five days or six days. So that was great.

Q: So you know what it’s like to go through the whirlwind process here.

DANIELS: Just getting to see these people that I had admired working, and how they interacted with everyone, and how they got the job done, I think having been here prepared me for how quickly the process goes. So for me, I have to try to memorize everything before I come so I can hopefully breathe a much truer life into the character instead of just trying to search, relax when I get on stage next week. 

Q: What’s it like having your daughters in a show with you?

DANIELS: They’ve sung with me in concert before, but this is our first time doing a show together. They’re a part of the children’s ensemble, and they’ve enjoyed getting to make new friends and I think they’re having fun. I think they were a little overwhelmed the first day – we have to do choreography and we have to learn these steps … be in a certain place at a certain time. But I think it’s a cool learning experience for them. 

Q: And also, maybe they’ll get to know a little bit about what mom does. 

Daniels: Yes, they can understand it from my perspective. It’s not just you go and sing, but what it takes to actually put a show together. 

Q: Had you known Charles before this for any reason or? 

DANIELS: We met on the first day of rehearsal.

Q: Have you talked about this being his first musical in a very long time?

DANIELS: Yes, he’s told a lot of funny stories, but I think he was doing theater more like a couple decades ago. … But I mean, he seems like a natural. I never would’ve guessed that he had been offstage for so long, because he’s come in, and he seems to be perfectly cast as Harold Hill. He’s very charming, very personable. 

Q: Let’s talk about the show a bit – why is Marian a bucket list kind role? 

DANIELS: I mean, these songs are some of the best soprano songs in the musical theater canon. They’re all pretty famous and well known, and for good reason, because the material is great. And it’s actually, now that I’m delving into the story and the script, it’s actually really well written. I think it won the Tony over West Side Story [in 1958]. I was always like, West Side Story is just the best thing, but now that I’m getting into this material, I kind of get it.

Q: How so?

DANIELS: I just read the little blurb that [writer-composer] Meredith Wilson wrote in the beginning of the script, saying it’s a valentine to these Iowa people that he grew up with, and to make sure to breathe true life into them and not make them into caricatures, because all you have to do is say the words, and there they are. 

Q: Do you feel like Marian is an empowered woman of the time? She stands up to the town, and then when she falls for Harold Hill, she stands up for him, too, and I admire that in her character.

DANIELS: She’s not your typical sweet little ingenue, is she? It’s kind of similar to Sarah Brown in a lot of ways, this person that you wouldn’t expect her to fall for, and even though she does, she’s in control of what it is and she understands what it’s not. 

Q: And the music …

DANIELS: Hearing all of Harold Hill’s songs … I did Hamilton, and I’m like, this is the precursor to Hamilton in a way, with spoken pitter-patter songs. It’s really an amazing score and it’s pretty unique, I think, 

Q: Coming in and out of big shows like this, does it ever become tiresome in any way?

DANIELS: No. I love musical theater. I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and people are always like, ‘Oh, don’t you want to do more TV?’ And I’m like, I just love singing and I love telling stories through song. And I think that musicals give audiences joy in a way that maybe no other art form does. It’s just the idea that you can transport them to a different world where they can believe that people would break into song to express how they truly feel. It is just such a special art form. … Also, you’re so often meeting all new people. It’s unlike any other business, I think, where you get to meet a whole new set of 50 friends every time you do a show. 

Q: When I write, even if I have written about the same show a hundred times, I try to think about it as writing for the person who has never seen that show. When you have done a show eight times a week for a very long time, can you still look at it that way.? 

DANIELS: Absolutely. I did the Book of Mormon for almost four years, and people were like, ‘Oh, is that hard to do the same show every night?’ I’m like, ‘No, because the audience is different every night.’ That’s the magic of theater. Every audience, there’s someone who, it’s their first Broadway show, it’s definitely most people’s first time seeing the show, or it may be someone’s first show, period. And so I just have the feeling that you want to give that person the experience they deserve, and you want to represent your talent and your company’s talent as best as you can, to give them a memorable experience. 

Charles Esten in his “Harold Hill hat” poses for an “Ice Cream Social” promotion,
for Pittsburgh CLO’s The Music Man. With Esten are CLO Academy and cast members, from left, Emmett Kent (Winthrop Paroo), Rory Prichard (Gracie Shinn) and Natalie McGovern (Amaryllis).(Matt Polk Photography)

CHARLES “CHIP” ESTEN

QUESTION: Are you rediscovering all kinds of things since you have come back to Pittsburgh for The Music Man, or have you come here constantly over the years?

ESTEN: I have come to Pittsburgh constantly over the years, back when my father was alive, and to be with his second family … My brother and sister, Stacy and Michael, were raised here. So I would come every major holiday, every summer. I’d catch at least one Steelers game a year, and I would always try to get my young kids here as well. You know Pittsburgh – I’m not alone in that, all the people that left when the economy was so rough … I was in some sense like them, in that mostly all you really take with you is that Terrible Towel and some Steelers gear. And so that Pittsburgh connection always stayed. 

And having said that … I would certainly not be [Downtown] for any extended amount of time. So now I have two weeks, right in the heart of it! … My Dad lived for a time in the Gateway Towers and he worked in Gateway Three, which is just on the other side of the Hilton. So this was his campus, his second college in a way. And then of course after work, he’d go over to Market Square, and that’s where my hotel is. So for me to be right down here, it’s been really wonderful. It’s the one thing I’d say has been a bit emotional. I wish he was around, not just for the show, which would blow his mind, but because my father was a salesman, through and through. 

Q: Do you feel like you’re channeling him now? 

ESTEN: Only in as much as he was a never-say-die-on-a-sale kind of a thing. You just keep going and going. But also, he was an actor in college, and I know he was a fan of this musical, so that would be one thing we could have talked about. The other thing, for me to be down here and now to be as old as I am, and go, ‘Those must’ve been quite a couple years when you lived right down here,’ and just get some stories from that. It’s actually one of the biggest reasons I said yes, was to do it here. I’m pretty sure that if somebody called me to say, ‘Will you come do Music Man in Chicago, or Atlanta?,’ I would’ve been like, ‘Nah.’

Q: It’s been a long time since you did The Buddy Holly Story musical …

ESTEN: I haven’t been out looking to do a musical. Now, having said that, a few years after Buddy, I came very close to being in two different musicals on Broadway. One was Aida where I did the workshop and they offered me the lead, Radames. And at that point in time, I couldn’t afford to go to New York and do that. … I had a wife and we had one kid, we had another on the way, and I was already making a little bit more money on television and all that, which broke my heart. It really, really did. … And then the other one was Smokey Joe’s Cafe on Broadway.  … So when [Pittsburgh CLO] called up, it was out of the clear blue on this.

Q: Were you reluctant to give musicals another try?

ESTEN: A couple of things happened. Number one, I heard the word ‘Pittsburgh.’ Number two, I heard the words Music Man. … I’ll tell you another thing that was really interesting. My daughter, it was seventh grade, she played Marian the Librarian in her junior high production. So I remember hearing all the songs, watching her do the dances and everything. But also, a very special thing happened. I was at that time appearing on ER in an extended arc … and one of my co-stars was Patrick Cassidy. And I got to tell Patrick, ‘I’ve been watching a whole lot of your mother [film star Shirley Jones], because my daughter’s playing Marian,’ and he thought that was very cool, and he was a wonderful guy. … A day or two later, Shirley Jones came in and she spent the day with us just hanging around, and she shared the story that she was pregnant with Patrick while filming the movie, and Robert Preston felt it kick, and I was just blown away. And then before she left, she pulled out a headshot that she had pre-signed for my daughter that said, ‘To Taylor, the real Marian, the Librarian.’ She could not have been more Hollywood old-school classic.

Q: And she’s from the Pittsburgh area – Smithton.

ESTEN: Exactly. So it all sort of ties in together. Now, the final piece of the puzzle was that it terrified me. I knew that of all the roles I could do, you try to find one that has more lines per moment, except for Hamilton, probably. So I knew it was going to be a challenge. And I’m just one of those people where if I feel that fear kicking in, I sort of lean into the thing. 

Q: You had some tremendous success on TV game shows, so I would think you’re the most confident person in the room. Do you have a special way to prepare?

ESTEN: I broke that script down, and my wife will tell you, she has heard these songs so many times. And then I would just sing it and sing it and go and go and see how much I knew. If I had my script here, I’d show you what I do. I’m not one who can just read a script, and it stays. It has to go through my hands. So I read it, and I type my line, and I read it, and I type their line … Then I make mine 15 points and bold, and make theirs 13. [Esten illustrates how he rehearses on his own, having said his scene partner’s lines into a phone]: I read their lines, and I just mouth mine. So then I can go: 

“Ah, Mr. Squires, I’m interested in a rig for Sunday. If you could accommodate me.”
“Then I’d expect you ought to see the man in charge of hiring rigs, who is late as usual.”
“Hey, Gregory!”
“Marcellus, you old son of a gun. …” 

At a certain point, I put the script away and I keep [the phone] with me. And if I’m walking the dogs or washing dishes, it’s going and I’m just … Remember, I was the guy that got fired because I couldn’t dance, and I knew there was going to be choreography. … So I felt really good that I showed up here, and I know my lines and my songs, and I’m learning the choreography. … I’m very grateful for this opportunity to overcome that thing [Smokey Joe’s Cafe] back then.

Q: You know, I saw Jeff Goldblum do this for Pittsburgh CLO, and he’s a musician, but also, not a dancer …

ESTEN: Yes but, having said that, he must’ve been wonderful. So charismatic, and quite a draw.

Q: So, how is the dancing going?

ESTEN: There’s a few things that put me at rest when I got here, and it was my director, my choreographers and my co-stars. And you go, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much talent here.’ And I just watch them do this dancing to ‘Shipoopi’ and all these different things, and you’re reminded again that you don’t have to cover it all.

Q: What does it mean to work with someone like Nikki, who’s got 11 Broadway shows to her credit?

ESTEN: I see it as the more excellence I’m surrounded by, the better. First of all, she’s so kind, and we’ve been getting along fantastically. And then she opens her mouth to sing and you go, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s right. Oh, that’s right.’ That’s Nikki. Her voice is extraordinary.

Q: You are known mostly as a country music singer and you’ve done lots of concerts, but did you feel you had to do anything differently, vocally, to play this role?

ESTEN: It’s an interesting question because you do have to tip your hat a little bit to stage vocalization and stage singing. I wouldn’t want it to sound just like I am on my records, but then again, I could go too far in another direction. And I don’t think that really makes sense. … It should look like a natural extension of talking as the character. Singing is just sustained talking – remember when [Harold Hill] says that? I’ll be doing more than that; there’s notes and there’s vibrato, but mostly, I’ve decided not to be too intentional about that. …  You know, the whole improv part of my career, on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, there’s a whole spectrum of voices I could do. I used to make my grandmother laugh by doing Anthony Newley or voices like that.

Q: Harold Hill is the guy who’s been through all these different places, so you have that luxury in a way of not trying to sound like an Iowan. You’re the out-of-towner.

ESTEN: And then on a meta level, I’m the out-of-towner, and I’m the guy from the show. I think I’ve got to keep a little bit of who I am in there. And also, I find those moments, especially near the end where he’s understanding things, that it’s more real, that it’s more authentic, if I’m just who I am.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, July 9-14, 2024. Tickets: visit For information on Removing Barriers, visit 

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