URI Grad Becomes First to Win Tony Award

Winner for Best Actor in a Play, Andrew Burnap maintains a strong relationship with his native South County

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On the night of September 26, during a national CBS broadcast, the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play was announced. It didn’t go to Jake Gylenhaal, one of the most recognized actors in Hollywood. It didn’t go to Blair Underwood, an established TV and film actor. The award went to Andrew Burnap, a 30-year-old actor from Rhode Island, who had just performed in a Broadway production of The Inheritance.

“I was stunned,” says Paula McGlasson, Chair of the Theatre Department at the University of Rhode Island. “Those were great, known actors he was up against. It’s an honor to even be nominated, but then when he won – you couldn’t quite take it all in. It was overwhelming.”

McGlasson has known Burnap since he was an undergraduate theater major at URI. They worked together on countless shows, and they continue to have a close relationship. McGlasson first saw Burnap during his audition for a musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and she was impressed by both his talent and versatility.

“No matter what role he read for, he had a fresh, memorable take on the character,” remembers McGlasson. “He was a full participant, whether it was drama, comedy, Shakespeare, musical, whatever it would have been. You remembered him. His work was remarkable.”

Burnap has strong roots in South County. He grew up in nearby Matunuck, he regularly sang in the Chorus of Westerly, and he became a prolific performer at URI. Over the course of four years, McGlasson watched the growth of the future Broadway star. She would spot him around campus, running lines and rehearsing his blocking in order to refine his many characters. This rigorous preparation helped him win the Irene Ryan Competition for acting, hosted by the Kennedy Center and involving 250 college-aged competitors.

“I saw him evolve as an actor,” she says. “His hunger for improvement was so demanding. And he demanded the same of the people he was working with.”

Burnap went on to study at the prestigious Yale School of Drama, followed by a blossoming career in New York. The Inheritance, a script adapted by Matthew Lopez and based on E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, was a singular showcase for Burnap; the production received rave reviews and (also) a Tony Award for Best Play.

While many successful actors may vanish into the limelight, Burnap remains beholden to his origins. At the height of the pandemic, Burnap returned to URI to teach undergraduate acting classes, and he routinely keeps in touch with his past mentors.

Meanwhile, URI has a new feather in its hat: Never has an alumnus of the college’s Theatre Department won such accolades, and Burnap has generously credited URI with his formative training.

“I don’t know what it will do,” says McGlasson, who has taught at the program since 1985. “Will it draw people to our program? Maybe. Will it draw additional funding, which is needed? Maybe. It’s hard to say. What does it mean to us on a day-to-day basis? It doesn’t change a thing. But it makes you proud.”

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