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Interview conducted by Andrew J. Simpson.
Q. When did you first hear JCS?
A. You know what? I’m not sure! When I was a young child, I was, you know, going around the house singing the chorus of “Superstar.” My mom would get so angry at me and say, “STOP SINGING THAT!!” (Laughs) But I don’t know where I heard it first. When I was 21, I auditioned for a community theater production of it, with Garden City Productions, and I got to play Judas. I met my agent on opening night, and from the end of that show’s run on, I worked professionally in theater. (And then I played Simon and understudied Judas at Stage West the second time I did the show.) It’s been a show, much like Annie, where it’s had a huge impression on my life.
Q. What’s your favorite song from the score?
A. Judas’ reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” I think it’s clever that they brought it back that way. I love what it makes the audience see in the character at that moment. I think for all the fanatic stuff and running around crap that Judas has to do, they gave him a moment that’s so poignant… I don’t know. The first time I ever saw that I broke down in tears. Then I had the pleasure of performing it. It’s just a clever thing. It gives the actor a chance to breathe! Just watch him break down. I think it’s touching. I also enjoy “Could We Start Again, Please?” I know it was written for the movie and the play, and wasn’t on the original recording, but… it’s such a beautiful number. That and Judas’ reprise are my two favorites. You were probably expecting me to say “Simon Zealotes.” (Laughs) Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic song, but those are two great moments.
Q. 40 years on, why do you think JCS is still performed and considered relevant?
A. JCS is still performed because it is the greatest story ever told. It is the story of… whether you believe in Jesus or not, it asks a question of the audience: would you go through what this man did? Would you be able to sacrifice your own life for other people? The music is some of Lloyd Webber’s best! Tim Rice’s lyrics are clever and sharp, and you look at some of them and go, “Really? ‘Jaded mandarin’? What the heck is that?” And when you have someone (i.e., Tim Rice) explain that to you, you’re like: “Oh! That’s clever!” (Laughs) The music is fantastic, and the show is great, but it’s the story. The story can reach everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the Bible or not. The story can still touch you. The show will be around for another forty years.
Q. How did you come to be involved in the Stratford production?
A. I was doing another show, and my agent called me and said that they were having auditions for JCS in Stratford. My agent, as I said, saw me do it ten years earlier and told me they wanted to see me. I said, “Yeah, I want to go for it!” My first audition was for the casting director Beth Russell and musical director Rick Fox. I went in and I sang “Heaven On Their Minds,” and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (they wanted to see me for the other musical that season, which was Camelot). I did the audition, they enjoyed it, and they called me back. I went back again to sing for Des. I went back again to sing for the director of Camelot. I went back the first few times for JCS; Camelot was the second-to-last audition. They wanted me for JCS, but I had to also audition for Camelot. My first audition was in May of 2010, and in October of 2010, I got it. It’s a whole process. I had about four or five auditions in total.
Q. What was your view of Simon as a character? Who was he for you?
A. We did a lot of tablework for Superstar before we started rehearsals. We did a lot of research for and against the Bible, and historical studies on all of the people involved in the story of Jesus, including “who was Simon the Zealot.” We all sat around a table, talked about the story and characters, and got people’s takes on it. You take a piece of that with you, and you take a piece of yourself with you. My view of Simon was a person who wanted Christ to continue getting power over everything; to take charge and keep going any way he could. In my view of Simon, I didn’t like the fact that he saw Jesus falling apart and starting to be distracted by other people like Judas and Mary. He was becoming trapped. It was those things in the show that would attract my attention. He would be like, “Hey! We’re not focused anymore. We’re going in the opposite direction of where we need to go.” For me, that was Simon. He knew that he had to do good, but at the same time, he knew he had to say this anyway. If that meant violence, I’m not sure to what extent it would have gone, but he was someone who wanted so much good and justice in the world, and Christ to do it.
Q. What’s it like to work with Des McAnuff, and in particular, what was it like working with him on JCS?
A. Des is eccentric, and Des is fantastic! He’s very nit-picky; you do it and you do it until you got it right, you do it until you see what you got. He’s funny as hell. There would be the most obscure off-color comments that would make us laugh! He would bring them back in the middle of mid-run. Working with Des made me see things that other directors don’t see or do. It got to a point where… you could be pouring a bottle or drinking from a glass; you, as an actor, know it’s empty… but Des wanted you to believe it was filled, and make the audience believe it was filled too. The smallest details mattered. In Des’ world, even if you’re in the background, he would make sure that you would be pouring it properly, that it looked real as opposed to just miming it, and that you knew what you were doing. So, he would break the show down in the smallest detail. I loved that! As an aspiring director, it made me see the show from that perspective, rather than just the performing side of it.
I know it drives some actors crazy. Sometimes it drives me crazy when I’m on the actor’s side of the table saying, “I just want to move on!” (Laughs) Then you see the final product, and you’re like, “Oh man!” In Tommy, because of Des’ progression with shows (Tommy, Jersey Boys, and now Superstar and the revival of Tommy), you see, in viewing Tommy, the pieces that he took from that and put into Superstar, and the pieces he took from Tommy to put into Jersey Boys, so it becomes his own signature thing. Some people may not agree with it, and be like, “Why don’t you change it up all the time and do something different?” I’m like, “Why not just be real? Real works.” So when we do Tommy, it sort of brings back Superstar for me, and I love that aspect of that. Seeing what Des came up with twenty years ago when all the technology didn’t exist, now, gives the show a new life. I mean… the bright LED lights, the animations, and the live theater work are incredible to witness. And he doesn’t just block the actors. Very early on, you sit down at a table and discuss the show: discuss the characters in the show, what Pete Townshend wanted in the show, what happened before and after these people’s lives in the show (you know, what happened before the Walkers met, and what happened to Tommy after the events in the story). Des will not go past that until we’ve done it. It works. It brings something extra. He’s just amazing to work with during a show. I can’t lie to you, I just idolize this man, and it’s amazing seeing how his mind works!
Q. This production split the vocals of “Could We Start Again, Please?” between Mary, Peter, and Judas. Who made that call?
A. That was Des’ call. We initially did it without permission. In rehearsals, Des was like, “Okay, we’re going to try this, we might have to flip it back when Andrew Lloyd Webber sees the show.” We all laughed, “Yeah, he’s going to see the show. Right!” And Lloyd Webber did see the show and approved of the change. Tim Rice liked it as well! And that’s how it stayed.
Q. What was it like to perform for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice?
A. We didn’t even know they were there! They had kept it secret from us so that we could just perform the show and not think about it. It was kind of cool! Thinking of it after the fact, I was singing for the composer and lyricist! But as any composer would say, they have a certain sound in their head or have a lyric sung in a certain way. They might come and tell you that they loved it — if they loved it, they loved it! — but they can also walk away going “Hmmm…” But they both seemed pretty open, especially Tim Rice. Tim was very complimentary of our show. He wrote us a letter on opening night in New York, he gave all of us champagne, he was unreal! Lloyd Webber came to work with the orchestra in New York and dropped by a couple of times just before we opened. So, that was cool!
Q. Did either of them offer any notes on your performance or the production?
A. If they did, the notes didn’t come from them to us. I don’t think Tim had any. If Andrew had any, he’d send them to the musical director, Rick Fox, or Des. I think they kept the show pretty much as it was. I think Andrew may have worked with the orchestra. He had a certain sound for the guitars and the orchestra that he wanted, notes he wanted to hear, so they worked on that… I don’t remember him having any notes.
Q. What was your first reaction to the audience’s response to the show?
A. It was kind of strange when we opened the show in Stratford. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect. We knew we had a good show. We did a lot of work during rehearsals. Des is so passionate. He picks apart everything. I mean, we’d be singing the same three minutes of music over an entire day of rehearsal — an eight-hour day, singing the opening of “The Last Supper.” That scene alone took us about two or three days, just on that song! At the end of Day 3 of that, if I heard, “Look at all my trials and tribulations…” I’d be like, “Come on!” (Laughs) “Can’t we do ‘Gethsemane’? I can’t eat the fake bread anymore!” But I know it was for the good of the show. When you’re in the moment, you think, “There’s another forty minutes of the show! Come on!” (Laughs) But then I remembered I was happy, you know, happy that we’d done all that work.
But we got to that first performance, and… I have to admit, it’s kind of foggy. I remember that audience’s reaction was good. The Canadian reaction to the show wasn’t the same as the American reaction to the show, the applause. When we were playing to an American audience, it was like we were in a rock concert, this rush of screams and applause! In Stratford, it was all very polite, it was all very proper and polite, and at the end of the show, we were thinking, “Okay… what’s up?” I’m sure they loved it, but they were just very polite about it. It wasn’t until Andrew Lloyd Webber came that the rumors of Broadway struck a chord, that the audience was encouraged to come and ticket sales went up. For the first little while, it wasn’t full houses all the time; I think it was a lukewarm response at first. Once Lloyd Webber came and the Broadway announcement was made, you couldn’t get a seat! So, that was awesome! That became incredible to watch. It was the same in California. This mass hysteria was always at the show.
Q: How did you feel when you heard the show was sold out for most of its run and additional performances were scheduled? When the La Jolla transfer was announced, when rumors began circulating about a Broadway transfer?
A. We didn’t hear about California until maybe August, and the Broadway one became more of an inside joke to us for a while. We had a meeting with Des, who said, “We’re not going to talk about New York. We’re not going to acknowledge it. Just know that it is a possibility.” And higher powers were talking about what they should do with it. He said, “When I know more, you guys will know more.” That meeting happened in July. We didn’t find out anything about New York until October.
We had it, we had our summer of people coming up to us, nagging us, like, “Are you going to Broadway?” Eventually, it became a lot. It became something that we couldn’t talk about anymore. It got to a point where we always had to be on because we never knew who was going to be in the audience. All your friends would come to see you. They would be asking, “Are you going? Are you going?” It became an everyday question. Also, there were a hundred other actors who would want to be in your shoes, and you don’t want to rub it in. It was awkward. It became awkward, especially when it came to a point where we didn’t know anything anymore.
In October, we had a meeting at a really strange time, it was like 5:45 P.M. We went into a room, and there were chairs in a circle, and we were asked to put our cell phones away. Des was on vacation at the time, and he’d sent a letter to the cast. It was read out to us, and it said the show was going to Broadway, and we’d all be going with it. At 6 P.M., the announcement was released to the media and the public. In the room, there was a sense of elation! Everyone just ran to their phones, calling home, family, and friends! There were hugs, and people were saying, “We’re going to Broadway!” The sense that 23 people in that room who had never seen New York, or never even dreamed they would ever get there… the excitement in that room was just unreal! There was a moment when everybody had to cry, like the Care Bear Stare. You know, the giant rainbow? (Laughs) If I was a Care Bear and those things were real, maybe that’s what that would look like. That’s what it felt like.
La Jolla was the first thing we heard about, even before Broadway ever became a reality; the show would go to La Jolla first. We had a meeting at 4 P.M. one day, and we were thinking, “This is it! We’re going to Broadway!” And Des was there, and he said, “We’re taking the show to California!” We were like, “California? We were hoping Broadway.” But then we thought about it: “Well, we’ll be doing the show, and we’ll be on the beach in the middle of winter.” (Laughs) It was exciting. It wasn’t as exciting as the idea of being in New York, but La Jolla was awesome! Everyone who worked in that theater, everyone we came into contact with in that area, and everyone who helped us out there was awesome. They were fantastic, they were professional, and the theater was beautiful. Yeah, La Jolla was great!
Q. As your Playbill bio made clear, this was your Broadway debut. What was your first experience on a stage in front of an audience on Broadway like? Tell us about that moment right before you made your first entrance in the show!
A. Yeah! The week leading up to the first preview, we all worked hard! We were all kind of tired, and we all felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders. We knew we had a great show, and everyone expected it to be explosive. We had nine months in Stratford, and four months in La Jolla, and people in New York heard how incredible Superstar was. When we went to La Jolla, people were raving about Superstar! And then we got to New York as if we felt we had to prove something. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the press… but we certainly felt tired, but we knew we had a good show.
For the moment just before “Simon Zealotes,” I was offstage, grabbing a glass of water, fixing the makeup, placing myself behind the upstage curtain, doing a quick stretch, then heading out. I ran out onstage, and for a moment I was like, “This is really happening. This is a Broadway stage. No one can take this away from me at all.” (Laughs) When we ended that number, there was a beat of silence, and then there was an explosion in the theater. This sound of applause, and screams, and hoots and hollers! The building was freaking shaking! It got to the cast. Every single one of us was crying. Everyone was in tears. Then another rush of energy came! Cheers, applause, screams! It was unreal! And Paul’s voice was trembling because he was crying, too. We thought, “Oh my God! This is what we have! This is fantastic!” There may never be another moment like that in my life that will ever come close to that night. That was a great moment.
Q. This question applies to every segment of the run: were there ever any accidents on stage?
A. (Laughs) Yes, all the time! When we did the show in Stratford, we had the bridge that would come out and Jesus would stand on for “Superstar,” and he’d be preaching at the top of the bridge. In Stratford, it was pushed by us, manual labor; we brought it out and we pushed it back. In New York, we had extra money, we made it mechanical, so it was 3,000 times heavier than it was when we did it in Stratford, so there was no way we could push it in and out. And it broke down! That happened during the first preview. It happened four times in a row that night. We did an awesome “Simon Zealotes,” and Josh came out to do “Superstar,” and we had to stop the show four times. We’d be doing it, then we had to stop and do it again; start, stop, and do it again. You know how it would go over the audience? Well, it extended even further in New York. It would then retract, go back in, and rotate back. If it didn’t work, you couldn’t just pull the bridge back into the wings, rotate it the opposite way, rotate it back, and get it off. There was a lot of resetting of that bridge. Other than that thing, I don’t remember anything ever going horribly wrong. I think the LED wall would sometimes have a glitch in one of the panels, which would cause a strange flashing effect during the whipping scene that we would all try not to notice. Even though we tried, we couldn’t not notice it. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, you’d be like, “I want to look back, but I can’t because I’m supposed to be looking forward!” (Laughs) But I think the bridge was the biggest pain in the butt.
Q: Broadway shows tend to attract a type of audience you don’t necessarily get in Stratford. Did anyone famous or connected to the show’s history come out to see it in La Jolla or NY?
A: Yvonne Elliman came to see the show. She was awesome! She took a cast photo with us. Chilina was on that night. Melissa O’Neil was the understudy Mary; Melissa, being of similar ethnic descent, had always idolized her, and when she got to meet her, she was so excited! We all knew about it, and it was just a really warm moment for the entire cast. I think a couple of dancers from the movie version came to see the show. I know we had some original cast members from the Broadway show there. Ben Vereen came. Ben saw the show twice. Those were the biggest names, Ben and Yvonne, at least the famous people originally attached to the show. We had many famous artists and political figures in our audience.
Q: The show closed on Broadway much earlier than expected, after a rather unfortunate awards season, and lukewarm press reception. Did the reviews affect you or anyone in the cast at all?
A: We were told not to read them. All actors are told not to read the reviews. I’m not sure if it affected us as much. It was the fact that the show opened around Easter. Leading up to Easter time, that theatre was full. After Easter, we started to notice a decline in audience, and that’s when we started saying, “What’s going on? Why aren’t we selling out?” Especially after you couldn’t get a seat in Stratford or La Jolla. That was hurtful for us, especially when you open and there’s a really small house of people. But the Neil Simon Theatre is this 1,500-seat theater. (NOTE: The Neil Simon actually houses approx. 1,362 seats. — ed.) You may get a crowd of 600 people, which is a lot of people, but, in a 1,500-seat theater, doesn’t mean a lot of people. So that became hard. And you still have to give the same show to those people who paid the full price for a show. It became important to make sure they got the same show.
The reviews… I don’t know if the press has a hate on for Des. I hope they don’t because I think the man is great. The rehearsals we did that the rest of the people don’t see, and what ended up on stage… was unbelievable! His mind is crazy detailed. He sees a lot of things that a lot of people don’t see. A lot of people were like, “Why isn’t Jesus all over the place, running around hugging and kissing and touching, and being this lovable person?” Well, as Des explained to us, this guy was 33 years old. I can tell you that when I was 33, and if someone told me that year I was going to die soon, I’m not going to be happy-go-lucky. I’m going to compose myself, and get my message out as much as I need to, before the end of my time. I kind of love the fact that Paul was more of a quiet Jesus, who was like “Hey, guys! This is not about spectacle. Let’s get the message out as much as we can. Love people!” I think the press was like, “No! This is not Superstar!” And that had nothing to do with Paul because Paul was fantastic. I think the world was expecting a Ted Neeley-like performance because that’s the Jesus they know.
To this day, I say we were robbed, just because somebody’s ego somewhere had a point to make. Maybe something against the fact that there was an entire cast of Canadians on Broadway, but we did have a few Americans in the show (Josh Young, Tom Hewitt, Matt Stokes, and Nick Cartell). It was… I don’t know. But I do feel we were robbed. However, that’s what happens; that’s theater. I hope nobody gets upset that I said that, but… there you go.
Q. Do you still keep in touch with your fellow cast members? We know you’re working with a few at present.
A. Yeah! A chunk of us are doing Tommy right now, Des’ revival of Tommy that played in the ’90s on Broadway and in Toronto. Those of us not in the show… we all have a private Facebook page that we made when we were in New York — that no one can find because it’s private. (Laughs) That’s great because we can all send messages back and forth, like. talking to the old stage managers or talking to the American cast members. We all keep each other informed as to where we are and what we’re doing. Melissa O’Neil and Aaron Walpole are doing Les Miserables in Toronto, which we hear they’re going to Broadway with next year. Jaz Seeley is doing Aladdin, which is also going to Broadway next year. The rest of us are doing Tommy, or somewhere else in the world.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m finishing up Tommy on the 19th of October, and then I’m finishing Fiddler on the Roof, which was extended until the 27th. Then I’m off to Calgary to do a revue show on the 28th, and writing and directing a show in Niagara Falls after that. After that, I’m working on my second CD (you can find Lee’s music at http://reverbnation.com/leesiegel1 — ed.), I’m doing a lot of painting, and possibly going back to New York in February.
Q. Thank you for chatting with us.
A. Thank you, Andy! It was my pleasure.