Adam Pascal on returning to Broadway in ‘Chicago’, staying connected with ‘Rent’

Adam Pascal

Adam Pascal

Adam Pascal, star of Broadway hits like Rent, Aida, Cabaret and Memphis, is back onstage in Chicago. He took some time to tell Stage Door Dish about Billy Flynn, Kander and Ebb, and backstage memories.

SDD: You must be super busy now that you’re back on Broadway!

AP: Well, for a couple hours a day anyway! But it’s great to be back, I feel like I belong so it’s awesome to be back. A lot of people have a misconception about how hard it is to do this job, and maybe its just me, but I’ve had lots – as a matter of fact, every job I’ve ever had in my whole life has been a lot harder than being a Broadway actor. Because quite frankly, once you’re doing the job it’s two-something hours a night. And if you don’t have to occupy yourself doing anything else, you have a lot of free time, which I guess for some people is good and for some people, it probably would drive them crazy. But I enjoy it, I try to go to gym and just try to stay busy.

SDD: Is it hard to preserve your voice to perform that often?

AP: It depends on the show. This particular show is really easy in terms of the demand on my voice. Billy only has three songs, and they’re all kind of at the bottom of my vocal register, so in a way it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before because I’m so used to singing everything so high. All the shows that I’ve ever done, everything’s so high. And this show is the exact opposite. So it’s actually a nice rest. But it’s vocally not demanding at all, and it’s not a lot of stage time. Again, from what I’m used to – the last show I did, which was Memphis, I was onstage I’d say 95% of the time, in this show I think I’m onstage maybe 50% of the time. So I have a lot of downtime in my dressing room.

SDD: When actors have a lot of downtime in their dressing room is there a certain way you pass the time or does it vary completely by every actor?

AP: Well, I think it varies by every actor, and technology has had an influence on what people do in their dressing room. I would imagine at a time, most people would maybe spend time in their dressing room reading, and now I know I spend a lot of time in my dressing room watching Family Guy on Netflix.

SDD: Would you say that Billy Flynn differs quite a bit from other characters you’ve played?

AP: Yeah, very much. He’s the first real grown-up that I’ve ever played. I’ve always played characters that were younger. I’ve wanted to play this part for a really long time, and it took me a long time to grow into being able to play it. He has to a certain gravitas, I think, that only comes with age.

SDD: What was it like to dig out the layers in a character like him? He’s kind of a complex guy.

AP: I’m still finding the layers. I only had five days of rehearsal before I started performing, so I haven’t had a lot of time to really explore the character offstage, it’s all been onstage in the show. So it’s been a bit of a nerve-wracking process, more nerve-wracking than any show I’ve ever done, because of the lack of rehearsal time that I was given. So I’m still finding him. And the show gets more fun every night because every night I’m just a little bit more relaxed.

SDD: Chicago’s been on Broadway for a very long time, what do you think it is that makes it so timeless and causes it to resonate with people year after year?

AP: Well the first thing, I think, is the music. Kander and Ebb wrote a brilliant score and I think that there’s nothing else like it on Broadway. It’s really the only show that is out there right now that adheres to that old school, old-time tradition of musical theatre. And that was something that was so appealing to me because all the shows I’ve done have been written by pop or rock. Except for Cabaret, which obviously is also another Kander and Ebb show. But I’ve always been a little bit pigeon-holed as sort of the “Broadway rock guy” and I’ve kind of been trying to play against that in the choices that I make and the roles that I take. And so I think having the opportunity to play the Emcee and having the opportunity to play Billy is me gaining the opportunity to expand my horizons as a performer and get to do things that people don’t expect from me. I find that so much more interesting than just doing the things that people will go “oh yeah, of course he’s doing that. That makes sense,” you know? I prefer to do things where people go “really, he’s doing that? Wow that’s interesting, I think I’d like to see that.” To me that’s a much more appealing scenario.

SDD: And do you find that more creatively challenging as well?

AP: Yeah, absolutely. I can sing rock music in my sleep, it’s not a challenge there for me, I’ve been doing it for 30 years. So, I’d much prefer, at this point in my career, to do things that are a bit more expressive and challenging for me.

SDD: Do you have a favorite song in Chicago?

AP: Yeah, I love “Razzle Dazzle.”

SDD: Chicago is such a dance-heavy show, what is that experience like?

AP: Well, it’s great for me because I actually have to do very little of it. “Razzle Dazzle” is the only thing I even come close to dancing in, and it’s very basic choreography. Having done Cabaret, where every number the Emcee does is a fully choreographed number, I was prepared to do it and excited to do it. But they have really good dancers in the show who really carry the load of the dancing and I get to watch them. That’s as much fun every night for me as well, getting to watch all these amazing dancers do their thing.

SDD: I know that you’ve toured with your solo music. How does it feel to play a character onstage versus playing yourself when you perform your own music? Does that change the experience of being onstage?

AP: Absolutely, it’s much easier to play a character. I think most people who do both would probably agree. When you get up there by yourself and you have to entertain an audience purely from your own experience – your own songs, your own stories, your own banter – that’s terrifying. You have nothing to hide behind. I’ve always found it very comforting to be able to hide behind a character and hide behind somebody else’s music, and hide behind costumes, and hide behind makeup and sets. You know, I’ve always felt extremely comfortable from the second I walked onstage in 1995 off-Broadway in Rent, it felt so much more comfortable than it ever did going onstage fronting a band. That’s still terrifying, because there’s nobody up there but you and it’s all on your shoulders. It requires, I think, a lot more nerve for me.

SDD: I know you weren’t always planning on a musical theatre career, and I know that kind of began with Rent, but when did you first realize that maybe you wanted this to become a long-term career or that this is what you were meant to do?

AP: When I started doing Rent. There were certain things in my life growing up, certain musical theatre movies – Hair was one of them, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tommy – those movies had such a huge impact on me. I was obsessed with them, I loved them as much as I loved any rock band. I loved those movies and those soundtracks. I still do. In hindsight, looking back on it, there was always something in me that was drawn to musical theatre. Having not grown up as an actor, it never occurred to me that that would be a career that I could pursue because you had to be an actor and I didn’t really know what that meant. I wasn’t really interested in pursuing becoming an actor, I was a singer in a rock band. So it wasn’t until I started doing it that I realized how much I loved it.

Adam Pascal in Memphis

Adam Pascal in Memphis

SDD: Do you have a moment that you consider the most gratifying moment you’ve had as a performer so far?

AP: I wouldn’t say the most gratifying moment, but getting to play the Emcee in Cabaret was such a huge deal for me as a performer and as an actor. That I was able to do a role like that and succeed in a role like that, because I never thought that would be something I’d be able to pull off. It was something that so intrigued me but at the same time terrified me. And it was so gratifying to do that show every night, I’ve never felt anything like it. It was just – I’m not one to be proud of myself for anything that I ever do, but that show is probably the closest I’ve ever come to actually being proud of myself.

SDD: You’ve played Roger Davis at different points over the years, what does it feel like to revisit a role like that at different times in your own life? Do you see what he is going through differently? And is that true with any character you get to revisit?

AP: Yeah, I actually got to do it with Radames as well in Aida, because I had left for maybe a year or two and then came back and closed the show for the last 12 weeks. It’s great. It’s great for me, especially with Roger in Rent because Rent has been such a huge part of my life. To be able to revisit that character at three different points in my life over 15 years, and each time I went back and did it over those times, the character became richer for me because I was a better performer and a better actor, and hopefully a more mature person. I was able to give a better performance, and I also found the role much easier to perform each time I went back. It was physically easier, it was emotionally easier, the moments came to me easier, the emotions came easier, and it also got more fun each time I went back.

SDD: Has it also been fun to work with your fellow former Rent cast members again?

AP: Oh of course, always. I’ve never worked with anyone on Broadway that I haven’t loved. From Rent to Aida to every show. You know, there’s something about Broadway actors and performers, at least in my experience, that is unlike anything else and I hate to use this analogy because its probably in poor taste, but it’s like going to war. Not that I would know what that’s like, but it’s like nobody else can understand what it feels like other than other people who’ve done it. And you immediately form camaraderie and a bond with these people because you’re experiencing something together that nobody else has ever experienced. And that really galvanizes people.

SDD: Is there an aspect of being a Broadway performer that people wouldn’t know or think about?

AP: Yeah, I would actually say where we started in this conversation, which was that it’s not nearly as hard as people think. People say to me all the time, “Oh my God, you do eight shows a week, you must be so exhausted.” You know, we’re so lucky to be able to do this. I work three hours tops a day. How exhausting can that be, no matter what you’re doing? I’ve had jobs in my life that are exhausting. I was a janitor, I was a landscaper, I was a mason worker. Those are exhausting jobs. Being on Broadway is a gift. Being an actor who gets to do it for a living is a gift, and anyone who complains about it and says that it’s exhausting doesn’t deserve to do it.

Adam Pascal and Amy Spanger in Chicago

Adam Pascal and Amy Spanger in Chicago

SDD: If you were not an actor and musician, what job would you choose?

AP: I have no idea. I’ve never been cut out for anything else. I’m a great house husband.

SDD: You were in the School of Rock movie, and now there’s talk about it being translated into a stage musical. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AP: Yes, I heard that! Well, I heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber is adapting it. I certainly hope that he’s not writing the music, but I actually think it would probably make a great musical. I just hope that the music is good. I mean, its called School of Rock, not School of Musical Theatre, so I hope that the score does justice to the great story.

SDD: Do you have any unusual or hidden talents or hobbies?

AP: Not really. Nothing that people don’t know about. I mean, I’m a songwriter and musician as well, and I’m a really good swimmer. I was a lifeguard for four years when I was younger. But no, I wish I did. I wish that I had other skills that I could utilize. But unfortunately I don’t, I consider myself lucky I have any skills.

SDD: Do you have any funny or memorable backstage moments from working on Broadway that stand out to you in your memories?

AP: Nothing in particular that I can think of off the top of my head, except for the fact that there’s, again, a great camaraderie backstage. When you’re backstage and you’re not onstage but the show is going on, there’s a great energy. People are always hanging out and joking and waiting for their time to go on and there’s an excitement level that exists backstage that, again, is a galvanizing factor. People really come together as a group and really enjoy each other’s company. One thing I can remember, and it wasn’t a backstage thing, but when we were in Japan doing Rent, we had an earthquake while the show was going on. So that was a memorable experience. Actually, I’ll tell you a quick story – in the early days of Rent, it’s got to have been within the first few months on Broadway. You know how there are the three police officers that come out during “Christmas Bells” and they have those police batons? I was standing waiting to do my entrance at the top of the show and one of the batons was sitting there and I started swinging it around, and unbeknownst to me, one of the crew guys was walking behind me. I was swinging the baton around and I whacked him in the face and broke his nose. And then immediately had to go onstage.

SDD: Stage or screen?

AP: Stage.

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which song would you choose?

AP: Any Nicki Minaj song.

SDD: Do you have a favorite word?

AP: Fuck.

SDD: What is your current obsession?

AP: Star Trek: Next Generation, which was been an obsession of mine for years.

SDD: Do you have a life motto?

AP: Try and tell the truth as best you can.

SDD: What is the last great show you saw onstage?

AP: The Last Five Years, which was a number of years ago. The original production of The Last Five Years.

SDD: Who is the last person who made you feel starstruck?

AP: I don’t get starstruck. I’ve been in the business for long enough and understand what it means to be a celebrity even in the small sort of world that I exist in, and it’s so meaningless in the grand scheme of life that I don’t get starstruck.

SDD: If you could play any role in Rent besides Roger, who would it be?

AP: Mark.

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway, who would you choose?

AP: Nobody. It’s hard for all of us. I’ve been extremely lucky, I wouldn’t change places with anybody.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most want to get a drink with?

AP: Well considering I know most everybody and have had drinks with lots of people already, it would probably be somebody old school. Elaine Stritch or Julie Andrews or someone like that. 

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

AP: Striving to stay honest.

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About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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