With a knockout cast and a sizzling hot story about revolution and forbidden love, Venice is about to become Off-Broadway’s hottest ticket this summer. The story, which some might liken to a modern twist on Shakespeare’s Othello, features Tony nominated actress Jennifer Damiano with Broadway alum Claybourne Elder and Leslie Odom Jr.
Elder, whose husband Eric Rosen wrote the book for the musical, plays Michael Victor, a peacemaking revolutionary, in the production and spoke to me about what it’s like to team up with his husband, speaking “quickly to music” and what made him sign on for the production playing at The Public Theater now until June 23.
SDD: What has your process been like with Venice? I know you’ve been with the show for a while.
CE: I did two workshops with the show over the course of a couple of years. I was in L.A. when it was performing in L.A. and I knew a lot of the people involved, so I saw it several times but I wasn’t in it there. At that time I was working on Bonnie & Clyde so it wasn’t until about two years ago that I started working on it myself.
SDD: In those two years, how has the show evolved?
CE: Infinitely. I think the people who saw it in L.A. or Kansas City expect it to be the same show. The story hasn’t changed a ton, but there is about 50% new book pages and music from the L.A. production. So it has changed and grown a lot and, under the tutelage of the public, it has become the best show that it has been yet.
SDD: I have to ask about working with Eric [Rosen], your husband. You have worked together in the past as well. How is that dynamic?
CE: When we first started dating, neither of us had dated anyone in theatre before. We were like, ‘Oh we should never work together because that would be bad, right?’ It seemed like a bad idea, but then we had the opportunity to work together and it was great. So we did it again and now this is our fifth time. We just negotiated well. I think we both have an idea about professionalism that we share. In the room with the cast, I can be with them and they can feel safe confiding in me like a cast does. He can be with the creative team but then we come together at home. We can talk about work but we kind of leave work at work most of the time.
SDD: He’s on the creative side and you are one of the performers in the show. Are there complications that may come with bringing that home and discussing work over dinner?
CE: It can be difficult but we’ve never really had a big argument or anything. It hasn’t always been perfect but we still manage to work things out. I think the kinship that we have has just made it better. It made the artistic process better for each of us when we have worked together.
SDD: How so?
CE: Just that we share similar work ethics and artistic visions. We speak the same language about theatre anyway, so it becomes very easy to work together. We have an understanding of how to serve the material the best, without egos getting in the way.
SDD: Who do you play in Venice?
CE: I play Michael Victor who is a young revolutionary who has come to the city of Venice to help Venice the character. Together with Willow, my character’s best friend, they help to bring peace to the city.
SDD: Do you do any of the rapping in the show?
CE: I did an interview a little while ago in which someone asked me that. We all do everything- it is a very ensemble piece. Almost all of us are in every single number, so we all do parts of everything. They took it as me saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to rap.’ There’s a line of what I do. I wouldn’t say that I rap-rap but I speak quickly to music.
SDD: You’re not getting ready to go rap against Jay-Z?
CE: Exactly. Everything goes seamlessly from R&B to rap and hip-hop, so I don’t think you can put a title on what it is. If you think rap, you think Jay-Z and it’s nothing like that.
SDD: What has been the challenge of working on such an eclectic show? Is it a challenge or is it more of an excitement?
CE: It’s definitely exciting in the way it is for any actor. Any new material for an actor is like Christmas. It’s our favorite thing- it’s what we want to do, it’s what we studied for in art school and it’s what we long for in collaborations. This piece is particularly different. Eric’s background is working with people like Mary Zimmerman. There is this kind of ensemble performance quality that he brings to the whole piece. It’s very different and exciting. It’s not like we all play these characters and we do a song and dance. Every single person plays lots of different parts of the piece. For that reason it’s a challenge and an excitement in the language of the play. Not just the verbal language, but the physical language of how we move in the space is really something that takes getting used to.
SDD: Is the show loosely based on Othello?
CE: What happened was that Matt [Sax] and Eric were commissioned by a theatre in L.A. to write a new musical. They were like, ‘What are we going to write about? We can write about anything.’ They hadn’t decided what they wanted to write about. They had been toying around with Othello and the concepts in it. They said, ‘It will be something like Othello,’ and saying, ‘Oh, it’s the Othello musical, right?’ It actually has nothing to do with Othello, but because of that initial news for that commission was that it was based on Othello, it’s kind of been hard to let go of that. There are still parts that are though. The lead character’s name is Willow and it’s set in an imaginary city called Venice. So there are characters and things you could draw, but it’s not the story of Othello at all anymore.
SDD: What drew you into working on Venice? What was the bug that made you want to join this cast and join this production?
CE: My first experience with it was the scripts and I read the script when I got my first audition for the piece which was about four years ago. I read the script and I was immediately excited. Then they had some samples of the music from when they had done a workshop in L.A., which totally excited me. It put the icing on the cake for being a dream project to work on. Just knowing that it was something so different. It’s not every day that we get to do these kinds of musicals that sort of challenge the genre. The music is very modern and not musical theatre-ish but it’s beautiful. Just the innovation of it made me want to do it.
Purchase tickets for Venice at PublicTheater.org.