Paul Alexander Nolan on Bright Star‘s inspiring story, working with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell

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by Nicole Nadler

Bright Star, the new musical by writing team Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is about finding that bright star within yourself and becoming who you are. The show itself is newly hatched; it started previews on February 25th at the Cort Theatre and audiences are attending with little idea what to expect. The music of Bright Star has a bluegrass twang that pulls at the audience’s heartstrings one moment and has them tapping their toes in the next. The cast just recorded their album, to be released on May 27th. It is an incredibly heartwarming story that anyone can relate to, a story of people dealing with blows of life, but persevering until they find what they were always looking for.

One of the bright stars in this show is Paul Alexander Nolan, who plays Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Paul joined Bright Star after finishing his run in in the off-Broadway production of Daddy Long Legs at the Davenport Theatre, though he might be better known for playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Neil Simon Theatre, and Guy in Once in 2014. The potential for greatness hangs in the air for Bright Star and Paul Alexander Nolan is one to be watched.

How are previews going for Bright Star? How are you keeping up with the crazy schedule?
It is going really well! We’re still in previews now, so there are some changes, but really only tweaks here and there. It’s not major stuff, just things to make the show as good as possible, things to make it more clean and clear.

How different is it originating your own show as opposed to filling in a role- especially a really well known role.

With Jesus Christ Superstar, I could’ve tried to be like Ted [Neeley], I could’ve tried to be like Steve [Balsamo] but I can’t be them. People are very gracious when you’re stepping into their shoes, but there is something very fun, very satisfying about getting to create something from the ground up. It is amazing to be a part of the creation of something that has the potential to become a hit show. In Once, they were serious actors, seriously good musicians. They were so good it was daunting, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be good enough or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. But I worked crazy hard and was finally able to get there.

How did you land the role of Jimmy Ray? How would you describe his character?

I had three auditions actually. My first one went really well, so I went for a callback… and that did not go well at all. I was finishing up Daddy Long Legs and was really stressed about that. It was two and a half hours of just Megan [McGinnis] and me on stage- we had 12 rehearsals to learn the whole show, and the whole thing was very stressful. Thank God Megan knows the show so well and is so amazing. So I was very distracted during the second audition. I wanted the part though, I wanted it so badly, and luckily I did well enough on my first audition that they let me come back for a third time, and that time I got it right.

I would describe Jimmy Ray as a sort of Tony from West Side Story. He is full of heart, confident and optimistic. He has his whole life ahead of him and is beyond his time. His dad wants him to stay home and follow in the family footsteps, but he wants to go to school and see the world and experience other things in life. Jimmy meets his match with Alice. He finds someone to dream with, like Tony and Maria. He is an idealist, the ‘star quarterback’ with nothing to stop him? All the potential in the world. And then, things happen and life as he knows it changes forever. The next time we see him is 23 years later and he is a changed man. He has experienced betrayal, loss and had to give up the person he loved the most.

What about the show has impacted you the most?

In regards to Jimmy Ray, I really identify with his hopes and dreams and invincibility when he is with Alice. Hopefully we’ve all been in love at least once. I have been in love for over half my life so I can really relate to him in that regard. Also, the play really deals with loss. I haven’t dealt with loss exactly the same way Jimmy Ray has, but I have lost someone extremely important in my life. My niece is a big part of what I bring to the stage, she is always with me. She was such a great kid. She had cancer from the day she was born and lived until she was 14. She had brain cancer and it spread and then it started to go downhill and took her quickly. It was obviously a huge impact on my whole family, particularly my sister. Because that loss was so significant, it is really hard to accept. There are always positive things to be taken from the people we love and the people we lose and that is what I take with me.

Do you think about what this show could be and the legacy that you would carry with it?

Well, any show could go one way or the other. There is no rhyme or reason sometimes; art is very temporal and the timing is important. For example, had Lin [Manuel Miranda] done Hamilton in another time would it have worked as well? A big part of theatre is the expectation people have. When people expect to like something, it is hard for them not to, and vice versa. We are just telling our story, and right now, no one has a clue about what they’re about to see, so it is such an authentic place to tell our story, there is very little for people to expect. We want people to understand the work we are doing and of course we hope for rave reviews and tickets sales so strong you can’t get a seat. Who wouldn’t? But we just want to tell our story. We have a phenomenal director and creative team and cast and crew who all know what they’re doing, it is a really exciting, unsure time because we’re barely into previews and our audience are having an amazing night and if we end up being a smash hit that would be great but you just never know. I’m sure there’s been hundreds of shows that have been amazing and didn’t get an audience, that’s just what happens sometimes.

What is it like working with Walter Bobbie? Can you talk about his directorial style and what you’ve learned from him?
Walter was very cautious about his casting, and I wasn’t sure I would get cast, but it has been great, he is great. They took their time in casting and I am so glad that he cast me, it has been increasingly fun to work with him. He just gets happier and happier with the show and he is enjoying himself and working on little details now. He’s an old school Broadway guy. Our choreographer, Josh Rhodes is a really generous guy, he and Lee [Wilkins], his associate are awesome at their jobs and just awesome in general. More than half of any job, especially a job like ours, is the team. Even if you have the best show on earth and you don’t have a good team, you can’t have fun. We have such a great team of people. We have Michael Passaro, the best stage manager in the business. A genius lighting designer, Japhy Weidman. Nevin Steinberg, who does our sound, is just masterful.

What is it like working with Steve Martin? What has he taught you since you’ve joined the Bright Star team?

Steve is very humble and generous, is amazing at what he does! He stays quiet and observes mostly; you barely know he is there half the time. He is very respectful of how we work, how Walter works. Steve is a genius, really, a genius.  

What is it like singing Edie Brickell’s lyrics? Were you familiar with her work prior to Bright Star?

The woman is such a gentle beautiful spirit, she always works from joy? I remembered her from her youth and big hits, but I started listening to her again as soon as I got this audition. It is kind of amazing that her lyrics work so well in this kind of story telling and we didn’t have to change much, she might shift lyrics a little as the story needs it. She can easily come up with alternate lyrics/phrasing if the story calls for it. But yeah, she is just great.

As someone who is a big part of the show, how do you see Steve and Edie complementing each other and differing through the creative process of getting Bright Star ready for Broadway? 

I try to not get in the way of the writing- they know what they’re doing! They’re very receptive if there is an issue and something doesn’t work well for me, but I try to do what I am given. And if for some reason I cant do that, the director steps in and gives me a new direction, which changes it so I try to make it fit. I am the paint that goes on the canvas of the director and writer. I try to brush myself on their with as much craft as possible.

What makes Bright Star different from anything else on Broadway?

Hands down, it is the music and lyrics style and the era. It is a little like Once, musically, which I love. It is definitely unique in its vibe. In a lot of ways, for me it feels like a play actually.

What is your favorite part of Bright Star? 

Acting with Carmen! Overall I just love the music in this show. It is so brilliant.  Specifically, I love the second song in the show, where Billy and his dad sing to each other about the mother being gone, called ‘She’s Gone.’  It is beautiful and haunting in a way and their voices are just wonderful together.

What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Bright Star?

I hope people feel joyful! It is a really joyful show and I hope that when people leave they have that feeling in their hearts.

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About Nicole N.

"Say yes. Show up afraid, show up prepared, but say yes." - Renee Elise Goldsberry

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