Via telephone, we got a few minutes with the actor at the beginning of what is now an acclaimed and extended (to Nov. 11) run at the Tony Award-honored CST's thrust Courtyard Theater stage on Navy Pier in Chicago. CST's associate artistic director, Gary Griffin, who helmed Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies there last year (winning a Jeff Award for his direction), stages Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning rumination on artists' barriers and breakthroughs.
You have one of my favorite Broadway voices. I wish I could get to Chicago to hear you sing the Georges; over the years, the show has revealed itself as having two of the major male roles in musical-stage literature.
Jason Danieley: Absolutely. I think it's apropos to compare Stephen Sondheim to Shakespeare, particularly given that's what Chicago Shakespeare Theater does: The only musicals they've really done in their seasons have been Sondheim. [George] is sort of like the Hamlet of the musical- theatre world. [Laughs.]
What was your relationship to this show was before you got the job? Did you see it? Did you know it? Have you sung "Finishing the Hat" in a cabaret?
JD: I've never sung "Finishing the Hat." [His actress wife] Marin [Mazzie] and I sing "Move On" in our cabaret concert, Opposite You, in a Sondheim suite that we do. I saw the VHS video — the film of the Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with Mandy [Patinkin] and Bernadette [Peters], and instantly fell in love with it. But not as deeply as I have grown to love it over the many years.
In the rehearsal room, what was the challenge of the dual roles, and is the challenge different in each act?
JD: There are many challenges. That's what I love about it so much. It's not — pardon the pun — a walk in the park. It's a difficult role because, obviously, as most people know, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are not verse/chorus/verse/chorus. Nothing really repeats, which I love about his music: You have to be present every moment. There's not, "Oh I can relax or do my shopping list" at any given point. I'm on stage the entire time except for, I think, "Everybody Loves Louis," and one moment where I have six lines to grab a drink of water. [Laughs.] So there's the stamina, endurance and then the overall arc for two different-seeming characters — but trying to make it one cohesive one. I mean, that's hopefully an actor's high. An actor's dream is to be challenged for a complete experience. Two hours of high-impact, mental stamina.
The roles are often thought of as two different characters, and they are, of course, because there's 100 years between the two. But George [is] one artistic id of two different men, two different sides of a coin of the difficulty of being an artist. [I try] to bridge the gap between the two, so that the audience understands [it as] one cohesive evening as opposed to two separate evenings.
George Seurat in Act One is a monomaniac and knows exactly what he's doing — his art — and is focused, to the exclusion of others. American artist George in Act Two has to play a marketing game. Can you relate as an artist?
JD: Even in my life, there have been moments, particularly when just starting off, when it's all about the business. It's all about creating the art. And, after a while, you get established. And then the second-act character comes into play, where you are "putting it together." You know that there are galas, and there are benefits and concerts that you show up for to help not-for-profit theatre, in the hope that they remember you the next season. There's that possibility to get hung-up on that — and that the art, itself, can sometimes take a backseat to all of the interviews and appearances that you have to make. The difficult part of George in Act Two, which I think Gary is doing so beautifully, is bringing it full-circle back to a white, a blank, page: [George] needs to shed all of the outside [stuff] that's not the art part — that's the commerce part — to get back to creating something new and different…
The CST mainstage, the Courtyard Theater, is a thrust space. Physically, the audience surrounds you on three sides. A three-quarter configuration is suitable for Shakespeare, but unusual for this traditionally proscenium-set musical.
JD: It's fantastic! I love working in spaces that the audience is right up with you. Last year, I worked at The Old Globe in their smaller theatre, which was in the round, and it gives you a freedom as an actor to not have to "open up" to the audience. [It] makes it feel much more real and organic for you as an actor. And, for this production, instead of cut-outs [of set pieces] and one-dimensional or two-dimensional viewing, it is totally three-dimensional. They can see behind you. People are behind the painting with me. It's almost like being in the wings, so when I'm painting and doing "Color and Light," they're able to see a different perspective of the show. That's going to draw them in even deeper to the world.
|Photo by Liz Lauren|
The artistic act is primary to both Georges. Romance, human connection and love are incidental. Or are they?
JD: I think it's a different kind of love. It's not a romantic love with another human being. I think, obviously, in both acts, it's the love for what he does — the art. I think that's the primary romance in the piece. [With Seurat,] art has really enveloped him, and, actually, art loves him back as much as he loves it. For Act Two George, I think he tries to have a relationship with his ex-wife, but it's really about his love for Marie, for his grandmother — [she's] that connection to art that he's missing. So, yeah, I guess it's not a typical South Pacific romance scenario. [Laughs.]
Have you worked in Chicago before?
JD: I joined the first national tour of Phantom of the Opera — my first national tour — about 20 years ago, I guess, or 18 years ago. So I was here for a few months before we moved on. I've not done any Chicago theatre. This is my first here, and I've sung with the Grant Park Symphony as recent as July. That's where Gary and I reacquainted ourselves because we did an Encores! show together, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. After the [Grant Park] concert, which Marin and I did with Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin, not unlike a "Putting It Together" scenario, we were at the closing-night party — walking around, schmoozing — and Gary said, "Hey, we're looking for a George. Have you ever thought about doing Sunday in the Park With George?" And I was like, "You've got to be kidding me!"
Speaking of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it was more proof that you seem at ease with a lot of different musical colors — in that case, a traditional '50s musical by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Field. I always thought of you as an eclectic actor-singer — that you can do the pop of The Full Monty, the rock of Next to Normal, the country-folk of your band The Frontier Heroes. Do you feel like you have a specific sweet spot, musically?
JD: Thank you, first off. And, I like to think that all of those are a part of me and that they hold equal importance to me — the classical and the country and difficult music theatre, à la Sondheim or Adam Guettel or…
|photo by Liz Lauren|
Are your tastes as a fan as eclectic? What do you listen to on your iPod?
JD: It is a mix of all that stuff. James Taylor is one of my idols. Same time: Tony Bennett and Luciano Pavarotti. I don't necessarily listen to Luciano on a regular basis, but I do have my moments of classical. I'll have to listen to something classical when I'm doing something around the house.
You and Marin are doing the Playbill Broadway On the High Seas cruise later this year. Will you perform your Opposite You songs or your Café Carlyle He Said/She Said act?
JD: We'll be doing He Said/She Said. And then she'll also be doing her solo show that she just did at 54 Below, which doesn't have a name — doesn't have a title — it's just Marin at 54 Below.
But on the high seas, off South America.
JD: I heard her show was extraordinary. I didn't get to see it because I was here, but by all accounts…
What's the conversation like between you and Marin when you're cooking up a new act together? Do you think "theme" first?
JD: [Laughs.] Well, it's complex, and not a quick process. [Laughs.] When we put a show together, we start with, "What do you want to sing?" And, I found through Opposite You and through working with my band, Frontier Heroes, and putting together concerts, that if you just put the songs together that you want to do, somehow a theme shows itself to you. So the theme comes later.
So if you and Marin are out seeing a Broadway show somewhere, might you turn to her and say, "I want that for our show"?
JD: We don't, really. … They tend to come from our personal experience outside of theatre.
What's your guilty pleasure, musically?
JD: Oh, God! The music that I grew up in the '80s — high school. Kenny Rogers. [Laughs.] He was actually probably, for me, a real big influence growing up because he was the real crossover of country and pop. And, I think Lionel Richie produced one of his albums. He's one of my guilty pleasures.
You know, Jason, you've got to know when to hold 'em, and you've got to know when to fold 'em.
JD: You need to know when to walk away, and you need to know when to run!
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
View video highlights of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Sunday in the Park With George.