STAGE TO SCREENS: Adam Pascal

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Adam Pascal The highly anticipated movie versions of two of the most-successful Tony-winning Best Musicals of the last decade—Jonathan Larson's Rent (1996) and Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's The Producers (2001)—will be released for the holidays: "Rent" on November 23, "The Producers," December 21. Both will have most of the original Broadway leads preserving their roles on film, casting that especially would please stars such as Angela Lansbury (Mame), Carol Channing (Hello, Dolly!), and Ethel Merman (Gypsy).

Adam Pascal
Adam Pascal

This month we chat with Adam Pascal, one of six original Rent leads cast in the film. The others are Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen); Idina Menzel (Maureen Johnson) and Taye Diggs (Benny Coffin III)—who, in private life, are now a married couple; Wilson Jermaine Heredia, reprising his Tony-winning performance as Angel Schunard; and Jesse L. Martin, who has since won TV-fame on "Law& Order," playing Tom Collins. Rosario Dawson has the role of Mimi Marquez, created by Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Tracie Thoms portrays Joanne Jefferson, originated by Fredi Walker. Chris Columbus, whose credits include the first two "Home Alone" and the first two "Harry Potter" movies, directed and co-wrote the screenplay.

Adam Pascal (PAS-cal) recreates his role of Roger Davis, which earned him Tony and Drama Desk nominations, as well as Obie and Theatre World Awards. Those accomplishments are even more noteworthy when you consider that he auditioned on a whim for what turned out to be the former rock singer-musician's first acting stint. He has since done two other Broadway musicals (Aida, Cabaret), two concert benefits (Chess in 2003; Hair, 2004), three other movies (including "The School of Rock"), and a couple of solo CDs ("Model Prisoner," 2000; "Civilian," 2004).

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Was Pascal surprised to be cast in the movie? "I was shocked!" he exclaims. "The film project, in various forms, has been kicking around Hollywood for numerous years. At one point—maybe four or five years ago—Spike Lee was going to direct, but he wasn't going to cast any of [the originals]. Well, I can only speak for myself.

"That fell apart. Then, out of nowhere, I got a call that the film was happening, that Chris Columbus was [directing], and that he was very interested in meeting with [the Broadway principals]. At the meeting, I very much got the impression that he wanted us in the film. I think it was because of our insight into the material and our connection to Jonathan [Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics], and because we were the best people for the parts. We had the ability to pull this off like, I don't think, anybody else could have. He had the insight to see all that, and to push for it. Everybody resisted it—the studio, the public: 'They're too old'...'They're not film actors' —all that stuff. Chris trusted his gut and went with it. I really think he made the right decision." I first interviewed Pascal in 1996, when he was a Tony nominee for Rent. At that time, he said what he liked best about his character was that "Roger gets to scream and yell a lot. [Laughs] He's a likeable guy, but he's a real dark, gloomy guy. He has so much passion and fire about him." Reminding him of the quote makes Pascal laugh. "That sounds like me back then. I wasn't an actor, and I didn't want to be considered one. It took many years for me to embrace it as a craft.

"What I like about the character now is that he's very multi-dimensional. He goes from pure heartbreak [Roger's girlfriend has committed suicide] to being pulled out of that by the love of his friends and the love of Mimi. He's enlightened to the fact that there are people who care about him. It was much more fulfilling to make that journey in the film. I got to think about each moment in a way that I never did when I was doing the show.

"It's not only because the show flies by like a locomotive, but also because I approached [the role] as a singer. I responded to highs and lows in the music. My performance worked because I went on raw emotions. When the music moved me to cry, I cried. I approached it more as an acting role in the movie.

"I wanted the character to seem different to those people who had seen me on the stage. I wanted him to look different. That's why my hair is long. Instead of the pseudo-punk rocker that Roger looked like in the show, he's much more a Springsteen-esque type of character. My hair was long [when filming was about to start] and Chris [Columbus] and I agreed to keep it that way. I now have a short, generic, actor-boy haircut. [Laughs]"

Declares Pascal, "I had more fun making the movie than I did making the show Off-Broadway [where Rent began]. I'm older and wiser, and all the people that I was working with are now my close friends, as opposed to brand new friends. It was like going to camp with your old friends."

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"Rent" started shooting in February. Although set in New York, Pascal points out, "The bulk of the film was made in San Francisco. We shot five days in New York—in Tompkins Square, and on a rooftop on Nineteenth Street and Fifth [Avenue], that's where we shot [the song] 'Glory.' We spent two weeks at Warner Brothers, on a [back lot] Lower East Side [of New York] street. We shot a lot of exteriors there. We did other exteriors in San Francisco. We had incredible set designers, who made a street in San Francisco look like Times Square on New Year's Eve. The loft they built for [the characters] Roger and Mark was fantastic, and it looked so much like Jesse Martin's apartment on Chambers Street when we were doing the show."

While he's seen "lots of parts of the film—and it's just beautiful," Pascal has not seen the feature in its entirety. "I think Rent fans would go see the movie regardless of the reviews. But if it was bad, chances are they wouldn't go back to see it. I think that it's going to be so good that they'll love it, and go back the way they go back to the show. In a way, the die-hard Rent fans will be the biggest skeptics. They feel it's theirs. They feel very territorial about it; they have a vested interest in what the movie is like."

Nine years ago, I asked Pascal if he should win the Tony [Nathan Lane won for Forum], whom he'd like to thank? He replied, "Of course, Jonathan, but that's obvious," and added, "I would thank Anthony Rapp." Today, that sentiment remains. "Anthony's generosity of spirit helped me so much. Jesse Martin and [stage director] Michael Greif helped me, too, but Anthony and I worked so closely together. We had so much to do together, and he had so much experience.

"Anthony helped me in the film, as well. I look up to him in so many ways on a personal level. He's all the things that, as a person, I wish I could be. He's much more forgiving, much more giving, much more optimistic. His vision of the world is better than mine. We're polar opposites. I think the way I am causes me internal grief that I wouldn't have if I was more like Anthony."

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Born in the Bronx, Pascal and his family moved to Long island when Adam was 10. He "grew up right around the corner from Idina [Menzel]." In the '96 interview, he recalled, "We were friendly, but not really friends. She dated a good friend of mine for years. I never knew her well until now. I feel like I missed so much because she's such a great girl. I feel like I missed a lot of years with her that I could have really enjoyed, but I'll have many to come." (He's remained true to his word.)

It was his friend, who was dating Idina, who told Pascal about Menzel being cast in a new rock musical. Adam decided to audition "to see what it was like. Here we are, ten years later. [Laughs] I feel very lucky." His luck also brought him to the Nantucket Film Festival in 1997, where Pascal met playwright Cybele Chivan. Married in December 1998, they are parents of sons Lennon and Montgomery. Going from the drug scene and Manhattan's East Village to Disney and Ancient Egypt, Pascal followed hisRent engagement (in which he was succeeded by Norbert Leo Butz) by playing the Palace, where Aida premiered in March 2000. Pascal portrayed Radames, opposite Heather Headley, who received a Tony Award for her performance in the title role. "I didAida three-and-a-half years," following which he returned to the musical at the end of June 2004 for the final nine weeks of its run.

Next, his theatrical journeys took him to 1929 Berlin, and the role of the MC in Cabaret. "I'd been trying to get them to cast me for months. I just kept going back; I really wanted to do the part. Then I heard the show was closing. I'd been cast in a leading role in a film and was just about to sign the contract, when the Roundabout called and asked if I'd come and do the last stint as the MC [October 2003-January 2004]. It was the greatest experience I ever had!"

Explains Pascal, "I was so afraid of doing it. I thought: If I can pull this off, I'd be really proud to call myself an actor. And I did! For that reason alone, it was incredible. But I loved the music and the production." The 2003 benefit concert ofChess (set in Italy and Thailand during the early 1980s) cast him as Freddie. "I was totally unfamiliar with the show, and thought the music was great—and I'm by no means an ABBA fan. I'm surprised that it hasn't come back to Broadway."

He journeyed back to the East Village in the 2004 benefit concert of Hair, and then to the African jungle in two workshops of Tarzan. "I have a great relationship with everyone at Disney and I wanted to work with them again. [Director-designer] Bob Crowley and Tom Schumaker [one of the heads of Hyperion Productions] wanted me involved. I was the Storyteller. They didn't want Tarzan to sing. I sang his songs and was his conscience, sort of his guardian angel. But, after two readings, I think they realized that there was no reason for my character, and the part was eliminated. Now, Tarzan gets to sing his own songs." (The musical opens next spring at the Richard Rodgers. Since it's playing at that theatre, might it called The Swing & I?)

There are no upcoming theatre projects for Pascal, who claims, "I've become a little disillusioned with what's happening in the theatre—just in the material that's been offered to me. I wish there was material that I responded to more. I can't make a living doing theatre. But I can't wait to come back. I'm doing a lot of film auditioning. I'm trying to make a transition into film. I'd like to see if I could have a little success in front of the camera."

I mention that on the heels of "Rent" (which has Roger and Mark dreaming in a loft) comes "The Producers" (with Max and Leo sharing lofty dreams), and Adam Pascal enthusiastically says, "I hope that they're both huge successes!"

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published next year.

Justin Johnston
Justin Johnston Joan Marcus