THE LEADING MEN: Steve Kazee, the Traveling Heart of Broadway's Once

By Kenneth Jones
17 Mar 2012

Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in Once.
Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm curious to know what your first exposure to theatre was. Children's theatre?
SK: No. It didn't happen until much later for me. I grew up in a very small, rural country town, and we didn't really have "the arts." What's amazing is that, nowadays there, the arts have grown and blossomed. They have a new multimillion-dollar theatre complex and everything, but all that stuff was put in place way after I left. So, for me, I didn't get involved in theatre until college.

Where was that?
SK: Morehead State University in Kentucky. I had been in choir the last couple years of high school because I always liked to sing and everything, but I never really thought of being an actor. I was in college, and I walked a girl that I was seeing at the time to an audition, and I got asked if I wanted to audition. It was for a musical. It was for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I went in, and they asked me to sing something. I didn't really know what to sing, so they just had me sing "Happy Birthday." I got a callback from that, and then they had me sing "Benjamin Calypso," which was hilarious. [Laughs.] And I ended up getting cast as one of the brothers in Joseph.

And that was the first acting thing for you? At Morehead?
SK: Yeah, at Morehead. That was the beginning of all of this, which is so strange to think about.

Did it seem instant to you — the comfort of being on stage?
SK: Yeah. I had tried so many different routes and professions and jobs and different things that I wanted to do in my life, and I never really found anything that roped me in, and this was the first thing where I just felt at home. And I hear a lot of people in this business, they talk about that. They talk about finding a home, and, for me, I felt like I just finally found the family that I belonged to. That was in 1995, '96? So we're going on almost 20 years now.

When did you get to New York?
SK: I got to New York in 2002. I sort of had a really roundabout life. I went to college for two years, and then I dropped out for three and just sort of traveled around the country and worked at little community theatres — wherever I could get jobs that would pay enough. I worked some in Syracuse and in California — all these different places. Then, I finally went back home to Kentucky in 2000 and finished up my last two years of college there, and I got my degree in theatre. I had always been a big fish in that pond in Morehead, and I sort of wanted to see if I could branch out and do something a little bigger, so I applied to NYU's grad acting program and to Yale's graduate program. I got into NYU. I came here in 2002, graduated in 2005 and pretty much started working right away. I have been blessed to never have had a day-job right out of college.


Kazee in Once.
photo by Joan Marcus

And, where did you get your Equity card?
SK: I got my Equity card doing Seascape here at — Oh, no, actually I got my Equity card, I believe. Let me think about this. It was either for As You Like It in the park… I can't really remember, to be honest with you. Those two jobs came back to back. It was either Seascape at the Booth or As You Like It at the park — the same year, 2005.

You're lucky to have been so busy as to not remember.
SK: [Laughs.]

I'm curious to know what Once director John Tiffany is like in the room, when you're creating this character who has already been seen on film.
SK: I'm not sure that I can find sufficient words to describe what kind of a presence and a vast genius this man is. He has this simplicity about him, which he brings to his work, and a specificity, which sometimes you don't get in simplicity. He, along with [choreographer] Steven Hoggett — our whole creative team, really — those two, in particular, have a way of working together, which just fosters this air of creativity. You feel like magic is happening at all times, and you feel like, at any moment, the most magical thing can come out of nothing, which for me, as a sort of science and astrophysics nerd, is a really interesting idea — this idea of something out of nothing. Creating things out of thin air — the two of them are just amazing at doing it. But John has a focus and is able to really sort of laser-point and cut out precisely what he wants and present that to you in a way that is very easily digestible as an actor, and that gives you the opportunity to recreate that in front of an audience every night. I think it shows. I have never been lucky enough to be around this much talent and this much creativity. The word "genius" gets thrown around a lot, but this is the first time I've ever experienced what I can truly say is, I think, genius ability.

The film, the source material, is so delicate. Was it your instinct at the beginning of this process to be "bigger" — to be more "musical theatre"? Or was the delicacy always there?
SK: No, the delicacy was always there because I am very resistant to the idea of "musical theatre" as a style.

Resistant to Showbiz style.
SK: Showbiz, yeah. The lights and the big hands and the big smiles and the big movements and giant costumes and sets. I think those days — I'm not saying they're gone forever — but we're entering a new phase in the arts world where, I think, minimalism is making a comeback. I say that in the face of some giant shows like Spider-Man, but I do think that the trend that we're seeing over the last couple of years is that things have become sort of smaller. Cast sizes have dropped. Economically, they've dropped. When you see something like [the actor-driven] Peter and the Starcatcher, for instance, which has such a simplified idea to it, you leave that feeling so full. You know what I mean? I think that people are finding a way to really find life and broadness in the finer, small things in life — the delicate things in life. So, for me, it wasn't a problem. I just try to play honesty, always. And, honesty is not always broad. If you're playing a role that requires that, then sure, but this guy's not that. This guy is introverted, and the only way he can express himself is through music. So, for me, I didn't have any problems with that.

One of the things that seems to be built into this production is that Girl is much more of an active muse than she is in the film. That helps make it — not showbiz — but make it clearer or more focused, in a way.
SK: Well, you know, [librettist] Enda Walsh did a wonderful job of making this film, which is so small and intimate, theatrical, which is really a task. He found a way to make it theatrical without making it broad. I think a lot of the credit goes to him and his script and the work that he did, incorporating characters from the film that weren't as big as they are in our show and just finding a way to really balance that out. Speaking of another really sort of amazingly profound talent, if Enda Walsh isn't that, then I don't know what he is.