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.
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