THE LEADING MEN: Will Chase and Jim Norton, Two "Sides of the Coin" in The Mystery of Edwin Drood
By Michael Gioia
January 14, 2013
In the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Will Chase and Jim Norton star as two pieces of the mystery's puzzle — the devious John Jasper and the charming master of ceremonies, The Chairman.
A SMASH-ING VILLAIN
Stage veteran Will Chase, who played the role of Michael Swift on the NBC musical drama "Smash," is back on stage in Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Rupert Holmes' The Mystery of Edwin Drood — following a weeklong stint in the Gershwin-scored musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, where he stepped in for a vacationing Matthew Broderick. The actor, who is known for his rock-tenor voice — evident in Broadway's Rent, Miss Saigon, Aida, The Full Monty, High Fidelity and "Smash" — is exercising his "legit" musical-theatre chops with his recent stage outings. Aside from Nice Work and his current project, Drood, Chase was also seen in the Encores! production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream. We recently caught up with the busy actor, who talked about exploring his classical side and living it up as the villainous John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
You first came onto my radar when you starred as Roger in Rent — that show is a big part of my life. It's interesting that Roger Davis and John Jasper are worlds apart.
Will Chase: Yeah, they really are. It was my first Broadway show back in the day, and I think people thought all I did was the rock 'n' roll thing [because] then I did Miss Saigon for a while and Aida… I mean, I had been doing legit [material], but no one had really seen it. The Pipe Dream [by New York City Center Encores!], of course, and Nice Work are a little more along those lines. Yeah… [Roger and Jasper] are night and day, vocally, and I don't know that I could've done this role ten years ago. It's such a heavy beast. And, to get to sing this stuff…! [Laughs.]
Why do you say that you wouldn't have been able to take on a role like this ten years ago?
WC: When we closed Rent, my voice had… I would use the word "marinated." The older you get, the better your chops get, I think. With Rent, when everybody was in it the first time around, everybody was so young, and everybody was missing four or five shows a week because that [material] is hard to sing eight times a week. This is, too. [Edwin Drood] requires so much of me physically and vocally, I feel like now I'm in the place where I can kind of sing anything. I don't know if that would have been true a decade ago.
Chase in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Photo by Joan Marcus
I saw your tweet a few days ago about an audience member "taking notes in the front row"…
WC: [Laughs.] Oh, God! Audiences forget that it's live — not most people, but some people do — and if it's in the front row that you're going to come and sleep, or you're going to come and talk, or if you're going to come and take pictures, we can see you. It's not a movie. The guy was having a good time, but he had out his notepad, and you can literally see him nod and go, "Yeah, yeah… That's cool!" [Laughs.] I'm surmising that he was doing a production somewhere. I can't imagine that he was reviewing the show for any reason. You just want to say, "Hey, guy… We can see you there!" [Laughs.]
Is it exciting, though, to be interacting so much with the audience in Drood? What's the vibe out in the house?
WC: Yeah, it's great. I would say it's one of my most favorite things to do because it just loosens everybody up. Most audiences don't dig the whole, "Somebody's going to talk to me" [thing]... Then they realize that's what the evening is. My [pre-show interaction with the audience] is asking people if they're drinking…because I want them to! [Laughs.] I want them to know that the vibe of the night is to have fun, and [I] chat them up a little bit just to loosen them up, and by the time they see the entire company come out, they think, "Oh, okay!" Most shows take the first number to get things going; we get it going before the first number, and I think it's key. I actually go out in the lobby and yell at people to hurry up and take their seats. I even get people out of cabs sometimes…
Studio 54, for me, is always this great place. There's always an event happening at Studio 54, so I feel that as soon as you walk in, it should feel like a music hall. And, I'm just another actor at the music hall who is, of course, cocky and conceited, so, of course, I'm telling people to hurry up and get to their seats. It's my favorite thing to do in the evening.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Are you enjoying playing the villain?
WC: Oh, it's the best. You know, this is the first time I've played the obvious villain. I love playing bad guys because there's usually something redeemable about them. On TV, I'm usually a bad guy — or at least a jerk — but I like playing them because I like to try and find something redeemable. This guy is just a villain "on the nose," so it's even more fun. I don't have to worry about being likable!
Can you tell me about working through "Jasper's Vision," after your character has taken opium? The audience becomes immersed in the dream ballet.
WC: Isn't it amazing? When we first started, we were trying to find this balance. There's a balance in the show between music hall and Dickensian. There are moments that [writer-composer] Rupert [Holmes] has written that you actually get — you, me, the audience and the actors — really lost in the Dickens story, as opposed to something like "Both Sides of the Coin," that Jim [Norton] and I sing — it's a total music hall number. I mean, the curtain comes down, we take off our jackets, [and] we do it as they would have done in the music hall. The ballet… I remember [choreographer] Warren Carlyle said, "Look, this is where we're getting actually lost in the opium trip. And, it's real; it's not a send-up." It's interesting to hear the audience get lost in this beautiful [moment]… It's stunning what Warren does. He makes a bed float across the stage. There are no tricks, other than actors moving things. And, then you got Scott [Ellis'] direction and the lighting — Sam Davis, too, he did the dance arrangement. So it's one of those great, beautiful moments. Our ensemble is incredible, and it's great storytelling. I love that people love that moment because, at first, people think, "Is this real all of a sudden?" Then you get lost in it.
My favorite compliment [from] my friends who came to see the show is about the tone. They say that it's consistent, and even when the rules are broken, it makes sense. It's one of the hardest shows I've ever had to rehearse because it's like, "What is the tone? Is this scene music hall? Is this scene real?" But the rewards are amazing because it's a really well-crafted and well-executed show.
Chase on "Smash."
As for "Smash," do we see any window of opportunity for coming back in Season Two?
WC: Who knows! I'm hearing things, but I believe things when I'm there. It's just like whenever I get offered a Broadway show, [I think], "Yeah, I'll believe that when I'm sitting in the rehearsal room." I mean, I don't think so. I think that storyline might be dead, but you never know. It's television!
Have you been keeping in touch with your "Smash" co-stars?
WC: Oh, yeah. Me and [Christian] Borle tend to have a weekly steak and glass of wine. And, you can't not run into "Smash" folks because they're all in our industry anyway. [Laughs.] It's lovely that it shoots here. It's funny — I just love that people are impassioned about it. Whether they like it or they don't like it, I love that it's a topic of conversation because it's our world. It's what we do. And, of course, there are moments of great truths in it, and there are moments of, "this is television, and we have to fit this into 46 minutes," which is why I like television as well.
Have your kids been to see Drood a few times?
WC: Only 13 times! [Laughs.] They've seen, I think, every murderer. They love it. My daughter Daisy will come again tonight. The cool thing about our show, too, is that it is a show you can come back to see, and it will be different. You let Andy Karl loose or Peter Benson loose, you're going to see a different show anyway. [Laughs.] … Fingers crossed we'll extend again. It's the kind of show — when you're in, especially — you [think], "Oh, please, can this run for a while?" That's typically not Roundabout's thing, but shows like this come along very rarely with this kind of… I call it true Broadway cast. I'm very proud of it.
THE "ROYALE" CHAIRMAN
Tony Award-winning actor Jim Norton takes on his second big musical endeavor in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where he leads the troupe of British actors at London's Music Hall Royale. Norton, who won a 2008 Tony Award for his performance in The Seafarer and has also been seen on the Broadway stage in Finian's Rainbow and The Weir, stars as the lively Chairman in Drood. Growing up overseas in Ireland, Norton admits to being familiar with the style and rousing antics of music hall and was excited to put that knowledge to use. We spoke to the actor last week, on his 75th birthday, when he discussed his first exposure to the arts, studying Victorian theatre and working alongside legends in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
How familiar were you with this material before you stepped into rehearsals for Edwin Drood?
Jim Norton: I'd read the [Charles Dickens] book a long time ago, so I knew that, but, as Rupert Holmes said, "There's not much point in reading the book because you won't find anything about the show in there that's relevant." And, I had heard the LP — the long-playing record — some years ago. I was really impressed by that. And, I had read a book, ["Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told"], about Joe Papp and The Public Theater, which covers the whole story about how [The Mystery of Edwin Drood] came into being. So I was familiar with that, but I certainly wasn't familiar with the script.
Did you revisit that book about Joe Papp and The Public before rehearsals began?
JN: Yes, I did. I had read it a few years ago. Someone gave [it to me as] a present, and I remembered there was a whole section in the book where they interviewed various people who were involved in the production — the actors and the producers and director. I keep books. I hoard them! [Laughs.] So I found my copy of it and read it again, and it was very illuminating, particularly the bit where Rupert Holmes actually went in to Joe Papp, sat at the piano and did the whole show — just played the whole thing…all the parts — and Joe Papp said, "That sounds like a good show, let's do it." That's how it happened. They did it in [Central] Park [at the Delacorte Theater], where it was very successful, and then it moved onto Broadway where it ran for about two years. That was 25 years ago.
Norton and cast in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Are you keen on doing musicals? This is your second big musical production after Finian's Rainbow.
JN: It is! I believe life is all about the endless possibility of change. I didn't start out to appear in musical theatre. I did certain amounts of it as a young actor, but it's wonderful. It's like a whole new door has opened onto a whole new stage. It's very exciting. It's great fun, and it's such a fabulous cast. I'm a huge fan of Broadway musicals — of American Musical Theatre — so to find myself, at this point in my life, part of it is a real thrill. I'm working with two of my heroes throughout the years — Chita Rivera, obviously I followed her career…and I think a large number of my CD collection has the name Paul Gemignani, [who is the show's music director and conductor], on it — so to end up working with the maestro and with Chita is something I never expected.
Growing up overseas, were you very familiar with the style of British music hall?
JN: Oh, yeah. I grew up in Ireland, of course, and I come from Dublin. We had music hall there that was very similar to what they had in England. So I was very familiar with that style of the Chairman sitting to the side of the stage with a glass of something potent. [Laughs.] And, hopping up and keeping the crowd in check because they could get quite unruly at times… It was great to get a chance to do that, as I've never played that before.
Did your parents take you to theatre at a young age?
JN: Yeah. I started acting when I was about eight or nine. I had a very good singing voice, which I don't think I have now… But I had a boy soprano voice, so I won lots of competitions, and I ended up working in radio as a radio actor. It never occurred to me, ever, to do anything else other than be an actor. So, yes, I did go to the theatre a lot when I was a kid. My grandmother was a great piano player and had a great ton of stories — I'm sure that's where I get the acting gene. My mother played violin, and she was very musical, and my sister runs quite a successful drama school — The Betty Ann Norton Drama School in Dublin. She became a drama teacher, and I became a thespian.
Norton as the Chairman
Photo by Andrew Eccles
The Chairman runs the show. Is it exciting? Exhausting?
JN: It's both of those things because there's nowhere to hide. You're on [stage] all night long. It's like being up on a high wire without a net because you never know what's going to happen. Yes, it is exciting, but in terms of the energy required, it is like an Olympic event, I feel, every night. It's like being part of a track team, where you have to go and run 100 meters every night and break a world record, so that's the real test that we have every night — to keep the show fresh. And, my job, as [director] Scott Ellis keeps telling me, is to drive the show along and never let it slag. So that's why my days are usually spent quietly, either swimming, walking in the park or just getting myself ready for the evening. But it's great to be with a company like this — 22 actors and a fabulous orchestra.
You're wearing two hats in Drood. In the middle of the music hall show, you take over the role of the Mayor. Can you tell me about this dual role?
JN: It's a wonderful piece of theatrical magic that Rupert has thought up. The Chairman is the man who's written the [music hall] show, who's directed the show, who's choreographed the show, and we have to remind ourselves — and the audience — that this is the premiere performance. It's the first performance, so anything can go right or anything can go wrong, and, in the midst of [the show], one of the actors gets drunk and isn't able to appear, so the Chairman steps in. It's a lovely opportunity to play another character. I have to keep reminding myself who I am from time to time. As he says in the song ["Both Sides of the Coin"], "I don't know who I am from scene to scene!" [Laughs.] It took a while to get that to be fluid, as I hope it is now.
Will Chase mentioned that you studied Victorian mannerisms and gestures for this role…
JN: There's a great guy named Jack Murphy [from] London who is an expert on Victorian theatre, so I did some work with him before I started rehearsals — [on] the mode of address, how they stand, how they speak, how they move. But I've always been interested in Victorian theatre because, as a young actor, I worked with a lot of those old actor laddies — chaps who wore capes and had silver-topped canes… It was all about voice projection and how they looked.
The Chairman is really, for me, an amalgam of all those older actors who I saw when I was a kid, doing their old-fashioned plays. That's a kind of style of acting that we don't have anymore. There's a lot to be said for it because they, of course, had to act in theatres where there was no amplification, so they had to have incredibly strong, articulate voices to play to sometimes 2,000 people. That's really where the [term] "show business" came from because when they said things like, "On yonder mountain, I see the cloud," they would point and do these big gestures because the theatre was so huge that everything had to be huge, including the performance. Actors now are so used to working in close-up on film that it's a kind of technique that has been lost to a lot of young actors today. What I try to do, playing the Chairman, is to revive that style — that old-fashioned, fruity style of acting. [Laughs.]
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)