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

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17 Mar 2012

Steve Kazee
Steve Kazee
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It's not as though Steve Kazee never played a principal role on Broadway, so why does it feel like only now, with the Broadway musical Once, that he's making his Big Breakthrough?


Kazee appeared as the absurd Sir Lancelot in Spamalot and was the swaggering Starbuck to Audra McDonald's Lizzie in the musical 110 in the Shade, both extroverted roles. As Guy, the Irish busker and songwriter in Once, based on the indie film, he's a brokenhearted and stuck artist whose fears threaten to drown him. And then a Czech-immigrant muse (known only as Girl, played by Cristin Milioti) inspires him to play on — in a club, in a record studio, in life.

Maybe you need to play a broken soul in order to truly explode on stage? Or maybe director John Tiffany's spare staging on a multipurpose Irish pub setting forces us to focus on the characters and actors in deeper ways than we might elsewhere? Or maybe it's Kazee's passion for folk and country music — styles closely associated with Glen Hasard and Marketa Irglova's folk-pop score of Once — that make him so rooted, authentic and passionate in the part? Whatever the answer, Steve Kazee is breaking out as never before in one of the season's must-see performances. We spoke to him during previews prior to the show's March 18 opening.

In a company of actor-musicians, you play guitar so confidently and beautifully. Are you a natural musician or is this something you had to grow into for Once?
Steve Kazee: I never really trained to be a musician, but I've been playing guitar since I was around, like, 13 years old. For me, the guitar has always been the instrument that I've played. I play a little piano. I taught myself everything by ear. I don't read music at all, which has not really been a hindrance. I've gotten this far without reading music, so I just learn everything by ear and by watching other people, and that's been the way that I've operated as a musician.

Were you playing guitar every week, even before Once?
SK: Oh, yeah. I played all the time. For me, music is sort of my passion, more so than being an actor. I just never tried to make a career as a musician. It was just something that I did on my own time, just for me. I had written a lot of songs, but I don't really record a lot of music because, for me, it's the same way as a poet: I write to get things out. It's sort of cathartic. Music has always been just for me. This is the first time that playing an instrument has really been for other people.

Did you have a garage band as a kid?
SK: Oh, no. It was mostly just for me, in my house, in my bedroom. I just liked music. I've always loved music, so I liked playing music, but never really had much desire to make a career out of it.

It sounds like you can sort of really tap into what Guy is going through — sitting in his bedroom, noodling and creating stuff.
SK: Yeah, absolutely. No doubt. There's a lot of things about this character that I can really sort of grasp onto.

Are you attracted to the sort of folk-ballad music that populates Once?
SK: Yeah. Well, I'm from Kentucky, originally — the eastern portion of Kentucky, which is the foothills of Appalachia. That is the music there. It's very folk. It's very county. It's ballad-y. A lot of storytelling. The same sort of instruments that we use in the show — the banjo, guitar, mandolin, the violin, which we call the fiddle — all those instruments are very much a part of my growing up, so it's a very familiar territory for me.


Kazee in Once.
photo by Joan Marcus

The hometown you grew up in, what was that called?
SK: It's Ashland, KY.

That's where you attended high school?
SK: Yeah, a little school called Fairview.

Did your family listen to country music and bluegrass?
SK: Yeah. Well, my dad does. My mom is more of a classic-rock enthusiast. She sort of turned me on, at an early age, to the Doors and Pink Floyd and Steppenwolf and a lot of different bands like that. My dad was the other side, which was like the George Joneses and the Patsy Clines, the Merle Haggards — that sort of world, which I think is where a lot of my musical infusion takes place. Today I'm a fan of bands like Mumford & Sons and a guy by the name of The Tallest Man on Earth. It sort of just blends both of those worlds so beautifully.


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