DIVA TALK: Chatting with Hair's Caissie Levy Plus News of Peters and Streisand

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Hair's Caissie Levy Plus News of Peters and Streisand
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Caissie Levy
Caissie Levy

Does anyone seem to be having more fun onstage than the cast of the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, which is currently playing the Al Hirschfeld Theatre? Whether they're passionately performing two numbers on the 2009 Tony Awards or exuberantly dancing atop a Manhattan roof for the show's great new commercial, the youthful company members seem to be having a ball while investing themselves completely in this '60s-set anti-war themed musical penned by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot. One of the members of the Hair "Tribe" is Caissie (pronounced Kay-see) Levy, who portrays Sheila and gets the chance to belt out — to thrilling effect — one of the evening's many show-stoppers, "Easy to Be Hard," as well as the second-act, feel-good hit "Good Morning Starshine." Levy, who possesses a stirring, wide-ranging, soaring belt, has also appeared on Broadway in two other Tony-winning musicals: Hairspray and Wicked. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the upbeat singing actress, who spoke about her newest Broadway outing, Tony night and Hair's nude scene; that interview follows.

Question: Tell me about the filming of the Hair commercial. It looks like it was a lot of fun.
Levy: It was a crazy day, a 12-hour day. It was on Monday after a five-show weekend. We were pretty exhausted, but we had a great time. Half the cast had to show up really early at six to do the ground shots. There was a group of us that did stuff on the ground and another group of us who did the roof shots.

Question: Was it the roof of the Hirschfeld?
Levy: It's supposed to be the roof of the Hirschfeld, but we were actually nearby at a school's rooftop because we didn't have access to our roof. Luckily, I got to do the roof stuff, which means I got to sleep until 11 or so, which was nice! [Laughs.] We had a blast.

Question: What was it like singing atop the roof?
Levy: It was really fun. I've never shot a commercial before, so it was interesting to see what the process was like and all the work that goes into a 30-second spot. The concept turned out really beautifully I think. It really captured the spontaneity of the show — just having it outside and having the wind whip our hair around… I thought it was pretty cool.

Question: How did you get cast in the production?
Levy: I'd [auditioned]...for the original concert version in [2007]. I had two callbacks. I think it was when I was doing Wicked in New York. And then I went off to L.A. to play Elphaba, and they had called again, I think, when they were doing the Central Park production [in 2008], but I was tied up with Wicked And then they called again when I was done with Wicked, and I was actually going to come to New York just to hang out with some friends. At that point I thought I'd stay in L.A. for awhile and do some film and TV stuff. They said, "We're going to Broadway, and we'd love to see you for Sheila." They had me back a few times over the course of a few months. Eventually I got the gig, and I had like a week to move from L.A. to New York! So I flew back to L.A. and threw everything in boxes, and I then I traded apartments with one of my girlfriends here. It was crazy. I was like, "Okay I have to find an apartment," and she was like, "You know what, I'm kinda done with New York for now. Why don't I go to your place and you live in my New York place?" So I [thought], "Sweet! Perfect!" [Laughs.] So it worked out really well, and before I knew it I was in rehearsals. Question: How would you describe Sheila?
Levy: I think she's awesome. She's such a great character to play because she's so strong and so passionate about what she believes in. She's really an idealist but without just the talking. She's a doer. She really gets out there and stands up for what she believes in, but she's also very vulnerable and has this fragility to her, which I find really interesting to play. I've just tried to make her the most human character I possibly can and really try to play those opposites of where she's at in her relationship with Berger [Will Swenson] and how fragile she can be in that situation and yet how strong she can be when she's fighting a war, making her voice be heard and spreading the message of love. I think she's pretty awesome.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her in the show?
Levy: So many! I just feel so lucky with this show because there's just so much great stuff happening onstage. The way Diane [Paulus] has directed us and the freedom she's given us to shape our roles and our interactions just means there's so many cool things happening between the characters all the time. If I had to pick a favorite… I love the scene leading into "Easy to Be Hard." I love what's happening between her and Berger, and I love how complicated their relationship is. I think it's a very truthful depiction of many relationships — when you're fighting for the control and wanting to retain some power while still loving somebody else. I think that's just an interesting thing to play, so I love that scene. I love all my time with Claude [Gavin Creel]. He and I have a really good time together. He's so fantastic in the show, and I just love being able to work off of him. I think probably my favorite — well, I wouldn't say it's my favorite — what I really love about the show is just watching everybody else do their thing, and when Sheila can just be part of the Tribe and interact with everybody else while watching HUD [Darius Nichols] do his song or Claude or Jeanie [Kacie Sheik]. Being part of a Tribe is pretty cool on a Broadway stage, and being able to just watch everyone else have their moments is pretty cool.

Question: How vocally demanding would you say the role is?
Levy: It's a lot more vocally demanding than I thought it would be, and not necessarily because of the vocals per se, just because of the emotion that's behind everything in the show. End of the show I'm just emotionally wrecked because you just go on such a journey. What's great about the score is it's so fun to sing. It's in a great spot for me, and I love the amount of stuff I do. I love that I get to sing "Starshine," which is this beautiful folksy song, and I get to kind of rock out on "I Believe in Love," and "Easy to Be Hard" is this really beautiful acting moment. I love everything I get to do, but it's more that I'm emotionally spent by the end of the show. We're screaming a lot, we're chanting a lot, and we're up there invested. We're in the audience's faces, so there's nowhere to hide. You can't just go out into the audience and mark your vocal stuff. You gotta give it, which is fantastic, and all of us really are doing that every single night.

Question: What is it like when you go out into the audience? Did that take some getting used to?
Levy: It took some getting used to for me. I hadn't really done that before in a show. I was a little nervous about it, and I'm not "Improv Girl." I like to be given some lines, and I will say them. [Laughs.] I was a little worried about how I would handle it, but everyone is so open and ready to receive us when they come see the show. There's only been a couple of times where people have been closed off and made it really clear that they do not want to be messed with. [Laughs.] Most people are right there with us, so they make me feel comfortable. A week in I was like, "Okay, I got this! I understand what's happening here." I was much less tentative a week into previews about interacting with the audience. I guess the number one thing is that when you're in character it doesn't really matter. I think it was just me as Caissie that was freaking out about it. Once I'm Sheila, I don't think twice about it, and it's just natural, and the things that came out of my mouth were absolutely in character and the people were seeing me as Sheila, not as Caissie, so that eased my mind a little bit.

Question: Was the nudity at all a concern for you?
Levy: It's funny, it really wasn't. I was totally onboard to do it from the beginning. I thought I would be nervous. We didn't get naked until tech. I was like, "Okay I guess we're doing this here! Everyone's already seen each other naked, and I'm the new person!" [Laughs.] But it was really beautiful and moving, and obviously everyone knows it's totally not sexual. The first time I did it in performance, it was incredibly beautiful. What was also really interesting about it is that everything that came before and after it was just as beautiful. It wasn't like it was the culmination. It's a strong point in the show, and it has a lot of weight to it, but so do many other points in the show. It just kind of put things in perspective. We're lit really beautifully, and I love the sentiment behind it. For me I decided that this was Sheila — when she was taking her clothes off — it was her saying, "Why are you scared to look at me when we're all the same underneath our clothes? We can look at these images of war on TV and be okay with that and put our heads down and sleep at night and not be haunted by those images, but yet we can't stand to see each other in our natural state." When you think about it that way, it's really not a big deal. It's really like, it's just the truth.

Caissie Levy in Hair
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I would think performing in a musical like Hair could be life-changing. Do you think it's affected you at all in how you look at life?
Levy: Yeah, definitely. I've always felt really connected to the '60s, so I thought I would be playing this part at some point down the road. And to be doing it now, it's absolutely seeped its way into my daily life. It's a testament to the show but also to the cast that the Public Theater assembled and the people that are in the show and the crew and the musicians — everyone is really a family. Ninety percent of the time that's the case on any show you work with. You become close to everybody and have this really special experience. I think having to communicate this message alongside people that you really love and respect just makes your bond deepen. Just as a New Yorker it's helped me. I get less irritated on the streets, because I'm like, "Peace and love man!" Someone bumps into you, I'm not quite as angry as maybe I once would have been. [Laughs.] I try to bring it home with me, and it's kind of impossible not to bring it home with you. It's so easy to say, "Oh, it's such a cliché — peace and love and acceptance," but that's taking the easy way out. All of my friends that are in the business and all of my friends that are not in the business have had the same things to say after the show — that they were just swept away by the honesty of it and by what's at it's core. The themes of the show really make you think, and it snaps you out of your jadedness. You can't not be transformed by the atmosphere. Question: What was Tony night like for you?
Levy: It was so amazing! It really was. I went to the Tonys two years ago with some of my Wicked friends. When I was doing the show in New York, we had the opportunity to be in the audience, and it was so cool. But then to be performing at the Tonys was completely surreal. I was so nervous. I really didn't have much responsibility that night. I wasn't singing [solo] or anything, but we were so thrilled and honored that we were nominated for so many awards, and that Gavin and Will and Diane were nominated was really exciting. The fact that the one award that we did win was the tribal award was really fantastic, and performing was crazy! Going and jumping all over all these famous people was insane. And then after we won and charging the stage, I just could not believe that it was happening. Once we got back on the bus after we went to the press room and we were being shuttled back to the Hirschfeld to get ready for the party, I just couldn't stop crying. I didn't expect that at all. I'm definitely a mushy, sentimental girl, but I didn't really think about how it would affect me. I was just thinking about all those years I watched the Tonys growing up. To be part of this community is such a gift. To have won this Tony for our cast with this beautiful show that's really affecting people was the biggest honor in the world. It really was.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, I wanted to go back a bit. Where were you born and raised?
Levy: I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada — about 45 minutes outside of Toronto. Raised there as well, all the way through the end of high school.

Question: When did you start performing?
Levy: I started performing when I was seven or eight. I did most of my performing at summer camp. We did full-length productions. I played Coco in Fame, which made no sense whatever [laughs] and Peter in Peter Pan, just silliness. That's where I really learned that that's what I loved to do. I was kind of shy at home as far as performing. I didn't really sing a lot around the house. I remember when my parents came to my graduation showcase at school, they were like, "We had no idea you could sing like that!" I was a little bit shy, but I always took lessons — dance and acting and singing lessons. I did the plays in high school, but I mostly did straight theatre growing up. I did musicals at summer camp, but I always did plays at home and community theatre. I actually had planned on studying Shakespeare in Canada for college and kind of going down the path of the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival and the more avant-garde theatres in Toronto. I thought that's where things would lead me, but I got into school in New York, and I thought, "Well, I have to go to New York." Then I ended up doing all of these amazing Broadway shows. It's interesting what you think will happen to you and where you end up.

Question: Were there any artists that inspired you as a young performer?
Levy: As far as theatre goes, I remember I saw Les Miz in Toronto when I was seven or eight, and I was intensely jealous of the Young Cosette. [Laughs.] I thought, "Okay this must mean something — like I need to be doing that." And then I saw Rent when I was 14 in Toronto, and I was just convinced I was Mimi. I didn't even remember Maureen, and that's the role I ended up playing. I was all about Mimi. Those shows totally influenced me, but then I also sang a lot of jazz in high school. I sang in the jazz band, and I sang with the city's jazz band. At one point I was listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of scatting, and a lot of old school — riffing is the thing now, but back then it was all the jazz styling, so that influenced me a lot. I've also just been a huge music fan forever … I remember when Erykah Badu's CD came out when I was in high school, and it kind of blew my mind and I wanted to sound exactly like her. She was a huge influence on me vocally.

Caissie Levy in Hairspray

Question: What was the first Broadway show you did?
Levy: The first Broadway show was Hairspray in 2006. Question: Do you remember your first night on a Broadway stage?
Levy: Oh yeah. I had been doing Hairspray for two-and-a-half years. I did it in Toronto, and I played Penny for a year on the tour, so I was really comfortable in my role, which was great, but it was totally different doing it on Broadway. I remember in the middle of "Good Morning, Baltimore" when the scrim comes up and reveals the whole line of characters in the back. I remember when that went up and we [sang] "Good morning, Baltimore…" frozen in line, I could just look out and I thought, "Oh, my God, I'm on Broadway! Unbelievable!" My family was there, and my friends and my manager from Toronto came in, and we went out to Carmine's after. It was just this beautiful fantasy night, and I couldn't believe it was coming true.

Question: How did you get Wicked?
Levy: I had like two months off between Hairspray and Wicked, and I was auditioning a lot for different things. I had been in for Wicked years before when they were looking for a standby for Glinda. [Laughs.] I'm really not a Glinda vocally, but my agent's like, "Just go in, just go in!" It was just horrifying. . . . I was in some prom dress doing soprano stuff, which is wrong for me. That was funny. So I went back and finally they would see me for Elphaba. At one point they weren't really seeing a lot of blondes for Elphabas or brunettes for Glindas. So I went in and I had a couple auditions, and I was really only interested in staying in New York at that time because I had just gotten off tour less than a year before. So they put me in the New York cast as the [Elphaba] cover, and I went in in November of 2006.

Question: Where have you played Elphaba?
Levy: I covered it in New York. I went in originally when Ana Gasteyer was finishing her run and Julia Murney was coming in. I was there for about a year, and I went on four or five times that year.

Caissie Levy in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember your first time on for the role?
Levy: Oh yeah. It was like six months into my contract because the standby goes on first. There was a vacation schedule, and I knew I was going to have two performances. For me it was really interesting because I'm the kind of actor that needs the lights and the costumes and the real thing to happen to take it to the next level. So in rehearsals I was absolutely prepared, but it definitely took on a whole new thing when I actually went on. Luckily, the creative team was there, and I think that's what kind of started talk about me doing the role somewhere. It was just thrilling and overwhelming. I don't remember much of it because it's like being shot out of a cannon. Doing Elphaba you're never offstage and when you are, you're walking through a trapdoor or something. It was just kind of like, "Go, go, go…!" I was opposite Kendra Kassebaum, who is a total pro and a fabulous person, so she was at my side the whole time and really supportive as was the whole cast. Everyone's excited when an understudy goes on. It's such an exciting moment for everyone: "Okay, we're gonna support you and give you everything we can." That cast in New York was really such a family. I miss them — I go see them all the time. And the crew is so fantastic over there. It was an incredible night, and luckily I had two in a row, which was great because then I could sort of think straight the second time around. . . . After that I went straight out to replace Eden [Espinosa] in the L.A. cast. So I did New York for about a year and then I went out, I think, in October of 2008. I stood by for her for six weeks while she was finishing up her run and I took over. Question: What was it like playing the part on a full-time basis?
Levy: It was amazing. It was tough, and it was a huge learning experience, and it was just thrilling. The L.A. fans of Wicked are hardcore. They were there all the time. L.A. audiences just love, love, love the show.

Question: Were you in Wicked when Adam Lambert was in it?
Levy: I was, yeah.

Question: What was he like?
Levy: He's an awesome guy. He really is just how he comes off on TV. That's him, totally unique and totally at home in his own skin. He has this crazy voice and would go on for Fiyero and just blow the roof off the place.

Question: Were you surprised this year when he had such success on the show?
Levy: Not at all. I'd seen him sing around L.A. and also, obviously, when he would go on for Fiyero, and he's just a star. There's no denying that. He's a star because he knows who he is, and he's not trying to be something he isn't, and he's just got this incredible talent. To watch the entire world find out who he is is kind of crazy, you know? Everyone in Wicked is just so proud of him because he deserves it, and I think he's gonna really make his mark on the pop scene.

Question: How long are you scheduled to stay with Hair?
Levy: I'm with Hair for a year, until next March. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. I love this job, and I'm thrilled to be there. Question: Do you have any other projects in the works while you're in the show?
Levy: Yeah, there's always other things. I do a lot of readings around the city — nothing I can totally speak to. It's not really my place to say. I love working on new projects, and that was actually one of the main thrills about coming back to New York to do this. I was really hoping that after doing Elphaba my next thing would be originating a role. So to actually have that happen is really exciting, and I'd like to continue on that path, keeping an eye out for cool new projects that happen around town.

[Hair plays the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com or hairbroadway.com.]

Barbra Streisand

Good news for the legion of Barbra Streisand fans: The newest solo recording from the Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner — the actress' first studio collection since 2005 — is due in stores in the fall. Entitled "Love Is the Answer," the CD will arrive on the Columbia Records label Sept. 29. The new disc, press notes state, "presents the artist as a cabaret and jazz singer of emotional clarity, depth and maturity, offering the listener a warm and intimate selection of late night meditations on love's powers, heartbreaks and solaces." "Love Is the Answer" provides Streisand the opportunity to work with Grammy-winning Canadian jazz artist Diana Krall (piano) and her quartet (guitar, bass, drums). Orchestrations were penned by Grammy-winning arranger Johnny Mandel. Song titles have yet to be announced. The Carlyle Hotel has announced its 2009 fall season, which will feature three-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara. South Pacific's O'Hara, who made her Carlyle debut this past spring, will kick off the season, playing the posh venue Sept. 15-26. She will be followed by veteran singer/songwriter Judy Collins, who will present ten encore performances of her spring engagement Sept. 29-Oct. 7. Husband and wife singing duo John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey will play the East Side cabaret Oct. 13-Nov 7, and vocalist Steve Tyrell will be in residence Nov. 10-31. Woody Allen & The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band will once again perform Monday evenings Sept. 14-Dec. 7. The Carlyle Hotel is located at 35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue. For reservations call (212) 744-1600 or visit www.thecarlyle.com.

Susan Blackwell and 2009 Tony nominee Hunter Bell, who starred in the Broadway musical [title of show], will offer a workshop in July named after one of the songs performed in that Bell- Jeff Bowen show. The "Die Vampire, Die" workshop will be held July 20 in downtown Seattle from 2-8 PM. A vampire, it should be noted, "is any person, thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self-expression." The workshop, according to press notes, is "designed to assist participants in identifying and nurturing the seedlings of ideas through the writing process and into performance. While some performance experience is helpful, it is not necessary." There is a $125 fee for the one-day workshop; to reserve a spot and receive further information, email Kat Ramsburg at katramsburg@yahoo.com.

Singing actress Susan Egan and composer Georgia Stitt will team for two concerts at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan in August. The duo's concerts, entitled All Knocked Up! (again) are scheduled for Aug. 1 at 9:45 PM and Aug. 2 at 9:30 PM. "Come join these gal pals for a raucous evening as they sing their own tunes and others amidst juicy gossip and the occasional pee break!" according to a news posting on Egan's official website. The Metropolitan Room is located at 34 West 22nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. For reservations call (212) 206-0440 or visit www.metropolitanroom.com.

Actors from the San Francisco casts of Wicked and Spamalot will join composer and lyricist Scott Alan for an evening of his songs July 3 at the Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko in California. The 11 PM concert will feature the talents of Spamalot's Merle Dandridge and Wicked's Alexa Green, Celisse Henderson, Vicki Noon and Eddy Rioseco. Expect songs from Alan's recordings "Dreaming Wide Awake" and "Keys" as well as tunes from his musical Piece. The Rrazz Room is located inside Hotel Nikko at 222 Mason Street, San Francisco. For tickets, priced $30-$50, visit http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionData&eventId=2003174.

Bernadette Peters in concert
photo by Kurt Sneddon

Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters recently returned from Australia, where she performed two sold-out concerts at the 1,850-seat Festival Theatre. The evenings, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander with musical direction by Marvin Laird, were part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, assembled by new artistic director (and famed singing actor) David Campbell. Peters' acclaimed concerts — which included her renditions of "Let Me Entertain You," "Nothing Like a Dame," "No One Is Alone," "Johanna," "Move On," "Children Will Listen," "I Honestly Love You" and "Rose's Turn," among others — were filmed for Australian television and will air this weekend (June 27 at 8:30 PM Australia time) on Foxtel. Let's hope the concert will be picked up for American TV and DVD distribution! BTW, diva fans can catch Peters June 27 at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco; visit bernadettepeters.com for Peters' complete tour itinerary. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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