Replacements have it tough. They get two weeks of sole rehearsal, meet the cast hours before show 1, and come under the scrutiny of "Well, they're not as good as…" For Paul Alexander Nolan, who stepped into the role of "Guy" in Broadway's Once at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, there was an even greater stigma: Not only was Nolan assuming a role that won Steve Kazee a Tony, he was coming in after Dr. Who star Arthur Darvill played it. And, he has to play guitar!
Fortunately, for the actor last seen on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar, there was a calming force for the Canadian Nolan: Joanna Christie, who had gone through similar ropes when she took over last April for original "Girl" Cristin Milioti (now TV's favorite Mother). TheaterMania chatted with the pair about the daunting task of making the roles their own while still maintaining the show's long-ingrained balance.
What is it like to step into an award-winning musical that has been playing on Broadway for quite a while?
Paul Alexander Nolan: I've never been a replacement in anything. I'm spoiled, because I've been working at the Stratford Festival where we have a ton of rehearsals. Here you don't really get the time to flesh everything out. That was terrifying. You step on stage for the first time and you feel like it's your first run-through in a rehearsal hall, except that it's in front of eleven hundred people. That's not the best, but you just have to move past it because there's no other choice.
Joanna Christie: You kept very calm when you were thrown in the deep end.
Paul Alexander Nolan: I was terrified. I really haven't played guitar in front of people, just at a couple of cabarets in Stratford, Ontario. That's it.
Joanna Christie: Are you finding the guitar fun yet?
Paul Alexander Nolan: I am. I mean, I'll sh*t the bed in the middle of a song and be like "Oh, Jesus." These guys don't do that because they're really playing a long time. For a couple weeks, "When Your Mind's Made Up" was not great.
Joanna Christie: Really? I thought you were very precise. I was like, "I don't know if Arthur ever played all the notes." [laughs]
Paul Alexander Nolan: Oh, he did. He probably played more notes too. Twice as many. Triplets. Because he's just awesome.
Joanna, what do you remember about your experience joining the cast with Arthur Darvill?
Joanna Christie: We flew in on Sunday, we didn't do anything till Tuesday, [and] we didn't do anything Wednesday because they had two shows, and then we were on on Friday. I was so excited. I just had to find some balls to do it. I still keep finding new things. It's awesome for me to have a new Guy for a while. That's really rejuvenated me and made me think more, and has given me loads to work with.
Were you both given leeway to come in and try new things?
Joanna Christie: There's a tricky balance. We can't just start from scratch because the show is ongoing. When we were rehearsing, I was still doing the show at night, so that was a bit of a brain tease, trying to be open and free to finding new things with Paul and then going back to the original show.
Paul Alexander Nolan: The play is the star and you kind of serve it. If I really feel strongly about changing something, I'll say it. Most of the time I'm happy to try stuff on because I know how hard they worked at this play to develop it. We had a conversation the other night with our associate director about a small section of lines. There was humor in something that I just wasn't noticing. They pointed it out and I was a little bit like, I want to do it this way. And then I tried it that night and not only did it make the audience enjoy themselves more, but it made more sense. The play is bigger than any of the actors in it and I love that. That's Shakespearean.
So what's the key to finding new pathways into the roles?
Paul Alexander Nolan: You show up, bring your heart, and listen.
Joanna Christie: Exactly. When it's just listening to each other and being truthful, it becomes our relationship. You can't remember what anyone else has done.