For the Love of Man, or the Love of God?
If God were a woman, and She were Gale Edwards (which is not an unsubstantiated claim, according to some), Daniel C. Levine may have called for Her help in choosing between his love for theater and his love for medicine as he sat in Tufts Medical School five years ago. Descending upon Boston like a nor'easter, She could have led him through the parted Charles River in a whorl-winded, time-warped rendition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. "Here you have stability, prestige and honor. But there...there you have Broadway, Glenn Carter, a masterpiece revival... and a much groovier haircut."
One hour with Daniel, and it's apparent he's found something to worship in Edwards, or at least in her work as a director. And, while Jesus Christ Superstar can't guarantee this 27-year old total stability, it can offer him a step up the Broadway-star ladder--or perhaps more importantly, the Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-and-Tim-Rice ladder--exposing him to all the perks that come along with a major revival. For a Broadway first-timer, Daniel couldn't have picked a better show. This two-act rock opera just recently completed an extremely successful sell-out tour and a run in the UK (directed by Edwards), and stills holds its spot as the fifth longest-running musical in West End history. For the first time since its first opening in New York in 1971, JCS is returning to Broadway, giving the cast a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something from scratch.
"The great thing about being in the original cast of this show is that there is a lot of room to experiment," Levine says. "And Gale Edwards is all about letting the cast help create the show. What's resulted is a brand-new Superstar--one that has never been done before because there has been no structure to follow, no roles to replicate. It's all new and we're creating it."
You might think this elevated excitement is purely the voice of a rising artist eager about his first Broadway show. But he's certainly not alone. Kevin Wallace of the Really Useful Theater Group described the production as "a new voice for a new time and for new generations." And Gale Edwards herself states that this was the "best rehearsal period [she's] ever had." Anthony van Laast, choreographer, says he is working with a "very well-picked cast...archetypical and strong individuals." It's hard not to be engulfed by the collective exhilaration.
Levine's road from amateur theater to Broadway has been an interesting blend of art and business. He never left theater, even during his graduate studies, doing regional shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, Rags, and Assassins. He has never been the starving-New-York-artist who waits tables or bartends to support his acting addiction. He runs his own business and owns his own house. His major roles have been dissimilar (unless there's a thread between Marius, Mary Sunshine, Naked Boy, and Apostle that I'm missing). If you didn't know him, you might confuse him with a youthful, headstrong, savvy businessman who wants to make a million by 30. Except he's much more interesting:
"I would describe myself as a perfectionist. I take performing as seriously as I did medicine, in that I study hard, take the classes, and learn from people that have more experience than I do."
His dedication has paid off. He landed his first major show with Les Misérables, two years after beginning graduate studies, during an open call in Boston. Of joining that show, he says, "It took me two seconds to make my decision. You know how you love something so much, you can't quite let go of it? That's how theater was for me. I wasn't sure about the type of lifestyle and security that theater would bring me, but I just couldn't get it out of my system. I was on tour for two years and pretty much decided to stick with performing, although it wasn't until I succeeded in New York that I finally let it [medicine] go for good."
And succeed he did. Daniel went on to perform in the first national tour of Chicago, and tried a brief stint in L.A., picking up roles on General Hospital, Beverly Hills 90210, and the L.A. run of Naked Boys Singing. He then returned to New York to do the City Center Encores! production of Babes in Arms, after which he was solicited by the New York company of Naked Boys Singing, where he could be found before landing JCS. The rest is history.
Auditions: "I Knew I Didn't Get It...I Didn't Get It...I Got It!"
"One of the most interesting discussions I have had with the cast members in Superstar is about the unique experiences all of us had with auditions. Some people had only one audition where they sang one song, and that was it. Others were called back several times, and were worked hard by the artistic team. Then, some made it through open call."
Daniel isn't new to auditioning. His four years finally paid off when he was cast in Jesus Christ Superstar this year. But it wasn't an easy process. Pre-screened last August at Chelsea Studios by Tara Rubin (casting director from Johnson-Liff), Daniel was then called back a few weeks later to sing for the JCS artistic team. He had a new wave of confidence that was shut down when he woke up that morning feeling extremely sick. At the audition, he couldn't even hit notes that are normally in his range. All ego aside, he dismissed telling them he wasn't feeling well.
"It was awful. I felt horrible. I knew I didn't get it. I was so depressed that I went out on a shopping spree to make myself feel better. I ended up with a $500 mirror that I didn't need."
Two months later, Tara Rubin called him in again. It was an early Saturday morning. The response to his audition was another bad indication. "Usually, when you audition, the casting team works with you and either asks you to read or do something a little bit different. This was totally unique. They said nothing. They only smiled and then gave me a very nice 'Thanks for coming in again.' I absolutely knew it wasn't going to happen. Then I got a call on Monday from my agent [Penny Luedtke] who told me I got it."
"Costume changes, blocking, set design...it was all so different when we moved from Westbeth to the Ford Center. The show completely fell apart for a week when we transitioned from our place of sanctuary to the new space. It was difficult on many levels. It became more about the mechanics of putting together a major production than about the philosophical interpretation of the story. But we worked it out pretty quickly."
Daniel describes the rehearsal process as extremely different from any other he's been involved with. "Because we are coming to the show totally new, there are no set roles we are filling. Gale gives us the parameters and then lets us run with them. Then she reviews and tells the cast what works and what doesn't work. We take it from there."
But it hasn't been all about creating the show. Rehearsals run from 10 to 6 each day, with a 45-minute physical warm-up and a 30-minute vocal warm-up. The cast first learned the score, then the choreography, then the blocking, and finally put it all together. "The rehearsals for this show have been extremely exhausting because each scene in the show is really a full ensemble piece," Daniel says. "Although I don't have a lead, I am on stage constantly. It's a two-hour, non-stop work out. And I rehearse probably 10-12 hours a day between scheduled rehearsal and my own work at home."
Rehearsals contnued for six weeks before previews began. According to Daniel, "Previews are interesting because it's a time when the show's evolving. The creative team is allowed to rehearse us as much as they want. So each day we rehearse something that is new and different than the night before. Sometimes we forget. But every night, the show changes, and what one person sees one night can be totally different than what others will see any other night." The show becomes locked after opening night, which is April 16.
The Cast: Just the Right Ingredients
If there's one thing you can say about the 36-member cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, it's that they're tight. Very tight. It shows not only in their elevated enthusiasm for the show, but also in their nightly performance as they collectively re-enact a very difficult, dramatic love story intertwined with betrayal and crucifixion.
"Gale did an amazing job at breaking down the barriers between the cast from day one," Daniel explains. "She wanted to create an environment where people felt safe in succeeding and failing. In doing so, she facilitated a very tight-knit cast. We're like a family."
Although Glenn Carter, who plays Jesus, is the only "transplant" from the London run, other actors have come from shows such as Rent, The Lion King, and Cabaret. About half of the cast members have Broadway credits, and the other half are making their Broadway debut.
"The leads in the show are absolutely incredible and very talented," Daniel enthuses. "Glenn Carter has a very peaceful demeanor and he's such an amazing actor. He's perfect for the role. Holding the lead, it's easy for a star of the show to get removed from the rest of the cast, but that's not the case with Glenn. He's so easygoing. Every night, the apostles fall in love with him. And, every night, we go through a heartbreaking crucifixion. We are only able to do that because we respect and like him so much.
"Maya Days is an amazing Mary. Her voice is strong, and her relationship with Glenn is very natural. She brings a feminine quality to the show and brings peace among all the chaos of fighting. She leads the women's ensemble incredibly.
"Tony Vincent gives a 'pop' and youthful edge to the role of Judas, which is exciting. And his voice is wild!"
Of working with such talent, Daniel says, "It's a bit surreal seeing these people that you've admired for so long suddenly on stage performing with you. Take, for example, Ray Walker. I've watched him for years, and since we played the same role of Marius in Les Mis--I believe he was the first replacement--I knew we had friends and colleagues in common. But our paths never crossed. Now we're working together, and it's great."
At one point, it was rumored in Rolling Stone Magazine that Lenny Kravitz would be in the show. "We didn't hear much about it," Levine remarks, "but I think if we were to have a celebrity like Lenny Kravitz, it would throw off the dynamics of the show. It would have been him, and then us. The way things are now is that we are a unit. And that's what's going to drive the success of the show."
The unit is what Edwards finds important. She describes the making of a good cast like the making of a good cake: "You need all the right ingredients." She explains that there were many talented actors who auditioned for the show, but that she wanted individuals who were talented and who could also understand the philosophy of the story and retell it. "It's not just a performance, it's an intellectual dialogue. We wanted people who 'get it'. We want people who are 'now'. Daniel is raw, brave, anarchic...he has an energy and love and passion. We have a courageous and wonderful cast."
"We are all here to go on a journey. Are you up for it?" were the first words Gale Edwards said to her starry-eyed new Superstar cast as they met for the first time at the Westbeth Theater rehearsal space.
"At first I thought, okay, what am I in for?" says Levine of his introduction to the JCS creative team. "Then, of course, things fell into place and it has been such a unique and wonderful experience. It's been such a pleasure working with them." We already know how Daniel feels about Edwards (see analogy to Goddess of Theater), but how about the others?
"Anthony Van Laast [choreographer] scared me. He led the morning warm-ups, which were very difficult for me because I'm not a dancer. He's worked on these high-profile shows like Mamma Mia and Whistle in the Wind, and I know he's this great professional choreographer. Originally, the show was not going to have any dance pieces. When they told us there would be some dancing, I froze. And all I kept thinking was, 'They should have danced us at auditions.'"
Van Laast elaborates on Levine's dancing abilities, saying, "His fear holds him back. He's much more talented than he gives himself credit for."
"Anthony is amazing," Daniel counters. He's able to make people who are not dancers look good--or fake it. He was someone I could go to with my fears, and he was so easygoing. He told me, 'You'll get it, and if you don't, we'll change it.'
"Simon Lee, the musical director, isn't a singer, so he screams to demonstrate how he wants things to sound. He's a stickler for notes, and I believe him now when he says this show will make our voices stronger. My range has improved since working with him. It's easy to understand why he has become Andrew Lloyd Webber's right-hand man. Patrick Vaccariello and Kristen Blodgette are major people that I couldn't wait to work with. I used to get nervous around Kristen at other auditions, and now she's so accessible. It's amazing how your opinion changes in these circumstances."
Wrap Up: Reflections on Getting to Broadway
There's no question that Daniel Levine's talent is Broadway-caliber, and his future as a rising star is certain. He understands, however, that being cast in Jesus Christ Superstar was more about "timing and being the right fit." But that's not to say Daniel hasn't learned a thing or two about the differences in performing on and off Broadway.
"It's definitely been the hardest rehearsal period I've ever experienced. Take for example the day we did the Rosie show. We had to be at the theater by 6:15am, in make-up and costume by 6:45. We were bused to the studio and had a one-hour rehearsal. Don't get me wrong--it was exciting to be on the show. But we also had two performances that day. It was very tiring. I'm looking forward to opening night, which means we are no longer in rehearsals."
With the opening of the show just a few days away, Levine's excitement goes beyond the ending of rehearsals. One look at the audience's reactions to previews, and it's obvious that this show will bring to those involved an abundance of prestige, celebrity, fame, and publicity. There is a hip appeal to the show that is driving people mad--mad enough to wait hours outside the stage door for autographs and a chance to spot one of the gorgeous cast members.
"It's very exciting," says Daniel. "Yes, I'd love to work on Broadway for the rest of my life, but it's unpredictable. Even the best actors go through dry spells. I'm just enjoying the ride while I'm on it."