To the general public, Steven Pasquale is probably most recognizable when donning his Rescue Me fireman's uniform. However, beneath the bunker gear, you'll find an honest-to-goodness musical-theater nerd — a title he wears even prouder than the aluminum helmet.
After years of television and stage work, Pasquale will finally be coming to New York this winter to star opposite Kelli O'Hara in his first-ever Broadway musical: Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown's adaptation of Robert James Waller's classic romance The Bridges of Madison County, directed by Bartlett Sher. Now up at Williamstown Theatre Festival preparing for the show's pre-Broadway engagement (opening on August 1), Pasquale took some time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to drop a few hints about the hotly anticipated production and to start lobbying for a role in his next Broadway musical (he's looking at you, Adam Guettel).
How have rehearsals been going?
Very, very well. We're so excited and making improvements every day as we go and really discovering what this piece is. Jason [Robert Brown] is at the top of his game, so it's a story that's really going to move people.
Is this your first time working with Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown?
I've met Marsha Norman because I did a concert version of The Secret Garden where I met my wife, Laura Benanti, so we had a very bonding experience with Marsha on that…so it's amazing to have her around. Book writing for a musical is the hardest gig in show business and she's really getting it right with Madison County. As for Jason, his music speaks for itself. He's just one of the two or three great composers writing for the theater on the planet. And then there's Bart Sher, who's like the master wrangler of story and actors and design and scope. He's doing a masterful job of creating the world of Iowa and getting into the lives and the layers of these two people who have this experience together, while at the same time being economic with his time and the design and the changes that need to be made. I can't speak highly enough about Bart. And he does it without ever losing his patience. It's pretty masterful.
How much time have you had to rehearse?
We had two weeks in New York and then two weeks here in Williamstown and we go into tech this evening — we have three days of tech — and we [start] performances Thursday evening, so we're off running.
That's a pretty fast process.
We'll have a lot more time when we get to Broadway in December, but for now it's really a workshop-production mentality where it's about really discovering what the piece is and what needs to be worked on and tweaked.
Is it a challenge rehearsing with a partner who you know won't be moving on to the Broadway production with you?
Well, the good news is Elena Shaddow, who's filling in for Kelli O'Hara while Kelli has her baby, is an old friend of mine, so we get along great. There's a mutual respect and admiration there and we're having an unbelievably great time working together on it. And she knows what the situation is going into it, so I think she's got an incredible attitude about it and we're all committed and excited for Kelli once that happens in December.
Is Kelli planning to come up to Williamstown to see the show?
I think she will. She's like twenty-thousand-months pregnant so I think it all depends. But if she does, it would be great to see her give her feedback.
You and Kelli worked together before in The Light in the Piazza and most recently in Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons this past season and at Williamstown last summer. Were the two of you cast as a packaged deal?
We were not. But we'd like to only work together forever and ever going into the future. She was attached very early on. I came in I think at the third workshop. I was very busy making really bad television for a while. But now, thank God, I've got a little respite from that and I'm working on Madison County, which is the most fulfilling thing that's happened to me in a very long time.
How has the creative team gone about adapting this story for the stage?
Well, it's an incredibly romantic story that everyone is familiar with whether they read the book or saw the movie. And [this] is basically a musicalized version of the seed of the story. It's…about these two people who fall in love, but it does not particularly honor the book over the movie or the movie over the book...And ultimately, for my money, to musicalize the story is the best way the story could be told.
It looks like they've gone for a more youthful vibe as well. You're a few years younger than Clint Eastwood was when he did the film. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah. It's two-fold; he was also like twenty-five years too old. In the book, I think he's forty-eight, so we're playing him sort of early forties. We're going to try to age me a little bit. And Kelli's a little young, as well. But it's also a slightly more tragic story if you're talking about people [who] are very much in the middle of their life as opposed to entering the last phase of their life.
How do you like being up in Williamstown for the second summer in a row?
Oh man, I'd work here every summer until the day I die if I could. It's an unbelievably great way to spend the summer. It's cooler than the hotbox that is Manhattan and it's like theater camp for grownups. The bonding that happens is incredibly rewarding, and it's artistically a really forward-thinking place. [Williamstown Artistic Director] Jenny Gersten is doing a hell of a job up here.
Do you prefer doing theater over television?
One hundred million percent. If you can make a living doing theater, which is the hard part, I think a lot of us wouldn't do anything else. But it's complicated because a lot of the quality stuff happens off-Broadway and then you're talking about trying the live in the most expensive city in the world on peanuts. It gets pretty hard…But I only [ever] feel like I really am becoming a better actor at my core when I'm doing a play or a musical on stage every night. I love the theater — not necessarily just musical theater. When I do a musical for a long time, I start to really jones for a straight play; and if I'm doing a straight play I start to feel like I'd rather be in a musical; and if I'm doing TV, I start to feel like I'd rather be on stage; and after too long on stage, I start to feel like I'd rather be able to buy dinner.
This will be your Broadway musical debut, correct?
Yes, correct! I did The Light in the Piazza for the first three years of its life and then I couldn't do the Broadway production because my Rescue Me schedule wouldn't allow it, which was really, really hard because I loved it so, so much…That's how Bart Sher came into my life — through The Light in the Piazza — that's [also] how Kelli O'Hara came into my life, so ironically, a lot of the same people.
It must be exciting to finally get the chance to bring a musical to Broadway.
I couldn't be more excited about it. I moved to New York City to be in Broadway musicals. I think there are two kinds of people: people who love Broadway musicals and people who say they don't but secretly do. That's my theory, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.
What are your dream Broadway musical roles?
I would do George in Sunday in the Park with George — or Billy in Carousel if I could choose. Or Floyd in Floyd Collins…Dear Adam Guettel…hint hint. (laughs)