Fresh off his Broadway debut in the hit musical Newsies, 22-year-old Mike Faist is spending his holiday season starring in A Wind in the Willows Christmas at Red Bank, New Jersey's Two River Theater. He burrows into the lead part of Mole in the musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic children's novel, featuring music by Mike Reid, lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger, and a book by Mindi Dickstein.
Having moved to New York City from the friendly Midwest as a green 17-year-old, Faist has found some unexpected connections between the home-seeking journey of his provincial character and the exciting (though terrifyingly uncertain) progression of his own career. He chatted with TheaterMania about the seasonal musical while discussing some of the parallels with his own life, sharing memories of his first starring performance on a Broadway, his unconventional audition at Two River, and the performer who sent him down this rabbit (or mole) hole in the first place.
How did the role of Mole come to you?
When I was first auditioning for this I had an appointment for Ratty, who is the costar in the show. The character Ratty is a poet and he always has this poem book on him, so I went in there with this notepad on yarn tied around my neck walking like a crazy six-foot rat. I [think] they were just intrigued by how ridiculous I was, and [they] were like, You know what? Let's see what else he can do.
What is Mole like?
Mole is a homebody — a reject in this mythical land — and he's on a quest to find a home. There is this magical part in the show where this piece of paper comes floating out of nowhere and it reads, "Harmony Creek." He has this beautiful image of this amazing place, so he goes off on a quest to find [it], which is totally out of his realm — to leave his hole and throw himself out into the wild to go on an adventure.
There seem to be a lot of strong parallels between your character's journey and your own life.
Yeah, I would say so. [I moved here] when I was seventeen. I'm from a little suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and as a Midwesterner, it's definitely different than New York. When I moved here, I had regrets right off the bat. I was just really depressed and scared and really questioning my thought of living here. It took my family and a really, really good friend of mine to convince me that I was here for a reason and I was good enough to do this and succeed. And it's still a constant battle. Especially with the acting life, just because you're working eight shows a week one week and the next collecting unemployment and trying to figure out how to get by. But yeah, there is definitely a parallel universe [in] going from, not a hole in the ground, Columbus isn't a hole, but a smaller area into this huge world and having that become your home and adapting to it.
What was it like for your parents to see you in a Broadway show?
Pretty emotional. They brought everybody from Ohio, at least half the state. I remember my debut as Jack in Newsies. My friends got these tickets for the show a couple months in advance for this particular day and Jeremy [Jordan] was filming Smash at the time and [told] me, "Hey, I think I'm going to be out this day because we're going to be going really, really late at night and I don't think I'm going to be able to make it back in time for the show. Just so you know, you'll probably be going on." He told me on that Monday, and I think I was going on on Friday, and I was like, wait a minute, I think that's when my friends are coming in. It was just so coincidental that their first time seeing me in a Broadway show was me doing the lead for the first time.
A Wind in the Willows Christmas might be the first theatrical experience for a number of your young audience members. Do you remember your introduction to theater?
The first thing I ever saw that made me want to start performing immediately was watching Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. I just told my mom, I gotta be like that guy. I was three when I saw the movie and I started taking dance class when I was five. [The] first Broadway show [I ever saw] was Fosse [with] Ben Vereen. It was a rush. It was really magical in a way. I just remember being like, My God, I can't believe these people get to do this for a living. It's not work. I mean, it's work, obviously, but you can't consider it work because of how much fun it is.