They've Got A Lot of Acting to Do!
TheaterMania talks to rising superstars Caissie Levy from Hair, Allie Trimm from Bye Bye Birdie, and Cristin Milioti from The Retributionists.
THEATERMANIA: Was there a specific moment when you knew you would be a performer?
CAISSIE LEVY: I think there was. I was very young when I started performing and I remember very vividly going over my lines for a production of Free To Be You and Me, and I thought, "this is fun!" I also played basketball for years -- where you have to able to think on your feet, work with a team, and improvise within a structure. It's very much what theater is about also. Pursuing both was a great well-rounded way to grow up, but my brain didn't function as well on a basketball court as it does on stage. As I got older and started studying plays, I just knew it was what I would end up doing.
TM: Did you know Hair before you took the role of Sheila?
CL: Yes. it's always been on my radar. I've always been a fan of the 1960s and felt like maybe I was born at the wrong time. I'm definitely a feminist and I appreciate the influence that the '60s have had on our history. Like a lot of people, I identify strongly with the music and with the struggle. And I find the women from that time really fascinating because of what they achieved in the music business and in the world.
TM: Did you draw from any female icons from that period to play Sheila?
CL: I did. I loosely based her partly on Janis Joplin -- her fire and passion, her abandon, and her recklessness -- and partly on Joni Mitchell, because she's a hyper-intelligent, incredibly sensitive, heart on her sleeve kind of girl. That duality is so interesting about her and why it's never boring to play Sheila; she's a person with two wildly different sides. She can be balls-to-the-wall when it comes to the movement, but so sensitive and vulnerable when it comes to her relationship with Berger. He puts her in a place that even the war can't.
TM: Why do you think the show is resonating so strongly right now with today's audiences?
CL: I think it's a combination of things. Politically where we're at I think people are itching for a story that makes them think about politics and world views and spirituality, so in that way I feel it's a perfect show to have on Broadway right now. I think it's an iconic piece of theater that people love and are attached to. But I think it goes deeper than that; I really believe that people come to the show and they leave with energy levels buzzing on a different plane. It's not just about the content and the songs, it's about the tribe and the audience becoming one. These women are coming up to me at the end of the show during the dance party and crying. They say "I was you! I looked just like you!" or "I was at the Pentagon, and you don't know where you've taken me tonight."
CL: The message of Hair is not something we leave at the theater. For example. we all participate as much as we can in charitable events, I have a good friend, Lindsay Thomas, who's been on Broadway and has worked extensively at the Stratford Festival, who is 31 and never smoked a day in her life, and was recently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer which spread to other organs in her body. She's fighting for her life. I was telling someone about it backstage and then everybody wanted to know what we could all do to help, so we're doing a benefit for her on September 14 at Joe's Pub; they graciously gave us the space for a couple of shows. We're going do songs from the 1960s and 70s; we're going to auction things off like a dinner with me, Gavin Creel, and Will Swenson, and the producers have donated walk-ons in the show and things like that.
THEATERMANIA: When did you start performing?
ALLIE TRIMM: I started singing when I was really young. When I was 3, I sang the song from the movie Titanic at my aunt's wedding. The band didn't know the song, so I threw a huge tantrum and sang it a cappella. When I was 5, I started doing community theater, and I started doing professional theater when I was 9 in San Diego. I remember thinking "this is so cool, I love it!"
TM: You still live in San Diego, but work on Broadway?
AT: I'm here for the show, but I live in San Diego. When I was in 13, we rented an apartment and all came out here -- including my younger brother and sister. After it closed, we shipped all our furniture back home. A few months later I got cast in Birdie and we had to ship all the furniture here again.
TM: Which character is more like you: Patrice in 13 or Kim in Bye Bye Birdie?
AT: I'm a little of both. Patrice is such a relatable character, because every kid has those moments where they don't fit in and feel like such an outcast. That relates to me because, right now, I'm not with my friends at home and I feel like I am way out of the loop. And Kim is like me in that she wants to be independent and able to take care of herself, but she's really still a kid. When something crazy happens, it comes back to "Mommy mommy, help me!" I feel like that; if I get on the wrong subway -- and I did that the other day -- I can't help myself and I have to call my mom.
TM: Did you know Birdie before you were cast?
AT: Lots of people in the cast have been in a production of the show, but I hadn't, I'd never even seen it! But I knew lots of the songs. So I decided to go watch the movie, but then I learned that the movie is different than the show and they're not going for what the movie is. They're taking an original view of the 1950's with this revival. And I can't wait for people to see it; we spent the whole first week of rehearsals just doing "I've Got A Lot of Livin' to Do" -- and it looks great!
TM: Were you nervous about working with the big stars in the Birdie cast?
AT: At first I was really nervous. I've never worked with or even met celebrities. But John Stamos and Gina Gershon [who play Albert and Rosie] are so down to earth. They're really humble and friendly and talented. I'm just so happy that the entire cast feels like a family. And Dee Hoty, who plays my mom, is fabulous and just the sweetest! She treats me like she's my mama!
TM: Do you feel about anyone the way Kim feels about Conrad?
AT: It's not like Kim feels about Conrad, but I love Zac Efron. I love all his work. That's as close as I get.
THEATERMANIA: What draws you to performing?
CRISTIN MILIOTI: I realized recently that I am in this because it's challenging and because I like to tell stories, and not because I like being a performance monkey. Not to get on a high horse or anything, but acting is a craft and I love learning from each experience.
TM: Which role that you've done so far has been the most educational for you?
CM: There really isn't one. Stunning was about hitting the ground running, a two-hour-plus marathon and the biggest role I've had. I was happy with the response to it; I think it reached a lot of people, and I heard really cool stories about people coming and taking things from it into their lives. As for Coram Boy, I loved it -- but people had very strong reactions to it. Some people hated it.
TM: Did you know the history behind The Retributionists before taking the role or did you learn it through research?
CM: I had never heard the story, so I got up to speed with research. We had a short rehearsal process - just two days of table work, and then we were all up on our feet. The play is fictionalized a little bit; it's about this young man with these two women living with him - they were all lovers in their late teens and early 20's who became guerilla fighters with the plot to kill a German for every Jew. There's this great book, The Avengers by Rick Cohen, that was so helpful. And Daniel (Goldfarb, the playwright) brought in stories about the Holocaust.
TM: What's the most challenging thing about the role?
CM: Leaving it at the door and not taking it home with me. It's such a sad story and it demands getting in the mind of someone who wouldn't think twice about killing. That's such a flip in the human psyche. I can't even begin to comprehend what these people in the story went through, though I know anger and rage do amazing, mostly horrible things to people. Everything has been taken and continues to be taken away from these people. Possibly it's their youth that allows them to feel their rage in a way that they are not going to take it anymore. For them to survive, there is no choice.
CM: It was the most terrifying thing. I was the understudy and I didn't get a put-in rehearsal - which means I'd never done it with the cast, or with the blood and the lights and the costume -- and I had an hour's notice before I had to go on the first time. The character, Mariead, comes out, shoots a gun, and jumps on this rock pile. I remember jumping out and freezing for a split second thinking "Oh my God, I'm on Broadway!" It was not only my New York stage debut but my first professional job and I was in front of a full house of paying patrons with this award-winning cast on stage and my parents in the audience, who made it from South Jersey in 45 minutes. That was there years ago, and since then I've met so many people who saw me go on that night -- which was the one and only time I did!