BRIAN KELLOW interviews Jason Danieley, who this month arrives at Broadway's Lyceum Theater as Frederich Kuhn in Kander and Ebb's long-simmering musical The Visit.
Danieley, returning to Broadway in The Visit
© Justin Patterson 2015
The Visit, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s long-developing musical based on the classic play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, comes to Broadway’s Lyceum Theater on April 23. Chita Rivera stars as Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who returns to her financially struggling town with an offer of help — at a monstrous price. Roger Rees co-stars as Anton Schell, with Jason Danieley as Frederich Kuhn. The show’s book is by Terrence McNally, and the production is staged by John Doyle. Recently, OPERA NEWS spoke with Danieley, whose Broadway resume includes the title role in the 1997 revival of Candide; another Kander and Ebb show, Curtains; and Next to Normal, opposite his wife, Marin Mazzie.
The Visit has had a circuitous path to Broadway. What’s the history of your involvement with it?
JASON DANIELEY: I was in the very first reading years ago, probably 1998 or 1999, when Angela Lansbury did it. It was her and Philip Bosco in the leads. There was so much press about it, but she did only one reading. There was so much press about her doing it. I played Karl, Anton Schell’s son. A couple of years after that, they did it at the Goodman. Then, before they went to the Signature Theatre in D.C., I played Schoolmaster Kuhn for the first time. I was performing in Curtains on Broadway and I was unable to go down to D.C. and do that. You’re in a hit Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and you want to do an incredible part, but you don’t want to leave your paycheck. I thought, I guess I’m never going to do that part. They thought they would bring it in to New York and that fell through. Then they decided to do a production in Williamstown. And again I thought, there’s that wonderful part and I’ll never have a chance to do it. They were looking at someone else to do it and that person took another job, and John Kander and Terrence McNally wanted me to do it. So they told John Doyle he should consider me. And John Doyle and I knew each other, but not well enough for him to say “Absolutely.” But he did. He took the chance. It’s one of my most cherished collaborations. Just fantastic, the work he’s done on the piece.
ON: Specifically, what has Doyle brought to the work?
JD: I think one thing that’s interesting about this piece is that it’s almost like a chamber opera. There’s spoken dialogue. It’s not sung though. But the themes are so epic, and the music — well, lots of people who know Kander know that he is a lifelong lover of opera. He has a subscription to the Met and goes religiously, as does Terrence McNally. And John Doyle has directed quite a lot of opera, and I think the three of them in their like-mindedness have mined something artistically rich that an opera audience would enjoy — as well as making something entertaining for a Broadway audience.
ON: They’ve brought a certain gravitas to it?
JD: Exactly. We are talking about large issues, set to beautiful music that has different motifs that are brought up throughout. If you are attending to that kind of aural experience, it’s very satisfying and John Doyle has streamlined it down to one act. It was more like two-and-a-half hours and very realistic. And John Doyle has made it more of a stylized and very theatrical experience in that he uses elements of the Greek classical theater and the Yiddish theater and a bit of Fellini style of directing. And the material supports it.
ON: Chita Rivera has stated that this will be her final Broadway appearance. I was thinking the other day how exciting it will be for young people who have never seen her onstage to be able to say they caught her in her final Broadway role.
JD: Right. I started a blog on the whole process, and I thought, this is the perfect opportunity to launch it. When you’re working with these greats, why not take whatever you’re learning from them and put it down? Tony Bennett is a vocal idol of mine. The way he has kept his voice and sings full out. I appreciate that, coming from a similar background, but I have yet to see him live. I don’t want to regret not having experienced these people we learn from. If we don’t look at history, we won’t learn from it.
ON: In what ways do you think that The Visit alters or transforms the Dürrenmatt original?
JD: I think that Terrence McNally is very faithful to the original material in a good way. So it doesn’t take a great departure from it. When we did The Full Monty together — in the movie, there wasn’t an older woman character who was accompanying them on the piano. That was a device that really made it theatrical on Broadway. This was already a play that worked well, with Terrence adding a few lines and his own sense of humor, but keeping to the original. I think John’s contribution is that he uses the young versions of Claire and Anton as sort of a theatrical ballet storytelling throughout the piece. I use “ballet” in very loose terms — there is one significant set piece, the coffin, which is ever looming, and they are dancing around the coffin. It’s always there — a constant reminder without beating you over the head. It reminds you that this ultimately is a love story. In fact, he [Anton] is the one who becomes morally bankrupt and Claire becomes the wealthiest woman in the world, who comes back to seek revenge. In a way, when she does that, there is a redemption of their relationship. There is a lightness to that element, because in the end she takes his life, but he gives it happily, because of the love they truly do feel for each other. That really is the focal point — the romance. The indictment that Dürrenmatt placed on Switzerland in World War II is still very much there, and unfortunately, very pertinent to what we are experiencing daily.
ON: Have you seen the 1964 film with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn?
JD: I have. It’s very interesting. I liked it because it’s one of those unique “foreign films,” but I believe both Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman were maybe too young to play the parts. And the end was a little too tidy. I think maybe the movie people did a control group and thought, “We can’t have him die. We’ll just have him content to live in town with the guilt and the knowledge that the town would have killed him.”
ON: You are one of a number of top Broadway performers today who has a classically-based singing technique.
JD: Yes. I started singing in church when I was four. My love for language and the complexity of it probably got a push when my dad, the preacher, told me, “What you have to say is very important.” Getting the idea across is paramount. And then, taking voice lessons from Frances Gilette in St. Louis laid the foundation of what I still do today. I still do some of the vocalises she taught me, and use her ideas about breath and placement. Now, Marin and I take from Arthur Levy, who is an incredible teacher and is basically of the same school of both Marin’s childhood teacher and mine. That’s a fantastic, uninterrupted school of thought. But it is difficult, when you do eight shows a week, to maintain vocal health unless you have that foundation. In this show, there is a lot of ensemble singing, because the town fathers are like a Greek chorus, and we all sing about what is going on in the piece. And there is some high tenor stuff that I haven’t sung in a while. And to make sure that when I sing my big aria at the end of the show, I still have gas in the tank — it’s an interesting balance. As a singer in musical theater, you can’t always sing for the musical quality of the sound, because there is an element of realism that is expected, as if it were a play. There are times when you are growling or crying, and your sound is somewhat compromised to get an emotional aesthetic across.
ON: I find that so many young opera singers don’t understand that when you are emotionally connected to the moment, you almost always sing better.
JD: Yes. Some of the things I do in this show require a lot of stuff that I think some singers would just cringe at doing. I’m doing it in a healthy way, putting it across so it sounds biting. If you do it in a healthy way, and you’re emotionally connected, you’re fine. I mean, you can’t have a bottle of wine every night, and you have to get plenty of sleep and all that, but the payoff is so much better when you know you’re not going to be doing damage. It’s the best thing in the world not only to make the audience feel something, but to feel good about what your performance is. If I know I’m doing something technically wonderful vocally, but I’m boring the shit out of the audience, I’ll slit my wrists. Especially in a story like The Visit, which has the political angle — and I am a big proponent of what Dürrenmatt is saying in this piece. When you feel like you’re doing something in this piece, then laying it out on the table — leaving it on the floor, as they say in basketball — there’s nothing more rewarding.
ON: You and Marin certainly both left it on the floor in Next to Normal. I think anyone who has ever dealt with a loved one suffering from mental illness must have recognized something of his situation in your two fantastic performances.
JD: That was one of the incredible things about that show — it did speak to the hearts of so many people. I have never been in a show where so many people were openly sobbing in the audience. You could hear them. And they would spontaneously erupt into such an appreciate ovation at the end. So many people were at the stage door, not just to get autographs, but to say, “I had a child who passed when we were young.” “My wife is bipolar.” “My husband is bipolar.” This unified cathartic event was going on at the Booth Theater. We felt so privileged to be part of it.
ON: You’ve done a number of “forgotten” or seldom revived musicals, such as 110 in the Shade and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m wondering if you experienced a profound sense of discovery with any of them.
JD: Well, in 110 in the Shade I played a romantic trapped inside of a showman’s body. He’s looking for love and he finds it, but he can’t see it through. And then there’s Johnny in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who loves his wife and daughter tremendously. But he’s stunted. I hope I’m not stunted. You’d have to ask Marin. But because I’m an Irishman, there’s that doomed romantic side of the character that is very attractive to me. And also another show I did, Michael John La Chiusa’s The Highest Yellow, where I played Dr. Félix Rey, the doctor who dealt with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, during his episodes of insanity toward the end of his life. In the story, he’s a doomed romantic with a prostitute. There’s something very compelling about that looking for love and not quite finding it. I was fortunate enough to find my love at an early age. And yet it seemed like it took me forever to find her, and I was so tortured before I did. In both of those shows, the scores are exquisite. And when you hear the emotion through Harvey Schmidt’s melodies and Arthur Schwartz’s melodies, there’s a little bit of a heroic nature in them.
ON: Did you ever sing an opera role?
JD: No. I was in the ensemble of Magic Flute at college. I started as a vocal performance major at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. I was heading toward concert music, but I wanted to act and I wanted to dance. And I started working at fifteen, and I thought, I don’t really need a degree to do this.
ON: Did you have a hard time figuring out where you fit in vocally?
JD: I think people knew what to do with me because I had a high voice. But I have a warmth, more like a baritone quality that was always there, and not much of a break. So I would get pigeonholed in certain roles. My trouble is, I have a youthful face so that even now at forty-three, people think of me as younger than that. And I have a sound that is more mature than some other singers. I think it’s why I have the career I have. I have these very interesting musicals that require a really trained voice. Like Candide, Floyd Collins, Dream True by Ricky Ian Gordon.
The lion’s share of my success has been concert work, often with Marin, but also Carousel and South Pacific. I’ve also done a few concerts with the Collegiate Chorale: Song of Norway and The Mikado. So maybe I came a little late to the trained-voice-on-Broadway type of singing. The jukebox musical, Jersey Boys type things, are not my thing. So it’s been a difficult journey that way.
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