BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS' Etai Benson
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is sweeping audiences off their feet with a beautiful national tour that's currently playing the Ordway in Saint Paul. As the most awarded new musical of 2015 and winner of four Tony Awards®, it is easy to see how it won the acclaim it did. The show mixes ballet and swing-style dancing with George & Ira Gershwin music and the plot from an Academy Award-winning film with what has to be the best use of a digital screen in a stage show of all time. The scenic design by Bob Crowley and direction by Christopher Wheeldon are spot on in every way. The cast is top notch and the simple story supports but does not get in the way of the art happening on stage.
An artist, a singer and a musician are all in love with the same girl without knowing it. The musician, a composer and piano player named Adam Hochberg, is played by Etai Benson, who also played Boq in the national tour of WICKED. Benson took time from his day in Saint Paul to share some of his thoughts on the show in this edition of 6 Questions & a Plug:
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is such a lovely production -- can you tell our BWW readers about the plot from your character, Adam's, perspective?
Essentially, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is about three men in love with the same woman, set against the backdrop of Paris immediately following World War II and the liberation. My character, Adam Hochberg, is a young, Jewish composer (sort of a stand-in for George Gershwin, himself) who fought and was injured in the war and decided to stay in Paris to write music. He's very much weighed down by the darkness of the time; he's obsessed with capturing the "dark underbelly to life," as he puts it, in his music. And then he meets Lise Dassin, the beautiful French ballerina at the heart of the story, and he discovers that the missing element in his art, the one thing holding him back from greatness, is love.
Adam is the only character who ends up alone in the end, but you made it seem like he would be OK -- do you ever want to change up the storyline and have him get the girl?
Well, you know, my mom has seen the show six times, and every time, she always tells me after, "She should've ended up with you!" But I think she may be a little biased...
One of my favorite aspects of Adam is that he serves as the narrator of the show, so I get to deliver some beautifully written monologues directly to the audience. At the end, I shrug to the audience and say, "You know what? I even got the girl. Fooled ya, didn't I? True. It's just...I put her in the music." When I first saw AN AMERICAN IN PARIS on Broadway, I found this to be one of the most poignant moments in the show.
Though it's true he (SPOILER ALERT) doesn't end up with Lise romantically, it's his love for her that inspires him to write his masterpiece and come out of the darkness of the war. He's put her into his art, and she, unknowingly, has made him a greater artist. It's such a beautiful, heartfelt sentiment that I love playing every night. So while it may be tough not getting the girl eight times a week, I think Adam's arc is wrapped up perfectly.
You give the show a bit of comic relief, especially when Adam keeps putting his foot in his mouth with Lise--and you eat paper--do you have fun playing his awkwardness in that scene?
That scene is one of my favorites to play! Sara Esty (who plays Lise) is such a terrific scene partner. She gives me these confused, perplexed, awkward stares that are so easy and fun to play off of. Stuffing the sheet music into my mouth is a bit I came up with in rehearsal. At the height of awkwardness in the scene, the stage direction in the script is simply written: "Adam kicks himself." But I felt, in that moment, he needs to desperately stop himself from talking before he makes even more of a fool of himself, and I guess I took that idea pretty literally!
What is your favorite number from the show, and why?
My favorite piece in the show is the opening ballet. In just seven minutes, our visionary director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is able to introduce our two lead characters and tell the entire story of Paris waking up after the liberation in vivid, crystal-clear detail - all without ever singing a note or uttering a word! It's such a bold, audacious way to begin a musical, and it establishes the vocabulary of dance as a key storytelling element. And it's all set to George Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F," a piece of music that you would never hear outside of a concert hall. It's an incredible blend of music, movement, and design that's mesmerizing to watch and sets the tone for the entire show.
As far as my character goes, my favorite song to perform is, "But Not For Me." It's a dramatic high point for Adam and captures his heartbreak and loneliness perfectly. And though the work can be difficult, it's always a joy for an actor to dig into those kinds of emotions. Plus I get to sing one of the smartest lyrics of all time: "When every happy plot ends in a marriage knot / But there's not knot for me." Thanks, Ira!
That is really fun. ... How did you get into acting and what inspired you to make it your career?
I think I was always "performing" in some way. Recently, my dad converted all our old home VHS tapes into digital. I watched videos of me as a child, and it seems that every time the camera turns to me, I make some sort of funny face or do some weird little dance for the camera. I also was obsessed with movies as a kid (actually, I still am!) and used to make and edit my own films with my friends. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. But it wasn't until eighth grade that I discovered theatre. My friends dragged me kicking and screaming to audition for the school musical, THE WIZARD OF OZ. I was cast as the Tin Man and officially caught the bug.
That passion led to Drama Club in high school and three summers at Stagedoor Manor, a theatre camp in the Catskills, which is where I began to take acting seriously as a profession. I ended up at the University of Michigan's musical theatre department, and I was able to study abroad at the Moscow Art Theatre. And the rest is history.
Is this tour any different or the same as your tour with WICKED as Boq? Have you noticed differences with the audiences and reactions to this show?
This tour is very different than my tour experience with Wicked. For one, this feels like more of a classic "tour," in the sense that, with Wicked, we would sit in cities for many weeks, sometimes months at a time. With An American in Paris, the majority of our stops are one week, so we are constantly on the move. I think in the past eight months, we've been to over 25 cities! It can be exhausting, but it's also a great way to see the country.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a very different kind of show than WICKED. If WICKED is more of a blockbuster juggernaut like TITANIC, then AAIP is like a "La La Land" - more of an intimate, classic piece. But both have been equally embraced by audiences. In both experiences, I've seen audiences leaping to their feet at the end of the night. It's such an honor to be able to tell these stories and spread joy to thousands of people across the nation, especially at a time when people really need it.
We like to give you a chance to plug your next project if you have one -- or tell our readers what your next role should be (what your dream role is). What's next for you?
Ah, yes, that dreaded question: "What's next for you?" For now, I'm on tour with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and then who knows? It's part of what we sign up for as actors - the not knowing. As far as the next step goes, I hope to originate a role in a new Broadway show and start making a break in the television and film world. But a role like Adam doesn't come along often (not to mention a steady job for a year), so for now, I am happy and fulfilled getting to step into his shoes eight times a week!
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS plays the Ordway stage in Saint Paul through June 18, 2017.
Tickets: www.ordway.org or call Ticket Office: 651-224-4222