BWW Interview: Aaron Lazar Talks Working With Broadway Legends, Giving Back to Seniors, and More!
All performers can point to their family as having some kind of impact on their professional life- for better or worse. Though no one in Aaron Lazar's family had professionally pursued show business before he came along, he sees his entire career as being heavily influenced by his musically talented grandparents and great-grandparents. So in order to give back to the special seniors in his personal and professional life, Lazar has become involved with JASA (Jewish Association Serving the Aging), a non-profit organization. Last week, the Drama Desk nominee served as master of ceremonies for JASA's fundraising event, "Celebrating Seniors." (Click here to see photos from the event) Lazar opened up to me about the impact the seniors in his life have had on him, his favorite memories from working with legends like Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch, why he wanted to join JASA, and more. Check out the interview below!
What impact did your grandparents and great-grandparents have on your personal and professional life?
That's a great question, and that's why I'm honored to be emceeing this JASA event, I was blessed that my great-grandparents lived into their mid-80s to mid-90s. The four of them had really good genes, and my parents had me when they were really young. So I knew my great-grandparents well. So it's kind of amazing, and I had this window into a world- one of my great-grandfathers was born in 1899! Three of the four of them were immigrants who came over through Ellis Island in the early 1900s from Russia and Eastern Europe. One of them didn't speak any English, she only spoke Yiddish, and sort of spent the majority of her life in the states, but never really cared to speak English.
My dad's paternal grandparents were musically inclined. And I remember as a little kid going to visit them in their senior building, and they were like, the stars of the building, especially hosting and performing in their senior talent show. So there was nothing casual about it. My great-grandfather was decked out in a tuxedo, and my great-grandmother was in a sequined red ball-gown. She played the piano. And they're in their 80s at this point! So she would sing and play the piano, and it was all these old Vaudeville tunes, like Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart. And I didn't know what that was, but I knew that they were having a lot of fun entertaining people and getting a lot of attention and applause for it. That's my earliest memory of live performance.
People always ask, "What's the first Broadway show you ever saw?" and sadly, I don't know. My mom thinks it was THE SECRET GARDEN or something, but I don't remember that. What I remember is every single one of those talent shows with my great-grandparents. It's really cool. I mean, as you get older, you start to put together the pieces of what inspired you, and I grew up most of my life thinking I was on this path of being a professional actor and singer and I was the lone wolf of the family. But I look back at memories like that, and I think, "You know what? There was always this taste of performing." I was always surrounded by something like that in the family, but nobody ever took it to the next level.
Tell me about your decision to join JASA.
A really good friend of mine is involved in JASA, and she asked me if this was something I'd be interested in, and when I talked to Lewis and the team over there, they're just so great. Somebody once said, there's three phases of life: Learning, earning, and returning. And I kind of believe in that, but that would put me in the "earning" phase right now, and I really believe in returning whenever you can. I think it's important, and this is such an easy cause to get behind. Life in New York can be so, I don't know, chaotic, overwhelming, busy, frantic, and often, seniors can easily get overlooked. In the different buildings I've lived in in New York, there have always been special seniors who I remember who I admired and looked up to, like, "You're 80 years old, you've lived in New York for half of your life, and amidst the hustle and bustle of everything, you've found your way and have your routine, stay in shape, walking the streets." They're a huge part of our history.
My grandfather turns 91 this summer. He fought in World War II in the South Pacific, and one of the great moments for me was when he saw the last Broadway show I was in [THE LAST SHIP], and he happened to be there the night Steven Spielberg was there, and I got to watch my grandfather have a conversation with Spielberg about World War II and about meeting MacArthur. They're a piece of history, and particularly musically.
Recently I did an event to help market a new musical that's going on tour called HOLIDAY INN, with an Irving Berlin score, and it's that kind of music, it's Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin, that my great-grandparents and my grandparents grew up with. It was the popular music of the day for like, 40 or 50 years. And there's a quote, [in response to the question,] "What's Irving Berlin's place in American music?" and Jerome Kern said of Berlin, "He has no place in American music. He is American music." And I grew up with that. So I think it's all tied together for me. I feel like I was born in the wrong decade. And I feel totally grateful to those who have tread the path that they have, so I can live the life that I have. I get to sing and act and write and create and produce for a living and share art with people, and I feel like a piece of that is in honor of those who came before me. And I think that's why I'm an actor so I can tell those stories without having to really live through those stories with real consequences and real stakes, real responsibility. But [my grandfather] did, and if I get to get on stage and sing music that he grew up with and share that with seniors and new audiences, bring that music to 21st century audiences in new ways and keep that music alive, that's all part of it for me.
You have a very special family history! Have there been people in your professional life who have also influenced you and your decision to become involved with JASA?
Part of it is honoring the seniors in my family, and part of it is honoring the seniors in the business that have inspired me. I mean, when I saw Angela [Lansbury] and George [Hearn] in the video of SWEENEY TODD, I was in high school. It was on VHS. I saw SWEENEY TODD for the first time with them, and I thought it was the most incredible performance. I had just started doing musicals, I didn't know who they were, and I certainly didn't know who Stephen Sondheim was. And I saw that, and I thought, "Ok, whatever that is, that speaks to me."
I did an early reading of THE VISIT with George, and I worked with Angela on A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and I did some other readings with her. To talk to Elaine Stritch about her life in showbiz, that to me was some of the greatest moments of my career. One of the first jobs I had in New York was doing a reading of HALLELUJAH, BABY at the York! Theatre, playing Harvey. And Betty and Adolph were there- Comden and Green were there to see the reading! And I'd just gotten out of school, and to meet them, and get to shake their hands, then to meet Hal Prince, to meet and work with Stephen Sondheim, these guys are the seniors in the business. They were my influences coming into show business. These are the legends! And those are the stories and moments that I'm just so infinitely blessed to have.
Even though part of me feels like I was born in the wrong decade, part of me feels like I was born in the absolute right decade, because I've gotten to meet those people and work with those people and I get to experience and be a part of the new generation, the Lin-Manuels, and all those. It's the best of both worlds.
Aaron Lazar has appeared on Broadway in The Last Ship, A Little Night Music, Impressionism, A Tale of Two Cities, LES MISERABLES, Oklahoma!, The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, and The Light in the Piazza. Aaron appeared in the Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His film and TV credits include This Is Where I Leave You, The Wolf of Wall Street, J. Edgar, Company, "The Blacklist," "The Good Wife," "Onion News Network," "A Gifted Man," "The Following," and others. In June, Lazar will appear as Roger in the ENCORES! production of A NEW BRAIN.
Founded in 1968, JASA is one of New York's largest and most trusted agencies serving older adults in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island. JASA's mission is to sustain and enrich the lives of the aging in the New York metropolitan area so that they can remain in the community with dignity and autonomy. JASA enables seniors of ALL races, religions, and economic backgrounds to age-in-place with grace, dignity, and joy. For more information, visit www.jasa.org/.
Follow Sally Henry on Twitter: @BwayGinger