BWW Interview: CHICAGO Star Paulo Szot Takes Another Shot at Broadway
The Tony winner returns to the Broadway stage after over a decade away.
The last time Paulo Szot was on Broadway, it was in an enchanted, Tony-winning debut. Twelve years later, he's back to paint the town.
The opera super-star made his Broadway debut as Emile de Becque in Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific in 2008 and won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Theatre World Award for his performance. He has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Scala di Milano, Paris Opera, Teatro Real (Madrid), Barbican and SouthBank Center (London), Carnegie Hall, NYPhil, NY Pops. Recent roles include Higgins in My Fair Lady (São Paulo), Peron in Evita (Sydney & Melbourne), Escamillo in Carmen (Munich), Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro (Aix-en-Provence), Germont in Traviata (São Paulo), Don Giovanni (Washington), Onegin (Melbourne). This season: Sharpless in Madama Butterfly (Metropolitan Opera), The Celebrant in Bernstein's Mass (Ravinia), Danilo in Merry Widow (Rome). His upcoming appearances include Street Scene (Monte Carlo), Cosi fan Tutte (Paris), Chicago (São Paulo).
Now he returns to Broadway, opposite Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne, now through January 31 and March 16 through May 19. BroadwayWorld just caught up with Szot to talk all about his Chicago debut!
I know that you just officially went into the show last week. How's it going so far?
Oh my god, I only had ten days of rehearsals that started right before Christmas, and then of course we had the holidays, so we could not rehearse the whole time. I was really concerned about the time, because it was so short for such a big role as Billy is... with so many words and things to do and choreography and dancing and singing different songs with the ensemble and all. But everything worked out, you know? It's the magic of theatre; we rehearse, we rehearse, and then we feel, "Oh my God, I need more time!" And then it's time to go and you just go and do what you have to do.
Joining the cast of a show that's already up and running must be like jumping on a moving train...
I think the first concern is not to bother anyone else in the cast, because you're jumping in. So, that was my main goal: just to be where they're used to have Billy on stage and not to bother them. I'm getting to know them as we go now. They have been so kind and nice in helping me, and the company management too! They are saying to me, "You just need to think that you're in previews, don't be so hard on yourself." I think, "Oh my God!" I can think that, but the reality is that I'm not. The show is going on. I'm just concentrating a lot, just to do a good job, just to be there for them and not to bother the show.
In terms of enjoying it, I've already started to feel some enjoyment, of course, but I'm still very concentrated on doing the right positions on stage and singing the right keys. I think as we go along this week, things are going to be more relaxed in the sense that I'll be able to have more fun with the role.
I know that you started at the same time as Erika Jayne. What's that been like, going into the show at the same time with her?
It was fantastic. You know, Erika was rehearsing for a little longer than I did, because of course, Roxie Hart is such a huge role. She's on stage all the time. But I joined her in rehearsals right before Christmas. We've been rehearsing and we've been supporting each other since day one, you know? And we share the same stresses, and we share the same concerns about the time and about being there and not altering the rhythm of the show already. Yeah, she's a very hard-working woman. She was very powerful in rehearsals, and trying to do her best, and working all the time. I was surprised when I first met her and saw her doing all the choreography so well, and dancing so beautifully. And, of course, I was very, very happy, and I am very happy to share the stage with her.
And this is her debut!
Yes. After so many years on stages, you kind of forget how your first appearance in public in a theatre was, so it was exciting to be together with a person that was having that experience on Broadway for the first time.
Your resume is vast- between opera and theatre you've played so many characters- but this one kind of seems a little bit different for you. Have you ever done a Kander and Ebb show?
No, not at all. And that's one of the reasons that I really wanted to take this opportunity and to be Billy for a little bit and develop that kind of character. The parts that they've given in the past were very different than this. Of course, I've done some comedy in operas and in theatre too, but I think the language of this show... it's very particular, and it will give me lots of rewards as an actor- to learn this kind of expression, which is two steps above what usually we would do in a theatre in terms of interpretation. It's been very interesting to explore during rehearsals, and now during shows, and to be with these people that you have been doing this form of art for so long. I can learn that language. I can learn how they move and how they present themselves.
I've always been challenged by new things, and I think that I have been blessed with so many productions and so many opportunities in theatre and operas, that there comes a point when you say, "Oh my God, I'd love to do something new." It was the same story with South Pacific, many, many years ago. I was doing operas and I was very happy with my career of course, but when that opportunity came along, and I said to myself, "Oh my God, this is going to be fantastic for me as an artist to grow, to learn, and to do something slightly different." So, it's the same thing with Chicago. That's why I really wanted to embrace this opportunity that came along and be able to do these four weeks now in January, and then I'll be back in March and May.
Right. You're doing Street Scene in-between, is that right?
I am, yes. It's a production that we did in Madrid two years ago, and a DVD just got released this year. Street Scene is, again, it's a mix; people say it's a musical, people say it's an opera. It's the same thing with Porgy and Bess. But for me, I don't see these differences; I just see the place, if it's a good place or bad place. That's how I kind of think in my head, you know; I don't make distinctions.
How do you describe your take on Billy Flynn? What's your approach to the character?
It's a very interesting question because it changes with time, I think. The first time, when I saw the play, and the I started to read the script, I had this unilateral vision of Billy Flynn, which was this very egocentric man. But the more I do it, and the more I read, I see the true love- the true love that he sings about in the first song to his profession, to what he does. And he really enjoys that, and that's genuine. Since I understood that, since I got that information for myself about Flynn, things have moved, I believe, in a good direction. I think with every character- once you find the root, once you find what is deep inside each of these characters, I think that's the key. And sometimes it's hard to find.
Being someone who performs all over the world, what specifically do you enjoy about being back in New York and being back on Broadway?
Oh, my goodness, I have so many fantastic memories. You know, my life changed when I did South Pacific, and I always repeat that because it's true. I always wanted to go back to Broadway after South Pacific, and people were asking me to come, but the opera schedule is different; they book you two years, three years in advance. So, sometimes it was hard to cancel or to deny a contract that was already established with great opera companies in the world. But of course, if some amazing opportunity would come, like South Pacific did, I would. I would make the time; I would make the space.
But it took a little long [Laughs]. I've been doing other musicals in other places... I did six months in Evita in Australia, and then did My Fair Lady in Brazil, but to come back to Broadway, you know, I had the best memories from a community that accepted me so well from my first job here in this community. My first time on Broadway, the reception from everyone, from the audience, from my colleagues, was so pleasant and rewarding, and I grew so much with it. As I said, it changed my life. So, I couldn't wait to go back to Broadway, and I'm very glad that I am now.
I have such vivid memory of seeing you in South Pacific. It's one of those productions that's really stuck with me.
Oh yeah, you know people talk about that all the time, and it's been ten years! I thought it was only me, because I was in it. [Laughs] It's very funny because it's been so long, and as I said, it's one of those productions where everything was aligned and worked, and everybody wanted to do a good job. And it was the right time to do South Pacific, I believe, after so many years and they waited for it for so long and Lincoln Center, which is a fantastic theatre, the orchestra, Bartlett Sher, Kelly O'Hara, and then Laura Osnes... you know, it was a great, great cast. So, I'm glad it worked and I'm glad that people remember that.
I have such a vivid memory of your Tony night, and Liza Minnelli saying your name so joyously! [Laughs]
You know, it was a surprise for me, because we had no idea who was going to present, and as I said, I started to do South Pacific because it was something new in my life. I had never thought that I could even be nominated one day for such awards. Outer Critics and then the Drama Desk, and then they Tony Award; it was out of my dreams, these kinds of things to happen in my life. And then they started to happen. The night of the Tony Awards was just surreal for me. I was a stranger, I was coming from another place, I always saw these kinds of ceremonies on TV. And then all of the sudden, Liza comes on stage and calls my name, and still, still up to this day feels like a dream. When I watch, of course I do go back and I watch it on YouTube and I see Liza, just to believe that it was really true. But it feels like that; it feels like, oh my god, what just happened? It was magical. It was, for me, unbelievable. And having Liza, the biggest icon calling my name, like, thank you, universe!
You started singing professionally about thirty years ago. Is there any advice that you've learned along the way that you would give to your younger self now?
From my memories, I've been always very serious about my profession, very serious. I always had a sense that in order to perform you have to respect your body, because that's what you do; it's a physical work, you need to be very disciplined. And I was, but I could have been more so. And to learn more. Of course, I think I've learned a lot along the way, but when you're younger, you get things easier, like languages. I love languages. But I think if I could invest as an actor, as a singer, to have worked a little bit more about languages, around accents.
I am in a place that I'm very happy. I'm very glad that I can cross over so many wonderful things that I always wanted to be as a young singer. I wanted to be a singer. I didn't want to be an opera singer. I didn't want to be a pop singer. I want to be a singer, who would be able to sing whatever I liked. And I find my career, at this time, at that place. I am very blessed and thrilled, and I feel very lucky to be able to do that, to do Broadway, to do operas and concerts. I love to sing.