BWW Interview: JERSEY BOYS' Joseph Leo Bwarie Preps for a Revolutionary Role in NAPOLEON
Napoleon by day, Frankie Valli by night? That's the story of Joseph Leo Bwarie's life at the moment, as the Jersey Boys star rehearses to play the title character in Andrew Sabiston and Timothy William's Napoleon- running tonight through Jully 22 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. A complete reworking of the musical that had two productions (Toronto '94 and London '00), the new NAPOLEON is told through the eyes of Talleyrand, the political mastermind who helped shape Napoleon's career. Modern parallels with the making of leaders today drive the narrative in which a young, promising rising star is discovered, latched onto, then managed and manipulated to suit the needs of his creator. Blood. Sex. Power. Game on. There are icons, and those who help make them. Talleyrand is a master politician operating in the shadows. He thinks he can manage the man he's grooming for greatness. But there's one thing Talleyrand can't control - Napoleon's obsession with Josephine. In the battle to come, two of the three will be known forever. One will emerge as the devil incarnate. While he was in rehearsals, Bwarie chatted with BroadwayWorld about what to expect from the new reworking, what it's like taking on the iconic man, details on his upcoming solo album, and so much more. Check out the full interview below!
How did you become involved with Napoleon?
It came to my attention through my team. They asked if I would be interested in it and I thought, "Wow, what a great persona to play..." I mean, really he changed history in more than France. I've done so much research now! [Laughs] We as Americans have a lot of what we have because of the French Revolution, which Napoleon was such a huge part of. My first performance in Jersey Boys was at the end of 2007, so I REALLY know Frankie Valli. I'm so proud of him... but the idea of getting to originate this guy, who is so epic, power-driven, and broken was very interesting to me. I think that so many actors probably say this, but I think that working on this has actually re-inspired me in the work that I'm doing in Jersey Boys.
This show has had several incarnations a while ago, right? What more can you tell me about this new version?
It's TOTALLY different! It was beautifully produced in 2000 in the West End. There was a massive cast and huge orchestra, it was very operetta-style. I've had a lot of conversations with our writers and they told me that they grew up more, learned more, and researched more. They left the experience in London and tried to figure out what worked and what didn't. That's how great theatre happens! Then the opportunity came up to revisit the project older and wiser. I think they told me that it's just four of five songs that remain from the original production. The rest is all completely new.
It's a very skewed perspective now on who is telling the story. It used to be very linear and only from the point of view of Napoleon. Now it's told by the others and how he fits into their puzzle of life. Back then it was hugely orchestrated, and now at the festival we have a really cool five-piece band that's gonna rock out. The design isn't locked into the historical period- it's ambiguous and timeless. I love that, because this is really an everyman's story, and less of a history play.
I love that!
Yeah I think that the tagline is something like, "Blood. Sex. Power. Game On!" That's really hitting it home. When you boil it down, it's about passion- the passion of democracy, physical passion, emotional passion. It's driven by that intense feeling that people have in their gut when they know they need to do something to make a difference. That's definitely a message that still resonates today. What can we do to be better?
The story is that it doesn't matter what you're born into. It matters what you make of yourself. There is no limit. His mantra was about ambition and making the rules- changing the rules. And that you need to climb a ladder that you built yourself.
You're playing THE Napoleon- that's pretty exciting stuff. What was your research process like?
It's funny, when I tell people that I'm playing Napoleon, everyone says, "Oh, are you going to put your hand in your jacket?" [Laughs] And I have to say, "No, actually I'm not!" That was just the way they painted men of that stature back then. A lot of the show deals with the somewhat tumultuous relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, and how passionate they were. So I started my process with the love letters that they wrote back and forth to each other. That helped me to understand who the man was, because his real, obsession was not conquering the world, even though that is what he's known for. His true obsession was Josephine, even when it wasn't working. So that's where I stared. Then if you came to my apartment you'd see a coffee table filled with all sorts of books about him!
I heard you're also releasing a new album?
I am, I'm so excited about it! It's coming out in the fall. Fingers crossed, it will be November. It will be a follow-up to my first album, in the big band genre. I always say though that it's trying to reinvent the American standards.
Does it have a name yet!
It's going to be called... 'The Good Stuff.'
And amongst all of this you are still in Jersey Boys?
I'm doing a double duty life! I took a few shows off of Jersey Boys so that I could really focus on this. I'll be back right after the festival is over though. It's been nice because I haven't had to shave everyday. [Laughs] I'll be back on the 23rd and I really can't wait to go back. It's so interesting to step back from the thing that you do every day. Even just for a week...you're like, "Well wait a minute, I haven't seen any of my Jersey Boys peeps! I haven't sung any of those crazy high notes! What's going on?"
And you got to close the Tonys this year! What was that like?
Those kinds of moments, people say "Was it fun?" It's not fun. It's so much more than fun. It's every emotion from excitement to pride and fear and anxiety and awe. It's all rolled into one. Then it happens and it's over! It's a moment in time. It's such a loving, supportive room of peers to be in.
You're a couple of days out from starting Napoleon performances...what are you most looking forward to?
I'm so excited to see how the audience fits into our piece. We're doing some runs now, but we don't even get to run tech until the day we open. We don't even know what the lights will be! It will be so exciting to see how all of the elements layer on top of each other on the tech morning, and then at night when the final layer of the audience is there... I can't wait to see what resonates with them. I can't wait to feel that energy.
Napoleon will play July 15th to July 22nd at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Tickets are $27.50, and are available by visiting nymf.org or by calling 212-352-3101. For more information on NAPOLEON please visit www.napoleononstage.com