BWW Interview: Joel Perez Talks Swinging New Musical BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE
The New Group is taking audiences back to the swinging 60's at The Pershing Square Signature Center with it's World Premiere production of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, a new musical with a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green. The fascinating new piece has a lot to say about love, relationships, and - of course - sex. Following a recent performance, BroadwayWorld sat down with Joél Pérez, who plays Bob, to unpack the show and discover what's under the covers.
How did you come to be involved in BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE?
I did a production of SWEET CHARITY through The New Group in 2016, so Scott Elliott [the director of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE] knew me through that experience. A couple of months ago, I was asked to do a reading at The New Group of THE BAD SEED for a gala fundraiser. After that reading, Scott came up to me and said, "Joél, I love your hair." [Laughs] I had a big afro and a big beard because I was just lazy. I didn't feel like shaving or getting a haircut. [Laughs]. So he said, "I love your hair." And, I said, "Oh, okay. Cool." The next day I got the call. "Hey, they have an offer for you to do BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE." I thought, "What? That's so weird." Then, I read it, and the rest is history.
I felt like this seemed like such a cool project. I had always been such a huge fan of Duncan Sheik and his music. I was really thrilled to be asked to be a part of it and be part of a brand new show. I love originating new roles and working on genre-bending pieces. In SWEET CHARITY I played a bunch of different roles, so it was nice to come back and play just one person for an entire show. [Laughs]
I just found out about a week and a half ago that the musica is based on a movie. Did you know the film at all?
No idea. When they told me about it, I looked up the movie and there's a pretty iconic poster of the four people, Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice, in a bed. I felt like I had seen that picture before, but I didn't remember where. Then, I watched the movie before I accepted the part. Watching the movie, I thought, "This is so interesting that in 1969 they were struggling with and questioning the idea of marriage and open marriage." It seems so timely now. It is such a concept that everyone is talking about, and we still haven't figured it out. But, even back in 1969 they were trying to figure out what the heck marriage is, so even though this is a period piece, it still feels pretty relevant to conversations people are still having about marriage, love, relationships, and what that means.
For sure, and that brings me to another point that I want to talk about. As an openly gay man, I feel like open marriages and open relationships are all I ever hear about from the community. Yet, here are heternormative couples addressing these topics. What is that conversation like playing a role through that lens?
I definitely feel the biggest challenge in this rehearsal process was to put myself in the mindset of someone in the 1960s because in 2020 we know what therapy is; we know what self-reflection is; we have a context for open marriages, open relationships, different coupling ideas, and how each relationship is unique. It was really challenging to imagine, but that's the big job of us as actors in this piece: to put ourselves in the mindset of people for who these are brand new ideas. The idea of self-reflection. The idea of therapy. The idea of questioning marriages and what relationships are is brand new and uncharted territory for Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice.
Not approaching them from a judgemental place because nowadays it is "relationships are whatever, define it for you," that was the biggest challenge for me. But, in this time period there are no blogs about this, there's no Facebook group about polyamory that they can talk to, and there's no community. It's just them finally being honest with each other, and that's the big thing. It is them finding the language to be honest!
I don't think that was a thing people were back in the 60's and before that. There were really distinct gender roles, marriage roles, and responsibilities that you'd have to adhere to. So, this is the first time that these people are questioning that. That's been kind of the wildest thing for me. I have to actually look at this like it is a brand new thing, especially for a man and especially for a straight man like Bob. You didn't talk about your feelings. That wasn't encouraged. Now it is normal, and we sensitive boys are part of it. That was toxic masculinity. We are dismantling some of those ideas now, but in the 60's, no one was talking about that.
You bring up a great point when it comes to honesty. I feel like the musical displays the power of honesty and that makes feel very contemporary. Is there anything you want to extrapolate on that?
There's an interesting device in the show where Scott Elliott, the director, really wanted the show to feel [authentically] acoustic. We aren't wearing body mics. We're trying to bring the audience back in time a little bit, so all of the mics are corded microphones. Jessica Paz, the sound designer, has really smartly and strategically placed some overhead mics that pick up stuff too. So, some things are amplified, but it's pretty subtle. With that, we had a conversation about what those microphones mean, dramaturgically and for the characters. When we go up to a microphone and sing, what does that mean? Often, for us, it has been a moment of truth that the character is experiencing for themselves, or questioning, or feeling, and the microphone becomes a conduit in that moment for them to be vulnerable.
I definitely saw that and feel it works. It's kind of like the use of contemporary rock fantasy moments in the original staging of SPRING AWAKENING.
And Suzanne Vega as the band leader is the microphone master. She presides over the whole night from her bandstand. When she welcomes us to join her, that's such a big moment of us. She has reached enlightenment. Her band leader is coming from this enlightened place. But, it's not really enlightenment; it is honesty. All four characters are just trying to find ways to be honest with each other.
Earlier you talked about communication and how important it is. I think it is fascinating, and almost jarring to watch this as they are discussing infidelity in the show. It is not a tweet or a text message that got seen while someone was in the shower, or a browser that wasn't refreshed. It is having to be open about it, and actually communicate that. It is really powerful to see it all happen so openly.
Right. That was the only way they could communicate. The only way they could be honest was to be honest. There was more of an ability to be sneaky and anonymous in the past, and now we live in a time and place that, because of the internet and smartphones, you can see people's geo-locations and Nancy Drew a way to find out if someone is cheating on you. Back then, you could get away with it.
These are people who make the choice to be honest, and they have to communicate with each other in order to make that happen because they are in a world where they could never get caught. That's a big thing too. This is 1969. Carol is not going to read through Bob's texts and see that I was texting a coworker. I'm not going to post something online that my lover will then find. These are people that just have to say something.
While we have so many ways to communicate now, I feel like there are so many more ways to be disingenuous. That's unlike what we see these four go through.
I feel like online people can create personas. In many ways these people kind of do something similar. Bob and Carol, at least, go to this institute and are challenged until they kind of try on and adopt a new identity and a new way of thinking about the world. It's not performative in any way because it is for them. It is about us and our relationship. Nowadays, people go to an institute and Instagram it and write a blog about how transformative it was: "Hey guys! I just went to the institute. We learned about radical honesty." But, you [the viewer of the post] are thinking, "Are you [the poster] really being that honest? Are you doing it for an audience or doing it for yourself? Hashtag radical honesty." [Laughs]
There's a purity that existed back then, and those places really were radical. It was all word of mouth. People really needed to know about them to get there. There wasn't advertising about the institute. It was like people heard through the grapevine about this place where people were walking around naked, doing Tai Chi, experimenting with psychedelics, and getting in touch with who they were. Now we would be fucking influencers going to Coachella or Burning Man. [Laughs] There's a purity when it is special like that.
You talked about how you really enjoyed getting to originate a role. What is it like working with new music, written by a living composer and that has not been heard before?
You're in the rare position to make a song your own. They really are thinking about your voice and what it can do, and you have the ability to have a conversation with that person and tailor it to your strengths, which you don't really get to do when it's an old museum piece, or when it's a show that's already written.
Duncan's music is so chill. [Laughs] I'm a high tenor when I sing normally, and this is a show where I'm just kind of hanging out, vocally, at least. It feels less like a musical and more like a play. The intention is in the acting and less about vocal gymnastics. Then, the audiences get to see actors who happen to have these musical interludes, but it's not really about that. It's more about the performances and not people riffing, wailing, or doing crazy harmonies. Again, it's really grounded and honest.
You're also working with a new book. I'm imagining that as you went through previews, and even rehearsals, that bits were changed and things were adapted, as you said, to your own skill sets. What was that like?
We had a bunch of changes today, a bunch of trims. [Laughs] Jonathan Marc Sherman adapted this film into the book of this musical. There are certain scenes that are really faithful to the film and there are other scenes that are adjusted for the theatrical experience. Previews are a good time to figure some of that stuff out. What really worked in the film may not really work onstage. Scenes that are really long in the movie need to be cut because there aren't the film techniques of editing and closeups. Sitting in a live theater is so different from sitting in a movie theater.
Whenever you're working on a new musical, you just have to be cool with things changing. If that stresses you out, then you shouldn't do musicals. [Laughs] Or, you shouldn't do new musicals. You just have to be open to the fact that you are going to show up for rehearsals and they will say, "Here are all of these cuts, here are all of these changes, and here is a new monologue you need to learn." And, you have to say "okay," spend your dinner break memorizing it, and do it. [Laughs] It's stressful but also fun.
It's such a unique experience every night, and, during previews, the preview audiences get a different show each night. It can be frustrating or exciting. If it's running too long, I think, "Sorry, we haven't done those cuts yet." If it's too short, I'll be like, "Oh great, now it's running smoother." I appreciate when preview audiences are a little more forgiving because we are carving the show into what it is supposed to be.
Do you have a favorite part as Bob, or a favorite moment that you look forward to playing each night?
Oh, I love playing the drums with a cigarette in my mouth. It is so fun. And, I grew up playing the drums at church, as a kid. My dad is a pastor at a church and I was a the drummer of the worship team, but, since moving to New York and becoming an actor, I haven't really played them. I haven't had to. I've just focused on performing onstage as an actor.
When we started rehearsals, Duncan said, "Hey, I saw on your resume that you play the drums. Did you want to do that in the show?" I responded, "Sure. I haven't played them in a while, but let's try it." It then became this interesting conversation of, when Carol is singing her song, I come behind the drums and accompany her. That moment becomes about our relationship, and it becomes this interesting interplay of how is Bob affecting the people around him. I do the same thing with Ted and his misbehavior. I give him a guitar and get behind him and play the drums as if my influence is starting to affect him. It's fun. It's just different. I always like being challenged.
That brings me to another interesting aspect of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE. The staging is rather unique and inventive in the fact that it at times is very traditional and at other times it breaks the fourth wall. Then, at other times, your character plays the drums. What was it like working in that type of fluid and flowing staging?
That's all Scott Elliott, the director. He kind of had a vision of it feeling like it was in a living room slash recording studio in the 60's. The band is playing, the cast is on stage, there's a fluidity of getting up to the mic or getting behind instruments while scenes are happening, and it has this kind of chill feeling around it. That was tough. It's hard to wrap your brain around it. You just have to trust the process and trust that things might be bad, or things might be great. We're experimenting with a new way of telling a musical and some people might love it and some people might hate it.
Purists may think "musicals are this" and "where is the opening number with a button and a dancing chorus?" Sure, those are some musicals, but it's not everything. It is a show about feelings. If you crossed behind the drums and started playing it, how does that feel? Does that feel interesting? Okay, let's keep going in that direction. If you looked at an audience member in this moment, does that feel interesting? Okay, let's keep exploring that. It is tough as an actor because there aren't hard and fast rules. It's more about feelings, and that's just weird. [Laughs]
But, it works well.
Yeah. It's weird but cool. We bring the audience on stage, we have scenes with the audience, and every night it's different. As an actor, you're kind of thrown off. Our characters are kind of thrown off in that moment, so it helps to be vulnerable with a person that you've never seen before and have these intense moments onstage with them is. The audience members question, "Am I performing? Am I just watching? How much can I participate?" It varies from night to night, so it keeps us on our toes. And I can see some people who think, "I came here to watch. I do not want to participate." And, there are other people who are really into it. Even today, at the end, we bring them up and dance with them, and I was singing these lyrics to this woman. I could see her eyes welling up with tears at "What's love? What's up with love? What were we thinking of?" She was like, "Yeah." And I was like, "Yes. This is what we are singing of. Love is a universal experience. The lack of it. How messy it is. How irrational it is is so universal." BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE is a sex comedy about people who just learn how to be really vulnerable and honest with each other. It's salacious to say it's about an orgy. It's not about that. I mean, it is about that. But, it's also about deeper stuff.