It's 'Curtains' Up for Jason Danieley
While the original production of THE FULL MONTY opened on Broadway in 2000, it earned its place in theatrical record books due to it's brilliant blast of full frontal nudity featured in the show's denouement, there were also a good share of touching moments throughout the evening. One such moment occurred when the character of Malcolm McGregor sang "You'll Walk With Me" graveside at his mother's funeral. As performed by Jason Danieley, the song was so affecting that grown men in the audience were wiping tears from their eyes.
Flash forward to the year 2007 and the new Kander and Ebb musical CURTAINS which is currently in previews at the Al Hirschfield Theater and Jason Danieley is once again on stage. Amid the razzle-dazzle of ingeniously mounted production numbers and a script filled with riotous jokes, Danieley stops the show with a song entitled "I Miss The Music" that leaves the audience cheering. In fact, much of the conversation overheard during intermission at a recent matinee found people talking about it a great length. The song, and Danieley's rendition of it, have become so popular with the audiences that a reprise of it was recently added.
"Yeah, that went in last week," said the actor in a phone interview after a recent matinee.
"When I accepted the role of composer Aaron Fox, John Kander said, 'If Jason's going to do it, I'll write him a song." So he wrote 'I Miss The Music" which was an extreme honor and very moving. I'd known John socially for a long time and I just love him to death. For him to write something so very special and mean so much to him it's a real honor. From Los Angeles to here it's grown exponentially because it now has a third verse, a bridge and the reprise in the second act. It's really fantastic. There are many layers to that song and it can touch people on many different levels."
Jason Danieley has been performing ever since the tender age of four. The son of a Southern Baptist preacher in St. Louis, Missouri, he was always singing at church services. "Many people were taken by my voice, so I began to think there was something there and so I started singing in school, however I didn't start performing in theater until my freshman year of high school. That seems a little late because some people started when they were much younger but my first musical was something I sort of stumbled upon. The choir director suggested that I audition for it and I wasn't sure that I wanted to do it. I was the captain of my football team and that took up a lot of time between practices and games and such. However I did audition and got the part of Billy Jester in LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE and that basically introduced me into the theater world.
Danieley started performing professionally when he was fifteen at Six Flags Over Mid-America in St. Louis for three years. He also appeared for a year at Opryland in "Music City U.S.A." Theme park work, at least in my mind, is the 70's and 80's equivalent of vaudeville because we were doing eight shows a day. I bounced around doing that for a while and I landed a job doing dinner theater in Champagne, Illinois. There was someone I was doing A CHORUS LINE with who kept saying, 'I want to go to New York, I want to go to New York' and so did I. After the show was over we packed up the Ford Festiva and made a leap of faith; heading cross country. So I moved here in '91 at the age of 20."
Jason Danieley made his Broadway debut in the title role of CANDIDE in the revival which Hal Prince directed in 1997. "I had also just finished a show called FLOYD COLLINS Off Broadway which I believe Hal had seen. Anyhow, he had me audition for CANDIDE and basically offered me the job that afternoon. It was fun to be a part of that. I learned so much about comedy by being in a cast with so many great comedians and comic actors. I mean the cast included Andrea Martin, Jim Dale and Arte Johnson. I learned all about timing and the craft of comedy from those people. I mean, I was learning from the masters! Most of my studying was the school-of-hard-knocks variety, trial and error and getting into shows and being able to work with great people."
The next Broadway show that Danieley did was THE FULL MONTY. When the title of that show is mentioned, most people recall that it was tale of some unemployed steelworkers from Buffalo who become male strippers. It was much more than that. It was the story of several men who were in dire straits and with their scheme of becoming maledancers, discovered a deep camaraderie, along with hope and confidence that they hadn't known before. Danieley had known playwright Terrence McNally for some time. "He wrote RAGTIME which my wife [Marin Mazzie] had starred in." explains the actor. "We'd spent a weekend with Terrence and were chatting one afternoon and he said, 'I'm writing this musical and I've got a part in mind for you. He told me what it was and I thought it could be interesting. When the time came around I went in and met David Yazbeck and everything seemed to go very well. Romain Fruge, John Conlee, Annie Golden and I were with the show from the very beginning. We went to all the readings and all that. I like to say that I got onboard early and held on very tightly. There was so much heart in that show and the humor came from the relationships of the characters. You laughed with them, you cried with them and the score was amazing! It was fun and different."
THE FULL MONTY was up and running when America experienced the tragedy of September 11, 2001. "Marin had gone to London to do KISS ME, KATE so I was home by myself when I got a call from Marcus Neville who was also in the show. He's the one who alerted me to it. What was going on didn't register with me right away. I wondered who would show up for the show that night. Of course, nobody did and we were closed down for a couple of nights. When the show resumed performances, we didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't know if they would laugh or if they were even able to laugh. I found that it seemed to be therapeutic for people to come out and try to get back to normal even though what was happening outside the theater doors was looming large in their minds and ours as well. We tried to calm each others' trauma and pain and divert ourselves for about two and a half hours. As the show would progress through the evening, their laughter became more and more full and I truly believe that towards the end of the show we came across some of the most responsive audiences that we ever played to. They had this cathartic moment of laughter and they had all this emotion to let out and they were doing so through laughter, which was great."
Between his Broadway engagements, Jason Danieley (his last name is pronounced "Daniel-ee") has appeared with symphony orchestras, in regional theaters and with Encores! at the New York City Center. Not only was he featured in their version of ALLEGRO and starred in their production of Gershwin's STRIKE UP THE BAND, as well as in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN a few years ago. His performance of an Irish ne'er do well living with his family in Brooklyn was an exceptional feat of acting and vocalizing that earned him acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. What makes Danieley and other performers keep returning to Encores?
"I'm a musical theater actor," he explained, "and these opportunities to be in a close-to-fully realized productions that they are now is great. I get a chance to do shows that I'd never otherwise get a chance to do. The initial intent was to present shows that had interesting scores that you would never get to hear on Broadway because they would never be revived. I found that to be terrific. I liked the idea of being part of musical theater history in that respect. When we did A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN we ran into a large number of people who had seen the original version and it was great to hear their responses to seeing it again. And I love all the people who work over there. It's sort of like a second family. There was Rob Fisher (who's no longer part of the organization), Judith Dakin, Jack Vuetel and Kathleen Marshall. It's always a good time to get together with friends and put on a good show."
Danieley's name has been found in press releases about a new musical based on Boris Pasternak's novel DOCOR ZHIVAGO. What is the status of one of the most promising projects to be talked about in recent years? "I've been a part of ZHIVAGO for any number of years. About ten years ago Lucy Simon had written the music for it. I was playing the role of Pasha, so I've been along for the ride for quite a long time with obviously a lot of space in between. That was a great experience, as was working on it at La Jolla. That was fantastic. I'd never worked with Des McAnuff before although Marin had, so she knew he was a great guy and very smart. I love everyone involved. Lucy Simon wrote a beautiful scorecompletely different from the score she'd written ten years earlier. The melodies are incredibly beautiful for such a romantic novel.. Is it ready for Broadway? Perhaps the question should be whether Broadway is ready for DR ZHIVAGO? That's like asking if anything is ready for Broadway. It totally depends on the weather. The conditions can change at any moment. I do believe they're moving forward with it. I did a presentation of it a few months ago and then we went to London and did a presentation. Both presentations were well received by backers and theater owners, too. I haven't heard the latest on the project, though. I'm ready to hear another Lucy Simon score. It's been a long time since THE SECRET GARDEN."
Marin Mazzie has had a recurring role in the television series STILL STANDING. Would Danieley be interested in joining his wife as stars of a sitcom? "It would be wonderful." The idea of doing a weekly comedy about two musical theater stars who are married to each other but never seem to be able to get cast in the same show is very appealing to the actor. They're always performing simultaneously but in different productions across town. "They meet each other on dinner breaks and have a whole bunch of zany actor and dancer friends, which would open the door for a whole lineup of guest stars. I can see it!" Now if only some television producer could also see it!
The opening of CURTAINS on March 22nd isn't the only opening that Jason Danieley is anticipating these days. On March 11th and again on March 19th, he appeared in his cabaret show called "Love: A Work In Progress" at the Metropolitan Room. The actor feels that love is, indeed, a "work in progress" and the piece itself is another work in progress. "It's fully formed but I'm looking at it to see if structurally it's what I want. Down the road I might want to add more musicians. This time around it'll be Dan Lipton on the piano and he'll have another keyboard with perhaps an organ-type sound, and Kevin Kuhn who is a fantastic guitarist. and banjoist. Growing up in St. Louis, my whole family was musical. My mother played the organ, my grandmother played the piano and my grandfather played the banjo and guitar. We'd all get together and sing through whatever the popular songs were at the time. The first time I heard "Hello, Dolly!" was when my grandmother played it on the piano in the basement and grandpa was on the banjo while I wailed out the tune. That's kind of the skew that I'm taking. I've got a bunch of music we all know; American popular musicfrom country to Stevie Wonder to Melissa Manchester, as well as selectiions from Adam Guettel, Sammy Cahn, John Michael Montgomery, David Pomeranz, Loudon Wainwright, Hank Williams, Paul Williams to some stuff from Broadwaytaking this eclectic American music and putting it through this musical filter of a homespun folkish approach. It's a song cycle, but don't let the word 'cycle' scare you. By definition it is "a set of related songs, often on a romantic theme, intended to form a musical entity.' I didn't want to do anything typical but we do some things that people would naturally like to hear me sing."
The big buzz in New York's theater circles is surely the opening of CURTAINS which stars television favorite David Hyde Pierce along with Broadway's Debra Monk. "Since Los Angeles, when I joined the company," Danieley explains, "the show's changed slightly; like moving numbers around in their order and certain relationships between characters have either been trimmed or beefed up depending on where the focus needed to be. One of the biggest differences is the choreography from Los Angeles to here. It's been ratcheted up considerably. There was a lot of amazing dancing going on then, but the dancers in this show really earn their paychecks now. They're working their buns off and I think it's thrilling for an audience to see that kind of dancing .on Broadway. These are really talented dancers and Rob Ashford has done some fine work with them."
When it is commented that Danieley holds his own as a dancer in some of the musical sequences, the singer laughs heartily. He admits that he took dance lessons for many years when he was young, and he is mindful that he's done plenty of work in theme parks. "I do dance," but he quickly adds, "I'm not going to give Noah Racey a run for his money any time soon."
Whether Jason Danieley can dance may be a moot point, but there is no doubt whatsoever that this man can sing. His vocal skills in CURTAINS are exemplary. Is his big number in this show, "I Miss The Music" really John Kander's tribute to the late Fred Ebb? It's something theater fans may argue about in coffee shops and on message boards for many months to come. The song is, however, one of the show's many highlights and is surely to become popular with other singers. Right now, though, the song belongs to Jason Danieley and it is being given the royal treatment by one of the theater's most gifted performers.
CURTAINS is being performed at the Al Hirschfeld Theater located at 302 W. 45th St. Visit www.curtainsthemusical.com for more information.
Curtains photos by Joan Marcus