BWW INTERVIEWS: Jake Epstein--from TV Teen Idol to Stage Lead--Talks SPRING AWAKENING National Tour

By: Nov. 17, 2009
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For many viewers both here in the U.S. and our hockey-loving neighbor to the north (Canada), actor Jake Epstein-currently starring in the musical SPRING AWAKENING-literally grew up in front of our eyes. In the hit teen Canadian-set drama Degrassi: The Next Generation (which airs in the U.S. on TeenNick), Epstein played Craig Manning, a sweet, affable young man that audiences first meet under strange and ultimately sad circumstances during the start of the show's second season. The meaty role gave Epstein the opportunity for some heavy, very intense acting work, thanks to his character's many interesting storylines (which include fronting a garage band, getting physically abused by a parent, impregnating a girlfriend, being diagnosed as Bipolar, and later even developing a cocaine habit). He went on to play Craig consistently for at least four seasons, returning occasionally in the past few years for guest appearances to reprise the role.

After leaving behind the TV cameras for higher education (he went to the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada in Montréal) he made his professional stage debut in the Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of Our Town. He also appeared in several other plays and was seen in a small role in the 2007 film Charlie Bartlett, co-starring Robert Downey, Jr., Hope Davis and Star Trek's Anton Yelchin. Earlier this year, he was in the Toronto production of Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead which co-starred some of his fellow Degrassi cast-mates. Replacing Kyle Riabko, Epstein made his official SPRING AWAKENING debut in the role of Melchior Gabor, the show's male lead, when the tour arrived in Washington D.C. back in July.

In our second of two exclusive interviews with members of the cast of the 1st National Tour of SPRING AWAKENING (the first, with Matt Shingledecker, can be read here), Jake Epstein talks with BroadwayWorld correspondent Michael Lawrence Quintos to talk about his early work as a TV heartthrob, his passion for acting, and, of course, his current role in the cast of the hugely popular, multiple Tony® award-winning stage musical, which will rock the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa from November 17 through November 29.

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BWW: Hi, Jake! How are you?

JAKE: I'm doing well, how about yourself?

Great, thanks! We're looking forward to the show coming back to Southern California! Are you familiar at all with Orange County?

No, I'm not familiar... in the sense that I've never been there before. I mean, I am familiar with "the O.C." ...Orange County, you know... So, I'm very excited!

Oh, good! Okay, first, if you just met someone who's never seen or have never even heard of Spring Awakening before... how would you describe this show, and what should people take from seeing it?

I'd say it's a story about sexual awakening... in German teenagers that takes place in 1891. And mixed in with that story is this rock concert with Indie/Alternative Rock music, and where each character has their own time to kind of tell their story of "awakening." I really think Spring Awakening is unlike any other show. At the end of the day, I hope people are moved by it... whether they love it or they find it uncomfortable. I hope this show can awaken something in them, or reminds them of their childhood, or offers a bit of assurance to what teenagers are going through. It's a great piece of theater. It's dark, it's funny, it's scary, it's intense... pretty much every possible human emotion is on the stage. So I hope people... feel something.

So you've been playing Melchior since July of this year... how's it been going for you since joining the tour?

It's been absolutely amazing! I could never have imagined something like this would happen to me... and it's such a dream role in a dream play... I really love the people and I've had such a blast so far.

Cool! What drew you in to be a part of this musical?

Well, I saw the show on Broadway and i just fell in love with it! I couldn't believe what I was seeing! See, I come from a very musical family; my sister's a musical theater performer, and I have cousins and aunts and uncles who are professional musicians. Now, I've always kind of hated musicals-I found them really cheesy. I mean, I love the stories, but I find it really hard to connect with them when they just start singing randomly! But then there was this one show! I mean, I love rock music, and... there's this amazing story that I found so compelling. It didn't feel cheesy and it didn't feel like it just breaks out with songs and the action just stops. Instead it becomes this, like, rock concert! It was just so creative! I think I was 18 when I saw the show, and I just loved it. I got chills...there was so much energy in the room. And so a few years later, I went to an open call in Toronto. Because of school, I wasn't able to make the auditions [the first time around], so I went this time and had to line up for two hours! But thank God I did, you know? And then I ended up going to New York and auditioning for the producers, and... I got lucky!

How did you feel about stepping into the role of Melchior?

It was really daunting at the beginning. I think because of the success and the popularity of the show, I sort of didn't want to be the guy that ruined it all! [Laughs] I mean, it's the lead role! Now it's actually been great because they've been replacing many people in the cast and now it's kind of settled. But before that, I was, like, the very first "new" guy to come in. I spent my first month performing with people who have been doing their parts for over a year! And I had the lead role, and I was supposed to play this confident guy who knew what he was talking about... [Laughs] So it was a difficult beginning, understandably, because of my circumstance. But just as the months have gone by, I have just gotten more and more comfortable. We just had a big break and then we came back to do shows in Milwaukee. Ever since Milwaukee, it's been a real pleasure performing [the role] every night.

How much preparation did you get before doing the role regularly?

I came and I rehearsed for about three weeks. I had about [Laughs] one-and-a-half days with our director, Michael Mayer. I mean, to be honest, for me there wasn't a whole lot [of preparation], considering the size of the role, and how complex and how vulnerable and raw the role is. For me it was certainly "you've got to learn as you go" while doing the show. But I think what is so beautiful about the character [of Melchior] in this play is that he is so human and so raw... and so, I know that when they hired me, they didn't necessarily want me to just put on some kind of intricate character with tics. I think they wanted me to bring what I had in myself to the role. And so, by understanding that, you get better and you grow and your character becomes more complex and confident. At the same time, I think [the character] was probably just as powerful as it was in the beginning when I was terrified with just being myself on stage. It's sort of what the audience picks up on, you know?

Totally. I can understand why it must have been intimidating to step into a role that a handful of people have played over the years.

Yeah, the coolest thing too is... I went to New York over a break, and I hung out with Jonathan Groff, which was amazing! I'm clearly a huge fan of his and he's such a nice person. But it was also kind of like [getting the] last key to this puzzle. It was so interesting to talk to him about creating this role and to ask him how much of the role is literally him. I mean, the role was literally written for him, who he is! So I found that really interesting.

Did he give you any advice?

I don't know if it was really "advice." It's interesting because I was talking to him about how I'm really, like, [a kind of] actor/performer that, well... I really like to move around [the stage]. But with Melchior, there are so many times when you just have to stand still. It was driving me crazy! And so Jonathan was, like, "I hate to move around! I just wanted to stand still all the time!" And so, I thought, "Ohmigod, that's why [the character] is like that!"

Well, then, did you have much leeway with what you could bring into your own interpretation of the character, once you took ownership of it?

At the beginning, it was sort of an unusual circumstance because I was replacing Kyle Riabko in the show. So, initially, I learned his Melchior...the way he did it, the way he moved. His specific inflections and take on the character was kind of how they wanted me to do it. And then I started to kind of try things. As soon as Michael Mayer came, he would then tell me "yeah, go with that." He seemed really curious as to what I would bring to it, like you said... and then he would sort of pull me back and say, "okay, well, you can't do all that." So, somewhere in between, he told me to find who my Melchior is.

Speaking of Kyle, is it just a coincidence that there have always been Canadians in the cast? There's you... Kyle... Steffi D...

[Laughs] I don't know... I'm sure there has to always be a couple, for some reason. At least two in the cast, at any given time. There's some unwritten law, I'm convinced. So, it's just me and Steffi right now... the token Canadians! [Laughs].

Now, earlier this week, I was able to speak with one of your co-stars Matt Shingledecker, and I also asked him this same question. So I'm curious, what is a typical tour day like for you? Can you describe your life on the road a little?

The only thing that's typical about a day on the road is that each day is never the same... for me, at least. With each city, some weeks we have rehearsals every day and then shows at night. Sometimes we have the entire week off. Some weeks, if my voice is a little bit tired, I have to plan my week and make sure that I'm able to rest my voice during the day. So, yeah, each day is always kind of a bit of an adventure, because it's always different.

Any pre-show rituals?

Probably. [Laughs] Let's see... I definitely like to check in especially with Christy [Altomare, who plays Wendla], just because I think our characters are so intimate on stage. So, if I'm, like, having a bad day, or if she's pressured about something, it's sometimes good to kind of know what's going on with each other a little bit. And the same goes with me and Taylor [Trensch, who plays Moritz]. I make sure to check in with Taylor and that he and I joke around before the show. I probably do other things [before the show] that I'm not even aware of.

When not doing the show, on your downtime, do you spend most of it with the cast?

The cast, you know, is our family here. When we go into these cities, most of which I've never been to and I don't typically know anyone else in these cities... yes, I spend most of my spare time hanging out with the cast, for sure.

What has been your favorite city so far on the tour?

I loved Washington D.C. That was my first city on the tour and we played the Kennedy Center. There was just so much history and it was such a beautiful venue. And I loved Milwaukee, actually. It kind of took me by surprise a little bit...the Midwest. On the first day I was there, I kinda went exploring. I took this long walk and I guess there's this cliché that people are super-friendly in the Midwest. So... [Laughs] people were like, "Hey! How are you?!" I made all these new friends and met a few strangers during my first day. So that was really fun.

Wow, you were able to just go out alone like that? Weren't you a little cautious that people might recognize you?

Yeah, only sometimes. Sometimes, someone will come up to me. But I've literally never been to any of these cities before so I really try to take advantage of seeing each city. You know, once we arrive and start doing our show, we don't have a lot of time to hang out. So on my day off, I try to like, at least, get lost and explore or do something.

Even before joining Spring Awakening, you yourself are no stranger to what it's like having a huge fan base, since you spent several years as Craig on the hit show Degrassi: The Next Generation. I personally have literally watched you grow up on screen, so it's a real treat for me to be talking to you right now, actually. So how was it for you, transitioning from doing a hit TV series to now performing on a hit Broadway musical?

In some ways, both are somewhat similar. But in some ways, they're not. Obviously, doing TV and doing theater are completely different because they're two totally different mediums. On stage, you worry about your voice and how you move physically. On TV, something like an eye twitch is what they could be looking for from you because it's so contained. I remember on Degrassi, the mandate was always to portray issues that are going on with teenagers in a realistic way and to try to connect to teenagers that way. Now, at the same time, Spring Awakening does something very similar to that. It felt like I was sort of graduating from that Degrassi mandate-that message that I grew up with-of trying to portray these stories. And then now I feel like I'm taking these sort of even more intense stories, and then literally taking them on the road.

Personally, I love doing theater. There's nothing like it. I started doing theater in Toronto and then film and TV. I actually left Degrassi to go to theater school. My contract was up... I've been doing the show for six years. I loved it, but I just wanted to do more and I wanted to get better. I felt like I was going to regret it if I didn't try something else. So I got into this really amazing program-it's known as, like, the "Julliard of Canada." They accept only 12 people every year. But I got into this program and I just went for it! And really, I'm so happy I did because I feel like it prepared me for this. When I graduated, I actually spent my first year doing musicals and low-budget productions in Toronto. It all feels like... fate.

When you look back now, how would you describe your entire experience on Degrassi?

I loved it. It was my high school. I think I spent more time on the set than I ever did in an actual classroom! And, like you said, I literally grew up on the show. So, I had a great experience... I loved the people. Like I said before, by the end of it, I was certainly... [sighs] ...I could feel like I was finished with that chapter in my life.

What's funny is that Degrassi, with all its garage bands and musical performances, reminds me a little bit of the current hit show Glee...

Oh, yeah, I'm a big fan!

I am too! Both shows feature these talented teens that, you know, can really sing. What's your take on all this teen musical mania?

I love it. I think it's great! You know, all of the classic idol performers of our time were all singers and actors and dancers. So I think it's great that there's this renaissance of musical theater movies and TV shows. People love it.

Did you get to perform your own songs on Degrassi?

Yeah, they let me write a bunch of [my characters'] songs... I had a "band" on Degrassi. They would come to me and say, like, "Okay, we want kind of like a generic, garage-rock-sounding song!" So, I would come back with "Okay, like this?" and they'll go, "yeah, that's it! Let's do that!"

Now, be honest. Did everyone on screen in your fictional Degrassi band actually play [instruments] for real?

No! It was all me! [Laughs] I'm being serious! I went into the studio and recorded different parts. In the band, I used to play the other guitar and bass parts.

Wow! Well, that's interesting to learn...

[Laughs] No... but, you know what, that's a lie... There were other people on the show who are extremely talented [musically]. Aubrey Graham-who everyone now knows as [hip-hop star] Drake-wasn't a guitar player, but he's got real musical talent, obviously. There's Cassie Steele, who playEd Manny... she also performs with a rock band all the time. There were a lot of musicians on the show, definitely. Oh, and actually, the guy who plays Spinner [Shane Kippel] is a drummer in real life. But, yeah, there were a few people who literally could not play. It's like a [real] high school band, right?  There's always that one guy in the band who actually can't play the bass! It made it kind of authentic, I thought. [Laughs]

So, overall, do you feel more at home in front of TV cameras or performing live on stage?

Well, I get a little freaked out doing either one, but I think I love doing theater more. Theater's my passion. I really love doing it. I love that it's different every night, and what the audience is seeing that night is completely different from what the audience was seeing the night before. It's just so alive. I ultimately would love to do theater more, but... I just want to work. I love it all. I have yet to do my first big feature movie, so that's definitely a goal of mine at some point.

Let's talk a little bit about your childhood and background. Was a career in music something you've always dreamed of doing, even from a young age?

Not at all. I mean, I love playing music. But even now, I look back... I went to school to study acting, and acting has always been the thing I felt that I'm good at, and that I could possibly have a career in. Music, though, has always been just for fun. It's always with friends. I played in many rock bands in high school. But I've always been saying... with music, it's just for fun. So, yeah, the idea of combining both of my loves together-singing and acting-it's just great!

But, honestly, I feel more comfortable acting than singing. I love singing, but I feel very naked and very vulnerable when I'm singing sometimes. With acting, I always think that it doesn't matter what you are as long as you're truthful in that moment. But with singing, you always have to hit the note. It's not like you can just go, "oh, it doesn't really matter what note you sing!" But, yes, I definitely feel more comfortable with acting than singing.

Which actors do you admire?

I really love young Tom Hanks. He's just one of my favorites. He's a great, quirky every-man. I also love Zach Braff. I really love actors that are quirky and interesting, that sort of try to portray "normal" people. [Pauses] I'm not like a Zac Efron traitor or anything, but I think it's great that he's singing and acting, and for him to have a career in that is amazing.

What music influenced you the most growing up?

When I was a kid, my Dad was a huge folk music lover. In my household I grew up listening to nothing but The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It probably wasn't until high school when I started listening to other types of music. But, really, I grew up with 60's folk music.

Do you think that has shaped the kind of music you like to perform now?

Oh, yeah, definitely.

I like asking musical theater actors this question: What's on your iPod® right now?

Actually, I'm a little bit bipolar on my iPod. I'm all over the place. I just started listening to this Canadian singer named Joel Plaskett. And-not to keep doing shout-outs to Canada-there's another singer I like named Hawksley Workman, whom I highly recommend. He does this kind of folk-y rock stuff, but he's very theatrical and has this almost operatic [delivery]. He writes, like, folk music but he's like a musical theater singer! He's almost like that American Idol dude with that sick, awesome voice... Adam Lambert. It's like if Adam Lambert was writing folk music, he'd sound like him. Very Freddie Mercury. I think that's what phase I am musically right now... sort of in this Duncan Sheik-type of folk music, but more theatrical... which I guess is what Spring Awakening's music is.

Is that a good description of the type of music you yourself perform outside of musical theater shows?

Yeah. I've played at many different clubs around Toronto by myself, with a harmonica that I wear around my neck. [Laughs] And I do this solo thing, but I've also played in many bands. But, yeah, I suppose I perform kind of folk music... but, you know, I go through so many different phases, so I'm sure that in a year, I'll be in a different phase of music.

What about other musicals or plays? Is there another role in a different play you would love to perform someday?

Oh, man! One of my dream roles is to play Mark in Rent. And, I did it at my high school, but my ultimate dream role is to play the Emcee in Cabaret. And, sorry, there are so many others, but I can't think of any of them right now.

So, now that you've had a few months on the tour, what has been your favorite part of being on Spring Awakening so far?

You know, when I came on, it was a bit of a crazy time. Like I said before, everyone was being replaced, people were still learning the tracks, and it was all really stressful and a bit scary. But, I think, literally since going back to Milwaukee, there's been this feeling of family. I really, genuinely like the people that are on the tour. I'm really lucky. It's just been really fun when you really like the people you perform with and we can be friends on stage. You know, it's just... the best.

And what's been your least favorite part of the tour?

My least favorite part is probably when I was still starting. It was a bit scary, I was feeling very far from home, and I didn't know anyone. As a replacement, I was supposed to perform as the "new" guy. And even the fact that, again, like I said before, I grew up singing... but I've never had a role like this before in my life with this much singing. The people in the cast around me are just so talented, that at the very beginning I found it very scary every night to perform. And not just jitters, it was genuinely scary. So I think the beginning was probably my least favorite part. Since then, it's just gotten better and better.

Tell me an interesting fact or tidbit that your fans may not know about you.

[Long Pause] Um... Hmmm... A fact or tidbit?

Sorry, did that sound too much like a teen magazine question?

[Laughs] No, it just took me by surprise. Well... um.... I was a... very good student in school. But then I went on to do something not academic at all. [Laughs] I think what was really painful was that I so busted my ass in high school to get really good marks. But then the [university] I went to, I don't even think they look at your marks. You just have to audition! Let's see... what else... I'm horrible at math! English and History were my best subjects...

Oh! An interesting tidbit: my Mom is a really well-known Canadian children's writer! Her name is Kathy Kacer, and she actually writes Children's Holocaust Non-Fiction. Yeah, they're kind of intense, and she's won many awards. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors.

Wow, now that was certainly very interesting! So, tell me, have you learned or discovered anything about yourself since joining the tour?

I think that the biggest discovery for me was... you see, I love character actors. I love playing [different] characters! Even on Degrassi, I played such a f--- up. It was great. And I think coming here, it was so interesting. When [Michael] Mayers is demanding for you to be yourself-to bring yourself to the role-it became a really personal experience. It sort of opened my eyes up... [Pauses] Wow, this just sounds kind of intense! For me acting has always been about pretending or lying. But for me, now, it's about telling the truth. And I know that sounds so cheesy, but that's been sort of my big revelation since being here.

Cool. Now as a show, Spring Awakening not only features a very young cast portraying very young roles, the show also attracts a predominantly young fan base. Do you have any tips or advice for all these young kids who dream of having your job someday?

I just think that if you truly love something and you work really hard at it... People like casting directors and agents and directors will see that in you. So, I think, if you love something, work at it and just go for it.

Do you have any other special projects in the works outside of the tour? An album maybe?

Well, funny... I had a bunch of projects that I was planning on doing and then I got cast in this show... so it sort of trumped everything else. I was going to do the premiere of this new musical in Toronto called Mimi, a comedy about the first female mass murderer in France. Unfortunately-and I did a bunch of workshops for it-Spring Awakening was just such a good opportunity, that I had to pull out of it. Besides that, I've been writing music. Again, music is purely something I do for fun and I love performing it, but, who knows... maybe if I get a bunch of tunes that I feel are worth recording, then I'd certainly be up for it. But getting cast in the show took me completely by surprise, and so now I'm just playing it by ear.
 
Care to share any funny stories from the tour so far?

I'll tell you something that happened last night on stage! So...Taylor Trensch makes me laugh all the time. But, there's a moment on stage when [his character] Moritz is reading the sex essay that Melchior has written. Moritz struggles with this one word. [Attempting to pronounce it], he says "Geh-nee... Geh-nee... Geh-nee..." And Melchior is supposed to correct him and says "Genitalia!" But, for whatever reason, we thought it would be funnier for him to go "GEH-nit... GEH-nit... GEH-nit..." I don't know why. [Laughs]

But, for whatever reason... he surprised me last night on stage. He changed [how he said] it for the first time, saying "GEH-nit... GEH-nit... GEH-nit..." And I tried to correct him-very proudly-but ended up saying "GEH-nitalia!" [Laughs]. We take this long pause and Taylor just looks at me and says, "...which is, genitalia!" I just tried to cover it and we played it off as a joke [to the audience]. Oh, it was bad! We really tried to fight off laughing hysterically on stage from that point!

That's funny! And speaking of funny things... I thoroughly enjoyed watching a recent video that was posted on the tour blog of you and co-star Christy Altomare, involving M&M's. How did you guys come up with that skit?

[Laughs]. Oh, it was during a matinee day. So, after the show, Christy and I were feeling loopy to begin with and kind of tired. I think the Spring Awakening media people were pressuring Christy to come up with a video. So she came to me saying "can we do something?" So, I think I pitched this idea... So, I said, "what if you get me to eat a lot of chocolate and just get really crazy?" And Christy's so funny, she edited it together brilliantly!

That's great! So all of you guys just come up with ideas for all these funny videos yourselves?

Yeah, they want us [the cast] to just keep sending in videos of, you know, random stuff. We're trying to come up with another one, actually. Do you have any ideas?

Well, you know, there are a few things I can suggest. This being Orange County, you can certainly do parodies of the TV shows The O.C. or The Real Housewives of Orange County. And-I mentioned this to Matt [Shingledecker] during our interview-that Disneyland is here. So maybe there's that!

Yeah, there is that! These are good! These are really good options! [Laughs]

Well, hey, I want credit if you guys use one of my ideas!

Oh, definitely. [Laughs]

Photo: Christy Altomare and Jake Epstein by Joan Marcus.

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Tickets to see SPRING AWAKENING are $20 - $70 and are available at OCPAC.org, at the Center's Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa or by calling 714.556.2787. For inquiries about group ticket discounts for 15 or more, call the Group Services office at 714.755.0236. The TTY number is 714.556.2746. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, November 28 will be sign-language interpreted. Please note that on-stage seats are sold out.

OCPAC is offering discounted student rush tickets for just $20. Student rush tickets are available one hour before each performance. A valid student ID is required at the time of purchase, with a limit of two tickets per person, which must be paid for in cash. Students are advised to call the Orange County Performing Arts Center's information line at 714.556.2787 to confirm availability.

SPECIAL $10, $20 AND $30 TICKETS AVAILABLE FOR THANKSGIVING DAY PERFORMANCE IN PARTNERSHIP WITH ORANGE COUNTY FOOD BANK:
The Center is offering a limited number of specially-priced tickets to the November 26 Thanksgiving Day performance.These tickets are $10, $20 and $30, and may be purchased now at OCPAC.org, at the Center's Box Office or by calling 714.556.2787. When purchasing tickets, patrons need to use the promo code THANKS. Patrons who take advantage of this special opportunity should bring non-perishable food items to the performance where Orange County Food Bank will be accepting donations on behalf of the Center and Spring Awakening.

Cox Communications is the Media Partner of the Center's 2009-2010 Broadway Series.

For more information please visit springawakening.com. To join the Guilty Ones and be eligible for discount tickets, merchandise, autographed items and a chance to meet the cast go to OCPAC.org/GuiltyOnes.



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