BWW Interviews: Jesse Liebman of DIRTY DANCING National Tour

By: Sep. 11, 2014

Coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center from September 16th-21st is the national touring production of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage based on the 1987 classic of the same name features actor Jesse Liebman as Neil Kellerman, a role created on screen by acclaimed theatre director, Lonny Price.

Jesse Liebman's selected credits includes Did You Hear About The Morgans?, The Girl's Guide To Depravity. A graduate of Princeton University and The New Actor's Workshop, Jesse has studied with George Morrison, Mike Nichols, and is a current student of Michael Howard. Other Film/TV credits: Percentage, Taxi Brooklyn.

JK: Do you remember what your first introduction was to live theatre?

JL: Oh, that's a good question! Well, I have a couple memories, but I think when I was just beginning to understand what theatre was when I saw Rent on Broadway, and it certainly was a musical that broke the mold, so it was definitely an experience. I remember the commitment and the people performing it and that really had a big affect on me. And not long after that I remember seeing The Lion King, which was very different as well! I grew up in New York, so I had seen a lot of plays, but those are the two that really stick out to me, and the ones that made me feel like there was a whole world being created in front of me really made me want to be apart of it!

JK: Were any of those experiences inspirations to you for wanting to become a performer?

JL: I think so. Those experiences watching shows and also when I was doing shows in college I really liked being part of a group, I liked the whole group and energy of collaboration and even all of the pressure building up to the opening night, 'Can we do it?' 'Will they like us?' that kind of thing.

JK: What were some of the roles you've played in college?

JL: In college, I was actually in a theatre group that wrote its own musicals and its own sketch comedies, it was called the Triangle Club, it's an old musical theatre sketch comedy club at Princeton. It's a tradition of this irreverent comedy, it's all student written and the club hires professional directors to come in and direct, choreograph, musical direct, etc. I can't really tell you the roles I've played, I've played a large bear, a squirrel, a librarian, etc.

JK: In learning about you, I did see that you got to study with Mike Nichols. What was it like getting to study with the legendary multi-award winning director?

JL: He's really unbelievable! First of all, because he really has no ego about his accomplishments, he's really so committed and so focused on the work. We would study with him on Wednesdays in my conservatory, the second the students would perform scenes for him. He never knew what we were going to perform and he would respond by telling us if he knew the play, the historical circumstances of it, the playwright, and most importantly, when performing a work like that, what needed to be accomplished. If we had accomplished what needed to be accomplished in the scene, he really had such an intuitive response to a drama, he gets it, and he's so insightful, he could put his finger exactly on what kind of actor you are, and take you where you need to go!

JK: Moving on to Dirty Dancing, what was your audition process like for this show?

JL: My audition process was great! I didn't expect to get the part, but I had a good first audition, so I was excited to get the callback and then during the callback, there were obviously more producers, our director, the room was a little bit bigger, but it also felt good because I was able to work through the material a little bit more. Then I got a second callback, which was in a slightly bigger room with more people, but right after that, I worked with the material so much that I perhaps knew what I was doing, and then I got the call that I got the part! It was probably the longest audition process I've ever been through.

JK: What is it like getting to work with your director James Powell (co-director of the current hit revival of Les Miserables)?

JL: James is wonderful! Obviously, he has worked on Les Miz and other musicals, and he has worked on Dirty Dancing for a number of years, so he really knows the material and he knows what he wants to get out of each scene and what he wants each character to be, and at the same time, he's very open to individual, personal choices and he's definitely open to trying new things. He has a wonderful sense of humor, wants to make the rehearsal process fun, and ultimately committed to the meaning and heart of Dirty Dancing!

JK: As a performing, how are you able to keep up with performing eight times a week?

JL: It's tough, this is a first time for me! But I'm lucky that my character is supposed to be a bad dancer, so I thankfully don't have to do the complicated and athletic dance routines that the other dancers in the cast have to do. So it doesn't take a whole lot of my body, and I also only sing two songs in the show, so there are other vocalists in the cast that might carry the whole number(s) themselves, but for me, it's very limited singing and dancing, so it's largely just an acting role.

JK: Knowing that you just started with the tour, what are you enjoying most about traveling around the country doing this show so far?

JL: I guess I have to say the people because they're just wonderful, supportive, fun, outgoing, everyone has their own story, a different place from a different background, different training, it's really been wonderful to put this all together with them!

JK: With the current trend of turning movies into stage musicals, are there any movies you think deserve the Broadway treatment?

JL: That's a good question! Well, I have personal favorites, like The Princess Bride...

JK: Well, Disney's doing that already...

JL: Oh, they are?

JK: Yeah, it was announced last year.

JL: I didn't hear that, but now I'm excited, OK. There's that very strange movie, Willow from the 80's, I don't think it's really possible to turn that into a kind of a Game of Thrones-ish movie, and then there's the movie from way back in my childhood called Labyrinth, and you could do a Lion King thing with it, a lot of puppets, a lot of Jim Henson...

JK: You gotta call Julie Taymor to get to do that!

JL: Yeah, I'll call her up! (laughs)

JK: Do you have any dream roles you'd love to pursue in the future?

JL: I should say that doing musicals is new for me, I did them in college, but otherwise everything I've done has been plays, or independent theatre, or TV shows, or films, so my work tends to be the things I study which tends to be more straight plays. I'd love to be in a Shakespeare play, I'd love to be in a Chekhov play, and I hope I'm not too old yet, but Constantine in The Seagull, so those are more of the roles that I'd love to play, but if Labyrinth becomes a musical, I'll audition for David Bowie.

JK: Is there any advice you would like to give any aspiring young performers out there?

JL: I guess the advice would be to follow your interest, to do what you love, get the training you need, and don't give up hope!

JK: Jesse, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview, and I look forward to seeing you in Dirty Dancing next week!

JL: Can't wait!


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