BWW Interview: Caissie Levy at Feinstein's at the Nikko
Caissie Levy says she was more of a tomboy than princess postulant in childhood. However, for the last year plus she's been adjusting her tiara and building up her stamina to open the highly anticipated stage adaptation of Disney's Frozen on Broadway. In case you live in a frost-free zone and have not heard, she plays Elsa opposite "sister" princess Patti Murin as Anna in a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" that sports an expanded-from-the-film score by Oscar-winners Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. On an extended break between the Denver tryout and the February opening, Levy - with Broadway credits including Hair, Ghost The Musical, and Wicked - has decided to flex other musical muscles with a series of concerts that includes the Feinstein venues in both San Francisco and New York.
RS: Happy National Princess Day! It's really a thing!
CL: Oh! Thank you!
RS: Your CV seems to have you always on the move - on a tour here and there, London, Canada, New York. Do you like travel or is that just part of the job?
CL: Well, I think a little bit of both. I think especially when you're starting out you're on the move more. You live your life by the whim of the work. I have had the excitement to pop around and live in London for a few years, live in LA for a few years, do one show in Toronto where I grew up. Mostly, though, New York has been the consistent thing over the years. Now that I have a son and I've really moved to just working on Broadway, I'm not really touring very much except for these concerts. It is nice to have a home base and put some roots down.
RS: So, what prompted you to do these concerts when you should be sitting home resting on your Princess laurels?
CL: Oh, that's hilarious. Well, when you have a little chunk of time... I do a lot of concert work. I love it. It's something I really, really enjoy. Knowing that I had these few months off for Frozen, it seems like a really good time to just revisit my concert work a little bit. Plus, I've always wanted to come back and play San Francisco. I've never played a solo show here. So, when the timing worked out it seemed like a natural fit to come and spend a few days and sing some of my favorite music in one of my favorite cities.
RS: Is it a left-brained, right-brained thing for you, like "OK, now I can do this Caissie thing singing songs that I love while then I have to do this other thing where I'm a character? I'm Elsa.
CL: Well, sort of. I think it's all kind of connected, though, which is what is so lovely about going back and forth between playing roles on the stage and singing songs from my stage career as Caissie in a club setting. There's a freedom in it and I think when I was greener in my career I didn't enjoy doing it as much. Now that I know myself more as a person and a woman and an artist, I'm actually embracing getting on stage and just singing songs and telling stories and not having to play a character.
I'm someone that grew up doing plays and singing in rock bands. I was never a big musical theatre person growing up. So this also allows me to live out my inner rock star dreams even though I'm singing some theatre songs which is not always considered rock star territory. I like to put a little rock and roll and pop edge to everything. That's sort of where my voice lives. It does feel very natural to me. When I was in high school figuring out what to do with my life, I was doing plays and then I was singing in clubs. So this felt like sort of a return to that.
RS: Why did your parents name you Caissie?
CL: Oh, that's so funny. They just liked the name, but they hated the traditional spelling of it, so they wanted to do something funky, something French because I'm Canadian and, you know, French is their second language in Canada. So, they sort of dug the feminine feel of the C-A-I-S-S-I E situation.
RS: How did the birth of your son Isaiah change your world?
CL: In the most beautiful, unexpected, interesting ways, actually. You know, it just breaks your whole heart open, having a child. You get told that before you have one and you think "Oh, yeah, cool. All right." It's not until it's your life and your kid and your experience that you really kind of understand and it's just been the best thing that's ever happened to me. My son, he's just an endless source of joy for me. I don't think I've ever felt more joy in my life until he came along. That has played into my career in some really profound ways, because I have more perspective on what matters to me now and what doesn't, and what things I can let into my world and what things don't need to take up any mental or emotional space. Partly because sometimes there's just not time for it any more. Even with auditioning and working, the things that I would have worried about prior to having Isaiah, I won't and don't worry about now. When I'm excited about an audition, I still work just as hard and put in the time, but I have a finite amount of time to devote to it now. So, I don't waste my time and I don't hem and haw over decisions. I'm much more decisive and much clearer on what it is that will make me happy and what will work for my family. I think it's made me a better actor. It's like trimming the fat. You know what I mean?
RS: Your husband is also an actor. Talk about juggling careers and baby duty.
CL: You know it's funny. My husband was acting and was very much an actor when we met, but he's always been a composer. So, he stopped acting I want to say, five years ago or so, and really devoted his time to writing. He is also a university professor at Stockton University in New Jersey so he teaches theatre to university students and writes at the same time. So, he's definitely in the same world and understands what it is to be an actor but we're not doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, which is certainly helpful. You want someone who understands and has the mind of an artist, but not having them do the exact same thing as you is pretty refreshing because we get to come home and share that with each other.
RS: You've been in a lot of "brand name" shows - Hairspray, Wicked, Les Misérables - and you've also been in some intimate quirky projects like First Daughter Suite and Murder Ballad. What are the pros and cons of each type of production for you?
CL: Oh, that's a great question. I think doing commercial Broadway theatre, doing hit shows on Broadway brings a level of excitement and access to people, and visibility that is really fun and really creatively exciting in some ways. Conversely doing the small, intimate Off-Broadway musicals that not as many people necessarily see or appreciate at the time that it's running, but then eventually become attached to with the cast recording or old videos of it, also gives you a different creative edge, where you can kind of play and explore and not have the pressure of knowing that it's a Broadway outing. I like them both for different reasons. I think it always comes down to the people in the room and the material. Anytime the material is great, I'm excited by it. Then, anytime the group of people working on it is creative and open and lovely and egoless and chilled out, that's the ideal situation. I have to say, that's the common thread in my career. I've just been so fortunate. I've always worked with people that are wonderful. I don't really have any nightmare stories and part of that is because I actively try not to be a nightmare. I believe that you need to be like a decent, fun easygoing person in order to create theatre. Otherwise, why are you doing it?
RS: When you're in the big shows, when you're defying gravity for the 400th time, does it ever start to feel like not "just a job" necessarily, but definitely a job?
CL: I think it doesn't feel like a job except when you don't feel well and you have to get on stage and do it. I think that is the number one thing most of my actor friends will echo, is we only ever want to be out our best and giving a thousand percent. So, if you feel a little sick or you've got life stuff going on and it's hard to sort of transport yourself into the place of the character at the top of the show. Those are always definitely more labored shows, but it never feels like just a job. I never have to go to an office job that I hate, you know, the same cubicle for thirty years and I feel fortunate that I don't have to do that. I'm sure a lot of people that work those jobs love their jobs and that's awesome, but that's not something I would be good at.
A long run of a Broadway show does not feel like that even on a bad day, to me anyway. If anything, I find it kind of like yoga. Your yoga practice is different every day, even though you're doing the same poses, the same sequence, but it's still different, because you're different every day. So, on the days when I'm doing a show and I find myself needing to work a little harder to get there, that's what I try to think about. It's not like I have to get on stage and just replicate what I did yesterday. I just have to improve it, go deeper, nuance it, try new things to get excited about.
RS: So, are you ready for a long run?
CL: I think so. It's been a minute. My last long run was Les Miz, which was in 2014 and right before I had my son. So, this will be my first long run now being a mother, which is definitely different. The out of town run for Frozen in Denver was super educational on just what it is to do a show with a toddler. Plus, to play this role of all roles, incredibly demanding, with an almost two-year-old... it's definitely a thing that I will continue to negotiate and figure out along the way. I'm excited. I'm ready. I'm really, really proud of our show. I'm really excited for audiences to see it. I'm really excited to be the one that gets to play this character and introduce the living, breathing person that is Elsa.
RS: Do you remember what you thought the first time you saw Frozen?
CL: I loved the movie. I saw it in the theater with a group of girlfriends. I completely fell in love with the relationship between Elsa and Anna. I laughed so much at Olaf. He was totally my favorite. I do remember thinking to myself, well this is a Broadway musical, obviously. I mean it just seemed to jump off the screen, it was so alive and had so much depth and so much humor. I definitely loved it right from the jump.
RS: Were you a Disney princess fan as a girl?
CL: You know, only a little bit. Not really because I was not into Disney musicals, it was mostly that I was um a tomboy and I liked to play basketball and play capture the flag and ride my bike. That was my jam. I was really into Ariel, because I loved The Little Mermaid. So that's my main reference point.
RS: Since you are now officially a Disney princess, what do you think the arc of female imagery that Disney has created, from the "someday my prince will come" philosophy to Mulan going off to war?
CL: I think Disney is an incredible company. What they've done with their Disney princesses has evolved and modernized over the years in a really exciting way. I think that's why people love Frozen. That's why people love Elsa. They love her power, they love her flaws, they love her depth, and they love her heart and soul. We've gone just even deeper in the musical. Bobby and Kristen have written such amazing new songs, particularly for Elsa. There's so more material for the Broadway show. You get to see who this woman is and we get to watch her grow up and fight the demons that she has to fight. It's just remarkable. So yeah, I think that's very much a credit to Disney's desire to make these princesses real people, with flaws and challenges, and to allow young girls and young kids to have real, wonderful fully fleshed out role models to look up to.