BWW Interview: Jason Graae of SCROOGE IN LOVE! at 42nd Street Moon Delivers the Dish on His Thriving Career
Jason Graae is soon to star once again as the title character in "Scrooge in Love!" at 42nd Street Moon, where has found a sort of Bay Area artistic home in recent years. This eternally youthful performer is now a veritable showbiz veteran, having starred on Broadway several times, toured the country with legendary composer Jerry Herman, recorded almost 50 CD's and most recently played The Wizard of Oz in the national tour of "Wicked." He's worked with an array of top-notch performers and learned a few valuable lessons along the way. Known for his spirited comic performances and sterling vocals, you might expect Mr. Graae to be a lot of fun to talk to, and you would be right about that. While quick to express heartfelt gratitude to colleagues, he is also the irrepressible imp who can't resist entertaining you with his mischievous sense of humor. Wherever laughter is not specifically indicated below, it is definitely implied. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The title "Scrooge in Love!" would seem to be sort of an intentional oxymoron. How would you describe the show, and how does it relate to "A Christmas Carol"?
It's the sequel. It happens a year later from when Scrooge was transformed. The ghosts come back and Scrooge is in a much better mood - a kinder, gentler Scrooge. But then the ghosts think "What does this all mean when he has no one to share it with?" so they take him back to where he made his big screw-up so many years ago and try to help him rectify things and - without giving anything away - it's really wonderful! It's a great show. It's really tuneful because it's Larry Grossman, one of the greatest Broadway composers of all time, and it's got some incredible songs that he and Kellen Blair wrote. It's moving and it really honors "Christmas Carol" and Ebenezer Scrooge, but then it's also really, really funny. Duane Poole wrote the book, he's hilarious and happens to be a really dear friend of mine - in spite of working with him, I really enjoy him. [laughs] He's such a great book writer, and he's managed to be true to Dickens' original style, but also modernized it and brought the humor into our 21st century.
What is your own favorite part of performing the show?
You know what I love? He goes back in time to relive some of those past transgressions. So to go back and look at your life and at what you did, it's really moving. First of all, it's just moving to watch the other actors do all the work while all I have to do is just stand there [laughs], but it's really moving to look at your life and see what went wrong and what went right, what you didn't realize was right at the time, things that you might have missed, and to get to go back and make amends. I love the observing, and I don't often get to do that in shows.
It's funny because when they first called me about doing this several years ago, I was like "To play Scrooge?! Aren't I obviously a little young for this?" And then I googled him and [discovered] Scrooge is actually in his early-mid fifties. So it turns out I was too old for Scrooge, but whatever - it was a different time! [laughs]
You've developed quite an ongoing relationship with 42nd Street Moon even though you're not based here in the Bay Area. How did that get started?
It all started because I had met Greg MacKellan in New York. He produced some Equity Fights AIDS albums of all these really obscure songs. I mean, I know obscure songs, but I'd never heard of one of these. Paige O'Hara & I sang "Keep Your Undershirt On" - that was the name of one of the CD's (We made it to the title of the CD!). It's really fun, but it's like the song's on crack. I did two of those albums - a Jerome Kern album and then "Keep Your Undershirt On" - there might have been a third, I'm not sure. So that's where we met, in the late 80's I think(?). And we had kind of kept in touch through the years through "the musical theater." Then lo and behold he started this theater company and got me up there to do "Little Me." I've done many old shows and Iove their [Moon's] whole mission so when he asked me to come do "Little Me," I was thrilled. So that started our relationship and I've remained close with 42nd Street Moon as the changing of the guards happened with [current artistic directors] Daniel and Daren. Our relationship is great - I did "Kismet" with them and we had a great time.
You've just come off the road from a year and a half of playing the Wizard of Oz in the national tour of "Wicked." When you go into a big hit musical like that, how much latitude do they give you to make the character your own?
I was shocked how much wiggle room I had, and I was so pleasantly thrilled at how they embrace every actor's individuality. I don't want to ever think any show ever is actor-proof - because I'm an actor! - but with "Wicked" the story-telling is so strong that it can stand up to many different interpretations. I replaced Tom McGowan, who is very different than myself physically, and he played him kind of like a simpleton, a little oily underneath but very charming, moved kinda slowly and was just kind of this midwestern character and I thought "Ooh, god, that's not me at all. What am I gonna do? I'm more of an Ali Hakim kind of a thing." I brought my self and they were really open to it so I was delighted. They just have so many different types - Ben Vereen has played the Wizard, Joel Grey originated it.
Yeah, when I think about it, the actors I've seen in the role are all very different from each other so maybe the Wizard is the one role where they give you more latitude.
Yeah, Madame Morrible and the Wizard, because we're the older character parts in the show, they might give us a little extra something. The witches have to be in a certain kind of a - I don't want to say mold, but there is a certain style that is expected with the witches, and vocally it's so specific. And I worked with a lot of different people - a lot of principals came and went while I was doing the show - and everybody brought such different colors to the musical and I really, really loved that. It kept it fresh for me.
The first time I saw you perform was in a Bernstein tribute with the Boston Pops on PBS back in the early 90's -
Omigod! Yeah, I think that was during the Punic Wars, wasn't it? [laughs]
Probably! - And you've played a ton of symphony dates since then. As a performer, those kinds of gigs seem pretty frightening to me. I mean, you're singing in front of this huge band with whom you've probably had only minimal rehearsal, you're often performing material that is not part of your standard repertoire, etc. What are those experiences actually like as a performer?
Well, for me I loved it! Yes, they could be terrifying, especially when you're standing in front of the Boston Pops doing material you've never done before - and let's throw some cameras on while you're at it! But I was an oboe major in college and had played with the Oklahoma all-state orchestra and the Tulsa Youth Symphony. I played the Mozart Oboe Concerto with the Tulsa Philharmonic cause I won the Young Artists Competition. So this world was a really great fit for me. It was strangely comforting to get to perform with all those symphonies.
You understood their whole world; you weren't this total alien.
Yeah, and it's funny because as an oboist, I was an instrumental snob. I would watch singers in high school and college get up and sing with the orchestra and we always kind of looked down on the singers. We didn't look at them as being quite the same level of musicians that we of course, as the brilliant instrumentalists, were. I was a little snobby about that and so when I became that singer that stood up in front of the musicians, I knew exactly what they were thinking of me. Like at first they always have a bit of a raised eyebrow, but by the end of the rehearsal and concerts, they're on board and they love us.
I want to talk about the zillion CD's you've recorded. I've always been a fan of your elegant vocal phrasing -
Wow - thank you!
This is a tiny thing, but I just listened again to "A Grand Night for Singing," which you did on Broadway, and was struck by how you manage sing the melody absolutely as written and also color certain words to heighten the musicality of the line.
Omigod. You just gave me goosebumps. I didn't know I was that talented!
On that CD you sing "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" and there is just the barest hint of a drop-off in pitch on the word "solve" that brings a beautiful lilt to the musical phrase. How much of that is technique that you work super hard at, and how much is something that just comes naturally?
Well, I don't think that I planned it. It was just whatever I was thinking at the time because of the acting side of it, the lyric and what I was singing about. It's always been lyric first, but as you get older it becomes more about the voice because it's a little more work to finesse vocally. So I am thinking about those lyrics and I'm acting the song now more than ever [laughs], but I'm also thinking about the vocal thing more. I wasn't thinking about little things like that then. It's funny when you're younger - it just fits in this comfortable place, and there are certain comfort zones in a song that just feel so good when you sing it.
The reason I chose that example is because the song itself could just be a throw-away, and I felt like you gave it that little bit of extra juice.
That was a joyful album to make. The show had closed, and the only catch was that Marty Vidnovic was unavailable for the album and so Greg Edelman came in, who's incredible. Greg had a cold during it - Greg & Vicki Clark - and you can hear it on the album. And I think she was preggers at that point. She and Greg got this cold, and they were incredible for all the album, but you can hear it from her in "I Cain't Say No" because it almost sounds like "I Cain't Say Do" a little bit, and then Greg in our duet -
"All at Once You Lover Her"?
Yes! He was having a hard time that day. And we were on a schedule so they had to do everything they could, they mixed him, they did everything and he was so frustrated. That's really the only thing you can hear with him. Everything else he's in crackerjack voice.
Yeah, as I was listening to it the other day, I thought in that one moment it sounds like he has a cold.
I know! Little secrets! But it was a really joyful album to make. Bruce Kimmel recorded it, R &H [Rodgers & Hammerstein] people were there. That show, we opened at the Rainbow & Stars and it was the 50th anniversary of "Oklahoma!" opening on Broadway, so we were part of all this stuff. We did all these benefits and special performances and we got to take part in all these R&H and "Oklahoma!" parties and Celeste Holm would come out, all of this. We were part of this fancy set, we went to Mary Rodgers' Christmas party, and we were rubbing elbows with everybody. It was just such a celebratory thing. Then it gets picked up to go to Broadway, all the reviews were great, it's this really hot ticket. Then it got Tony nominations, including for Best Book of a Musical(?), and the only lines were like my ad libs [laughs]. It was this little show that just kept going and it was a very joyful experience for all of us.
I wanted to ask about your work with Jerry Herman since it seems like you're almost sort of his alter ego at this point. I caught your Jerry Herman show at Feinstein's a few years back, and I was thrilled to hear you perform so many of his lesser-known songs. Do you get to work with him in putting those shows together?
Yeah, I've worked with him a lot. Last century, it was like he didn't even know I was alive. I auditioned once for "Hello, Dolly!" for Barnaby. I thought I was a shoo-in and I didn't even get a callback - but I'm not bitter, OK? [laughs]... I'm not. I'm really content. I've let it go... 40 years later. So then ASCAP/Michael Kerker produced this show "Hello, Jerry!" and it was me, Karen Morrow, Paige O'Hara, Jerry, and Don Pippin, his musical director forever. We travelled the country and performed and Jerry would come out and play and sing "Mame." We did master classes and Jerry would give a thousand-dollar scholarship to the most promising student at the college where we'd do the master class. We went everywhere, and I really became part of his life and it was - it was a dream come true, you know? He's one of the main reasons I'm in this business. And then I did "Mack & Mabel" at Lincoln Center, then he did "The Grand Tour" out here in LA and asked if I would do it. He was part of the casting of it and he oversaw the production and Mark Bramble flew in. We did a scaled-down version of "The Grand Tour" which I think works better, kind of, than the bigger version.
I was thrilled that when you did the Jerry Herman show here in San Francisco you sang several songs from "The Grand Tour" that I'd never heard before.
I know, I kind of wanted to do only "Grand Tour" songs because it's just such a great score, but... yeah, so I've really gotten to be in his life. And then he put together these symphony dates, and put together his cast and helped with the song lists. So, yeah, he's still goin', man; he's still with us. And I'm on his fruit-of-the-month club so you know ... he keeps me regular. Jerry Herman keeps me regular!
Oh, you like them?! [laughs]
And they are so different from each other, at least in their performing personas. How do you go about putting together that kind of double act?
Well, you know it's really challenging for me because I have to really carry them both on my shoulders when I work with them. So it's exhausting for me! I have to take a month off after we do a show together.
Omigod, you're so right, they couldn't be more different. They're both such incredible performers, and I am so proud I get to work with both of them. We all went to the same school, Cincinnati Conservatory, so that's how we first met. Liz only came in for only a quarter - she calls it her "drive-by schooling" - and we were doing "A Little Night Music." Faith played Anne, and I thought I was gonna be Henrik, but I was Bertrand, who's like Henrik's butler that you don't even know about.
Part of the quintet?
Yeah, but they made it a double quintet, so it was just you know, really "great exposure." And then Liz got cast as the understudy Petra, which I love to just tease her about, and I think she was the assistant director as well. She got her Equity card so she left school after that quarter, and went to New York. She and I did our first Off-Broadway show together, "Godspell."
But - you know what? Their performance styles are so different, but their process is not as different as you would think. Because they're both fearless and they will both try anything, and that's why I love working with them. I just like to throw stuff out there and if people laugh, it's funny, and if they don't you move on to the next thing. It's very interesting putting the shows together, and figuring out the order and doing all that kind of stuff. Those are the things that make it really fun and because we're great friends we can all figure it out. Oh, and by the way, Faith was the minister at my husband's and my wedding, and Liz was the singer (Liz and Susan Graham both sang). So they're just two of my closest friends. My friendship with both of them runs really deep.
Finally, being the total musical theater nerd that I am, I couldn't let you go without asking a question about the show in which you made your Broadway debut, "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" It had been a big hit in Chicago, then came to New York and sadly closed after just 5 performances. What was that experience like? Thrilling? Devastating?
All of the above. I've said this a lot this past year and a half because there's all these young kids right out of school and there's so many shows for young kids, you know? Kids now are like "Oh, god, I'm 25 years old and I haven't made my Broadway debut yet. I feel like I'm washed up." And I'm just like "Omigod!" It was just so not cool to be young when I moved to New York in the 80's. You moved to New York and then you auditioned for chorus stuff and you did dinner theater and regional theater so you could get your resume built and get some experience, so that then you would be primed and ready by the time you hit 30, you know?
Anyway, I was so thrilled and it was a big Broadway audition process, four auditions, and Thommie Walsh took us through all the dance stuff. When I got it, I was so overjoyed. I was working at Goodspeed, and I had to give my notice. My agent was like "Are you happy about this?" and I said "My god, yes! We're going to be in Philadelphia for 6 months and then go to Broadway," and he goes "Have you read the script?" and I said "I don't care - it's going to Broadway!" So we go to Philadelphia and it was a huge hit and then my friends would come to see it and say, "It's not good" and I'd say, "but the reviews are great!"
And then we came to New York. We were gonna open at a smaller Broadway house when the Alvin-slash-Neil Simon became available. The producers saw dollar signs and thought "Why do this in a small Broadway house when we could do the Alvin?" Which was the hugest mistake for that little bitty cartoon of a show. So we opened and closed really fast. I think "The New York Times" said "This show was a huge hit in Philadelphia which shows you that the Liberty Bell is not that only thing that's cracked." It was horrible, the review was HORRIBLE! It just creamed all of us and the show, and everything about it.
And I was 23 so it was devastating, we all were sobbing, and couldn't believe that it was over so fast. But you know, you're 23 or 24, whatever it was - and so I was like "I made it to Broadway!" and I didn't think it was going to be the end by any means. I was just so excited to know what it felt like. I got a limo for my parents and I got a top hat and tails and cane for my opening night outfit, very over the top. And then the dreams were dashed!
But yeah, it was all of those things you said. It was really thrilling and overwhelming and it was just devastating and disappointing. But it prepared me. I knew it wasn't just going to be an easy ride and so I I had a thick skin... It's been getting thinner, you know, a little more creped, but it's still thick. [laughs]
42nd Street Moon's "Scrooge in Love" December 4th through 22nd at the Gateway Theater, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, CA. Tickets may be purchased online at www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling (415) 255-8207.