Last week we spoke with Adam Pascal about his approach to playing Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s classic musical comedy The Music Man. 5-Star Theatrical’s production, which is directed by Larry Raben, opens on October 17 at the Fred Kavli Theatre for a nine-performance run. We continue with our conversation.
VCOS: In addition to appearing in The Music Man, you’ve also been kind enough to offer your talents to the Hollywood On Stage extravaganza on October 12. Can you talk about that a little?
ADAM: It’s all about three resident companies that are coming together to do this big benefit: the New West Symphony, Pacific Festival Ballet, and 5-Star Theatricals. So it’s just various people doing different kinds of performances; the symphony will be playing some pieces, there will be music from Rent and The Music Man, West Side Story, Les Mis, and I think it’s going to be really fun. Anytime there is a big orchestra and you have people singing, it’s bound to be a good evening.
VCOS: Let’s talk about Meredith Willson’s score because it’s one of the more remarkable scores in the Broadway literature.
ADAM: Yes, I was amazed when I heard it. And again, I didn’t see the movie until four months ago. I had no familiarity whatsoever in the show. Seriously.
ADAM: So I’m coming at this with a completely clean slate.
VCOS: So it’s fresh, and you haven’t really had time to ruminate about any of it.
VCOS: So having said that, tell me your first impressions of the score.
ADAM: Well, I was amazed at the eclecticness of the musical vocabulary that he uses. In a way, there’s a foreshadowing of things to come. Somebody made reference to this and I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” That opening number on the train is almost like a rap song because of the rhythmic nature of it and the fact that there’s no melody to it and there’s so much counterpoint going on. It’s incredibly clever and unique and I’m certain that nothing like that was being written at the time. But I also think that the music so perfectly captures each individual moment, which is very difficult to do. It’s easier to write lyrics that are a propos for the moment because the lyrics tell the story, but the music has to create the right mood and people don’t always get that right. So not only did he capture the lyrics but he also captured the musical tone for every number.
VCOS: This musical is different and unique because Willson would literally make two songs out of one. When he wrote the two theme songs for the two main characters, “76 Trombones” for Professor Hill and “Goodnight My Someone” for Marian, he used the same melody and just changed the tempo and the meter. It was absolutely brilliant. And he points that out to the audience when, in Act II, they switch songs. But then he also pairs other songs together, like “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” and “Goodnight Ladies” and then the best one of all, “Lida Rose,” which sounds like a traditional barbershop song but isn’t, it’s totally original, and “Will I Ever Tell You.” Only Irving Berlin was writing counterpoint like that in the theater.
ADAM: Right. And there’s such a change in flow and mood between the songs as well that is marvelous. You don’t get bogged down in any one particular vibe for too long. It’s sort of like the perfect ebb and flow. It’s seamless.
VCOS: Another wonderful aspect of the show is the quaintness of the language and the pop culture references. You basically have to take a course to understand what a cistern is and what it is used for or a five-rail billiard shot or who Dan Patch was.
ADAM: Surprisingly enough, I knew a lot of those. I didn’t know that Dan Patch was a racehorse but I knew what a cistern was and I knew about billiards.
VCOS: Did you know who Pat Conway was?
VCOS: Or the Great Creatore?
ADAM: I didn’t know any of those. I knew John Philip Sousa.
VCOS: W. C. Handy?
VCOS: So, was that fun to research these obscure, period names?
ADAM: Oh, yeah, it was a lot of fun. I can tell you that when I did Rent, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song “La Vie Boheme,” there are so many references in that number, it’s nearly all references, as a matter of fact, and most of the cast didn’t know half of them. So we had a whole hour-long session in rehearsal with Michael Bennett and Jonathan Larson explaining to us what all these things they were mentioning in the song were. Even the modern stuff I can be clueless about!
VCOS: Tell me about working with Jonathan Larson. Did you get to know him at all?
ADAM: Well, obviously I get asked that question quite a bit and I always have an unfortunately underwhelming answer. I was cast in December of 1995 and Jonathan died January 25th. So I didn’t know Jonathan for that long. I knew Jonathan in the rehearsal rooms in which, at that point in the process, the writer takes a back seat and lets the director and the musical director do their job. Jonathan was a huge physical presence in the room, but he wasn’t a really actively creative presence on a day-to-day basis.
VCOS: So you hadn’t had the time to develop an emotional attachment with him.
VCOS: So as an objective observer, can you describe what that first preview performance was like?
ADAM: I was certainly emotionally devastated, not for myself, but for his friends and his family. I can certainly empathize, to a huge extent, with all of them having lost a son, a brother, a best friend. That was brutal and grueling to watch them go through this, and to watch them watch us. And then to watch them watch the show become this huge thing – I have teenage sons, and I can’t imagine the heartbreak that his parents must have experienced.
VCOS: Was that your most emotional day in the theater?
ADAM: The only one for me that comes close is our first performance of Aida, coming back after 9/11. 9/11 happened on a Tuesday. And we had Tuesday night off and Wednesday night off, and we came back on Thursday. Most of the shows on Broadway came back that Thursday. It was that old adage about show business, “the show must go on,” so we had to go back to work. We needed to try and return life to normal. A lot of people had that feeling. So we did it. Begrudgingly. None of us wanted to do it. So we went back to work on Thursday. We were playing at the Palace Theater, which holds maybe 1900 seats. There were probably 300 people in the audience that night. It was the most heart-wrenching experience other than playing after Jonathan’s death.
For Rent, it wasn’t just one night, it was every performance that had this heavy, dark cloud over us. Every night, there were always people in the audience who had lost people to AIDS and who had watched people die or who were dying themselves, but there was a lot of heavy stuff going on in that house. Every night. But anyway, getting back to Aida, the audience on that first night was so appreciative. The fact that we showed up to give them an escape from everything that was going on outside, that they were able to have a respite from that, and come in just to be entertained for two-and-a-half-hours. At the end of the show, everybody got up and gave us a standing ovation, and we sang “God Bless America.” But the entire audience was singing with us and everybody was crying. It was a really incredible experience and I’m so glad that I was a part of it.
VCOS: Did that give you more sense of purpose as an actor?
ADAM: Absolutely. To be able to do that for people, and again, with Rent, we helped a lot of people. We were a big cathartic release for a lot of people. It was a show that literally changed people’s lives. Over the years I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people come up to me and tell me how much that show changed their lives. And it’s such a remarkable gift to be a part of that.
VCOS: And how many people can say that they experienced not one, but two such emotional moments in the theater?
ADAM: Right. I feel incredibly grateful that I had those experiences.
The Music Man plays at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza starting October 17. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.