Ventura County theater fans were overjoyed when 5-Star Theatricals announced that veteran Broadway star Adam Pascal would be starring as raffish traveling salesman Harold Hill in the company’s upcoming production of The Music Man. Best known for creating the role of Roger Davis in the original Broadway production of Rent, Pascal has performed in nine Broadway shows, including Aida, Chicago, Memphis, and Cabaret. A youthful 48 (he will turn 49 October 25), Pascal was delighted when 5-Star artistic director Patrick Cassidy, who has also performed as Harold Hill, selected him to star in their production, which opens October 18 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Yesterday, we sat down with Adam to talk about playing one of the most epochal roles in theater history. In part 1 of our interview, we began by talking about his portrayal of Professor Harold Hill.
VCOS: So first of all, tell me how a guy who has performed in nine shows on Broadway comes to do community theater?
ADAM: Well, first of all, I have to thank Patrick Cassidy for being a friend and offering me this part. I think it’s slowly changing because of roles in shows like Something Rotten and Disaster and Chicago, but it’s taken a long time for me to break out of the mold that people have put me in as the rock musical guy. And it’s been a calculated effort on my part to move away from that and to reinvent myself, to a certain extent. So to get the opportunity to do a show like The Music Man…I mean, I wouldn’t get this opportunity anywhere, you know what I mean? It’s only because of Patrick.
VCOS: So you didn’t need that much convincing.
ADAM: No. He asked me and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll do it!” And that was before I ever saw the movie. And then I went and said the movie and I was watching it and thinking, “Hmm, I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to do this.” (laughs)
VCOS: You’re going to see a lot of kids in the audience. And you’re going to look at their faces, and there is no show that does to kids what this show does.
ADAM: I’m so excited about it. And this cast. I’ve done nine Broadway musicals. I’ve never worked in regional theater before, and this whole cast is…this could be a Broadway cast. There is no Equity/non-Equity difference in caliber of talent in this cast.
VCOS: If you hung out a shingle promoting yourself, would it be “Adam Pascal, Actor” or “Adam Pascal, Singer”?
ADAM: You know, it’s interesting you ask that. It’s always been musician-singer first, but I don’t know if I would put that above everything else anymore. I definitely would place them on an equal plane. Certainly, I’ve made more of my living as an actor, but then again, I’ve been in musicals, so it’s very blurry.
VCOS: What’s interesting, in relation to The Music Man, is that the part you’re playing is an actor’s part.
ADAM: Yes. Very much.
VCOS: When the show’s original producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, was casting for the part, he said that he wanted an actor as opposed to a song-and-dance man, saying, “we can always teach someone to sing and dance.” So among those he considered before bringing on Robert Preston, who defined the role, included Danny Kaye, Jason Robards, Art Carney, James Cagney, Laurence Olivier, Andy Griffith, and Dan Dailey. If one of these other actors had gotten the part instead of Preston, would that have affected how you approached it?
ADAM: Probably not. I mean it’s hard to say because any one of those actors would have given a very different performance. But I’ve taken over a lot of roles on Broadway, and when I do that, I have to be able to watch somebody do the part and then say to myself, I know there is something I can do with that. And what that really means is I’m going to do something that’s uniquely me. I’m not someone who copies other actors because I feel that acting comes very much from your own personal charisma or personality, physicality, everything about you. I wouldn’t even know how to copy another actor.
VCOS: In Broadway, there are only a few roles that are as inexorably tied to one performer as Professor Harold Hill is to Robert Preston. How can you help not being influenced by how he did it?
ADAM: Well, I can tell you this. I’ve never seen The Music Man on stage, and I’ve only seen the movie once.
VCOS: So you didn’t grow up with it like most of us.
ADAM: I didn’t grow up with it, I don’t have his performance burned into my memory, in the same way that I have Tim Curry’s performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Treat Williams in Hair. Those movies I’ve watched over and over and over and those are burned into my memory, so I wouldn’t know what to do with either one of those roles because those two actors have made those roles so iconic. But I don’t have that feeling with The Music Man. So I’m actually coming into it fresh. Watching his performance in the movie was amazing, but what it did was to give me a really good skeleton to throw my clay onto. And there was a very stylized way that movie was made and my acting sensibility comes from a more modern place. So I think I bring that element to the part. And when I say modern, I mean there’s still a little bit of “Hey now, buddy!” that comes from the movie, that bravado style of delivery…
VCOS: But is that still because it was done in 1962 or because it reflected 1912 Iowa?
ADAM: That’s a good question! I think it’s more of the ’50s and ’60s kind of acting that they inserted into that Americana setting. That was my interpretation of it. But then again, at the same time, he’s very natural. It’s not put on. It’s not an affect.
VCOS: I’ve looked at the characters you’ve played over the years and the closest one that comes to approximating Harold Hill is Billy Flynn in Chicago. They’re both kind of lovable rogues, although Billy Flynn is more ruthless than Harold Hill! But other than that, their characters are there to do the same thing. Do you use any of your Billy Flynn to approach Harold Hill?
ADAM: Not really. I’ve never used anything from a character I’ve played before to bring into the next character.
VCOS: You start each one from scratch.
ADAM: I do. I do. And that implies that there’s more method behind the madness, but there’s actually not. I’m not that kind of actor. I’m not a trained actor. I don’t have a method. It’s grown a little bit so I do have a way in which I approach these roles but it’s more technical than character driven.
VCOS: So you don’t “become” the character?
ADAM: No. I’m not that kind of actor. I’m the kind of actor that is talking to you as Adam right as I’m stepping out onto the stage, and as soon as I hit the stage, I’m Harold. And as soon as I step off the stage, I’m Adam again. You know what I mean?
VCOS: You’re putting on your Harold Hill clothes.
ADAM: Essentially, yeah. I don’t transform myself and stay in character. It’s play time for me. It’s make believe.
VCOS: One of the brilliant things about Preston’s performance is his physicality. There was a physical smoothness or slickness, even, to his portrayal. He never walks anywhere, he glides or runs. Do you see Hill with that kind of sense of movement?
ADAM: Yes. Absolutely. And again, it’s my version of that, which comes out of the way that I move. And that speaks to what we were talking about before in terms of imitation or not imitating and not trying to emulate another actor’s performance. I couldn’t do it because I have to physically embody a character in a way that feels naturally and physically comfortable for me.
VCOS: How does that work with the choreographer?
ADAM: Our choreographer is Peggy Hickey, and she gives me the movements and the steps and I just kind of put them into my body. If I were a choreographer, I would want my performer to have the latitude to bring who they are into whatever that they are doing. And that’s why I would think that you hire a person who can do that. You don’t want an automaton, a robot, to do your steps the way Robert Preston did them, you want somebody to take what you’ve created and bring themselves into it. Conversely, I’ve been asked to take over roles where I’ve seen the performance and I’ve said “I don’t know what to do with that.” Like in Rocky Horror. I’ve been asked to play Dr. Frank N. Furter a number of times and I just don’t know what to do with it. Tim Curry’s performance is so ingrained in my head that I would’t know how to handle it.
VCOS: How about Patrick Cassidy? He’s done Harold Hill himself many times. Has there been any exchanging of ideas or tips in your portrayal?
ADAM: I have to say that Patrick has been very hands off. He’s letting me do my thing. And he’s smart enough to know that. He’s a director and doesn’t want an actor doing a carbon copy of anybody else. If I went to see Rent or Aida or any of the other shows that I’ve been in, I don’t want to see somebody who’s trying to act like me. I want to see who YOU are.
VCOS: Has he given you any hints?
ADAM: No. He’s only offered his knowledge of the history of the show and the movie, and he’ll help me run lines, but again, he’s smart enough to know that he wouldn’t want anybody doing that to him either. He won’t say “I like what you’re doing, but here’s how I did it. It works better.”
VCOS: Let’s talk about the relationship between Harold and Marian. It’s really interesting because both start out from the same place. They’re both cynics and they’re untrusting. But there’s a time where Hill’s vulnerability emerges and we see a crack in that armor. Is there a specific place where you see that happening or are you doing it as a more gradual kind of transition?
ADAM: Interesting question. I’m still feeling that out. I think it’s gradual. That’s my instinct. It’s gradual up to a point, though, because there is a place where it cracks. This early on in the process, my instinct is that it’s gradual. Initially he is trying to seduce her for a purpose.
VCOS: What’s different about Marian from the supposedly countless other women he’s seduced in his journeys?
ADAM: That’s another good question and I’m still figuring that out as well! (laughs) But I think he’s taken by her intelligence and her obvious beauty, and right now, that’s what I’m working with. But there could also be things going on inside of him where he’s getting to that point in his life where he’s saying to himself, I’ve had enough. And I also think that Winthrop, her son, has something to do with it. I think that part of him is charmed by the whole town. It’s not just her, it’s everyone. I think he feels to a certain extent that he could become part of this community and hang up his roguish ways.
VCOS: What’s unique about River City?
ADAM: The people. These characters. Who knows the kinds of boring people he’s come across in these other towns he’s visited? There’s just something about all these people who he makes a connection with, like Tommy Djilas and Winthrop and Mrs. Paroo. He’s making legitimate connections with all these people, but at the same time, he’s trying to keep his distance. He doesn’t realize that it’s happening. And when he becomes ensnared in Marian’s unintentional web, I think all those other connections kind of come crashing down on him.
VCOS: Getting his foot caught in the door is the great metaphor that’s used.
VCOS: What’s also interesting in this musical comedy is that Harold is really playing straight man to all the other kooky characters in the town.
ADAM: Although I’m playing it a little bit differently than that in that I like to go for laughs whenever I can, so I see him as somebody who is aware of his charm but there is a self-deprecating awareness about it.
VCOS: It kind of sounds like The Great Leslie, which is Tony Curtis’ character in The Great Race. He knows he has this animal magnetism towards women and takes advantage of that.
ADAM: I don’t know that movie but I can see that. But there’s a physicality that I bring to Hill where I do pratfalls that’s kind of like Danny Kaye and I think that’s more along the lines of my interpretation of him.
In our next installment, Adam Pascal talks about Meredith Willson’s score to The Music Man and also about his two most emotional nights on Broadway: the first preview of Rent following the death of producer Jonathan Larson, and the day he had to go back on stage two days after the 9/11 disaster.