ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host Elysa Gardner and I’m here with Will Chase, who’s currently starring on Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate now playing at Studio 54.
Kiss Me, Kate involves a production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the conflict on and off-stage between Fred Graham, the show’s director, producer, and star, played by Will, and his leading lady and ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, played by Kelli O’Hara.
Will has played a wide assortment of roles in classic and original musicals including Miss Saigon, Rent, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Something Rotten! TV fans know him well for his portrayal of country singer Luke Wheeler on the series “Nashville” a few years ago, before that for “Smash,” and for his most recent appearances in “Madam Secretary,” “American Crime Story,” “Stranger Things” and the miniseries “Sharp Objects.”
Welcome Will, it’s great to have you.
WILL CHASE: Hello, good to be here, thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: Let’s start by talking a bit about what first drew you to Kiss Me, Kate.
WILL CHASE: I don’t know that the podcast is that long [laughs]. Well, it’s funny, when Scott, when we did the concert version in 2016, the end of 2016, and you know, you get a lot of buzz and go ahh this could actually, you know it’s time for a revival, it’ll be 20 years. So then we talked about it for about a year and a half, we had a long time to discuss Fred and we had a long time to discuss Lilli. And Kelli and I and Scott Ellis, the director, spent a long time talking about these characters and the other productions that we’d seen, what we liked about them, what we didn’t like about them, what does 2019 present? And my big trip was always I wanted to make… every production I’ve seen is like, well Fred and Lilli are exactly like Kate and Petruchio, it’s just they are offstage now yelling at each other. And I thought well, the text also supports this great love story that happens. If that love story is presented in a way that’s ‘oh man they might still be [in love]’, I think it’s a way more interesting play. Because then, the Kate and Petruchio stuff takes care of itself. They are yelling at each other and there’s this added, ‘oh she has the flowers, oh she found out’ so there’s that. But there’s this underlying really nice love story that I think, you know for it, because Lilli’s become this huge movie star, I even down to growing a mustache like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, I was saying well I wanted to be a wannabe movie star. Or at least look like that and present that rather than this, of course, we get his theater prowess and he is well known in the theater, I wanted to make him like ‘oh man, I missed out.’ And so for even her, his appearance for Lilli is kind of like, ‘See, I look like all of the people you know and love.’ So that’s kind of where I started with the physical and then Scott and Kelli both in the rehearsal room just allowed us to kind of go and it was, it was awesome.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah I get that performance. Yeah, yeah, it’s a wonderful performance. “Taming of the Shrew,” speaking of bringing it into 19, rather into 2019, and by extension Kiss Me, Kate to a lesser extent have come under scrutiny a little bit
WILL CHASE: Sure
ELYSA GARDNER: …in recent years for the way it shows dynamics between men and women.
WILL CHASE: Sure
ELYSA GARDNER: This production addresses that at different points under Scott Ellis’ direction and with additional material that was written by Amanda Green.
WILL CHASE: Yeah, I think so.
ELYSA GARDNER: Who performed what I think is she described in one interview as ‘delicate surgery’
WILL CHASE: Yeah, there’s no big, there’s no big culls or cuts or anything like that. The biggest one I think is the spanking. You know, from the get-go, I mean if you look at all the old show posters, it’s with his hand raised. Great night at the theater. Amanda’s stuff was just little tweaks or just a little reference or just a little cut and it makes a big difference, you know. So, that’s why I think she said minor, it was really minor surgery. I think people thought ‘Oh, they’re going to come in and they’re going to change all of the Shakespeare and they’re going to change.’ No, in fact, we probably added more from the original Spewack’s group, we may have added some more Shakespeare
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh really?
WILL CHASE: In for Kelli. Just to… and there were also some lines that were re-written. You’re like, why did they choose to make that line from the Shakespeare, they’ve kind of bastardized it or they’ve kind of written it. It’s like no, let’s do the original intent. If the audience doesn’t understand that word, we’ll act it in a way that they understand that thing, which is why we like going to Shakespeare anyway. We don’t understand half of the time what the hell they’re saying, but we get the intent you know by what the actor does. So, I think that’s why Amanda was amazing at coming in and kind of… and she has such a good rivaled comedic sense as well that she, you know we’d try things in the room and we’re like uh, that’ll never be in, but that was fun to say today. Things like that. But, Scott allowing that to happen in the rehearsal process was amazing. It, it helped me and Kelli really dive deep.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And you’ve worked with Kelli O’Hara a few times…
WILL CHASE: Oh yeah a ton
ELYSA GARDNER: …before. In Oklahoma in Oklahoma
WILL CHASE: In Oklahoma in Oklahoma, that, which was amazing. I mean that’s her home state and everything, but it was just a… I can’t believe that was almost 10 years ago I guess. But, it was not on the heels of that the Trevor Nunn, but that was still in the zeitgeist…
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh right
WILL CHASE: …that kind of, still the revival but they went into some dark, erotic places that I think are again in the text you know. Certainly not the deconstruction that this new one is, which is supposed to be amazing I haven’t seen it yet, but not deconstructed like that. But it was great to get to do that with her. She’s… that was the first time I had gotten to hang out with her in a capacity where I was like, ‘Oh you’re really funny.’ ‘Cause the role she usually plays, up until like Nice Work if You Can Get It, for example, she was always the, you know, the stoic kind of ingenue that could sing out these songs. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s really crazy and funny in rehearsal.’
ELYSA GARDNER: And sexy too
WILL CHASE: And all those things! But the funny thing for me was like, oh she’s funny. So when we ended up doing, we also did Bells Are Ringing at Encores!
ELYSA GARDNER: And Nice Work, right?
WILL CHASE: And Nice Work. You’re like, oh, she’s also a comedian who can sing like this which is crazy. I don’t think there’s another one like her.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, she’s pretty scary talented
WILL CHASE: Yeah yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: We can agree on that
WILL CHASE: Absolutely
ELYSA GARDNER: Are you friends? And did you approach the chemistry and tension between your characters with that?
WILL CHASE: Yeah, we’re very good friends and she’s gone through, you know we’ve both gone through personal stuff that we’ve shared with each other. So we’ve, that’s what we tend to talk about more than anything. But, I trust her implicitly and that’s why in the rehearsal space and even talking about doing Kiss Me, Kate, you just, you know that you can say or do or try anything and this person’s got your back. It might not work, but that’s the point of rehearsals. And I’ve been in the opposite. I’ve been in the opposite situation where you’re trying to always, you ‘re trying to always do the best version and that sometimes gets in the way of the messiness of rehearsal. And that’s why I adored, you know, doing this process with her.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well I mentioned some of the Broadway productions you appeared in already, just some although it was quite a long list. But that was not all of them. I think we can say that your range extends from high drama to pretty wacky farce.
WILL CHASE: Wacky farce, sure.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wacky farce. And you’ve played characters who are farcical and characters who are very relatable…
WILL CHASE: Yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: …and flawed. What attracts you to a character generally?
WILL CHASE: So relatable and flawed. For me, that’s what I tend to go towards. That’s usually what I play on television and I try to find, you know, I’m playing this guy on “Madame Secretary,” my poor mother, because he’s actually I’m from Kentucky. The senator is from Kentucky and of course he is going to end up being kind of like ‘uhhh too bad.’ My mom’s like [speaking in a southern accent] ‘Why did they have to write these horrible people from Kentucky?’ And I’m like, Mom come on we can’t you know, we’re not horrible but let’s face the facts. I think there’s something about making, especially bad guys for lack of a better word or flawed characters, I think it’s fun to make them relatable. Evil is, you know, the evil character is… we’ve all seen that, done that, that’s not fun to me. I think relatable and flawed. I think Fred is very relatable and he’s very flawed. I think this beautiful moment that we do at the end of the show that Scott and Warren kind of created, just the little CODA at the end when we walk off together, it’s like, well these two aren’t happily ever after. Yeah, they’re in love, there’s probably gonna be some stuff thrown around at their apartment.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh yeah.
WILL CHASE: But the passion and the love is there and to me, that is relatable and real. I’d rather play those kinds of characters. The wacky thing is hard. Meaning, comedy is scary and hard. I, drama and making people cry, I’d do that all day long. But comedy is, and I think most people that do comedies will say this, it’s hard to make people laugh at the things you think are funny. And uh, which is a scary prospect going ‘Oh, here we go, I hope they laugh at this.’ But, I’ve had some of my most fun doing Mystery of Edwin Drood and Something Rotten and those wacky things.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh yeah, you were Shakespeare.
WILL CHASE: I was a Shakespeare, yes. Of course, I took over for Christian Borle, but in all fairness, to me, I created all those roles and that role in the workshop. So he stole all my stuff. No, I’m kidding, he didn’t.
ELYSA GARDNER: Ah, okay. So we’ll set that straight right now.
WILL CHASE: He’s one of my dearest friends so we joke about the Tony all the time.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, you know, I did want to ask you about singing. I can, because you have a wonderful voice…
WILL CHASE: Oh thanks!
ELYSA GARDNER: …and I know you’re from Kentucky originally and you played a country singer on…
WILL CHASE: On “Nashville” yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: …on “Nashville.” And you studied music at Oberlin before that.
WILL CHASE: I did
ELYSA GARDNER: Did you study conducting? Is that right?
WILL CHASE: I did. So funny to say, all of those things, none of those things are really related. Because growing up in Kentucky, we listened to absolutely no country music in my family. My uncles and things did, but we listened to all classical stuff. Then I grew up singing in the church because my dad’s a minister. And then went to, was also a percussionist. Like that’s what I was going to be. I was going to be a percussionist slash then conducting, a conductor. A symphonic conductor. That’s what, I you know ponytail and a dream, that was me. And then I fell into the acting thing in college. It was like oh I really like this.
ELYSA GARDNER: But you must have always sung. You don’t just discover a voice like that.
WILL CHASE: No, I did and I always, but the drummer in me because I listened to so much different music and rock ‘n’ roll and all that, and then the classical stuff. And then at Oberlin there was some singing, so it was like oh yeah, I’m good at this, I like this. And I just have a, I mean my brothers all sing and my dad sings and my mom sings so I was like, okay I know I can sing. I just never thought I wanted to do that. And then I like, oh I love this.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right, so how does that enter into your choices?
WILL CHASE: It’s funny as I get older, it’s hard to see eight shows a week. And this role especially is just kicking my butt. I mean, I love doing it, but it’s like, and again I think it’s because I’m closer to 50 now. And it’s like theater’s for the young.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well it’s near-operatic singing at some points, it’s pretty intense.
WILL CHASE: Yeah, and it’s clear and big and beautiful. That’s why I’m kind of living my life like a monk. You know, because it’s like Something Rotten I could walk out, sing my rock ‘n’ roll song, and go back to my dressing room, you know what I mean. And then sing another one in the second act and then you’re done. This one is, you know its clear and present the whole time. Like you said more operatic, and Fred is out there pretty much when he’s not changing costumes, he’s out there singing. I do love it, but you know, at the end of this run I’ll be glad this run’s over because it’s a… it’s a… people don’t realize about musical theater, it’s a taxing. The first thing when you do when you get up, I’m not kidding, literally is [does a few scales testing his voice] ‘ah, okay, I can do the matinee. You know what I mean, that’s your life. Then at the end of the night, you’re like [does the same vocal scales]. That’s your life.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well opera singers get breaks…
WILL CHASE: They sure do, they don’t do eight shows a week.
ELYSA GARDNER: …they certainly do not do eight shows a week. Yeah, yeah so that’s something to consider.
WILL CHASE: Pat us on the back.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, there you go, give yourself a pat on that back. Well, you’ve kept pretty busy with both stage and screen credits over the past few years again looking at your… I took a look at IMDB and IBDB…
WILL CHASE: Oh yeah, sure sure.
ELYSA GARDNER: …pretty pretty long list both places. Is it important to you to sustain a balance or is there one medium that you see as a priority?
WILL CHASE: No, television has become a priority, only because of the money. Just kidding.
ELYSA GARDNER: Haha I was waiting for the… this is Broadway Direct you understand.
WILL CHASE: Um, well it’s funny because I used, normally I would go ‘oh yes theater is my…’ I love theater. But for all the reasons I just said, it’s hard. It really is, I don’t want to make it sound like this horrible thing, it’s not it’s amazing, but it’s grueling and hard. And, television isn’t and, for me, and I do joke about the money, but I do have kids that are going to college so television money is amazing. But, the challenge, I love the artistic challenge of television. I love shooting out of order. I love that today I have to emote on cue. I love that today I get to share a great story with my pretend son. I love that disjointed quality. I love the challenge as an actor. The A to Z of theater is what like, I joke with my girlfriend, I’m like if I could teleport from my apartment couch, made up, warmed up, ready to go, I’d do theater all the time. It’s all the other stuff, it’s the getting ready, it’s the stretching. Which again, when I’m on stage and I’m going this is where I belong, I love it. I absolutely love when I am on stage. It’s all the other stuff. Television you know, you show up, somebody feeds you, they put makeup on you, you go shoot your thing, you’re done, forever with that scene. Then you might not work for two days. You know what I mean? But I, I love television. I think it’s the golden age of television right now.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah it is.
WILL CHASE: It’s a great medium. Things like this, you know, I’m obviously you know really picky about theater because you’re giving a lot of your time away. You can’t do most other things. Roundabout’s great because I can shoot a little here and there and they’re cool. Most Broadway contracts are not like that. You’re signed for a year. A year, I can’t imagine, that’s like five or six television jobs for me. You know, that’s, you know. So it’s when I’m doing something like this, you know this is a labor of love and this is like of course, I’ll come. And that’s why I love Roundabout. See, I think everything should be a limited run.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Well musicals…
WILL CHASE: I don’t want that for my actor friends. My actor friends, I don’t want that because I want them to work forever and ever in every show. But, I just think a limited run is great for all involved.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well plays very often are.
WILL CHASE: Plays are yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: But with musicals, it’s…
WILL CHASE: The play’s the thing. The play’s what I might do next.
ELYSA GARDNER: The play’s the thing. Well, you heard it here first. Okay
WILL CHASE: That’s right. I, believe me, there’s nothing in the hopper, but if anybody wants to do a play, I’m game.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, you mentioned that you are a father with two daughters, who are going to college. Have they seen Kiss Me, Kate?
WILL CHASE: Oh yeah, they’re both actors.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh they are?
WILL CHASE: And they’re both quite good. And I don’t say that in that American Idol Parent way, that’s like it’s amazing and then the guy’s like [mimics bad vocals]. Daisy is going to be attending Atlantic Theater School which is great. And then my daughter Gracie, I can brag, my daughter Gracie just got into NYU. So she’s just finishing up her senior year of high school in Princeton, New Jersey and then she’s going to NYU. And they’re both lovely actors. So the answer to that is yes, they’ve seen Kiss Me, Kate.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh congratulations! Well, what do they think of Fred? I’m curious.
WILL CHASE: You know, well Daisy my older one, we have very candid honest conversations about just everything. #MeToo and 2019 and she was flat out a year ago going ‘why the hell are you going to do Kiss Me, Kate?‘
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh really?
WILL CHASE: I was like, okay. Um well, let’s talk about it. And then in explaining “The Taming of the Shrew” and the history of “The Taming of the Shrew” and still and Kiss Me, Kate I said I think there’s something there. One, Just I’m a sucker for the same way Paul Gemignani talks about why we’re doing Kiss Me, Kate, because no one else is going to do it this well and this score needs to be sung and seen and heard and then you add Scott and Amanda to the mix and it’s like oh, we can, not fix. Fix is not the right word, we can tweak some things to make it at least have this thing held up as a great piece and a conversation starter, you know what I mean. And so Daisy was like ‘okay, I’ll, I’m reserving until I see it’ and of course she saw it and, not of course. She saw it and absolutely was like ‘oh my God, that was so great, the little tweaks are great, I love when she changed Kate’s speech at the end so it’s not I believe, I’m ashamed that women’ you know. It was like all the kind of stuff. She was like okay good. Now if she had said Dad I hated it, then we would have had that conversation. But she didn’t, so I can be honest and say that they both loved it.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, you’ll have to keep us posted on their careers…
WILL CHASE: [laughs] Oh I’m sure they will on their own
ELYSA GARDNER: …and on that next play. Excellent, excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
WILL CHASE: My pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: For taking time out on a two-show day.
WILL CHASE: All good, my pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.