Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
Matt James Photography
What a kind, compassionate, and sympathetic individual is this Broadway and performing artist, Jason Danieley. And I am pleased, grateful, and humbled he treated me with the utmost respect in our nearly 45-minute conversation.
I saw his work several years in the truly wonderful original Broadway cast of ‘Curtains’. So much fun to watch and some excellent show stopping musical moments.
As you will see from the answers to some of the questions in our conversation, I found Jason to be a heartfelt deep thinker who has survived one of the most awful personal elements when he lost his wife (and marvellous performing artist), Marin Mazzie, to cancer a few years ago. But he is a man who (I believe) understands and knows how important it is in moving forward, even with tiny steps some days.
From his website: Jason appeared in the original Broadway company of ‘Pretty Woman’ by Bryan Adams, Garry Marshall, Jim Vallance and J.F. Lawton at the Nederlander Theatre. Along with Broadway and Regional Theatre appearances, Jason has also sung as a concert soloist appearing with the Boston, New York, and Philly Pops. I will include his website at the conclusion of his profile.
I held a Zoom call with Jason at his second home in Columbia County New York, that he and Marin had purchased, just an hour shy of Albany but right on the Massachusetts border. Weather was beautiful for him as it was here in Toronto. He told me he has all his deck cleaning supplies pulled out and said it was time to start spraying. Jason is a regular guy who keeps his house clean and likes to putter around outside on beautiful days.
Thank you, Jason, for sharing some personal thoughts and for adding your voice to the conversation.
We’ve come up on one year with the closing of live theatre doors. My heartfelt condolences to you as well, Jason, in the loss of Marin. How have you been doing during this time?
I won’t say I welcomed being isolated, but I have been able to find through an extended and forced isolation a gift of self reflection and introspection that I thought I had already set aside for myself. When Marin passed in the fall of 2018, I was doing ‘Pretty Woman’ on Broadway and, thank God, still had considerable months ahead on my contract. So that took me up to June 2019, and then I would set aside the rest of the year.
I went to India for a good chunk of July, trekked in the Himalayas and did some meditation and all the stuff that you would expect a widower to do. I had to go see the Taj Mahal, of course.
And then I said as soon as 2020 starts I’m gonna back to work. I had a bunch of symphonic concerts scheduled. I headed down to the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota to work on a new Ahrens and Flaherty and Frank Galati musical which I was starring in. 2020 was just ripe with promise and I was ready to get right back on. And then everything was just shut down.
We had one more week in the studio and then we were going to head into tech for this new piece and then were sent home. I think many people were thinking it would be several weeks or several months at most.
And then we became aware of really what was ahead of us.
I didn’t have much dread because we had springtime and the summer was ahead of us. The closer we got to the fall and winter, I thought, “Oh, gosh, here it comes.” We had no children and our dog passed away six months after Marin passed away.
It went from three and half years in watching Marin slowly deteriorate as well as our dog and then complete annihilation. I thought I had given myself plenty of time. Then through the fall and late winter, it really tested my mental medal because there was nothing to fall back on and nothing to distract me. So, it was welcomed because I was able to do work that I would have put aside.
I’m curious to how we move forward in the theatre, of course, but I think given the absence of the potential of work allowed me to do some deep digging. Now as the spring is coming, the smoke is clearing, and get my vaccination sometime soon, maybe now I’ll be ready to move forward with whatever my life is going to be.
Outside of the theatre and the industry, how have you been spending your time?
You know, I’ve found it a barren wasteland for creativity this whole pandemic. It’s very difficult to read. I know primarily there was so much buildup of the election. A big chunk of my whatever I had in reserve of my mental capacity or emotional durability was somewhat struck by the anticipation of the election, the closeness of it.
And then, January 6, the impeachment trial. I felt I couldn’t get outside of any of that OR be inside it and find some creativity, and I look at people who have done that and wonder, “How did you do that?”
Maybe it has something to do with being beaten down for the last five years of the last three and half years of Marin’s life and two years of grieving. It just felt like a continuation of it.
My therapist is so wonderful. She said, “You don’t have to do anything.” Not doing something is very difficult for me given our business as you’re constantly trying to find the next job, create a new cabaret. Whatever it is, casting your line out ahead, there was no there, there. Instead of beating my head against the wall I thought patch some holes in the wall, nail some holes in the wall.
I did a lot of outdoor activities. I was literally turning into Candide without the optimism angle. I was tending my garden, I was growing tomatoes and clearing parts of the property, sort of a physical manifestation outside the home that I was hoping to achieve for myself on the inside.
The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Just from what you’ve shared, Jason, yes, Covid has sometimes been an escape for you but I think the pandemic has been a lot of things for you. Can you also describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else?
This time of Covid has been a forced exile from not only the business but also from the fact that I’m definitely not an actor who performs for adulation. I don’t need that. It’s a great gauge to know if I’m hitting the comic marks and if I sound in good voice and if people are getting it.
My father was a preacher and words are very important because they carry such great weight. My father was obviously for the congregations’ souls and salvation, so the stakes were high for two ‘shows’ that he had to write and perform. My mother played the organ. My parents weren’t showy, but they did things from the heart and helping people and whatever they were going through.
That’s not how I consciously approached becoming an actor, but looking at it, I thought, ‘Wow! I have a calling” just like my dad had a calling to be a minister. I think it’s reflected in the types of shows and work I select to do over the years. That’s what I’m missing.
This forced exile from something that helps me as much as I hope I’m helping others whether it’s a cathartic release from seeing ‘Next to Normal’ if they have bipolar spouse or lost a child at a very young age. You’re making them cry but you’re also making them feel they’re not alone. OR you present a musical mystery like ‘Curtains’ (NOTE: I LOVED ‘CURTAINS’ WHEN I SAW JASON IN THE PRODUCTION WITH THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST) and everyone is distracted from the goings on, I don’t have that outlet.
There’s the exile. It’s not an escape but it’s set out to sea.
I haven’t given myself the amount of time that I’ve guessed I really needed during this last while. So I’m sitting out there on the deserted island waiting for my rescue ship to come in which is the vaccine hopefully, along with the new leadership in our country.
I’m ready to get off the island. The isolation has been ultimately, looking back in hindsight, good but I’m ready to get off the island!
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return full head on until 2022?
I really don’t see us going back full tilt until 2022. I know everyone’s working full tilt to get us to whatever the first stage of coming back is going to be.
But if you’re saying full on, full capacity, doing shows like we did prior to the pandemic, I don’t see it happening until at least 2022, easily.
People are talking about getting back this fall for Broadway. If enough people wise up and take the vaccine, which I don’t understand in why people don’t want to take the vaccine. But if we can get enough people that herd immunity is a legitimate thing, then this all dependent on the audience as well.
The producers will do everything they can to get people back into the theatre but it’s up to the audiences as well. Will audiences want to come back and will they feel safe? Until those questions get answered, right now the way we’re shuffling forward in baby steps, well, Spring 2022 after next winter has worn off again and people are feeling optimistic and seeing the numbers hopefully down around the world.
I was supposed to do a cruise with Seth Rudetsky on a ship to Bermuda this last July and he’s asked me if I’ll do a cruise in January 2022. You know, I hope we can, but right now it sounds like I would be out of my mind if I wanted to get on a cruise ship.
I was supposed to sing with the Boston Pops with whom I somewhat regularly sing, and I just saw in The Boston Globe the Pops and BSO will do a limited season in Tanglewood, literally 10 minutes from my house here. I thought fantastic, outside, people will be distanced, and it will be a concert for Keith Lockhart’s (conductor of the BSO) 25th anniversary.
I thought this was a perfect opportunity and found out there will be no vocalists but only instrumentalists. It really punctures your tires when you think the outdoor venues might be a possibility but no, not even this year.
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. Clearly, Jason, your life has transformed you personally. How will you take this personal transformation in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
I have been inspired to direct, I know that’s so cliché for an actor to want to direct. A lot of the concerts Marin and I did, we put them together, but I structured them and directed them essentially. Marin said, “You have to direct.”
Before she passed, ‘The Lyrics and Lyricists Series’ at the 92nd Street Y did an evening of Lynn Ahren’s lyrics and Lynn said she would only do it if I directed it, out of the blue without even knowing that I wanted to direct. So we did that, Marin was able to see it along with (the late) Terrence McNally.
That’s what I want to do. I had a couple of directing gigs that fell through this last year as well. There’s story telling and then there’s…it’s not about power but being in the business long enough and knowing and respecting what everyone does in the theatre – the crew, wardrobe, hair, orchestra, music directors, everyone that’s involved – I know what everyone does. If you take an interest, than you take an interest in what everyone does and contribute. I would love to be the filter for shows and to get the best out of everybody, because I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it not done well.
And Marin was doggedly determined for me to do that, to direct more. We worked together a lot. We did ‘Next to Normal’ on Broadway, we did a couple of other musicals in California, but we did a lot of symphony and cabaret singing. And that allowed us to be choosy of which productions we would be a part of, we didn’t have to take any job, thankfully.
Now with Marin gone, there was a big question mark on whether I felt like I could continue just singing period. Moving forward, I do know that I can perform, but the concert aspect of it might not be as fulfilling or regular as it used to be. To fill that gap and to move on my own path, directing is something that I’m inspired to do.
I’m inspired to direct for this time we’ve been given that I mentioned earlier.
The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how artists should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it simultaneously. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?
Well, knowing Zoe only a little bit but knowing her enough to understand what she’s saying that it might be more. For her she was a very dramatic and very full throttle all the time.
So, I do agree with it in respect to certain parts, but it depends on what it is I’m doing. If I’m doing a dramatic part that requires danger; If I’m doing something entertaining, funny and light, I hope there’s no danger involved.
It’s Helen Hayes, I think, who is the actor who like to go on with a full bladder because it gave her a performance urgency – going on stage to have to pee, okay, I’m going to move this forward. Without having to drink a gallon of water and put yourself through the torture, when you’re doing a performance, a show, or presenting a piece, there has to be a reason for it. There’s no reason to dramatize or theatricalize a story if there are no stakes.
So, I think danger, for Zoe, or Miss Hayes, there has to be a reason to be there, and you’ve got to be right on your front foot at the beginning of that. So, there’s the drive – George Abbott: louder, faster, funnier. There is really something to that. He broke it down to the mechanics of it; (That’s sometimes where I have issue with over naturalistic performances on stage. I get it that sometimes it’s wonderful to bring the audience to you because the stakes are super high. Think of ‘Next to Normal’ and that first scene where she has emotionally broken down and making sandwiches on the floor in the first scene). Other pieces may not be so rich with conflict you may have to ratchet up the stakes.
Whatever it is – having to pee, danger, raising the stakes, I agree. Going forward, I’m not sure it’s going to be exactly the same as far as danger goes in the stakes.
The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Just in talking with you this last half hour, Jason, you’re a very sensitive individual who has been through a great deal personally. How do you see taking this sensitivity and moving forward in a post pandemic world?
I think that sort of doubles back to wanting to direct. There are so many different kinds of directors and I’ve worked with so many brilliant ones over the years and they all have their strengths.
What I do have, as you have, Joe, kindly pointed out, that I am sensitive, super empathetic, sympathetic and without being a pushover or a wet rag. I think what I can do is funnel the empathy that we need as a country in a great amount – the Black Lives movement and the BIPOC community, the Asian community without co-opting their stories. If there’s a way that I can help facilitate them or if it’s telling a story of white community understanding and empathizing, that’s a huge thing that I’m hoping I can contribute.
I’m a pawn and puppet as some director who even worded it that actors are ‘meat puppets’, atrocious, but we are one part of the palette that a director and writer uses to paint the picture on the stage. I’m at their whim and will depending on what they’ve written. What I’d like to do is be in more control so I can infuse shows that might lack empathy, compassion with that whether it’s new or just needs a fresh dose of that.
Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
I’m most curious about how we will move forward outside of the parameters of Covid with our community of people of colour who need more and better and stronger representation on stage. It needs to happen and it’s long overdue.
I’m curious as to what that means and how long that will take. I believe that the first people who will be in line for change are going to be the artists and the theatre people: a woman of colour as artistic director; putting more writers on the season whenever a new theatre season comes up.
What we don’t have is an audience of colour in that back pocket. We have people who love ‘Hamilton’ and those shows that will draw diversity in the audience, but how do we get more of the audience to be diverse in order to support this new kind of theatre that we’re hoping to see beyond the forefront. That’s going to take some time.
The impatience of actors and people in the theatre who like immediate response – when we come back to the theatre and everyone wants to make change, but we don’t have the audience yet. We don’t have a great number of actors or writers yet infused into the already existing body. We’ll have to have patience, but I’m really excited about it.
What does this mean for me? Not selfishly, a middle-aged white guy who’s in a business where there aren’t a lot of guys to begin with. There are plenty but that’s been job security for me without putting my finger on it. You’re always going to need a leading man or the love interest, but maybe not so much necessarily moving forward.
So what does that mean for me?
Maybe I should get those directing resumes out right now.
To learn more about Jason, visit his webpage: www.jasondanieley.com