Paul Alexander Nolan is currently starring as Jimmy Ray Dobbs in Bright Star on Broadway at the Cort Theatre. The show is written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, inspired by their 2013 bluegrass album Love Has Come for You.
Paul’s Broadway credits include playing Guy in Once, Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pasha/Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago. He recently appeared in Daddy Long Legs off-Broadway.
His U.S. regional credits include: Aida (Kansas City Starlight); JCS and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (La Jolla Playhouse); six seasons with the Stratford Festival, including As You Like It (Orlando), The Grapes of Wrath (Al), Cyrano de Bergerac (Valvert), West Side Story (Tony, dir. Gary Griffin), Jesus Christ Superstar (Jesus) and The Who's Tommy (Cousin Kevin).
During my recent trip to New York, I sat down with Paul before a performance of Bright Star to discuss how audiences have been responding to the show, why he turned down his first audition for Once and how seeing Les Mis aged thirteen made him realise he wanted to be a performer…
Opening a Broadway show is such a big deal – what’s going through your mind now that you’re open?
I think the busier you get the more present you get because you can’t think about what’s happening tomorrow. My wife and I moved the week after opening night – I had done no packing. It has been busy! We’ve had more downtime after opening because we’re not rehearsing. We’ll enter another period with awards season coming up.
When I saw Bright Star it totally took me by surprise – I had no idea what to expect, but in the second act I was completely engrossed. What did you think when you first looked at the show?
I read the script last May on a flight from New York to Toronto and I was crying! I just found it so surprising. First of all because of what happens to the baby and then what happens in act two…
Did you go, ‘I really want to play that role’?
I knew what I was auditioning for already, so I was seeing it through that filter. I identified with it very strongly and thought ‘I have to do this, I’m going to play this part’. It took a very long time for them to be convinced; they had a lot of time to make the decision so saw a lot of people. I auditioned in June and my last call back was at the end of September, then we started rehearsals at the end of October.
There had already been some tryouts, but were you able to put your own stamp on the role? What was it like going into rehearsals?
Well I didn’t know how much they had re-written – they had re-written my part in certain ways through their development of the show. I knew I didn’t have to think about what anybody else had done and I didn’t have to try and recreate anything. They were recasting because they had re-written the part, some amazing guys played this role before me. Sometimes you work with directors who aren’t interested at all in collaboration or interested in what you throw out there, but it’s very rare. Also, I’m getting more and more arrogant [laughs], as I get older and I’m smart so I’m going to give a director what they want and also get what I want. If I can’t work as an artist then there’s no point me being in the room.
Did you have any idea how audiences were going to respond? There were lots of gasps and sobs from people sat around me!
I had no expectation! It slowly grabs you, and I think you slowly fall in love with these people. What I’m very surprised by is the amount of vocal reaction. The first time we really get that is at the top of act two when the band plays – they lose their minds for that. It’s awesome! At the end of the show sometimes I feel like I’m doing Superstar again because of how vocal people are, I would have never expected that from a bluegrass musical and it’s awesome.
What’s the company vibe like backstage?
It’s a really happy company, and I’m not just saying that. It can be tough to find chemistry when you’re putting together a group of people, but it’s essential for the morale. We’re there to tell our story and we all believe in it and want to support the show. Everything is about the show. Carmen (Cusack) is a powerhouse talent, I love acting with her. She’s very present and playful and game for whatever happens and that’s the way I like to work. This script is about listening and about truth.
You go on such an epic journey with that character at every performance, how do you feel when you come offstage? Is it hard to unwind?
That part is a work in progress, there’s another side of this job that no one would ever think of. I would say no, I actually feel filled up because of our positive ending. It’s harder when you play characters that don’t get what they want.
What was it like when you were playing Jesus?
That was hard. It was really hard because – this is debatable and it’s a tough subject so I didn’t really talk about it a lot when I was playing it – Jesus didn’t get anything that he wanted until the final moment of the show. I still find it hard to talk about without getting upset, I know it’s really weird.
Paul in Jesus Christ Superstar
Let’s talk about Once! That show has become so popular, so many guys in musical theatre are like ‘I want to play that role’! What was it like to take on that show?
First of all I saw it when it was previewing. I thought, ‘that is a perfect part for me’ but there was nothing to add to it – Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti were amazing so I thought ‘I don’t need to do that because it was perfect’. It really was a perfect night at the theatre, the company were amazing! Funnily enough, I ended up stepping into most of the same company – there were seven original company members still doing it when I joined and until the end.
When my first audition for Once came up I turned it down. I wasn’t ready – I wasn’t playing my guitar well enough. I self-taught and played a little bit. First of all I knew I wasn’t available to do it when they were casting for. So I thought ‘why put myself into the mix and have them cross me off the list forever when I can’t do it anyway’. But it came up again six to eight months later. I had been practising because I thought it might come up again and I just had this weird physic feeling that I was going to play that part. I don’t know why! I knew I was the right actor and singer for the part, I just had to work on my guitar for half a year until the audition came up again. I was terrible in my first audition [laughs], but good enough for them to think I could keep working at it.
My biggest obstacle with doing those auditions and playing that show was that I didn’t have experience playing in front of people. I didn’t have the confidence, and when you don’t have the confidence you always do worse than you could do. I got better as the show went on and ended up knowing how to play that thing. I would love to do Once again, I’ve been playing a lot since so would have a different kind of confidence. It would be really fun! But… I did the show with a dream cast so maybe it’s best left in the past.
I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
To pay homage to my roots I would probably have to choose something from Les Mis – Les Mis made me know I was going to be an actor.
I saw the tour of Les Mis when I was thirteen. I had never even considered this as a career, I was a shrimp for a thirteen year old and my voice hadn’t changed. The moment Gavroche came out on stage I realised people actually do this for a living, and then I knew this is what I was going to do.
So what song from Les Mis are you going to take?
I think I’m going to take the entire overture and the prologue. I love it! It’s awesome. It’s a weird one to take [laughs]. Hmmm… there are so many ways to answer this. God! I think I’ll have to go for ‘Say It To Me Now’ from Once. I think it was my favourite thing to play in the show, I often broke strings and thought I was hardcore [laughs]. I can’t think! Oh do you know what? Because it’s a desert island, ‘Lost in the Wilderness’ from Children Of Eden – the recording that Darius de Haas did. That is an insane recording! I remember doing that as a twenty-one year old, I had never heard anyone sing like that. Amazing!
How does it feel to have such dedicated support from the Broadway community behind you?
It’s hard to believe that it happens! It doesn’t happen that way in Canada. I think, ‘Why do they care about my career?’ But it’s nice, I’m starting to get a little better at social media… I’m not great at it and it’s not something I would ever have imagined myself doing in a million years. I see the importance of it though, it’s good for business and it can be fun. I’m kind of the guy who would exit through a secret door and go to my cabin in the woods until I show up for my show the next day… but not in a serial killer kind of way [laughs]. I like meeting people! My favourite thing about the stage door fans is just looking in people’s eyes and talking to them. I’m still getting used to the autographs and especially the selfies!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Bright Star plays at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street).
Please visit www.brightstarmusical.com for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 3-4: Joan Marcus