Who better than Adam Pascal to wear the heartfelt (yet stylistically challenged) shoes of Huey Calhoun? The Tony nominated actor, best known for his career-defining performance in Rent, returned to Broadway this season as Huey in Memphis, the 2010 Tony winner for Best Musical.
Memphis, a musical about a white disc jockey who plays black music in the segregated south of the 1950s, has booked more than 800 performances. Pascal replaced Chad Kimball as Calhoun last October.
The character is the protagonist in the musical. Driven by his love for black music, he rises from a stock boy in a local department store to become one of Memphis’s leading disc jockeys and helps popularize rock and roll. The backdrop of the musical is story about inter-racial love.
The Long Island native’s other Broadway credits include Aida and Cabaret. Since leaving Rent in 1997, he has also continued to perform original music with Adam Rapp and favorite tracks from theatrical scores. He received raves for his heart-tugging take on Chess at Royal Albert Hall.
Pascal recently chatted with TheImproper about joining Memphis, and his plans to create his own musical based on the songs of Queensryche.
The Improper: The casting for this role couldn’t be more perfect. So much of Huey’s personality and intense love for rock n’ roll is similar to your own passions in life. Did that factor into why you were chosen for this?
Pascal: I don’t think so. Quite frankly, the reason I was chosen is because I certainly expressed a strong desire to do the show, and then I came and I auditioned for it. I guess I proved to them I was able to pull it off. A lot of people I’ve spoken to had the opposite reaction when they heard I was taking on the role. They were like, ‘Really? I can’t even picture it. Wow, that’s so weird!’ I definitely still carry around a perception from a lot of people in the industry that I’m very limited in what I’m capable of doing. I have to keep proving otherwise. I’m glad I keep getting the opportunity to do that!
IM: Huey has a somewhat dorky, nasal quality to his speaking voice. How did you perfect the way you wanted him to sound?
Pascal: It came out of the southern drawl. It’s just my take on that particular accent, and that’s sort of where it fits in my head. I think Huey is somebody who isn’t necessarily someone who is popular in his life, and definitely gets the short end of the stick. People think he’s stupid, not that I necessarily took that into account when I was quote-on-quote creating his voice, but it just lent itself to this guy and his particular situation.
IM: What is the biggest challenge of taking on a role that has been made so well-known by a very different type of performer?
Pascal: Just to be able to bring myself to it and try and make it my own. Although that being said, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. What Chad did was so specific that I don’t think any actor could really copy that. He created a version of Huey that was very specific to him and I’m doing something that’s much more specific to me. I think it’s just a little bit more naturalistic.
Chad’s Huey was this very much bizarre creation out of Chad’s head. It worked wonderfully, but it’s sort of like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. If an actor had to go repeat that performance, it would be pretty impossible to try and recreate that character in the same way.
IM: At which time in your life were your own personal conflicts most similar to those that Huey experiences in Memphis?
Pascal: Having to leave Rent is a similar comparison. Having made this great achievement and having had this great success, and then having to finally make that decision and saying, “Alright, it’s time to move on and see what else life has to offer.” I think that was a very similar decision and an equally difficult one to make.
IM: Was it ultimately your decision to leave Rent?
Pascal: It was a decision I made, everyone else for the most part had already left. Anthony [Rapp] and I were the last two people to stay in the Broadway company amongst the principals, so it just seemed that if everyone else was leaving, I should probably leave too.
I think everyone else had a much clearer career path that they wanted to go down than I did, so it was much more difficult for me once I left. I was very much unsure of what to do. It wasn’t always easy. There were many times when there wasn’t work and there wasn’t money, and there was lots of difficulty.
IM: What was your first thought upon seeing Huey’s crazy costumes?
Pascal: If I showed you pictures of some of the stuff I used to wear in my rock bands when I was a kid; you would see they are strikingly similar! The zebra stripe patterns and also the leopard skin patterns… I have those items of clothing and photos of me wearing those actual things. The stupid outfit that he’s wearing at the end of Act I, that’s totally something I would have worn on stage. There’s definitely some photos out there, the outfits are scarily similar.
IM: Speaking of your love for rock ‘n roll, you’ve mentioned that you’re developing Queensryche’s album Mindcrime into a stage musical. Tell me more about what you have in mind for it.
Pascal: It’s a record that had a huge influence on me as a teenager. It’s a brilliant concept album, and it has a fascinating story and this incredible music. I always envisioned that there was a way to take this music and reconceive it for a Broadway audience. In its current form it’s not palatable for a Broadway audience-, it would drive people right out of the building.
But it has such beautiful, lush orchestrations, and it’s all done with guitars and bass and things like that. It was just something that always fascinated me, and the singer was somebody that had a huge influence on me as a singer growing up. I always looked up to him and tried to emulate him. In addition to a few other singers, he had a direct impact on how I learned to sing. His name is Geoff Tate. About two years ago I approached him and asked him for the rights to take his music and pursue this idea that I have, and he’s been incredibly generous enough to let me in at the snail’s pace that I’ve been working at. I hope it will ultimately pay off.
IM: Huey from Memphis and Roger from Rent get together for lunch. How does the conversation go? Who pays the bill?
Pascal: I’m sure that they would talk about their passion for music. Their love for rock ‘n roll is definitely a strong connection between them. The song “Music of My Soul” could very easily have been sung by Roger. Huey probably pays the bill, I don’t think Roger ever made any money, certainly not in that story!
IM: Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan is a co-writer for the music in Memphis. What’s your favorite Bon Jovi song?
Pascal: I did love Bon Jovi in the eighties. His record New Jersey had some really great songs on it. “Bad Medicine,” “Lay Your Hands On Me,” “Blood on Blood.” I think that’s their best record.
IM: Do your two sons aspire to follow in your footsteps? What do they want to be when they grow up?
Pascal: They certainly love music and they love messing around with instruments. My older son plays drums and loves to dance, but neither of them have expressed any interest in going into the arts. I think my older son wants to be a jabberwocky!
IM: Tell The Improper something that no one else would know about you.
Pascal: I’m a hardcore atheist. I’ll tell anyone who asks.
IM: What would we find you doing on your days off?
Pascal: My kids are really into ice skating; we were going to the ice skating rink at Central Park a lot. I tend to not do much on my days off. I unfortunately stay home and watch a lot of news, which is probably less healthy than watching “Desperate Housewives.” I’m thrilled to be back here in New York. It’s really exciting to be back on Broadway, it’s where I feel most comfortable, and certainly where I’ve had the most success in my career. I look forward to continuing with this show as long as they’ll have me. We’ll see what comes next!
To visit Adam at the Shubert Theatre where he is now performing in Memphis, visit www.memphisthemusical.com, or www.telecharge.com.