‘Rent’ star Adam Pascal leads Tim Rice tribute at Strathmore

In this Nov. 11, 2011 photo, actor Adam Pascal is shown in New York. Pascal, a veteran of "Rent," "Aida" and "Cabaret," has slipped into the role of Huey Calhoun in the Tony Award-winning musical, "Memphis," taking over from Chad Kimball. (AP Photo/John Carucci)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Adam Pascal at Strathmore

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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BETHESDA, Md. — He earned a Tony nomination in Broadway’s “RENT.”

Now, Adam Pascal hits Strathmore in Bethesda for “Circle of Life: The Songs of Tim Rice in Concert.”

“We are going to be saluting Tim Rice and performing the songs from his shows,” Pascal told WTOP. “It’s going to be a great night. There’s a huge orchestra [and] Tim Rice will be Skyping himself in.”

The set list will include songs from such Broadway hits as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat;” Disney gems such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King;” and songs from Pascal-Rice collaborations like “Aida” and “Chess.”

“He’s had such an illustrious career and has written amazing music over the last 40 years,” Pascal said. “For someone who’s had the career he’s had, he immediately puts you at ease. He’s not somebody that makes you feel like you can’t just be yourself. That’s the biggest thing that struck me personally. But professionally, what I was amazed at was how he’s always working to make his material better.”

Sunday’s show will also feature 275 performers from the nonprofit group Young Artists of America.

“They’re an organization that brings together middle and high school students that are interested in the performing arts,” Pascal said. “They give them an experience of working with professionals in the industry and putting on these fully-produced musical theater performances. So they’re giving kids an experience of what it’s like to actually do musical theater on a professional level. I think it’s a life-changing experience for all these kids and it’s great for the audiences … It’s a win-win for everybody.”

It’s an opportunity that Pascal didn’t have growing up in various boroughs of New York City, from the Bronx to Long Island. Pascal was a rocker that had no idea he would find a career in musical theater.

“I didn’t grow up doing musical theater,” Pascal said. “My experience up until doing ‘Rent’ had been playing in rock bands. I had played and sang in bands all throughout high school and college.”

All that changed when he got a call from his childhood friend — future “RENT” co-star Idina Menzel.

“We lived down the block from each other in Long Island, went to the same elementary school and junior high school and high school,” Pascal said. “[She] called me up and said, ‘I’m doing this off-Broadway musical and they’re having trouble casting this role of Roger … and I thought of you. Do you want to go in and audition?’ … That was really my introduction into this whole world of musical theater. … I went and auditioned and ended up getting cast. My career was launched from then on.”

Indeed, his role as the HIV-positive musician Roger earned him a Tony nod, belting songs like “One Song Glory” in a songbook filled with instant-classic showtunes. Who can forget “Light My Candle,” “Out Tonight,” “Will I?,” “I’ll Cover You,” “La Vie Bohème” or “Seasons of Love?” Penning the pain in each song was creator Jonathan Larson, who died the night before the off-Broadway premiere.

“[Larson] was a genius, but a sort of humble genius in many ways,” Pascal said. “He was actually sort of like a contradiction. He was a very humble genius, but then if you got him into a deep conversation, he would say things like, ‘I’m going to change the face of musical theater.’ So he kind of knew he was destined to do something special and was confident and aware of his own abilities as a writer.”

Changing the face of musical theater is exactly what Larson did. Arriving the same year Hollywood released “Philadelphia,” “RENT” debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1993 before opening on Broadway in 1996. It’s no exaggeration to say that “RENT,” more than any other work, planted a seed of tolerance that would blossom into the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality in 2015.

“The creative community … is, in many cases, made up of people who are marginalized by society, whether it be the gay community or certain religions or whatever it is,” Pascal said. “They tend to turn to artistic expression to express their dissatisfaction with the way the world is. So that’s why a lot of those seeds get planted in the artistic community, because they’re being planted by the people who are living them. … Jonathan lived in the parts of New York City and rolled with people who did feel marginalized … So he wrote about the people that were his friends and the people that he loved.”

“RENT” was a smash, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Talk of a movie adaptation began with rumors of Justin Timberlake assuming Pascal’s role. Thankfully, by the time the musical was adapted into a 2005 movie, director Chris Columbus maintained most of the original Broadway cast, including Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, while adding Rosario Dawson into the role of Mimi.

“There was a version of ‘RENT’ that was going to be done several years prior to the version that we did. Chris Columbus was not the director of that, that was going to be Spike Lee,” Pascal said. “I think maybe for a minute Justin … was tossed around as being a part of that version, but by the time the Chris Columbus version came around, I don’t think it was something he was interested in doing.”

We can only imagine the gritty version Spike Lee might have made, but either way, Pascal has nothing but fond memories of working with Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Harry Potter”).

“He is a great director and a great person,” Pascal said. “The experience of making the movie with him couldn’t have been better. His whole reason for making the movie was because he just loved the show. He was motivated purely by his love for the show and his admiration for Jonathan Larson. That’s why he wanted those of us from the original cast in the movie, because I think in his experience when he came to see the show, that was part of the experience for him, seeing it and seeing all of us.”

After “RENT,” Pascal began landing major roles in such shows as “Aida,” “Chess” and “Hair.” One of his most challenging and rewarding roles came as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret” (2003), originally made famous with a Tony and Oscar-winning performance by Joel Grey.

“That was really a life-changing experience,” Pascal said. “It was a part that was so brilliant and so terrifying for an actor to take on. … I had never done anything like that. It was very intimidating to do all of the things required in that role, from the top of the second act being a 10-minute improv with the audience every night and also being almost naked on stage for a good portion of the show.”

He says the role allowed theatergoers to see him in a different light.

“[It] opened up a lot of doors and allowed people to see me in a way that they hadn’t seen before [and] break out of that rock-n-roll Broadway guy and do something that was unexpected,” Pascal said. “I’ve tried to work my career in that direction of doing things that are more unexpected. … I do try and stay away from the rock-n-roll Broadway stuff, because I kind of feel like I’ve been there and done that.”

Pascal continued to land big parts, such as the lawyer Billy Flynn in Broadway’s “Chicago.”

“Billy was a little bit more challenging in that I didn’t have a lot of time to learn that part,” Pascal said. “I only had about five days … barely enough time to memorize the lines of dialogue. So that was a little bit trickier. Also, ‘Chicago’ is a weird one in that it’s a machine over there. I was the 52nd Billy Flynn in the 20 years or so that they’ve been running. They cycle people in and out of those roles so quickly, so you’re not really given the time to settle into that part. … I never got a chance to get it under my skin.”

From there, he played the role of William Shakespeare in Broadway’s “Something Rotten.”

“The challenge for me in that role was really the tap dancing,” Pascal said. “I had never put on a tap shoe before. … Pushing your own limits far beyond what you ever thought you could do is a necessity if you’re ever gonna be successful in this business. The first night I got out there and did that tap number, I blew it! It was horrible! But the great thing about doing eight shows a week is that you have the next night to come back and try to do it better. Each night it got better. So, being willing to take those chances and fall on your face is something that is vital to personal and professional growth.”

Which brings us full circle to his work on “Aida” with Elton John and Tim Rice, who he’ll salute Sunday.

“They couldn’t be more different as people,” Pascal said. “Tim is somebody that puts you at ease and can very easily slip into the role of ‘regular person.’ … Elton’s not like that. … He’s a force of nature and he’s always on and he’s always extraordinary. You never forget, ‘Oh my god, I’m sitting at this table with Elton John!’ It’s what I imagine sitting at a table with Prince or Michael Jackson or Elvis [is like].”

As for Mr. Pascal, he was certainly a down-to-earth, “regular person” throughout our entire chat, taking the time to joke with WTOP as we quoted the famous answering machine from “RENT.”


Click here for more information on the concert. Listen to the full interview with Adam Pascal below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Adam Pascal (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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