The Musical of his Soul: Chad Kimball on his journey with Memphis
It didn’t surprise me when Chad Kimball wowed the NYC critics with his animated, high energy, funny, bluesy, and loveable performance as disc jockey Huey Calhoun in the new musical Memphis.
I have been a fan of Chad’s since I saw him perform the role of Anthony singing “Johanna” in the Signature Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, which starred Norm Lewis in September 1999. I made trips to the Big Apple to see all his Broadway and Off-Broadway performances, including his hysterical performance as Milky-White in the revival of Into the Woods in 2002 and his sophisticated performance as Marcel in My Life With Albertine in March 2003 (with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon, who will be presenting his musical Sycamore Trees at Signature Theatre beginning May 18th). After every show, Chad was there to greet me and thank me for coming to see him, and now I am so proud to be interviewing him for DC Theatre Scene.
From the first moment he stepped onto the stage to sing “The Music of My Soul” in Memphis, Chad grabbed the audience and never let go. It was one of those rare performances that DC Theatre Scene’s Richard Seff described in his NY Theatre Buzz column, “Chad Kimball is a once-in-a-decade discovery… From his first entrance down the stairs of the Beale Street music club, he shows great star power, the kind of thing Robert Preston brought to The Music Man, Yul Brynner to The King and I, Richard Kiley to Man of La Mancha, Robert Morse to How to Succeed in Business, Without Really Trying. When that happens, there is cause for dancing in the streets, and that’s exactly what happened on the way out of the theatre after my matinee.” I concur.
Joel: Tell us what Memphis is about.
Chad: Memphis is about a young, poor white boy who is in love with Beale Street and the Rhythm and Blues, and he endeavors to play this music on the white radio. In the process he falls in love with a young black singer named Felicia Farrell. It’s one of the great American stories. While completely fictional, the rise of rock and roll is a central story. So is the breaking down of racial barriers.
Joel: In Memphis, you play the high-spirited Huey Calhoun. Who is he?
Chad: Huey is not your typical Broadway leading man. He’s not suave! In fact, he can be aggravating at times, but his fervor, his tenacity and his ultimate personification of the “everyman”- I think – makes him accessible and more relateable to the average Joe.
Joel: How much of the real Chad Kimball is in the way you play him?
Chad: I suppose I have much of the same drive and tenacity. Maybe a little of his “come hell or high water” mentality. I think I am also more reserved than Huey.
Joel: On the road to Broadway, I’m sure there were bumps and grinds and rewrites and ups and downs. What was it about the show and the role of Huey that made you “stay” with the show?
Chad: So many ups and downs. But I’ve always felt that Huey was just a part of me that kind of spilled onto the stage. I feel like I was born to play him and he was born to play me.
Joel: I know that when musicals transfer to Broadway – the producers try to cast a “star”. Did the producers try to replace you with a better known “commodity”?
Chad: I’m sure the producers looked at all their options. Who wouldn’t? You want to get people in the seats. Luckily, they felt the way to get people in the seats was to stick with the original players and the “magic” that has been present in each incarnation.
Joel: Memphis had other productions at North Shore Music Theatre in 2003, TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California in 2004, the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2008, and at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle (your hometown) in 2009. What has changed for the Broadway production?
Chad: The heart of the show has always remained the same – how to tell the stories of the central characters and what best would perpetuate their journeys – those were the most taxing changes. We’ve lost songs, we’ve gained songs, but again, the heart and soul of the show has always stayed true.
Joel: What was the best advice director Christopher Ashley gave you on playing Huey?
Chad: He calmed me. He centered me. I think he made the character more likable.
Joel: The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is, to say the least, physically demanding, and exciting. How hard was it to learn?
Chad: Well, Huey doesn’t dance too much. The real demands are on the amazing dancers in the show. I still don’t know how they do it night after night.
Joel: How would you describe Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan’s score?
Chad: It’s what I first fell in love with. The fact that he has captured that time – but through modern eyes – is quite amazing.
Joel: I saw Montego Glover – who plays Felicia Farrell – in a production of Once on This Island at Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, MD, which won her a Helen Hayes Award nominiation for her incredible performance as TiMoune. And she was terrific as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway. What is your favorite song and scene with her in the show?
Chad: My reprise of her song “Love Will Stand” in the dressing room scene is my favorite. It’s just us, trying to love each other while all these racial and professional changes are happening.
Joel: I met you for the first time after a performance of Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre, where you played Anthony, and sang the hell out of my favorite Stephen Sondheim song, “Johanna”. I became a fan of yours that night.
Chad: That was such a wonderful experience. It was one of my favorite musicals with such a stellar cast. I haven’t been back to the Signature, but would go back in a second.
Joel: When did you first get bitten by the “theatre bug”?
Chad: I went to Roosevelt High School in Seattle which had (and has) a stellar theatre program. I was bitten by the bug in my first production there.
Joel: Every actor’s career includes some hits and misses. In NYC, you’ve had some hits: the 2002 revival of Into The Woods, where you played the “udderly” delightful Milky White, Finian’s Rainbow, where you played Og, and a reconceived Off-Broadway production of Godspell, where you were part of an amazing ensemble of future stars including Barrett Foa, Shoshana Bean, Capathia Jenkins, and Leslie Kritzer, and now you are a hit in Memphis, where you received raves for your performance as Huey. You’ve also had some misses – Lennon, Good Vibrations, and The Civil War.
So, what would you say to young and veteran actors who are having a difficult time earning a living in the theatre?
Chad: Simply, if I may: Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
Joel: I really enjoyed your performance in Ricky Ian Gordon’s musical My Life With Albertine. Tell us about that experience.
Chad: Being in the first production at Playwright’s new theatre was surreal and so special. The music was nothing like I had ever sung, and I felt privileged that Ricky and Richard Nelson chose me to carry that mantle of theatrical experimentation.
Joel: Tell us about “Obvious Clothing” (“Ogear”) How is the business doing? Are you making a lot of “green”?
Chad: Obvious is doing great. We just launched a new division of printed cashmere called “Lolly”. We are in over 200 boutiques nationwide as well as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Macy’s.
Joel: You are a great cabaret performer. Why do you love performing in a cabaret setting, and tell us about your award-winning one man show.
Chad: I like it because it’s risky, I guess. You are out there on your own and there is no escaping the audiences’ gaze. My “award winning” show was my first. It was so much fun. I just felt really comfortable telling stories through my favorite songs.
Joel: Why should DC theatre goers come to NYC to see Memphis?
Chad: It’s thrilling. I’ve NEVER done the show for an audience that wasn’t dancing in the aisles at the end. It tells OUR great story of civil rights and the truly American story of the Birth of Rock and Roll. And it’s completely original. From songs, to story, to everything in between.
Memphis is onstage at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St in NYC.
Watch Chad sing “The Music of My Soul”, accompanied by composer David Bryan here:
Watch Chad sing “Memphis Lives in Me” here: