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Turning the hit film 'Once' into a Broadway musical lures Steve Kazee back from Hollywood
NEW YORK (AP) ' Steve Kazee's dressing room in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is a blank slate.
It's plain and empty, except a threadbare chair. The little room has plain white walls and little else. It's more like a faded room in a European hostel than a star's Broadway living quarters.
"Hopefully, we'll be here for a little while and I can get some stuff moved in and be a little more comfortable," says a welcoming Kazee, who steals a chair from a nearby room for a visitor.
On his wish list for those empty walls: photos ' perhaps of his girlfriend, "Smash" star Megan Hilty ' maybe a poster or two, and some artwork, likely of comic book heroes, his weakness.
Kazee, 36, didn't expect to be putting his mark on another Broadway dressing room so soon. A rising star with matinee idol looks who'd gone from replacement parts in "Spamalot" to an understudy role in "Seascape" to starring in "110 in the Shade," he felt by 2007 like he'd hit a wall, continually losing out on parts to TV stars with bigger names.
"I've had some ups and down on Broadway, and I had sort of sworn it off and moved to L.A. and said I was sort of done with this side of the business for a little while. It just wasn't for me," he says.
"It was very frustrating. I was like, 'Why am I slaving in New York?' I'll just go to L.A. At least I know my place out there. At least I'm just one of a thousand faces out there."
Kazee swore he'd return only with something good. Now he thinks he's found it: This month, he's helping bring a stage adaptation of the indie film "Once" to Broadway. "It's hard to believe it's actually happening. I question reality quite a bit," he says.
The musical follows the love story of a Czech flower seller and an Irish street musician and vacuum cleaner repairman in Dublin, played in the film by real-life musicians and one-time lovers Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard. Made for about $150,000, the film earned $20 million, thanks in part to an original score that included the sublime, 2007 Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly."
Kazee, a fledgling singer-songwriter, was a fan of the film and soon began listening to Hansard's band, The Frames. Kazee even sat in the front row when Hansard, who had teamed up with Irglova to form the folk rock duo The Swell Season, played Los Angeles a few years ago.
So he's right in his comfort zone now: He gets to play a singer-songwriter on a Broadway stage, fronting a band with 12 musicians, strumming songs he already adores. "It's like the perfect marriage of all the things that I really love," he says. "If we could just work comic books into this, I could die happy."
That's not to say he wasn't cautious about the project at first. "It's that weird thing of really loving something so much and not wanting to be a part of destroying it in some way," he says.
Kazee was convinced after reading the book by Enda Walsh ("Penelope") and meeting the team ' British director John Tiffany, who helmed "Black Watch"; musical director Martin Lowe ("Mamma Mia!"); five-time Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Bob Crowley; and co-star Cristin Milioti, who plays his love interest.
At a workshop, he also liked what he heard ' it was nuanced and beautiful, not loud and brassy. There were, he says, no dancing vacuum cleaners: "It wasn't slick and it wasn't Broadway. It was finding reality in small movements. I immediately felt like I was part of something different," he says. "I knew it wasn't going to be this commercial piece of junk."
Tiffany recalls Kazee arriving at the first workshop better prepared than anyone he's ever seen. "Sometimes in Britain, we're lucky if the actor has read the script, whereas Steve knew all the music. Of course, that meant that we really hit the ground running," he says. "He's so hardworking, such an amazing talent. I think Steve is a shining example of how multitalented American actors can be."
Now onboard, Kazee knew that if the project was going to work, the team needed to persuade Hansard to let go of a character he originated and songs he helped write. It turned out that Hansard was generous about sharing his tunes once he, too, overcame his qualms about how the film would be adapted.
"He was so beautiful about handing them over, but I would be lying if I said I didn't think there was a sense of apprehension about it," says Kazee. "But I think over time he sort of was like, 'OK, this group of people is not going to ruin these songs and my art.'"
Kazee, who is three-quarters Irish and grew up in Ashland, Ky., calls the work "a play with music." He stresses that the musical, which he starred in off-Broadway late last year, tells the love story in a different way and isn't a shot-by-shot recreation of the film.
"At its core, it's about a guy and a girl. That's what we are. Cristin and I have taken those roles made famous by them and sort of made them into things that we can be honest about," he says.
"There's not much comparison to be made between the two of us and the two of them ' we don't look anything like them, we don't sound anything like them and, quite frankly, we're just in a different show."
Kazee, who got his master's in acting from New York University, racked up some interesting credits opposite some powerful women ' Frances Sternhagen in "Seascape," Audra McDonald in "110 in the Shade" and Jan Maxwell in "To Be or Not to Be" during his time on Broadway ' before fleeing west.
"I love New York and I love Broadway. I get very disheartened to see where it goes sometimes," he says. "You want it to hold itself to a higher standard. Frankly, I don't think it does sometimes. I think it sometimes lives up to pandering and taking the easiest route to make the most money."
In Los Angeles, he made appearances on shows such as "CSI," ''NCIS," ''Numb3rs" and "Medium" before landing his own short-lived series, CMT's "Working Class" opposite Melissa Peterman. He auditioned to play an actor playing Joe DiMaggio in "Smash" opposite his girlfriend ' playing an actress hoping to land the role of Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical ' but he wasn't right.
No matter: Now he's back on Broadway. But this comic book fan, who also admits to being "an outer space nerd," is very grounded and isn't worried if this job leads to him vanquishing those TV stars for better roles.
"I could literally quit tomorrow and go back and get a degree in astrophysics and be totally fine for the rest of my life. I could move to Montana and stare at the stars and be totally fine," he says. "I think that keeps me sane."
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits