It’s not unusual to pass a Broadway theater after a show breaks to find dozens of people crowded behind barricades waiting for cast members as they leave the stage door. It’s very unusual to find a boom box set up by one of those actors to entertain the crowd as he signs autographs and poses for pictures with them. Yet that is exactly what Zachary Levi does after every performance of She Loves Me, the Bock and Harnick musical which is the Roundabout Theater’s current offering at the fabled Studio 54 Theater. He’s even been known to pick someone from the crowd to dance with.
“I really believe in the symbiotic relationship between the actor or entertainer and his audience,” the actor says in a phone interview. “I’m not selling widgets on stage; I’m selling an experience and with physical art like paintings or sculptures, you can take them home with you but with theater it’s different and Broadway isn’t cheap. Maybe because I’m a Libra, but I have a really hard time with fairness and justice. As a result, I don’t know how to walk out a stage door and sign only 20 autographs when there are 100 people out there waiting in the cold. I just can’t do that. I keep thinking about those other 80 people who have been standing there for quite a while. The ‘fairness police’ or ‘justice squad’ in me override these things.”
The actor continues,”There are some fans who only want a photo and I’m glad to give them that. What I learned from doing First Date is that all of this takes only a few minutes. What’s 30 minutes of my night and maybe one minute with each person? They walk away with a skip in their steps and they’ll remember the experience for a year or longer. To me, that’s incredible and it allows me to meet the people who have come great distances–sometimes from other countries–to see the show. Trains, planes and taxis can add up to great sums of money to come to the theater. As far as I’m concerned, a signature and a photo are things anyone who comes to a show is entitled to. I want to be able to meet the audience, look them in the eye and thank them for coming. I also ask them to tell their friends if they enjoyed the show,”
There’s music involved when Zachary Levi meets his fans. “I firmly believe that if life gives you the opportunity to have a dance party, then you should have a dance party,” he says. “As I’m standing out there and we’re all sort of hanging out, I pull out my blue tooth speaker and play some tunes. Music is always awesome and it puts everyone in a good mood. When it’s cold, it gets people to move a little bit and warm up. I started this when I was in First Date and everyone enjoyed it. With She Loves Me, I was walking by an audio place and found these JDL’s that I can link to two speakers and that gives us better sound. I like people to have a good time, bring smiles to their faces and allow them to have an amazing experience. To me it’s very gratifying when people go out of their way to tell me they like what I do. In my mind it’s only a fair exchange to look these people in they eye and thank them for affirming me. Those are the patrons of the arts. I wouldn’t have a job on Broadway or television or in film if I didn’t have people who believed in me and supported me.”
Yes, there are many occasions when Levi dances with those self-same patrons of the arts who are enjoying the good vibes he creates on the sidewalk. “I’m always encouraging everyone to have a good time,” he adds.
The phone conversation takes place on an April afternoon and Levi is asked to recall when he first knew he wanted to be a performer. There’s a considerable pause before he responds to it. “Oh gosh, ” the actor says, “I guess I was about 6 years old–as soon as I figured out how much I liked making people laugh and smile. I was always a ham. I loved entertaining my family. I didn’t understand the concept behind it, though. It wasn’t until later in life I learned there was a time and a place for those things. My family could tell you I never had an ‘off’ switch. It was always doing impressions, voices, dialects and making up songs.”
Eventually Levi discovered theater and quickly realized that this was an appropriate format for the use of his comedic skills.”I was able to do actual, full shows and it suddenly dawned on me that this could be an actual career. I realized that this was what God wanted me to do and I never looked back.”
Levi congenially continues: “What I want to do is inspire. I’ve found that in entertainment I’m able to do that and I’m grateful for that gift. If, for any reason, that clock turns off, I want to be able to do things which move and inspire people. In some small way it’s making the world a better place. If my acting career falters, I might go back to school and become a teacher. I know when I was in high school there were some teachers who really inspired me and I feel there has to be more of that.”
Zachary Levi is certainly achieving his goal of moving people. His rendition of the title song in She Loves Me sends joyful emotions cascading across the footlights and touches the audience to the point where grown men are seen wiping tears of joy from their eyes because they are sharing the ebullience of Levi’s character’s emotions. Levi connects with the audience throughout the performance but at this moment his joy is contagious and he cartwheels into their hearts. This is truly what theater is about and the actor is appreciative of the response it elicits from the crowd. “I love bringing this character to life. I’m really, really blessed that the people filling those seats are responding to it.”
The actor has done his share of work on television–as the goofy title character in Chuck and in the movies Disney’s fully animated Tangled and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, where he was a live character performing with computer generated chipmunks. “That was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “They both presented unique challenges but that was part of the fun. I got to use my imagination in ways that I normally wouldn’t get to do in real life. Basically my toys were coming to life and I was using mental muscles I hadn’t used in a long, long time. Getting to do Tangled was so much fun because I’d grown up watching cartoons; especially the Disney stuff. Getting to do one of the voices on Tangled was a dream come true. It turned out to be an amazing experience as I tried to figure out what this character would look like and how it would react to other characters on screen as it was being animated. It was a blast!
“Doing Chipmunks was similar but different at the same time. It was live action and what I needed to do was really believe that these little chipmunks were running all over the place: on my head, on my shoulder, on my lap, in the corner or breaking a window. It turned out to be a fun exercise in imagination. It’s all good and it’s all part of art–and a good part of acting exercises. Again, it’s something that most people stop doing at a certain age but we actors get to keep doing over and over again.”
Does Zachary Levi prefer live theater over television and film? The actor once again pauses and finally says, “Oh man, not at this point in my life. I think if I was married with kids it would be good to have a steady TV gig where I was making good, consistent money so I could put the children in good schools and colleges. That would be good. Aside from that, I’m in a place in my life right now where I want to go and do the role that resonates with me right then and there. I want something that’s right for me and I’m right for it. She Loves Me came up rather suddenly and it was the right role at the right time with the right people involved. I’m grateful for that. After this it could be another Broadway show and if it’s the right thing to do, then great! If it’s a movie or TV, that would be terrific, too. If none of that worked out, I’d be very happy to take a month off and travel to Peru. You have to keep working on yourself and be as well-rounded as you can be. However, I must say that there’s nothing like live theater. You may be performing the same material eight times a week but it’s worth it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until I die: it’s the greatest drug in the world!”
It may seem hard to believe but Zachary Levi’s favorite moments in She Loves Me are not while he’s on stage. It occurs when he’s finished “Tonight at Eight” and he’s cooling off backstage. “I’m hanging out with my dresser and Gavin Creel. Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski are on stage singing “I Don’t Know His Name”. We’re enjoying a moment of time together. Also, after I’ve done “She Loves Me” I sit back stage and enjoy the way Jane crushes “A Trip To The Library.” These are moments of calm when I can relax and enjoy the work of my castmates and the company of the staff involved in this show.”
When asked whether the show has any chances of being extended beyond its limited run, the actor replies, “There might be a little bit of an extension but the Roundabout is subscriber based and they have to keep bringing in new shows. It’s still going to be a limited run, I would imagine.” True to the actors words, the show was extended shortly after this conversation and will now play until July 10th.
This is quite fortuitous because this show is one of the true gems of the current Broadway season. It’s an outstanding revival of one of the cherished shows in musical theater. It also proves that when a Broadway musical is well-crafted, it works beautifully on a number of levels. Theater-lovers are urged to see She Loves Me and if time permits, to gravitate to the stage door on 53rd Street to enjoy the after-party Zachary Levi puts on for the people he considers the true patrons of the arts. You may wind up dancing with a star!
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