Tomorrow night- March 22, 2012- marks Mike Nadajewski‘s official Broadway debut. His My Theatre Award-nominated role as Peter in Des McAnuff’s smash hit Jesus Christ Superstar is what’s brought him there. Before hitting the Great White Way, Superstar stopped at La Jolla Playhouse on its way from its original home at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where we saw the production. Mike’s been a My Theatre favourite since he was one of the highlights of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Stratford in 2009. Since then, he had a standout season in 2010 as Lord Amiens in Stratford’s superb surrealist As You Like It and as part of the quartet who performed the season-stealing Jaques Brel is a Alive and Well and Living in Paris. 2011 not only featured the charismatic and self-effacing actor in the sweetly sad role of Peter, he also played the wonderfully villainous Mordred in Camelot on the festival stage. We were psyched to talk to the man behind that beautiful singing voice, and we know you’re psyched to read what he said about Stratford, Superstar, Camelot and BROADWAY!
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
It’s hard to pinpoint that life-changing moment that theatre was for me. My parents were very open to the arts and loved the arts- my mom loved musicals and movie-musicals and soundtracks; my dad would show me a lot of Charlie Chaplin stuff. I guess I was drawn to the comedians more than anything- Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, all these kind of guys. The theatre aspect of things really didn’t come into play until I hit high school when I auditioned for a production of Cabaret. I was new to the school, I came into high school in grade 10 because I went to a junior high, and I auditioned for Cabaret and they gave me the role of the Emcee, which sort of turned my world upside down. It was then, when I got that part, that I thought “Well I guess I should try to figure out what this is”. So I tried to find it elsewhere while I was rehearsing- you know in high school you rehearse for like 4 months or something like that before you do maybe 3 performances. I guess the first play that I actually remember seeing is The Fantasticks, I went to see that with my dad. I actually saw a colleague of mine, now, in retrospect years later, “Oh my god, I saw YOU, you’re my pal, you’re my colleague, we just did a show together but I saw you do that play!” I thought it was fantastic. It was great. So, I guess, in that period of time I saw so much. And probably the one that I guess had the biggest influence on me at the time, that I became a bit obsessed with was Crazy for You at the Royal Alex. It was awesome. I saw it 12 times, I was obsessed, it was incredible. I even second-acted a couple of times; I can’t remember if the 12 times was me sort of piecing together a couple of Act Twos- I got to know a couple of the ushers, would wait outside during intermission and then sort of sneak in for the second act because Bobby would do his “Nice Work If You Can Get It” number and Oh My God, it was just so funny, and it was smart and the music was so great and they could all dance so well. It was so exciting, thrilling. Again, it was during that time when I was rehearsing my first show and it just had a huge impact on me.
Where did you do most of your training?
I realized by the time I got to the end of my high school career- and that was actually a really great thing, knowing throughout high school that this is what I wanted to do; it was really that production of Cabaret that really just knocked me on my side, it was a real revelation and I felt so lucky to have this focus and know what I wanted to do- I auditioned for a whole bunch of schools, I got into them, but I thought “I’m so excited about this” and the thought of going into another institution for another 3 years or 4 years was just not what I was interested in at all. I wanted to get out and I wanted to try it. I had just signed up with an agent- an agent that I’m actually still with to this day- and I said “I just want to give myself a year and try it”. I realized that I think I learn better by being thrown into things. So, my family, who are amazing and so supportive, gave me that year. I got a part time job and I started auditioning. I was taking classes, I sort of built a curriculum for myself in Toronto; I took workshops and voice lessons and acting lessons, dance lessons- and, god help me, I love Crazy for You and I love dancing but I’m a “qualified mover” and that’s as far as it goes for me. *laughs*. And I gave myself that year. I worked at Moore’s: The Suit People, actually, while I was taking all those classes. I started on the floor and by the end of 2 weeks they had me in the stock room counting pants *laughs*, that was it; so I must have been really good at my job. The first 6 months went by and I was like “ookay, nothing’s happening, I guess I’m going to be going to University”, then I got my first gig, a children’s theatre show at Solar Stage. I was amazed at how one gig started to lead to another. My first “official training”, I guess, was with the Charlottetown Festival Young Company, under the directorship of Brian Hill and Neil Bartram, and that was just eye-opening for me. Then one thing just led to another and lucky I can say I never looked back.
When did you start taking vocal lessons?
I started in high school. My good friend- the only person who I really stayed in touch with from high school, apart from my teachers, who are all amazing- my friend Carly Cohen, she’s also an actor, we split our first singing lessons with one teacher. She would take one half of the class and I would take the other half. Then, eventually, I found someone else who I thought might help me grow in a different way once I felt that I had sort of plateaued with my one teacher. You sort of try to move on and see what else you can find.
You’ve spent seasons at both Stratford and Shaw. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed?
That’s a good question. The obvious one, I guess, is size. The Shaw, just in terms of the size of the company down to the size of the venues [is smaller]. It sort of seems funny to me, in a way, that people seem to want to pit the two festivals up against one another. Yes they share a lot of the same company, but I think they each do really specific things. They’re both repertory theatres, so that’s what you do, you immediately go “well, let’s compare this festival to that festival”, but I just think they do two very different things very well. The Shaw has this incredible focus on that very special time period of the works of George Bernard Shaw and that really gives that place a real focus and expertise. And it’s such a close family there; not that Stratford isn’t- you certainly feel that with your immediate cast- but at the Shaw there’s a sort of feeling that you could fit the whole company into a very small basement cabaret space. You meet everybody. There’ve been seasons that have gone by here at Stratford where I haven’t me everybody in the company. It just sort of happens that way- it’s just so big. But I guess that’s the really [big difference]. The actual immediate time that you spend with people is the same, you feel close to your company, that’s the same.
You’ve been at Stratford for a couple seasons now. Who are some of your favourite people there, professionally and personally?
*jokingly singing* “That’s very difficult to answer. Um…”, favourite people… God, everybody that I work with, they’re all so amazing. It’s actually a bit hard because you can really get a bit gobsmacked with the calibre of people around you. It really is just so inspiring to see these people’s work. I go and I watch Tom Rooney in something; that man is just, you know, he’s a genius. His approach, his subtleties, he’s just so precise. It’s incredible to see him. And I see a performance like that and it’s very easy to go one way and want to throw in the towel and just say “what’s the point?”. But you realize that you can’t really do that. You have to step to one side and just try to make your own way. Then you’re better for it, for seeing the incredible talents of Tom Rooney and working alongside him, if you’re lucky enough to work alongside him. Oh my gosh, and, Dan Chameroy, I can’t list all the amazing people. But certainly it’s an education any time I work with anyone or see anyone’s work.
Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites of 2011?
Oh man, I always do try to see everything. And I used to, until I had a family. Certainly the windows of opportunity get smaller and smaller. Unfortunately I don’t get to see everything this year. What was the playbill? This is hard, trying to pick a favourites.
Do you find you usually like the musicals because you’re a musical man or do you prefer the other stuff like Shakespeare and new works?
I love them all. You can take away so much from anything. I guess I’m drawn to music, I love musicals, but there’s kind of music in everything. In Shakespeare’s text and his speech, it’s very musical. And certainly, this year, it’s been literally musical with Twelfth Night of course embracing it’s musical roots. Twelfth Night was fantastic. Grapes of Wrath was a startling piece of work. The range here is something that’s really exciting about Stratford. There’s a range of plays from Shakespeare to rock & roll musicals, and it’s all done by one company, more or less. Everyone is crossed into them. For example, Jesus Christ Superstar was crossed with Camelot and Grapes of Wrath. It’s wild that you’re looking at some of your Jesus Christ Superstar colleagues up there doing this riveting drama that is really heartbreaking and inspiring and so well acted.
Your first big role with Stratford took you to the Mirvish stage in Forum. What was that experience like?
It was fantastic. It was so much fun. Forum was a blast. It’d been a long time since I’d been in a show where people wanted to watch each others’ work from the wings. It was just so delightful. I’d never done such a commercial show, a Mirvish show, before, so it was thrilling to be in that venue and to have those audiences. I loved that show and I loved everyone in it- it was Bruce Dow and Dan Chameroy, Steven Sutcliffe the second time we did it, in Toronto, he played Hysterium. It was fantastic.
Tell me about Jaques Brel. That was such an interesting highlight of the 2010 season.
Oh I loved that show. Brel was a really special one for me, it really was. And a really interesting mix of people who were put into that. It was myself, Brent Carver, Jewelle Blackman and Nathalie Nadon- four very distinct voices- and we found our way to becoming a troupe. It was very rare. It’d been a long time, actually I don’t think ever on this level, that I’d been able to explore all the pieces of my personality, all the facets and my different shades. And though it was all through song, these songs are incredible monologues, each one is a self-contained story. That was satisfaction unlike anything I’d really had before, to explore that and to express that and share that with an audience. And that music! It’s so inspirational. You look at it at a glance, you see it on the page, and it’s deceptively simple, I think. It can be taken for granted a bit that way, or brushed off as being simple, but my god the wells run deep with that show and those songs. You can just mine them for days and days and keep coming up with new discoveries. Performing that show was the best because it never stopped growing and we never stopped exploring. I miss it dearly.
You also played Lord Amiens (the singer) in As You Like It that year. Was that your first Shakespeare role?
You know it was, actually. I’d never done Shakespeare. Shakespeare never really came into focus in my life. I’d loved plays and musicals but the opportunity never really presented itself. I was never really around people, I guess, who were intimate with the Bard. So, since being here it’s been inspiring to see where it all began, in a way.
Paul Nolan [from Jesus Christ Superstar] played Orlando in that production. Any chance we’ll see you crossing over into Shakespearean leads from the musical company?
I would love to do more Shakespeare. I would love that, I really would. If you’re gonna do it anywhere, this is the place, this is the place to learn- they’re so supportive here, and nurturing of that very thing. Trying to find people who have an aptitude for doing both. They look for that. So, I do hope to, I certainly hope to.
2011 was a big season for you, stepping into Michael Therriault‘s old shoes to play Mordred in Camelot. What was your take on that character?
*putting on a villain’s voice* “Oh Mordred! Mordred was delicious!”. Right off the bat, my expectations of what I thought that show would be in terms of the load- I sort of look at this with new eyes now, having a family, “okay, what is my season gonna be in terms of my level of fatigue?” because of course you come home and you hit the ground running with your little one. So there’ s not a lot of time to sit around and be precious about things, in a way- so I thought, “Mordred! You have 5 scenes only in act II. This’ll be fantastic, a piece of cake” and I was So Tired at the end of that show because it was so intense, he was shot out of a canon. Man, it was wild. I was not expecting that, I was really blindsided by that. And then even the time it took just waiting, cause it was an hour and a half before I got on stage, so waiting backstage- on those 2-show days when you finish the day with Camelot, I wasn’t getting on stage until 10 o’clock at night and I was waking up earlier to be with the lad, I swear if it weren’t for my wife waking up with my child every morning at 5 or 6 o’clock, I couldn’t have done it. She’s an angel, she’s my saviour. Cause I couldn’t do it, it would have been impossible. She’s an actor-singer as well, so thank god she understands the rest, how singing and sleep are so closely related. But no, that part was delicious fun.
Your My Theatre Award nomination this year is for Jesus Christ Superstar. Are you excited to be opening on Broadway?
It’s hard to believe. It’s just sort of been this perfect storm with this show. It was just the right time for everyone. Paul Nolan [who plays Jesus] being at a time in his life where he is the actor he is- Chilina [Kennedy, as Mary Magdalene], Josh [Young as Judas], all of these guys, they’re all sort of in their prime and perfect for these parts. And Des, too, Des McAnuff who is a visionary. This is one of the things that he does the best, this narrative, creating the rock musical genre and giving rock & roll music a narrative, pulling the narrative out of guitar riffs. He’s masterful. Then the timing of the show, it hasn’t been done for a certain number of years, so it’s time is coming around. And then to have the composer and lyricist come and have their support. It was just like one thing after another. So fast. It was really incredible to be in the middle of all that, with everything sort of spinning all around you and we’re just trying to put on our show, do our little show that we love and that has such heart and support. We really do all care very much about each other and we care about the show and the story. It’s so perfect that we all get to stay together. I don’t think that happens very often, not crossing borders. So it’s an honour.
So the California run [at La Jolla Playhouse] went well?
It was fantastic. It was great! Christmas in California, what could be better?! Again, it really was, I think, a testament to the strength of the company and us shifting from playing 4 shows a week to 8 shows a week, finding our rhythm with that. It’s been so exciting. It’s hard to believe that there’s this next chapter ahead of us. It’s really quite staggering.
Is it an open-ended run?
It is an open-ended run. We’ll see how it goes. I hope they like us!
So you’re moving your family to New York with you, hoping for a long run?
We talked about it and this was really the only way that we could see making a go of this. We don’t do very well when we’re separated; what family does? But we really don’t function very well when we’re apart. Which is a drag, because *in a goofy old man voice* “Mommy and Daddy are in show business!”. We just thought “for as long as possible, we’re trying to stay together and be together” and so far so good. It’s really the only way that we could have survived and done this. So that’s the plan, we’re renting out our house in Stratford.
Tell me about Peter. He plays such a crucial role among the disciples.
Peter has such an incredible heart. It’s interesting, going into it I remember reading up on Peter and trying to associate myself more with the history of Peter but it comes to a point very quickly in rehearsal where you sort of go “we can’t use that” or “we can’t play this”, “for the needs of our play we need to go in this direction, even though there’s literature that contradicts that choice”. And that was very quick because I think when it comes down to it- and we had quite a bit of debate about this- but what it comes down to is his denial and ultimately his betrayal. Looking at the relationship between Peter and Mary was something that Chilina Kennedy and I were talking about early on. We were talking about how, in the gospels, Peter was quite against Mary and it was not a smooth road between them. So we thought, “wouldn’t it be fun to kind of explore that? ” Then, very shortly after that, we were trying to figure that out and we discovered that that wasn’t really the way to go, it wasn’t really helping anything. And if anything it needed to be the opposite- Peter and Mary had to be almost like brother and sister because it came down to this moment of the betrayal, the denial when Mary comes up to him and says “it’s what he told us you would do, I wonder how he knew”. And it wasn’t so much “how did Jesus know…?” but it’s “how did Jesus know that YOU, of all people would be the one to deny him?” and that sort of informed- oh, wow, “you, of all people”, so you are the most unlikely of all. You look at Judas, but from the second you meet him you’re like “yeah, okay, he’s got your number, Jesus is going down and it’s Judas’ fault”. But Peter… he wants to be the most like Christ and Christ wants us to accept Mary and to love her, so Peter does. So I think that’s where that all came from, finding my way with Peter, that was like my hook in. I finally cracked that little puzzle through the guidance of Des and talking and working with Chilina and that was really it.
Did the rock opera style fit right in with your more classical vocal training or was it hard to take on?
Well, I don’t know, hard to say… no one has said anything yet, so maybe I’ll just keep on pretending that I’m a rock & roll singer.
What’s the most challenging role you’ve ever played?
That’s hard. It feels like whatever role I’m playing at the time is the most challenging, so it’s hard to pick one that was particularly difficult. Some roles are hard to define, again it’s that hook in that I’m always trying to find. There’s usually one thing in every play- whether it’s a moment or an idea, it’s something that really lets me in. And sometimes I don’t find that until way later. And sometimes I find that in the audition and decide to run with it and nothing changes.
One of the most challenging, I’d have to say, was another gospel-based show that was a contemporized version of the book of Matthew where I played all the parts- I played 20 characters from Matthew to Jesus to Pilate- all of them. I did it with a 4-piece blue grass band. It’s set in the south and Bethlehem is Gainesville, Georgia and when they go to Jerusalem it’s actually Atlanta. It’s a whimsical piece but very smart and UNBELIEVABLY challenging, with a really challenging schedule- we would do something like 8 shows in 6 days or something like that. I remember even having trouble sleeping at night because we’d have back-to-back 2-show days and I’d just be sort of wonky, very tired. It was like these moment-to-moment character shifts, so that was certainly a big challenge.
Do you have any dream roles you think are perfect for you or something against type you’d love to try someday?
Oh man, it’s so hard to say. Anything that comes along my way, I’m so thrilled and exciting for. I can say, certainly, that some of my favourite pieces, that I’d love to be involved with in some way, some day- and they happen to be musicals- are Floyd Collins, Sunday in the Park with George…
Crazy for You?
AND CRAZY FOR YOU! If I could dance, but I can’t dance! If I could tap, man, Crazy for You, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
I guess I would just have to say when it all started for me. When there was nothing clear in my mind, then I was in grade 10 doing the Emcee in Cabaret and realizing this is exactly where I want to be and exactly what I want to do.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m grateful for my family. There wouldn’t be much point in doing all of this if I didn’t have them.