01 April 2019
We poll the whole staff when deciding on nominations every year and sometimes more than one of us will be advocating for a particular performer. When it came to Daren A Herbert’s Outstanding Leading Performance in a Musical nomination for Stratford’s Music Man, there were definitely multiple voices in the room all on the same page. Chelsea called him “vortex of charm” and I pretty consistently call him the best male triple threat in Canada. He’s also my very favourite person to interview- example A, example B, example C:
What have you been up to since we last checked in for the 2016 Nominee Interview Series?
Well, first, I’m grateful for the nomination, it’s always a privilege to chat with you. Harold Hill did take up most of the time between then and now, but top of the list, I became a father! Joanne and I welcomed our daughter, Ori, in May of 2017. We were actually in rehearsals for the Musical Stage Co.’s Toronto premier of Onegin when she was born, so I ran home from the rehearsal room, helped out where I could while my wife laboured and then jumped back into rehearsals just before tech began. Both mom and baby came to see the show, at Canadian Stage, when Ori was 13 days old! We did Onegin again at the NAC and then a brief covering run at the Arts Club before they sent their production out on tour and then we packed up and moved to Stratford for the season. We’ve just returned to T.O. after doing the World Premier of Paradise Square out at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in California. Our “Marcellus” from Music Man, the inimitable Mark Uhre, was in that production as well, so he and I worked together for over a year on those two shows. Somewhere in between, we rustled up some TV appearances on the Baroness Von Sketch Show and Private Eyes.
How did you get involved with The Music Man?
The first time I performed the role was actually in 2012, at Theatre Under the Stars, in Vancouver, where the show was directed by Sarah Rodgers. It was a long, hot summer run on an outdoor stage so, I think the piece was kinda “steam ironed” into me. I just remember sweating every ounce of liquid out of my body while singing-dancing-running-around-completely-out-of-breath-yet-somehow-having-an-absolute-blast every other night or so. Stratford casting asked me if I’d be interested in coming in for their production, I was and I did et voila!
Set in Iowa in 1912, The Music Man has historically been an all-white musical but this production didn’t shy away from the fact that it had a black leading man. Was that element part of the production from the start or was it something that grew out of rehearsals once you got in the room?
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could cast me in the role and then even attempt to “shy away” from the fact that there’s a Black Harold Hill doing his thing in 1912, 2012 or 2018. Sarah didn’t, Donna didn’t and if I get another chance to play him, I can almost guarantee that the director of that piece won’t be shy about it either. You already know my thoughts on the fallacy of “color-blind” casting and I just don’t see myself running around with a European styled wig on trying to convince an audience that they aren’t seeing what they are seeing on stage and why on earth would we try to do that anyway? We’re doing musical theatre here, a whole stage full of people spontaneously burst into song and dance numbers and do olympic level tumbling on cue! If my being Black is the thing that destroys your suspension of disbelief, I think that says something about you that you should probably investigate. Meanwhile, once you’ve asked me to audition, we’ve got homework to do and potential problems to solve so I get right down to it, and that’s for every show, Onegin included. There are lots of books around that tell us how many of who was where at what time and what attitudes were like, not to mention the fact that most shows were “all-white” partly because there were actual laws against putting anyone “non-white” on stage with white people, even up to the time of Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown… some jurisdictions may still have them on the books. On top of all that, I’d sweat that European wig right off into the audience doing The Music Man anyway!
Obviously the material doesn’t even come close to actually reckoning with racial oppression in the early 20th century but how do you feel about the middle ground that was struck in terms of how this production dealt with race? Did you feel it went far enough?
Shoot, we still have a very difficult time reckoning with what levels of inequality and injustice we are living with in the here and now and that fact is actually presenting itself to us on a worldwide scale, in all its ugly splendour. As far as making art goes, whether we’re dealing with contemporary work or period pieces, I’m always inclined to go deeper and further. My acting teacher and friend, Michele Lonsdale Smith encourages that sort of investigation every day in class. We are all still damaged and damaging each other on a daily basis so can there be such a thing as far enough or deep enough? Bill T. Jones regularly said, during rehearsals for Paradise Square, “I’m race sick.” The sickness he spoke of makes it difficult to believe that some aspects of the story that we were telling, and we were dealing directly with NYC race relations in the 1860’s, actually occurred even though we had historical records supporting the fact that they did. Now he definitely was not the only one in that room and I’m sure that idea /feeling can be applied to many rehearsal halls and stages I work in/on here and now. I feel we would all do well to keep digging, both personally and professionally…heck, that’s our job!
One of the highlights of the production was the relationship you developed with Devon Michael Brown’s Tommy. Can you tell us about that relationship and how you added depth to what was on the page?
In this story, the way the people of River City look at and treat Tommy is already pretty clearly defined – he’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks whose father is “one a’them day laborers south a’town” so he’s an outsider and an undesirable by default, not so different from the way they’d see Harold Hill, based on the opening numbers of the show. These two characters are not “of” this town. So, Harold recognizing this and taking Tommy under his wing is not all that far fetched, even while Harold is actively changing the town’s view of himself, albeit as a means to an end. Why not work on changing either the town’s view of Tommy OR the way Tommy deals with it at the same time? The casting in our show either fulfills this aspect or magnifies it based on the audience’s awareness around race. We discussed it in rehearsals and there is a point in the story where the Mayor threatens to horse whip Tommy, in a very public setting, that took on a next level of meaning because of Devon’s and my race AND also the fact that a Labour Party member over in the UK had recently been forced to apologize for threatening a Black Mayor with the exact same thing.
Tell us about your experience working with Donna Feore.
Donna is a master at making musicals work on a stage that was definitely not built for Broadway musicals. Difficulties around sight lines and interaction between a cast of 38+ and the conductor/ music director of a pretty large orchestra who had no way of seeing each other were not so big a deal for her. Granted, she’s been at it in Stratford for a while, but taking into consideration that she was directing and choreographing BOTH musicals with many cast members serving in both shows, there was a minefield of logistics, pacing of rehearsals and regulating our intensity so that we all built up our stamina without sustaining injuries…it really was a lot for one person and she did it with absolute clarity. Her team of assistants, our stage management team and Franklin Brasz, our music director made a very difficult mission achievable. When it came to mining the story for honest moments of intimacy between Danielle Wade’s Marian and my Harold, she pushed us to keep making discoveries. Donna is a powerhouse.
“Trouble” is a notoriously tricky song to spit out. What was your trick for getting all the patter lyrics to stick in your head in the right order?
If I remember correctly, it took a lot of repetition to get it exactly right when we were rehearsing it back in 2012. I often hear about how tough it is for musical theatre performers to master the song and I think my background as a dancehall performer, steeped in the evolution of Hip Hop as well as growing up surrounded by fire and brimstone pentecostal preachers all helped me immensely. I’ve always heard the gospel music and “preacher-rap” calling out from within the song. It made me wonder where Meredith Willson got his exposure to those aspects of Black culture…was it as he grew up or later on during his training and travels as a musician? Whatever the case, that song is just in my DNA now, and I’m talking about the composition as well as the lyrics. I surprised myself in the audition room with Donna and Franklin because they only asked for a particular cut of it, but my mouth and my body kept right on going. I think I may love that song.
What was your favourite moment of The Music Man?
My favourite part of that show was and always will be the kids – The children who are cast to play the youngest members of the River City community. Our interactions during the rehearsal process are invaluable to me and observing them as we work always teaches me so much. The balance they have to strike between being “professional” and just being their inquisitive, competitive, empathetic and impulsive selves is something that fascinates me and feels very familiar. I loved watching these young people evolve over the course of a very long process and run and I know you’ll be seeing a lot more of them. The first time I did this show, a girl called Roan (no doubt a university aged woman now) who created her own comic books and, I think, bicycled across Canada, gave me a drawing of my Harold Hill that lives on my Music Man/ Paradise Square show binder even now. This time around, a young fella called Evan, gave me this enormous, pink, scented highlighter that I carry with me everyday… my colleagues get a kick out of it and it keeps me young at heart, even in the toughest rehearsal rooms.
What are you working on now/next?
I’m about to start rehearsals down at the new Soulpepper Theatre. I’m working on The Brothers Size, a beautiful, nuanced and heartbreaking piece that will force me to bring some more family history up to the surface for investigation. It’s written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the multiple Oscar Award winning film Moonlight and will be directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
We’ve chatted quite a bit about race in relation to this production of The Music Man, but I have to at least mention the issues of consent and treatment of women in the piece, because those things had to be discussed and navigated during the rehearsal process too, especially when viewing what is on the page through the current prism of awareness that we have, in showbiz and the greater world. I have seen what took place at Soulpepper and elsewhere and I’ve had to investigate my own treatment of women and I have to acknowledge that I, with my CIS male privilege have been a part of the reason there is a #Metoo and the Not In Our Space! initiative. I will do better when it comes to my own assumptions around power in the room and personal space and call out others when I see inappropriate behaviour taking place. Harold Hill, as written, walks us into a minefield of male chauvinism with his approach to and treatment of Marian and even with all the care and attention that we put into staging it, I heard from women I love and trust about the cringe-worthy moments that are present in the show. I have to stand up and say, yes, we knew it was there and did what we could without changing the material. Just as we earned the plaudits, so too did we earn those cringes.
Thanks so much for the recognition and for the opportunity to share.