One of the most memorable moments we had in a theatre last year was watching the incredible Lee Siegel deliver the “I’ll Cover You” reprise in Stratford’s production of Rent. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, which is why he’s nominated for Outstanding Performance (Musical).
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was in the Church Nativity scene as a young kid, which was one of my first performance memories, but the earliest memory of a show I’ve seen was a production of Snow White that my Aunt took me too. – I think it was a high school production or something like that, but I remember I was enthralled by it.
When did you first start singing? Tell us about finding and developing your voice.
I was singing since I was little guy. My mom would play a lot of music around the house, so I heard a lot of Lou Rawls, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, and Motown music. One of the first songs I sang was: “Tomorrow” (from Annie) but I only knew it as a cover by Lou Rawls. My Broadway debut many years later would be at the Neil Simon theatre where Annie premiered in the 70’s.
You were in Stratford’s famous Jesus Christ Superstar that transferred to Broadway. What do you remember most about that experience?
I loved EVERY minute of our experience in Jesus Christ Superstar. Des McAnuff is a genius when it comes to directing. He has an incredible vision and he knows how to pull it off. That show was directed to look and flow like a film. He stripped it of all applause until the end of my number, Herod, and the end of the show. I would repeat that experience again and again and again. Plus what a joy it was to watch nearly 30 people make their Broadway debut together. Opening night on Broadway saw a lot of prideful tears, many hugs, and marked a highlight to an amazing journey. (Don’t even get me started on appearing on the Tony Awards)
How did you get involved with Rent?
In the 90’s I saw RENT on the Tony awards. I didn’t know what it was, but I was captivated. – My parents bought me the RENT bible (that hardcover black book) and the double disc CD. I played that CD on repeat and played it into the ground. I knew EVERY single word of that album and knew immediately I wanted to do it one day. I even did a cattle call in the late 90’s in Toronto for the Mirvish production, but nothing came of that…. So nearly 3 decades later I’d finally get my shot. When I heard Stratford was doing the show, I was in New York doing a show on Broadway, and wanted to audition. The rest is history.
Collins is a sacred role with a much beloved original performer. How did you approach making the role your own?
I am so close to the character of Collins that it was deep in my heart and soul for decades. Jesse L. Martin and Jonathan Larson gave me a beautiful base line to start with and not mess with, all I tried to do was dive deeper into the emotions of the show and play him as real and honest as I possibly could night after night. I knew the role came with a hefty responsibility, and I wasn’t about to mess that up. I hope I didn’t, and I hope I was able to live up to many an expectation, and at the end of the day, I lived up to my own, and I’m proud of that time in the show.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of working on such a beloved piece?
The rewards were getting to sing such iconic songs, and tell such a moving story. Over 76 million people have been diagnosed or died of HIV/ AIDS since the 80’s. So many people didn’t get to tell their stories, and the responsibility to do that right, and honor their lives, was a beautiful reward. The challenge was not messing all of that up. It’s easy to make RENT super fluffy, and just overact the heck out of it, and bring in stereotypes…. We tried really hard to avoid that.
Your rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” was really moving. Can you walk us through the creation of that moment?
We had a great creative team that stripped me of everything, and it was a great place to start, forced me to start from scratch, to feel bare and empty, and at that moment of the show Collins is both of those things. Then I made a deal with myself to stay true to the work of Jesse L. Martin, I knew what he created lived close to what Jonathan Larson wanted, and from there, I chose a couple moments to add my own life experience, and incorporate that into the notes I was singing. There’s a promo video on youtube that we filmed in early April, but what’s on that film isn’t what I did in May and beyond. I stripped more, I went deeper, and there were days when I would literally just break down on stage, but it was in the moment and kept me honest… often.
Much of the song was sung slouched over in grief. A dramatic decision like that made for character/emotional reasons must make it more difficult to sing. Is that ever a consideration for you or are there accommodations you need to make to make that happen?
I’ve been really blessed with a gift, and I don’t take that for granted, but it allows me to sing in a variety of ways, like being broken, defeated and hunched over, I used that for dramatic purpose in a couple moments, but it wasn’t as difficult as it may have appeared.
How do you maintain your voice and energy during such a long run?
Rest, Water, Vitamin B, lozenges, warm ups, cool downs, and remember the responsibility you have as an actor towards the audience. Sure, they are buying a ticket to the show, but they’re actually paying with something even more valuable than money and that is TIME. If an audience member is giving you their time, make it worth every single minute, they cannot get that back and they have willingly given of it to spend with you. Time is precious, don’t waste it.
Tell us about working with the rest of the cast.
Our cast was STELLAR! They made coming to work every day joyful, but even more so, my scene partner: Nestor Lozono Jr. (Angel), is the only reason my Tom Collins was successful. To have a loving, playful, beautiful, scene partner that is supportive, talented, and you hit it off with on day one, made the entire process a wonderful memory I’ll have for life. Nestor is forever my Angel. I hope they have many incredible years of success and we get to do another show together again soon.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you remember having with your director in developing your interpretation of the role?
I spent many days reading the AIDS Memorial Instagram page, and reading stories about those we lost to AIDS. We were encouraged to do that. Encouraged to do the research. We had many chats with people who were living with, lost someone or survived the epidemic. Our creative team had a huge love for the material and that helped immensely in guiding us to deliver our best performances. As I mentioned earlier, Collins is so close to my heart because in real life, I’m very much like Collins, sarcastic, lovable, giving, etc etc.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Anytime spent on stage with Nestor (Angel) was a sheer joy, but I also loved sharing moments with Kolton Stewart, and Robert Markus (Roger & Mark respectively) we created a little friendship backstage, which was easy to bring on stage to the audience. We had little playful moments together and they always touched my heart, it kept us human.
Do you have anything you’d like to plug?
Right now I’m currently directing a production of RENT in St Catharines ON. To be able to be on the other side of the table and tell this story again through those eyes is a sheer joy and a HUGE responsibility. That is with Garden City Productions.
I also have my own Not-For-Profit theatre company @NewWerxProductions now in our third year, and always looking for new works to create.
On top of that, I released a new Christmas song over the holidays, and I’ll be heading off to Calgary this spring to do Beautiful, at Stage West, before returning to Ontario to work with Drayton Entertainment for the rest of the summer, and then will be embarking on a tour this fall, with a 10 piece band, in a solo show called: SOUL MAN. Singing the biggest hits of the soul genre. I’ve excited to be busy, and forever grateful for the chance.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
You can follow me on social media: @Lee_Siegel or follow my theatre company @NewWerxProductions. I’m also a photographer in my downtime and you can find my work on: @LeeSiegelPhotography. You’ll also find all three of the above on Facebook, and I’ve a page on TikTok. I’m so thankful for the nomination and I wish much success to everyone involved. Thank you for even thinking of me, it means a great deal.
To those out there with a dream of being on stage, it’s possible. It is AB-SO-LUTE-LY possible… it just takes a lot of work, determination, and never let the word “No” break you down. It will hurt to hear now and again, but it’s not the end of the road, and you have all the ability in the world to rise above it, and achieve YOUR GOAL!! So make your younger self proud and go kick some butt.