Saturday, 14 January 2012

Street Rats on Three!

Photo courtesy of Brandon O'Neill
Today I am very honoured to be able to present an interview with Brandon O'Neill.  Brandon has been extremely busy since originating the role of Kassim in Aladdin: The New Stage Musical last summer, playing the dual role of Mac and Kenneth Ormiston in Saving Aimee and recently concluding his run as Prince Christoper in Cinderella (both at 5th Avenue), and has very kindly taken the time to answer some questions about his career and his time as Kassim.

How did you originally get into musical theatre, and who (or what) would you say have been your biggest influences?

I got into musical theatre on accident. I was a musician first. I moved to Seattle from my hometown of Spokane, WA looking to meet other musicians and start a new band. The first guy I met was a pianist and composer named Rob Knopp who told me he was writing a grunge era rock opera called "Diana Moves". I had no idea what a rock opera was. He invited to sing on the demo recording and then we ended up doing several live readings of the piece around town.  I was noticed by several casting directors- including the then Artistic Director at the Village Theatre - Brian Yorkey (Tony Award and Pulizter Prize for "Next to Normal") He encouraged me to give this theatre thing a shot. I listened and within a year I was full time.

As far as influences, musically speaking, they all lie outside of theatre. Artists like Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Fred Hammond and Bobby McFerrin are big. Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson are up there as well. As far as acting goes- I always find myself intrigued with guys like Robert Downey Jr., Edward Norton, and Kevin Spacey- men who can transform themselves on screen. The only influences I really have in the theatre are the incredible actors I've had the pleasure of working with over the years. Seattle powerhouses like Allen Fitzpatrick, David Pichette, Peter Crook, Anne Allgood, Amy Thone, and Timothy McCuen Piggee among others.

Do you remember Aladdin from its original release? Were you a fan of the film before you got the part?

I absolutely remember Aladdin! He was a Disney hero who kinda looked like me:) I remember trying to do all the voices along with the Genie. And who didn't love Abu?

How did you come to be involved in the Seattle production and what was the audition process like?

Initially, I was officially "unavailable" to audition for Aladdin. I had already been cast as Sky Masterson in the 5th Avenue's production of Guys and Dolls which conflicted with the Aladdin schedule. Granted, a good problem to have, but I was SUPER bummed to not get a shot at a show I was at least "ethnically right" for. (ha ha). The casting director at the 5th was kind enough to let me be the "Reader" in the auditions so at least I could meet the people at Disney and Tara Rubin Casting. After 4 days of auditions, I had read as all of the principal characters including Jasmine. After the final audition I was asked to leave the room. I was then approached by the casting associate and told that they wanted to audition me. Stunned but willing, I was then given 20 minutes to learn a song. I came back and sang and they asked me to stay for the movement call. I must have done alright.

Brandon O'Neill as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls

When did you learn you’d been successful and what was your reaction to the news?

I was on a family vacation when I got the call form the 5th about Aladdin. I couldn't believe they had worked something out with Guys and Dolls. It would mean alot of work on my part- double duty- Guys and Dolls performances at night and Aladdin rehearsals during the day. I actually gave it a week of thought before answering. I didn't want my role as Sky Masterson to suffer. I wanted to be sharp and give my best in both endeavors. With some helpful prodding from friends and family- I accepted, and I'm so glad I did.

What’s it like creating a totally "new" character in such a well loved story?

Creating a new character in a well loved story means you always have to keep the story and tone of the world of the play in mind when making your choices. But otherwise, I found great creative freedom in adding depth to what was already written for Kassim. This sense of freedom to create was most definitely nurtured by the director- Casey Nicholaw and Chad Beguelin, the writer. They dared us to come up with new and funny material. It was also vital that the trio had chemistry. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Brian Gonzales (Babkak) is one of the funniest and bravest actors I've ever worked with and Andrew Keenan Bolger (Omar) simply emits light and talent everywhere he goes. We became inseparable and relied heavily on one another.  A great trust and love was developed over the weeks and we would back each other up with our crazy, stupid ideas. Some of them are permanently written into the script! "STREET RATS ON 3..."

For those of us who can’t make it to Seattle, can you please tell us a bit about Kassim, your approach to the character and his role in the show.

Kassim was written as a streetwise, tough guy with a heart of gold. As part of the trio that replaced Abu, he is at the center of the Narration but he also upholds Abu's mistrust of Aladdin falling for Jasmine. (remembering the scene where Abu bats his eyes at Al and pretends to be Jasmine) Kassim loves the freedom of life on the streets and acts as strategic leader of the 4 Streetrats. They look to him to call the shots, while Aladdin remains the moral leader and central heart and keeps them from too much trouble. Even if he doesn't admit it, Kassim will always give Aladdin's words the most weight.

I wanted to play Kassim as a guy who has seen alot for his age (violence, injustice, heartache, and hunger) but chooses to laugh and live life to the fullest anyway. I kept his world view pretty simple- a fatalism that gives him a foolish sense of invincibility. Life has thrown a lot of crap his way so he doesn't trust many people but those he does trust he loves and protects with fierce loyalty.

Brandon O'Neill as Kassim (right), with Brian Gonzales, James Monroe Iglehart, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Adam Jacobs

What’s it like working with Alan Menken and bringing to life the lost Howard Ashman songs?

For a man with his resume, Menken is remarkably humble and approachable but I'm not gonna lie, I was in awe anytime he was in the room. His genius is SO apparent. It's truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to do what we did. Bringing songs like "High Adventure" back from the dead and to hear Alan say,  "...that's just how it's supposed to sound." 

You’re a regular at 5th Avenue, starring in everything from Miss Saigon to Joseph, and you just finished playing the lead in Guys and Dolls before starting Aladdin. How does your experience with Aladdin compare with the other productions you’ve done?

Aladdin may be my all time favorite theatre experience. While the show itself may not have the title of "the perfect musical" like Guys and Dolls, Kassim is probably the most fulfilling role I've ever performed. It just felt "right". On top of that, the cast was exceptional, the music thrilled me every night. I truly hope I get the chance to play the part again.

You’ve just had your official opening night, how’s the show going and how much has it changed since your first preview?

I'll skip this since I'm WAAAAY late. (just so you know- we were changing lyrics everyday -even on opening night)

How do you prepare before a show? Do you have any superstitions or routines that you do before you go on stage each night?

Vocal warm up was a must. We were required to perform in 3 or 4 different singing styles. I also had to perform the Tiger God/Cave of Wonders voice each night so I had to pay close attention to vocal health.

Each night before curtain, I went over the Arabian nights "Bollywood" dance section. Dancing is not my strongest suit and for that number I am DEAD CENTER stage -so I had to be very conscious with my efforts and stay sharp.

What is the most rewarding part of the show for you, and which part do you find most challenging?

Making people laugh was the most satisfying part of the show for me and the "new work" schedule was most challenging.

Looking to the future, do you have any dream roles that you would love to do?

Tons- I haven't been doing this long so my list is long-ish...among others: Sweeney Todd, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Che in Evita, Aldolpho in Drowsy Chaperone, Kassim on Broadway :)

And finally, looking back over your career so far, do any moments or performances really stand out as something truly special that you’ll always remember?

In 2010 I had the honor of performing songs from the Sondheim canon with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the legendary Marvin Hamlisch. That weekend will forever stand out as a turning point in my career. From that moment forward I set my path deliberately towards success in this business whereas before, I felt as I was just stumbling along. My accidental theatre career found purpose.

Brandon, thank you so much for your time.  I wish you all the best for the future and I hope to see you playing Kassim on Broadway one day soon!

I would also like to once again thank The 5th Avenue Theatre, not only for arranging this interview, but also for all the help and support that they gave me last year.

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