Before COVID shut down Broadway, I visited Aaron Tveit in his dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre where he is once again – now that Broadway has a reopened- starring as Christian in the hit musical Moulin Rouge!. The show weaves the songs of The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Sia, Elton John, Sting, and Adele, among others, into a narrative about bohemian Paris circa 1899. A vintage mid-century photo of Frank Sinatra eerily looking like an early 21st century rapper held a place of honor that day in Tveit’s dressing room along with photos of Miles, his beloved labradoodle.
Because of the shortened Broadway season, Tveit has the distinction of being the only Tony nominee this year – the Tonys are being held on Sunday, September 26th – in the category for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. His predestined Tony win on Sunday will top off quite a year for the 37-year-old Broadway star who has appeared during his career in the musicals Next to Normal and Catch Me if You Can and toured in Rent and Hairspray. On television, he has appeared in Gossip Girl, Graceland, Braindead, and most recently Schmigadoon!. He was also Danny Zucko in Grease: Live on Fox and Enjolras in the film adaptation of Les Misérables.
Tveit suffered from COVID himself, one of the earliest cases in New York. It was a kind of mirroring of the tuberculosis plot line of Moulin Rouge!. Thank God his wasn’t a tragic ending and he’s back on the boards breaking hearts with his soaring ballads and the sweetness he’s found in Christian’s swagger.
Kevin Sessums: What is so interesting with what you’re doing in Moulin Rouge!, Aaron, is that in this show that is so big and busy, you do this really smart thing. You. Pull. It. All. The. Way. In. You are so simple and still in this. And – forgive me – rather sweet. I don’t want to say you’re Tinkerbell. That’s too f**king twee. But in all this brassy brightness you are this small ray of pure light. Are you aware of being sprite-like almost in your portrayal of Christian?
Aaron Tveit: That’s amazing that you say that. I thought about this and worked a long time trying to find just that because I always viewed the character of Christian as a stranger in a strange land. He’s Dorothy in Oz. He gets to this place where he’s expecting all his wildest dreams and then it’s more than that. You can’t rise above that. So you kind of have to be the observer. I think of myself as the audience’s eyes – especially since we’ve been open on Broadway. My relationship with the audience is the thing I’ve really worked hard at and to find places where, when all this stuff is going on, that the audience can look to me to see how to react. That relationship with the audience is always on my mind.
I also thought it was really interesting making Christian American as opposed to English – as he was in the film – and what it means to be an American in 1899 from Lima, Ohio, who finds himself in bohemian Paris. The history of these things fascinate me. What does that mean? What does that look like? How did he get there? Because obviously he’s this artistic soul from a place with no artistic soul. Everything is about the railroad and steel and America’s Manifest Destiny and the industrial revolution. I have just always thought that this guy for whatever reason – maybe his mom was singer and his dad was telling him he couldn’t be true to himself – he has this idea and this belief inside himself that there is somewhere out there where what he feels will make sense.
KS: You could be describing the ur-story of young people coming to cities to find themselves in artistic ways. Is that your story?
AT: Yeah, it is. The only difference was for that me I had both parents saying I could do it. My dad once told me when I was kind of thinking about auditioning for theatre when I was already in college that he had almost moved to Nashville when he was 18 to be a country singer, but he never went. I knew that my dad had a great voice and was a great singer, but I never knew that. I had no idea.
I started playing the violin when I was four. I was always musical. The first time I remember someone responding to my voice I was in elementary school chorus in fourth or fifth grade and before the concert the chorus teacher told me to sing louder. And then it wasn’t until I got to the 9th grade and the high school chorus at my high school that everyone took notice. The upperclassmen. Everybody.
I grew up in upstate New York. It was great. In my head I thought I had the most suburban childhood, but when I look back on it I think it was fascinating being so close to New York. I think I had been to every museum in the city by the time I was 15. I got to see Broadway shows all the time on school trips.
The first Broadway musical I saw was Jekyll and Hyde. And then I saw Ragtime. I remember being very, very struck the first time Audra McDonald walked onto that stage in Ragtime. Then Les Mis. And when I was a senior in high school when I was really figuring out if I were going to go to school and study business or if I was going to sing, I saw Rent. I was really struck by that because it was the first time I’d had ever seen any kind of contemporary music onstage. It just had this young sensibility. The other stuff felt so unattainable.
Two years later somehow I was doing the show on tour. I loved it. I was 19 turning 20 with Rent and then 20 turning 21 in Hairspray on the tours that I did. I mean, I had nothing to my name besides what was in my suitcase. I was able to see the country that way. I think I’ve been to 48 of the 50 states. I have never been to Alaska. And randomly, I’ve never been to Arkansas. But what a wonderful thing to have experienced. I was a music major for a year at Ithaca College then switched into an acting program, but I didn’t really get cast in anything. But then I got this job as Steve in Rent. And I was the youngest in that company by at least three years. Wait. More like five probably. Just to figure out how to do eight shows a week was an education while I was understudying the two leads Roger and Mark.
KS: I always look for the incongruous in art and in life. I even find a sense of the sacred there, Your character of Christian in Moulin Rouge! is the incongruous element in the narrative of this musical. But there is also the incongruity of the music itself being modern yet being sung in 1899 Paris. How do you navigate that incongruity of the music being of a different time than the setting?
AT: This show to me could be done in two parts almost. I look on the first act and the second act as two very different entities. For me the kind of run of the second act for me – the run of Chandelier, Roxanne, Crazy/Rolling in the Deep, to the end of the play – all of those pop songs work 100% as a narrative for what my character is going through. So that just made total sense to me. The period stuff doesn’t bother me. Luckily, I have the film in my head and the film messes with the period so much. It’s 1899 Bohemia, but it’s so now. Alex [Timbers, the director of Moulin Rouge!] and I talked a lot about that and he is so wonderful about creating time and place and atmosphere, as Moulin Rouge! proves as you sit in the theatre experiencing it. He told us all that he would keep us in balance. And he has. I turn that over to him a lot.
I would like to think I am easily directed. I have had the benefit of having worked with incredible theatre directors and yet they all direct differently. Alex is very much looking at the big picture, but lets you blossom into the role while keeping you in that balance. Michael Greif, who directed me in Next to Normal, hands you a Post-It note with a verb on it. Jack O’Brien, who directed me in Catch Me If You Can, will say to you, “Okay, say this line. Turn to the audience. Count to three. And turn back.” And all of a sudden you get an eruption of laughter and you wonder how did that just happen. I have been able to work with these brilliant, brilliant stage directors and brilliant theatrical minds and they all go about it a different way. I always just try to do my work and show up with an idea of what I would like the scene to be and then just be open to what they think.
It’s really interesting after 8 years to be back on Broadway and to be remembering what this means to me. Not that I forgot. But this is where my soul lives – which is onstage.
I fell in love with acting on camera and I love working in television. And the storytelling was so fantastic in the two series on which I was regular – Graceland and Braindead. I am just lucky and grateful that I have been able to do all of that and I hope that continues. I want to do more television and more film. But I think no matter what, that this – the theatre – will always be where I land.
KS: You are very talented, don’t get me wrong. But you hit the ground running very early. You’ve had a career since you were 19. It’s not even luck really. It’s a kind of grace. Speaking of grace in your life – and the sacred as I did earlier – your brother is a Catholic priest. There are just the two of you as siblings in your family. What that’s like – having a priest as a brother?
AT: He’s a brilliant, fascinating guy. I wasn’t surprised that he became a priest. We were raised Catholic and my family always went to church and my parents believe what they believe. They really like the community of it. My dad sang in the choir. But my brother from a young age was just a bit more serious about it. He went to Boston College and studied linguistics and philosophy. You know what though – at first look, it is so different – one brother an actor and singer and one brother a priest. But at the end of the day not so much. We both stand onstage in front of a group of people and lead them through whatever it is they need to be led through.
KS: And there is something healing at the heart of each of them. Are you aware of helping people heal in your specific ways?
AT: Yeah. Exactly. People go to church and people go to the theatre for similar reasons.