Past Perfect

Everything new is old again in Jeff Daniels’ latest musical stage venture

Past PerfectQ: So, you’re opening the world-premiere, pre-Broadway musical Turn of the Century this month in a role that was especially written for you…

A: Doing a Broadway musical eight times a week is hard work and grueling. But I want to do it for a lot of reasons. It’s a lifetime opportunity for me. I have the A-team around me, with Tommy Tune as the director and choreographer, and Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the book for Jersey Boys. It’s a wonderful part for me. When you look at the film roles I’ve done — the charming, yet morally challenged guy — from Terms of Endearment to Squid and the Whale, I’m the guy you call. [Brickman and Elice] are tailoring the script to me. I don’t have to be Robert Goulet or Josh Groban.

What’s the plot?

It takes place in 1999, right at New Year’s Eve. We’re time-warped back 100 years, with the knowledge of all the great songs that have been written in the 100 years to come. These people in 1899 have never heard of the songs. I play Billy Clark, a lounge piano player who wishes he were more. With the other character, singer Dixie Wilson [played by Rachel York], we become this hit songwriting team.

Do you think it’s going to make it to Broadway?

I’m told that by the end of the Chicago run on Oct. 26, we’ll know whether we have backing or not. Everything is subject to change, but we would go to Broadway after the first of the year.

What did you do to prepare for rehearsals?

It was like going into the Olympics. I prepped for a month before we started, taking vocal lessons two to three times a week with Lisa Hinz [of Chelsea], just to know how to breathe and where I put the voice so I don’t blow it out.
As, basically, a singer/songwriter with a guitar, I’m not … anywhere near as knowledgeable about music and music theory as all of these people are. I’m learning a helluva lot on the fly. It helps immensely that I play guitar and I’ve written songs, so that helps speed up the process.

Can you read music?

No, but that’s OK. They teach it to you, give you the sheet music, and then I go back to the apartment and plunk it out on the little keyboard that I brought with me. It’s like memorizing a line; you’re memorizing a part. It takes me a little bit longer, but I’m not holding anybody up, which was part of my fear, but that’s not the case at all.

How were rehearsals for Turn of the Century?

It’s so much fun, [being] dropped in the middle of a Broadway musical. Within a half hour of the first rehearsal, the ensemble of 20 men and women were singing this song all around me, and it was just like being surrounded by this heavenly choir of Broadway singers and dancers.

What’s it like working with Tommy Tune?

As he inhales to say something, you start listening.

You said that your wife, Kathleen, has been very supportive and encouraged you to do the show. Was it because your daughter just graduated, and you’re about to be empty nesters, or was it just a fluke that this show came up?

When I did Blackbird in New York last year, my daughter was still in high school. It was a big negative. I just really wanted to do that play. I had said no to theater easily for almost 10 years, certainly in the last five years, and then I did that play. I’m glad I did it, but I was away from her for months at a time, and I didn’t like that. But now that she’s graduated and off to college and isn’t coming home every night, that allows me to do this. The fact that it fell into my lap is a wonderful coincidence.

Panhandle Slim and the Oklahoma Kid is the 12th play you’ve written for your Purple Rose Theatre. It opened June 27, and you left 10 days later to start rehearsals in Chicago. Now Panhandle has been extended through Sept. 27. When you come back to Michigan, will you see it again and, once it’s up and running, do you ever make changes as the playwright?

It’s on its own now. I really enjoyed this particular show, production, script, and these actors. I’ll see it once more, but it’s no longer mine.

You, Mitch Albom, and Mike Binder stood in front of the Joint Committee on March 5 to help get the Film Incentive passed. Now, six months later, you’re leaving to star in this new musical.

As someone who lives in Michigan and cares about the economy, I am very happy and a strong supporter of this whole incentive package because I’ve seen firsthand what it has done in other states.

I know the jobs that will be created very, very quickly. I know the amount of money that will be spent in Detroit while Clint Eastwood is shooting his movie — hotels, food, materials, local hires. Many of the Purple Rose actors have thanked me, because they said it was so great [having auditions and getting hired]. I’ve done many movies in Toronto and Vancouver with perfectly fine Canadian actors. But now those actors are being substituted with Michigan actors. I’m thrilled that Eastwood’s people called and asked for a list of a certain type of actor, and we sent them a list of 10 people.

For some people, it’s a miracle that the state took this aggressive approach, which is what you have to do to get people to come.

Jeff Daniels will be starring in Turn of the Century at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Sept. 19-Oct. 26;

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