Steve Kazee became a Renthead on his first trip to New York with the undergrad theatre department of Kentucky's Morehead State University in 1997. "I saw Rent and thought Adam Pascal was the most amazing performer in the world, a rock and roll guy just wailing it out," Kazee recalls. "It wasn't what I thought Broadway would be like." When cast member Anthony Rapp invited the students to attend another performance with fewer understudies, Kazee snatched a standing-room ticket. "I went back in my Rent cap, my Rent t-shirt, and waited afterward at the stage door for autographs and pictures. I was hooked."
That trip, which also included visits to see Dixie Carter in Master Class and Whoopi Goldberg in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, turned out to be a major catalyst in Kazee's career. "I knew when we first walked through Times Square that this was the city where I was going to live someday," he says. "Finally, for the first time in my life, I found someplace that felt like home."
Now, 15 years later, Kazee, 36, is the one greeting fans at the stage door of Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where he stars as a struggling Irish street musician inspired by a Czech immigrant (Cristin Milioti) in Once, the intimate, Tony-winning Best Musical based on the 2007 Oscar-winning indie flick. For the record, Kazee has heard that some of the show's rabid repeat customers, Once's own version of Rentheads, call themselves Onesies.
Not long after earning an MFA in acting at NYU in 2005, Kazee was cast as a replacement in Spamalot, followed by other Broadway roles in 110 in the Shade and To Be Or Not To Be. But Kazee considers Once his most precious credit. "There are times in your life when everything comes together in such a beautiful, harmonious way that it's impossible not to get lost in that feeling," says Kazee from a second-row orchestra seat at the Jacobs before a recent performance. The actor has been with the production since its 2011 workshop at American Repertory Theater and its subsequent Off-Broadway run at New York Theater Workshop. "I'll admit that I was apprehensive, worried, and I didn't know if it was the right thing for me to do. Then I gave myself over to it, and it's ended up being the most perfect thing I've ever been a part of. This show and the people involved have opened up my heart, my mind, and just made me a better person."
Throughout his formal theatrical training, from his very first role as one of the brothers in a Morehead State University production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Kazee never considered Broadway an accessible goal. "I'm too aware of the statistics," he says. "When I auditioned for grad school, I just wanted the chance at a career in theatre. I figured I'd be able to work in the business somehow if I had an MFA from a big school and distinguished program, but I never imagined I'd get to be on Broadway." The actor had also been discouraged by many mornings of fruitless cattle call auditions. "I wouldn't even get to sing! They'd put us in a line, and the director would say, 'Go' or 'Stay.' They'd just look at me and say, 'Go.' That's the reality for so many actors in New York, so I'm very thankful for everything I've been able to do."
Kazee received his first Tony nomination — and win — for his work as Guy in Once, but "it ain't all roses and sunshine," to borrow the actor's own expression: Shortly after splitting with his girlfriend of six years, his mother lost her battle with cancer in April — events detailed in a recent profile in The New York Times. "When I read that piece, I thought, 'Well, this is a bummer,' but people have taken inspiration from my story," says Kazee, who grew up in a trailer in Ashland, KY. "Because of everything that's happened to me from the time I was born, it's a miracle I'm even here talking to you. Some critics — I always read reviews — wrote that I didn't seem like someone who could be down on his luck, but if they only knew what I was going through in my life. I'm not a method actor who brings that dark cloud onstage with me, but I do know how to pull from that. People can succeed but also be lost."
When we first meet Guy, he's creatively stalled, a feeling to which Kazee can also relate. "My career dried up in 2008 for about two years, and I knew I couldn't struggle like that forever," he remembers. "Right as I was ready to quit, Once came along, which is poetic, because that's what the show's about."
The last time Kazee felt like quitting the business? "Every day," he says with a weary smile. "My best advice for an aspiring actor is this: If there's something else you can see yourself doing, do that. I wasn't prepared for how tough this business is and how hard it is to survive as an actor. Even when you make it, you never know which job is going to be your last, so you have to enjoy it while it's happening; if you try to plan ahead, it'll just fall apart. There are people who have won Tonys and never done another Broadway show, which keeps everything in perspective for me. All I know is that when the show's over, I won't die, and every once in a while it'll be a beautiful day."
Although he would like to eventually tackle film and possibly pursue a music career, Kazee has no intention of turning his back on Broadway. "One of my favorite performers and human beings is Denis O’Hare, who can do a season of 'True Blood' and then come back to New York to do An Iliad and Into the Woods," he explains. "That's the kind of career I want." As for an onstage dream role, he says, "I'd love to do a Sam Shepard play; Curse of the Starving Class seems like a good one to bring back right about now."
But if nothing else comes out of his Once success, Kazee hopes that more people will learn how to correctly pronounce his last name. He jokes, "Yeah, could you please make that clear in this article? As one blog explained, it's like 'kazoo,' but the end rhymes with 'tree.'" Whoopi Goldberg still managed to mangle it when the Once cast performed on "The View." Did that sting? "Nah, because it's Whoopi. I mean, have you watched 'The View'? At least David Letterman said it right when we performed on 'Late Show.'"
Kazee also wants to make it clear that there is no bad blood between the casts of Once and Newsies, which went head-to-head in many major Tony categories, including Best Musical. "It's so weird how people want a rivalry there, but there's absolutely no rivalry," he says. "I love everybody in that show." Kazee even poked fun at the perceived competitiveness on Twitter prior to the Tonys, kidding around with Newsies star Jeremy Jordan, a fellow Best Actor in a Musical nominee, that they should attend the ceremony as each other's date. "Jeremy's a great guy and a phenomenal talent, and I hope both our shows run for the next five years. I want everything to succeed, because that means my friends are working and more people are coming to see Broadway shows."
Sipping the dregs of his pre-show beverage of choice, an Açaí Extreme Energy smoothie from Juice Generation, Kazee spends much of the remainder of our chat praising other actors he admires, particularly the stream of celebrities who have attended Once, such as Bono, Zooey Deschanel, Jesse Martin, Lisa Minnelli and Vanessa Redgrave. "I get really excited when famous people come to see the show, so I always ask beforehand if there's anyone in the audience," he says. "I realize that I'm in the minority on this, just like how I always read reviews, but I want to know who's here every night."
After sharing several personal anecdotes in support of his passionate claims that various actors are "the nicest people ever," Kazee leans in a bit closer. "I won't name names, but there are some pretty bad people in this business too," he says. "I'm somebody who constantly learns by other peoples' examples. When my mom died, I based the way I handled myself after the classy, graceful way that Audra McDonald handled herself when she lost her dad during previews of 110 in the Shade. Anthony Rapp, all those years ago, taught me that I should always sign autographs at the stage door. But I also learn from the entitled people who don't care about anybody but themselves, and I try to be better than that."
Back on the subject of Rapp and stage doors, Kazee reveals that he recently stumbled across the picture he took with the friendly Rent star outside the Nederlander Theatre in 1997 — and then shared the find on his Twitter account. Aware that the tweeted snapshot was an inspiration to his younger fans and other aspiring performers, Kazee readily admits that he primarily posted the photo because he wanted Rapp to see it. "I'm a fan," he explains. "I'm in awe of people who do amazing things. I'm still that guy with the Rent shirt and hat, waiting at the stage door. That will never change."
Playbill, July 2012 issue; extended online version.