What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Zachary Levi of She Loves Me
By Wayman Wong
To quote a jubilant lyric from She Loves Me: "Will wonders never cease?" The Roundabout's latest jewel-box staging just received eight Tony Award nominationsmore than any other musical revival this season. Written by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joe Masteroff, this 1963 gem now stars Zachary Levi (best known as TV's "Chuck") and Laura Benanti. They play Georg and Amalia, two feuding parfumerie clerks and secret pen pals, and their sweet chemistry is heaven scent.
For his part, Levi has earned his first Tony and Drama Desk nominations, and he loves to rave about his acclaimed co-stars, who include Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel, as "a master class with Tony winners and nominees." In return, Benanti has gushed: "Zachary is one of the kindest people I know. He's so hardworking, he's so talented."
And so generous and genial with his fans. He enjoys turning the stage door meet-and-greet into a dance party. As his Bluetooth speaker blares with the Jackson 5's "ABC" or Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True," Levi cheerfully will chat, sign Playbills, and pose for photos with everyone in line.
Recently, the Theater World winner spoke with me about the Tonys, Tom Hanks, and Hamilton.
Zachary Levi: Oh, man! It's humbling and heady, and I'm trying to take it with a grain of salt. Not to downplay itit's an incredible honor, especially with the company I'm in. But I'm trying not to think about it too much 'cause I don't want it too much. I still gotta show up for work everyday and do the same thing. But it's pretty fucking cool. Growing up, my love for theater was insatiable. I just love to make people laugh and clap and smile. When I discovered drama and the ability to move people to tears, it was so powerful. As much as you can feel like God created you to do something, I believe He made me to entertain.
WW: Most everyone knows you from "Chuck," but I want to ask you about Huck (Finn). What do you remember about doing Big River in Ojai and how did it prepare you for Broadway?
ZL: I would soak up everything I could. You work with so many people of different backgrounds, especially in community theater. From aspiring actors to an optometrist who likes to moonlight (as a performer). It's such a weird and fun and funny environment, but I was so grateful. You are an amalgamation of all the people you've worked with or that encouraged you, or that you learned from. I think everyone has led up to [She Loves Me]. Until I did First Date (on Broadway), Big River was the longest-running show that I'd done: 54 performances. I worked with three different Jims, and it was definitely a turning point.
WW: Did you see that Encores! will be reviving Big River in February 2017 at City Center?
ZL: I saw that! And I'm so bummed that I'm 6-4 and will never be able to play Huck again. (Laughs.) But it would be fun to play the Duke or Dauphin. It's a great show, man. Roger Miller wrote such fun music.
WW: And now you're in another great show: "She Loves Me." How would you describe Georg and how do you identify with him the most?
ZL: Georg is a romantic. He's a good man with a good heart. He cares about his co-workers. And then he finds himself in this whirlwind of being misunderstood by this contentious, contemptuous clerk, Amalia, and also by his own boss, Mr. Maraczek. So his world collapses. I seem to play normal guys caught in extraordinary circumstances. I guess I identify most with Georg's heart. And I would say the same thing about Chuck and other roles I've played. Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks are two of my idols. And when the offer to do She Loves Me came, I found out that Stewart and Hanks played the same guy in The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail. I really like bringing people stories of hope, and charming and delighting them. And this is a musical comedy that leaves audiences with a skip in their step, humming a tune and believing in love.
WW: In She Loves Me, you get to do the show-stopping title tune, and Georg is so head over in heels in love that you even turn a cartwheel. How did that come about?
ZL: Warren (Carlyle) and Scott (Ellis) had basically choreographed it all, and they said they wanted to find one more big moment that shows the childlike enthusiasm that Georg is feeling. I racked my brain and said, "What if I did a cartwheel?" They both looked at me like I was crazy. And then I did a cartwheel, and they immediately said, "Yup, that's it!" So I was doing that for a long time, but then I pulled my hamstring, so we had to take it out of the show. Hopefully, I'll be putting it back soon. It's fun. It never dawned on me that people would be shocked that a man who's 6-4 can do a cartwheel. But they are: "Holy crap, look at what that giant guy just did!" But even kids can turn cartwheels. Now, when I saw Pippin, those physical feats were impressive.
WW: She Loves Me is full of love and laughs, but it also can get dark. There's despair, heartbreak and even a suicide attempt. Joe Masteroff says there's "something sad and true" about his show.
ZL: I totally agree. I think it's part of the reason why the piece is as good as it is. Georg resigning, plus getting fired, is heavy. Then, Amalia sings "Will He Like Me?," and she's very vulnerable. Maraczek tries to take his own life. Nobody sees that coming. Act two has a lotta great numbers and comedy, but none of it would feel as grounded if you didn't have the real stakes involved.
WW: Two of your fellow Best Actor nominees are from Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. On your Twitter account, you joked that you sold a kidney to see the show. How was it?
ZL: Incredible. It lives up to the hype. Maybe the coolest thing about it is it's bringing a whole new set of eyes, youth and interest [to theater]. They created something special, and I'm so happy for them.
WW: What would you say if Lin asked you to do a guest stint as King George?
ZL: Ha-ha-ha! I'd be pretty tempted, but I don't think I would do the role justice. You need a really solid tenor. But it's such an amazing role. Jonathan Groff was so good. I just died.
WW: On May 20, you'll be co-hosting the Drama League Awards with Megan Hilty, and both of you are nominees for Distinguished Performance, too.
ZL: I love Megan. She's fantastic and so deserving of her nomination. She was hysterical in Noises Off.
WW: Plus, Sheldon Harnick will get a prize for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre. What's your favorite lyric of his that you sing in She Loves Me?
ZL: It's probably, "I'm freezing. That's because it's cold out." I remember when I was learning the song, I laughed out loud. What a great, silly, and honest lyric. It's just so funny. I love it.
WW: Also, the Drama League will give its Unique Contribution to Theatre award to Deaf West Theatre. Its Spring Awakening revival featured your First Date co-star, Krysta Rodriguez.
ZL: I was so blown away by that show. You're watching deaf (and hearing) performers pour their hearts out on the stage. And there were members of the audience who were hearing impaired or deaf. Looking around, you could see them applauding by shaking their hands. I was verklempt. And Krysta was amazing, the whole cast. There was such poetry to the staging, everything.
WW: Not all awards are for showbiz. You once received a Humanitarian Award for your work with Operation Smile. (It's an international medical charity that provides free surgery to children with cleft lip and cleft palate. Through Levi's annual Nerd HQ, a pop-culture convention, in San Diego, he has raised about $1 million.) Can you recall one kid's story that especially touched you?
ZL: Oh, gosh. There was one girl named Tatiana in Honduras. She was like a little monkey. She wanted to climb on you. We followed her all the way through her surgery. And I remember there was one baby who was so small. She weighed too little to be operated on. She was 1 year old, but she didn't have a name because they didn't think she would live. That broke my heart, man. It's not just one child. It's all of them, the whole mission. It's about giving these kids a new lease on life.
WW: Thanks for bringing smiles to people's faces, onstage and off. And good luck with awards season.
ZL: The coolest thing about awards season is celebrating together. What a great year it's been for Broadway. That I get to be included is amazing.