By Michael Gioia
07 Feb 2014
Following his run in the title role in the Tony Award-nominated revival of Jesus Christ Superstar — which transferred to Broadway after a critically acclaimed engagement at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario — Paul Nolan returned to the Canadian festival for repertory productions of The Who's Tommy (directed by Superstar director Des McAnuff) and Fiddler on the Roof. He now lands back on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning musical Once, where he stars as "Guy," the Dublin busker and vacuum-repair man "Falling Slowly" for the awkward Czech "Girl," who — after hearing him sing from the depths of his soul — asks to have her Hoover fixed. Nolan, who stepped into Once shortly before 2013 came to a close, chatted with Playbill.com a few weeks into his run.
When we last talked, you were in Jesus Christ Superstar. Since then, you've been working a lot with fellow JCS cast member Jeremy Kushnier, [who also understudied the role of Jesus]. After Superstar, you both did a film and then went back to Stratford.
Paul Nolan: Tommy and Fiddler on the Roof, yeah! Fiddler on the Roof, Tommy and the movie were all kind of linked together. Fiddler and Tommy because we were at the Stratford Festival doing it, which is repertory theatre, so we were doing those in rep, but the movie, [entitled "Will," about two estranged brothers], we were connected to it because his brother [Serge Kushnier] is the director-writer of it. Jeremy, of course, was a shoe-in, and they thought of me for it, and the rest is history. I love working with Jeremy. I think he's a really great actor and, obviously, a phenomenal singer. I just really get along with him. It's always really fun to work with your friends — you just feel more relaxed. We shot that [film] in about six hours, and it turned out really well.
PN: It's quick, and it's not. I was here for five weeks before I stepped on stage and did the show. What's quick about it is that there are only so many hours in a day, and the cast can't be called in every day. There are certain slots of time in the week that they can be called, so I worked with the understudies a lot — every Thursday, they have a four-hour understudy call, and I was in that call. And, Fridays, the cover for "Girl," Jessie [Fisher], and I would work together… Two times I think Joanna [Christie, who plays "Girl"] and I were called on a Tuesday afternoon.
The terrifying thing about [being "put-in"] is that I'm used to fully fleshing something out in a rehearsal process. I've never been a replacement, so most of the percentage of hours I put in were on my own. I mean, of course, I'd have music rehearsals as well. We had a three-hour call that I got to play all the music with the company, but a bulk of that work — I would say 30 percent of that time was rehearsing with other people, and 70 percent was on my own in my dressing room or at home. You put in a lot of hours for these things.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
In this show, you're taking on a role and a full score. What is your relationship with music? Were you always a musician?
PN: No. Compared to these guys, I'm an amateur! These guys are amazing musicians. It was terrifying. That's honestly the most terrifying thing I've ever had to do. It was like having an actor's nightmare and an actor's dream at the same time because I love this show so much — I had seen Cristin [Milioti] and Steve [Kazee] do it back in the original company, so I have a lot of reverence for this company and for this show. The terrifying thing was coming in and playing a guitar in front of people. I'm basically self-taught, the way that lots of musicians have [been], but… [Laughs.] The thing is I knew I could play it — absolutely knew I could play this show — I just knew that it would take me a lot more time to have it in a place that I could do it in front of an audience and not really, really… shit the bed! To put it more eloquently, not just fall apart. It's constantly something I've got to work on. First of all, it's an essential part of this job, and anyone has to work at what they do. I mean, I'm more confident as an actor-singer, [but] even though those are things I have confidence with doesn't mean I don't work at it. It's the same thing with the guitar; I just have to put in a lot more hours than these guys.
How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
PN: Gosh, I think I was maybe 27 or 28, but I didn't really play it very much. I played the same song over and over again. The reason I started learning was because my sister wanted me to sing at her wedding, and it was a small wedding, so I didn't really think it would be appropriate to hire a piano player to — I'm from a farm — come out to the farm. It was all family and really intimate. It wasn't the kind of wedding that you hire someone, a stranger, to come out and play for, so I decided, "I'll learn the song on guitar," and that was my introduction to playing. Eventually, I bought a guitar and started playing more. That's kind of it.