Once Steven Pasquale decided to make the foray back into musical theatre, after years doing dramatic roles on stage and TV, it didn’t take long for producers to snatch up the dulcet-throated tenor. After doing Far from Heaven at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then Playwrights Horizons and The Bridges of Madison County at Williamstown and Broadway, the actor, known onscreen for “Rescue Me,” is back balladeering as Billy Bigelow in Rob Ashford’s production of Carousel at the Lyric Opera in Chicago (April 10–May 3).
How did Carousel come about for you?
I got a phone call saying Rob Ashford was doing Carousel at the Lyric Opera and it’s the 70th anniversary of Carousel and I said, “That’s all I need to know.” It’s a bucket-list role for me, and the show is a masterpiece.
Billy Bigelow is a role on a lot of actors’ bucket lists.
He’s not your stereotypical leading man. There’s something very dark and layered about him, and I’m excited to get into an actor/story-first approach, which is sometimes hard to do with that show because the singing is so demanding. But with this cast, we’re going to be able to explore the grittiest, period-appropriate version of Carousel.
Like you say, it’s a dark show, and Billy is a contested character. How are you approaching it?
My challenge will be creating any sort of empathy for Billy. Also, things are circumstantial. If you’re talking about turn-of-the-century, blue-collar mill town on the coast of Maine, gender relations were so very different than they are now. Relationships like this existed. Abuse is a cycle, and this is a character who doesn’t make a full journey from A to Z. He makes a little journey from A to B, but it’s a step forward in his growth. It’s the very beginning of men in this country self-examining in a way that is valuable. My goal is to make Billy a real person who’s got some judgment about his own behavior.
Have you ever seen Carousel onstage?
I never have, if you can believe it! I know the book. I’m excited to go into it eyes wide open. It’s almost like creating a new show. I don’t have anything in my brain in terms of what it should be so we’ll be able to make it in the room.
Rob Ashford is a great choreographer as well as a director. Will you be doing any dancing in the show?
I plan on doing a large ballet solo in this version of Carousel. [Laughs] No! Of course not. Not unless this were a farce. I probably will be doing very minimal dancing. I can handle some pedestrian movement.
You did dance in your high school production of Fame!
Yeah! I played Tyrone in Fame at a school that was like 35-percent black kids. And all of my black friends from the football team came to the play and were like, “What about the MC Hammer choreography that you made up that you think looks cool but is actually the worst thing any of us have ever seen in our lives?” Anybody who saw that production of Fame would have thought there was zero percent chance that I’d be a professional actor.
You have a wonderful singing voice, but no professional vocal training?
I’m self-taught, yeah. The advantage of that is I learned in my car singing along with my favorite singers—Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway and eventually Anthony Warlow and Mandy Patinkin. I always was a pretty good mimic, so realizing that I had the capacity to sing was one of the great fun surprises of my life.
How do you keep your voice healthy?
I think the key is two hot toddies after the show, not a lot of sleep and overworking yourself to oblivion. I’m very lucky that my cords have been strong up to this point.
You’ve also been teaching real-world skills to actors.
Yes! I taught it this past semester at the NYU grad program. It’s called “The Real Life of Acting,” and it’s a master class that is not process-related in any way. It’s about what it’s actually like to be an actor and to join the ranks of the community of actors who make their living in New York. I spent the spring doing that, and I think the kids found it valuable.
What was the last show you saw onstage?
Hamilton at the Public Theater, and it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s an accomplishment that will change what musicals are forever. That’s how good it is.
If you could only bring three things on a desert island, what would that be?
Oh, man, I would bring three close friends. [Laughs] So we could share the workload, split the coconut cracking and have a party every night.
Is there a role that you would never get cast as but you would really love to play?
I’d be a pretty wicked good Mama Rose. It’s like the Hamlet of musical theatre. Is there a better part anywhere?