BWW Interviews: LES MISERABLES’ Jason Forbach Talks His Classical Music Training & Life as Enjolras on the Road
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by Kathy Strain
Jason Forbach has always had music in his heart. As a child, he enjoyed listening to music with his headphones and singing along. As he grew, he knew that music was the passion he wanted to pursue. He studied Opera at the New England Conservatory and thought that was the musical path he would take.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I’m originally from Kansas City. I grew up there. I was more of a music kid. I had done some theatre in high school but I was always split between lots of different interests. I was initially a photography major. I was working in different publications. I was writing, was a pianist, I played in the marching band so I was all over the place. I didn’t know that theatre would be my life’s work even though it was one of my passions. It took me awhile to discover that. I went to school initially as a journalism major with an emphasis in photography, then I got two music degrees. I got my Bachelor’s in Voice from the University of Missouri in Colombia then I received my Master’s in Boston at New England Conservatory. Even then I thought maybe I would go down an opera career path. It wasn’t until about a year and a half after grad school that I decided to scrap everything and start from square one and see what a world in musical theatre would be like. I left grad school in 2003. As soon as I left grad school I started working at the Boston Lyric Opera. I did a summer program with the Central City Opera as one of their apprentice artists. After having those professional experiences after school, I realized that I didn’t feel like it was a hundred percent of a right fit. On a whim in the fall of 2004, I decided to move to New York. It was spring of 2005 when I really thought, “Why don’t I try this?” I didn’t know how to put a resume together or get the right headshots. I had to learn really quickly what songs to sing at auditions and how to make a 16 bar cut. At that age, most young people had been to the city right out of undergrad and had tried and given up or had already become successful. I felt like I was getting a later start than most that were trained for this specifically. It taught me that there’s no appropriate timeline. You can decide for yourself. If you really want to do something, you can do it at any age, at any time and it will all still be there for you.
What was your first big break?
My first big break was an off-Broadway play. It was by happenstance. I had dinner with a friend of mine with whom I had sung with at Boston Air Opera. He introduced me to someone who was looking for young people that could sing opera for this play which had this weird opera in the middle of it. I told him I wasn’t doing opera anymore that I was trying to do theatre. He thought I was perfect for it and told me I should go in. It was New Group and I was just learning how prestigious of a theatre company that was in New York. It was written by Wallace Shawn who is so much a part of the New York theatre elite. It was co-written with his brother. It was a very big project and it was very avant-garde. The reception was mixed but it got me my Equity Card and it got me into the theatre. I met so many amazing people. One night Mike Nichols would be in the house the next night it would be Lou Reed. It was always an interesting theatre crowd. We did the cast recording. Through that show I met my agent whom I have been with ever since. Ever since that experience, it has been a magical pairing. I always think that was the thing that changed my life. It was this kind of quirky strange play that people loved or hated. It was a really fun wonderful experience.
How did you end up in LES MISÉRABLES?
I worked a little bit after "The Music Teacher" and then the next big moment for me was Phantom. I was out of New York for 3 years doing "Phantom of the Opera" in Las Vegas. I consider that my second grad school. I learned more about theatre. I recorded my first full length album. I got a sense of the concert world and I gleaned everything from that experience. Then I felt like it was time to go back to New York. I felt like it was right. I moved back Valentine’s Day of 2010. It was just a couple of months later when I first starting hearing about this new LES MISÉRABLES. I knew I wanted to go for it wholeheartedly so I started the whole audition process. It was the most rigorous audition process I have ever experienced in my life. I went in about 5 times, did big group improvisational sessions. It was a work out. I received a stack of music for about 5 different characters, all the ensemble music. It was an ordeal. I knew that everyone that was in it and kept advancing to the next round and the next round. We had put the work in. I was lucky to find out about it almost immediately after coming back into the city. It wasn’t to rehearse until October of that year. I had like 6 months in New York to reconnect with friends and get re-established in New York. I went back to Vegas to do a stint as Reyer then came back and started Les Mis rehearsals that fall.
You have been with them since they started?
Yes, I am one of the few remaining original cast members. We’ve had a lot of cast members leave and come back. We’ve seen a lot of people go and move onto other projects, other life goals. There are a few of us but we’re a tight knit bunch. We’re really a family at this point.
You did not start out as Enjolras, right?
No, I started off as Feu and was understudying Enjolras and had gone on for the role almost immediately. The Enjolras at the time, when we were doing our out of Manhattan tryout at the Papermill Playhouse had gotten sick early on before we had all been properly put into the show. There was a moment at Papermill where I had to be thrown on. There were some frantic rehearsals with our production stage managers right before. I went on almost immediately and I’ve had it in my blood ever since that. I recently took over the role, April of this year.
Did you have to leave the tour to rehearse the part of Enjolras or did you just slip right into it?
I just slipped right into it. I had a few rehearsals with the creatives and there was a kind of massive change over with a lot of our principals at that time. They wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a copy and paste that we were allowed our input and our own energy to inform these characters. They wanted it to be new. They were very kind with me in allowing me to develop and create my own outlook on this character. But, I basically went into it the next day. It felt like for a week or two that Jeremy (Hayes) was just on vacation. Then I had to slowly process that this was my life now. It feels like it’s part of me. It feels good.
In what ways do you feel you’re like Enjolras and it what ways are you different?
It’s an interesting push and pull I have with him as a character because he has such a singular passionate vision and it’s so fervent. In trying to find what that feeling is like, I have to liken that passion to my passion for music and what that means to me. I inform it with a lot of the passion that I have towards my friendships and relationships in my own life. It took me awhile to find that courage and that intensity and that singular vision. But I think more we are very far apart from one another. I’m not one to dominate a room and lead a crowd of people. I’m definitely one to fall back into the texture of the crowd. I’ve never been asked to embody what it is to be a charismatic leader. I’ve always been one to be a little more soft spoken, a little bit more shy when I’m first meeting people. Enjolras is someone who takes the room and takes charge and is charismatic to the point where even someone who doesn’t see the vision that he sees will follow him and believe what he believes. That was a huge undertaking for me to try to understand that way of being. It couldn’t be more polar opposite for me. But, even though we have these personalities that are opposites, I feel like this role fits. It feels good to put on this role.
What’s the best part about touring?
The best part about touring for me is discovering the country. We have some amazing opportunities to perform for people all over the country. It gives us time to get to know the people and the neighborhoods and the culture and the shops and the restaurants. I feel like I know the U.S. incredibly well. I don’t think I would have ever have had this opportunity had I not been on tour.
What’s the worst part?
I have this longing to be in the same place and be in my house for a couple of months. You lose that sense of home after a while. It can be tough. You make that home on the road with the people you’re with. It gets hard. You just want to sit on your couch and sleep in your bed and know that your DVR has your shows.
Let’s talk about some of the music you have been doing over the last few years. What inspired you to want to create your CDs, A New Leading Man and your Christmas CD?
I became friends with an inspirational singer in Las Vegas. He was a dear friend of mine and he had made records before. He took me under his wing and taught me how he did it. He introduced me to great jazz musicians that have been in Las Vegas throughout the decades. He had worked with some of the greats. I’ve been a music freak my whole life. I listened to albums. I have had headphones connected to my ears since I was a little, little baby. I’m obsessed with all types of music. So when the opportunity presented itself I jumped for it. It was mostly a project for me to delve into music and express myself. It was also an opportunity to show people that I wasn’t just an opera trained singer that I had other qualities to my voice. I had other styles in me that I needed to express. So when I called the album, A New Leading Man, I wanted to show the theatre audience that I am new to the theatre community and this is the voice that I have to offer. These are all the different styles that I can sing in. I also wanted to sing literature that featured new leading men. There was an article in the New York Times that the idea of a leading man in a musical theatre is less of your gallant hero. He’s a flawed human being, he’s your everyman. I wanted to find songs that showcased that type of character.
Will you be making more CDs?
Yes, actually, being in the recording studio is one of my favorite things to do. I really got the bug. I’m in the planning stages of another full length album which we’ll record this fall. It’s going to be on a bigger scale. There’s going to be full string arrangements. It’s going to be chronologically, a study of golden age musical theatre. I will take a cue back to my classical music training and show a true tenor/baritone voice. There will be music from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma marking the beginning of the golden era up until the early 60s. It’s going to be more classically minded. It’s going to be lusher. It’s going to be the opposite end from my first album which was completely modern.
Do you want to explore other kinds of music?
I don’t know. That’s where my artistic brain is right now because I have embraced the notion that instead of disregarding my opera training, as I’m getting older and the roles that I’ve been doing, my classical training has only served me to do things such as Phantom and Les Mis. I’m realizing that true crossover artists in the opera/musical theatre world is a rare breed nowadays so I’m embracing it instead of fighting it. I’m finding that there are very few of us out there so I’m excited to really delve into this kind of music and delve more into the concert world. The music doesn’t get any better than those classic songs. They truly stand the test of time. When you hear them against a full orchestra, it makes your heart melt and communicates to so many different types of people. I’m finding joy in that.
Tell us about some of the benefits you have done in the past.
When I was in Las Vegas, the Phantom Company worked a lot with an organization called A Family Promise. They helped facilitate families that have found themselves without jobs, without homes. They house them and inform them to become capable of getting jobs, getting back on their feet, off the streets and into homes and steady jobs. It’s a very interesting organization and I did a lot of work with them in Las Vegas. I’ve done a lot of benefits for Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids and then some work with the Trevor Project. I find it really rewarding because as actors our lives are never stable and our careers are never sure. When we are busy and working and pursuing the life we always dreamed of, we have the opportunity to give back in song and music that benefits someone or raises their spirits and raises awareness for an organization; it just seems to be a perfect fit.
Tell us about the upcoming event in San Francisco.
It is predominately the cast of LES MISÉRABLES. It’s going to be a lot of classic musical theatre and it’s going to be on a bigger scale than we have done in the past. It benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and a local AIDS charity organization (The Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation). It should be a great event. It’s being helmed by some of our cast members and it promises to be our biggest event yet. I’m going to be doing something from "West Side Story" and a men’s trio of Anthem from "Chess." There should be some great numbers going on.
What do you see yourself doing in 5 years? 10 years?
In 5 years I hope to have more of a presence in the concert world. I hoped to have performed on Broadway. I hope to have another album or 2. I hope to be able to continue doing what I’m doing; working on these great pieces of theatre. I’ve been lucky in my career to be in hugely successful shows and I definitely do not take that for granted.
In 10 years more of the same. I hope to have established myself as a Broadway performer and can originate roles and new shows on Broadway and be a part of the great projects that are being created. That is my life goal and dream.
Have you ever thought about what you would have become if you had not been a performer?
I’m fascinated by all forms of creative expression. I initially thought I was going to be a photographer but I love all elements of design whether it is fashion, or interiors or graphic design, I’m always doing that kind of thing on my own. Even on the road, if I’m painting or writing; to have a creative outlet, I find it so gratifying and cathartic. So, something along those lines.
What advice do you have for anyone who is thinking about going into the business?
The only advice that I could give in relation to what my path has been; if it is truly, truly your passion and you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else, you must do it. No matter your age or your training or your background. If you are truly passionate enough about it, you will learn all you need to learn and meet all the people you need to meet. If you go to New York when you’re in your 50s or 60s and decide to start this career now, I feel like there’s no timeline to success.
Photo credit: Leo Lam