BWW Interviews: James Snyder in Goodspeed's CAROUSEL
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by Joseph F. Panarello
There's a moment in the current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House where James Snyder steps onto the dock which is constructed over the orchestra pit to deliver Billy Bigelow's famous "Soliloquy" that absolutely electrifies the audience. Snyder's strong stage presence and powerful singing voice had enraptured the crowd for most of the first act. Now he was virtually in their laps singing of his character's concerns regarding impeding fatherhood. The moment has them sharing his outpouring of emotion.
As Snyder sang the final notes of the seven minute number, the audience burst into enraptured applause and shouts of "bravo" could be heard throughout the quaint house. The cheering continued while Snyder stood on the dock holding his position and savoring his well-deserved ovation. Ted Chapin, President and Executive Director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Estate caught a rehearsal of this production and later told Snyder that he was "caught up in the emotion" that Snyder put into the number; especially the end. He said, "I've never seen an emotional Billy Bigelow like that." He's right. In Snyder's hands, the role and the "Soliloquy" are extremely emotional. As far as the singing; Snyder is quick to credit his voice teacher,Edward Sayegh, for helping him to discover the legitimate baritone that was hiding under a rock tenor.
After the performance, it was a pleasure to have dinner with the young actor at the nearby Gelston House. Several diners came up to him to compliment him on his performance and he remained gracious even when one woman expressed her unjustified displeasure with several aspects of the production, claiming that she knows what she's talking about because her son dances with one of the country's most prestigious ballet companies. It was as though that accomplishment gave her the credentials to critique everything she sees on any stage. Snyder charmingly smiles and exchanges pleasantries with the lady but it's obvious that her comments bother him. He even brings it up during the meal. "Really, how can she say something like that? It was so unfounded." It was. Still, Snyder showed great class in dealing with the situation. "Grace," he said. "You always have to handle these things with grace."
James Snyder is used to unjust criticism. He made his Broadway debut in the musical CRY-BABY that received a critical drubbing and ran a scant four months, including previews. It had been well received at La Jolla, but those audiences are different from the New York crowds. It wasn't just the professional critics who were unkind to the show but the messages about it on the internet were absolutely vile. "We found out that opposing producers were paying people to post negative comments about the show while we were still in previews." The more savvy frequenter of Broadway websites noticed that many of the negative tirades about CRY-BABY came from people who had joined the sites on the very day they posted their arrant displeasure with the show. Their screen names seemed to fade into oblivion once CRY-BABY closed.
It was during rehearsals for the Encores! production of Harold Rome's FANNY that Snyder first spoke to Broadway World. His performance in that production garnered him some stellar reviews, with Charles Isherwood of the New York Times saying that he "possessed a gorgeous singing voice" and Andy Propst of Theatermania saying "James Snyder delivers a powerhouse performance" –just to mention a few. As Marius, Snyder delivered vocally impressive renditions of "Restless Heart" and the ever-beguiling title song. As an actor, he created a character who was romantically brooding and audiences loved him. Looking back on FANNY, Snyder says, "It was such a big experience. To be able to stand in front of an orchestra like that and be swept up in the size of the story, to work with people like George Hearn, to get to sing from the depths of my newly found legit voice, it all reminded me of why I love musical theater." One can only hope that some day a complete studio recording of the score becomes available because the 1954 original cast album was severely truncated to fit on to the black vinyl discs that were used at that time. It would be even nicer if Snyder was able to reprise his role in such a project.
Since FANNY, Snyder has done several television appearances and has sung quite a bit in LA, where he was born and now lives. Among the guest spots that Snyder has done was on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation", where he shared the screen with the comic Carrot Top; a man Snyder says was "awesome to work with."
Now, though, he's in one of the most picturesque parts of Connecticut and performing in a musical that absolutely reeks of New England.
When Ted Chapin came to visit this CAROUSEL, he was impressed with the production's intimacy. The Goodspeed Opera House is a tiny jewel box of a theater and makes for an enormous amount of charm. However, such small space results in special problems for the actors and the stage crew. The opening prologue, better known as "The Carousel Waltz", dips a bit into the acclaimed Lincoln Center revival of the show in 1994 and then goes off to create its own splendid take on the material. The stage is filled with carousel horses, projections, set pieces, costumed actors and lighting effects swirling to one of Richard Rodgers' signature tunes. The effect is stunning. To the audience, it is a gorgeous piece of choreography but backstage, it's another matter completely. Space is at a premium and Snyder explains, "You have to know where to stand, what's around the corner, and exactly when to come out otherwise there could be real problems."
The role of Billy Bigelow presents genuine challenges for an actor. At one point Bigelow slaps his wife, Julie, and is referred to as a "wife beater" several times in the script. Singer John Davidson performed the role numerous times in various productions across the nation and is very critical of his own performances in the show. "You have to believe that Billy Bigelow beats his wife," commented Davidson in a recent Broadway World interview. "I wasn't 'bad' enough to be Billy Bigelow. I'm not rogue enough. Nor is John Raitt. I never believed that he would hit his wife. Or Gordon MacRae. Billy Bigelow is like an Al Pacino. Finally, they're doing CAROUSEL as 'dark', as I think it should be done." The Goodspeed production hits the proper balance between 'dark' and 'romantic' and much of that stems from Snyder's remarkable performance. He's as charming as can be as he courts Julie Jordan, yet there's a sinister streak in him that makes his character capable of spousal abuse. A newlywed in real life, Snyder takes a minute to ponder when asked to comment on this.
"I don't think it's a question of being dark," Snyder says. "I think it's a question of being broken. 'Playing dark' is missing the chance to be human. I came into this process worried that I was not going to be heavy enough, but at the core of this story are two people who never learned how to love, how to show love, or how to accept love." It should be noted that the famous love duet in CAROUSEL is titled "If I Loved You". Neither Billy nor Julie can speak of love because it's something neither of them has experienced at that point in the plot, it's all an "if".
"Billy is out of work not being able to do what he was born to do," the young actor goes on to say. "Most of all, he hates himself for not working but blames everyone around him. I'm an actor and I think some of us who are drawn to this work know what it is to desperately want to be loved and validated: to be good at something and not be able to do it; to come in second on countless projects; or told that you were the first choice but the part went to that guy who had that TV show in the 90's. Ouch! If that doesn't make you want to hit someone . . . kidding."
Snyder continues: "When you find that emptiness--that self-hatred, that child crying out to be heard--crying out to be loved and understood, then you can see where Billy comes from. Then you can see where so many of us come from. He wants to be 'good enough' and lashes out at anything that could hurt him, most of all the people closest to him. I guess one could call it 'dark', but when broken down, Billy is a very scared person who was taught that hitting is how things were dealt with. I don't know if he finds forgiveness for himself in the end, I don't think he cares what happens to him, the redemption isn't for him, it's to free his wife who, to quote Richard Rodgers, 'was the one person who saw the poet in him,' and most importantly for his daughter, because he had to end the cycle that he was a part of--the Carousel. The Starkeeper says 'Try not to be scared o' people not likin' you-just you try likin' them' and he's right, but the courage it takes to like oneself is where that starts, and sometimes that's the hardest to find. I wish I could love me the way my wife loves me, I think Billy feels that too."
The thought and research that Snyder has put into the role show in what the audience gets to relish on stage. In fact, everything in this production of CAROUSEL is well-thought out and meticulously realized. The direction and choreography by Rob Ruggiero and Parker Esse, respectively, are spot-on. Michael Schweikardt's sets and Alejo Vietti's costumes are not only attractive, but fit the period perfectly and John Lasiter's lighting creates beautiful moods which reflect the emotions playing out on the stage. There's little wonder that people on theater message boards are already inquiring if this production "has legs" and may come to Broadway after its summer run in Connecticut. Such a move would be marvelous for New York audiences who would be able to rediscover CAROUSEL and to savor Snyder's brilliant take on the role of Billy Bigelow. However, at this point, it's nothing but conjecture.
While walking back to the theater after dinner, Snyder is asked what he has lined up after CAROUSEL finishes its run at Goodspeed. He indicated that there was nothing definite in his immediate future, but he was ready "to rock the rafters." With his powerful and nuanced voice, that's surely possible. One thing is certain about James Snyder, though: whatever he does will be accomplished with enormous charm and great amounts of grace. Without a doubt, the guy is a bone fide class act and a performer who deserves his place in musical theater.
For more information about CAROUSEL or to purchase tickets, go to http://goodspeed.org/