EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Evan Todd, 'Kurt' in 'Heathers: The Musical'
Heathers: The Musical, based on the 1989 cult movie with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater and written by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe, opened recently Off Broadway at New World Stages. We had a chance to talk at length to Evan Todd, who plays Kurt, one of the two jock/bullies, about the role, the show, his background, and his non-profit work.
Classicalite: Let's get this out of the way first, since I'll bet just about everyone wonders: What's it like being on stage in nothing but your underpants for most of the show? And do you have to get special underpants that stay on more securely than the average Fruit of the Looms?
Evan Todd: At first, it was really daunting. But after rehearsing a bit in front of the cast and creative team, then in front of a small audience in LA, you just start to care less. It's actually easier in the bigger house at New World Stages because you can't really see the audience with the lights in your face. Oh, and I'm wearing a dance belt to keep things – ya know, discrete. And after stretching out a few pair, I asked them to put elastic around the leg holes to keep them from becoming baggy (never a good look).
CL: You played Kurt in the L.A. production prior to New World Stages in New York. How did you land the role?
ET: It was a crazy time. When my agents first told me about the audition, I was in South Africa running a non-profit summer program I started while I was at Juilliard. There was no way for me to get to LA so I sadly had to pass.
A week later they were still looking for people but by that time I was in Florida running a similar arts program in my hometown. Luckily, they were able to see me on their last day of casting.
I was originally going in for the part of JD. The night before, I was terrified. I didn't feel like I had any music in my book that was "right" so I just said, screw it, I'm going to sing two songs that I like and that I sing well. It paid off. Later that night the casting director called me to say I had a callback for JD but that they might ask me to read two funny jock parts.
After I sang a few bars, they asked me for a different song. I ended up having to wing it and sing something from a Book of Mormon audition I had over a year earlier. Apparently adrenalin helps with high notes. I read for JD before they asked me if I could do one of the jock sides. I did, and it felt so great that I went out on a limb. Just before I left the room I asked if I could read for the other jock as well. It worked and I had another chance to show them a different character and keep them laughing. It's the only audition I have ever been on where I genuinely had a fun time.
The final callback was a day-long marathon. When they finally paired Jon Eidson ("Ram") and I together things just clicked. My manager asked me how the audition was going and if there was any "competition." I remember telling him "I'm not sure about competition, but there is this guy Jon who they put me with and I really hope we both get it. He'd be a blast to work with." It must have shown in the audition because it worked out for both of us.
CL: Is the show as much fun to perform as it is to watch?
ET: It's so much fun and a lot of that has to do with getting to work so closely with Jon Eidson, who plays Ram. Every night we manage to find something new that cracks us up onstage – sometimes too much.
CL: When and where did you start acting, singing and dancing?
ET: I'm originally from Kissimmee, Florida. I was a gymnast when I was a kid and always loved the performance element to that. I quit just before middle school and that was when I discovered theatre and my still-to-this-day-mentor Mrs. Cochran. Her name is Nina Cochran but it feels weird using her first name. I loved acting but was terrified to sing. When I was in 8th grade Mrs. Cochran cast me as Bill Sykes (I was a big guy for my age) in Oliver and I had to face my fears and sing a solo. My mom still says it's the best thing she's seen me do – thanks, Mom?
I've never really had any formal dance training. I was a gymnast, so I've always been pretty in touch with my body and I had a lot of wonderful movement, voice, speech, and singing training at Juilliard.
CL: Tell us about a couple of your favorite, least-favorite, or otherwise notable stage experiences or roles prior to Heathers: The Musical.
ET: My favorite professional experience prior to Heathers was playing Aaron Feldman in The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren. It's a brilliant three-person play and I loved everything about the production.
One of the funnest days I've had on a set was when all of the Heathers guys were asked to be in the director's (Andy Fickman's) Disney Chanel show Liv and Maddie. Let's just say I was literally dressed as a giant piece of cake and I've never felt more at home.
CL: Kurt and Ram are classic jock-bully types. What "type" were you in high school?
ET: I was as far from a jock as you could get in high school. I'm not sure what "type" I was. I had great friends, but I think I was "that guy who's obnoxious because he does way too much." If there was a "President of ______" I wanted to be it. Plus I had good-student syndrome. Now I wish I had broken more rules – which is probably why I like playing Kurt so much.
CL: Were you even alive when the movie Heathers came out? Had you seen it prior to getting this role?
ET: Kind of. I was in my Mom's belly in 1988 and was a month old when the film was released on March 31, 1989. I'm embarrassed to say I had never seen the film. It's interesting that it's actually become one of those cult classics that all of the "cool" kids know. When I first read the sides I had no idea what was happening – Big Blue? Murder? Chainsaws? My managers told me to watch the movie and I instantly understood why they would want to turn it into a musical.
CL: How much, if any, did Lance Fenton's portrayal of Kurt in the movie influence your embodiment of this classic cult-film character? Or is this far too serious or pretentious a question for a show called Heathers: The Musical?
ET: The creative team was very clear, from as early as the audition, that they didn't want copies of the movie characters. I never felt any pressure to use what Lance Fenton did in the film. You never see Kurt without Ram, so I feel like most of Kurt was created by responding to what Jon Eidson (Ram) was doing.
CL: Where did you grow up, and what are your impressions of NYC?
ET: I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida and then finished my senior year of high school at the North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. Including college, I've spent about five and a half years in NYC. It's ironic that I had to move all the way to LA to book an Off-Broadway musical. I loved NYC when I was a student and I love it now that I'm working on a show, but I'll be flying back to LA as soon as I'm auditioning again. The pace and energy of New York City either energizes you or it drains you. It took me a while to admit to myself that it is not a place that I want to live when I'm in starving-artist mode.
CL: Tell us about your non-profits, stART and artsINSIDEOUT.
ET: stART and artsINSIDEOUT are both non-profit arts-based outreach and empowerment summer programs that I started when I was a student at Juilliard. I didn't think that I would end up at a conservatory and I always knew I wanted to be involved in the non-profit world. When I went to Juilliard I never imagined that I would actually find a way to blend two worlds I had always been so passionate about: theatre and outreach.
stART was the first program I began, co-founded by myself and Mrs. Cochran. Each year we bring down Juilliard musicians, dancers, and actors to work with over 160 middle and high school students in my hometown, Kissimmee, FL. artsINSIDEOUT is a similar program, co-founded by myself and Dick Scanlan, that brings a team of professional artists from the U.S. and South Africa to Johannesburg to work with children affected by HIV/AIDS. In both programs students take classes in their given major and develop an original performance which is premiered at the end of the two-week arts intensive. Check us out at artsINSIDEOUT and stART.
I also build custom reclaimed/industrial furniture as a side job. It started off as something I wanted to learn for myself because I couldn't afford the furniture I wanted, but people liked what I was doing and it has grown into a full-on business.
CL: For those yet to be initiated: What should people expect when they come to see Heathers: The Musical?
ET: An unapologetically fun time with touching, witty, beautiful music. Everything they would want from a Heathers musical, but with even more heart.
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