Aaron Tveit on 'Assassins,' London 'Les Miz' Reunions and Facial Hair
"I didn't even know I could grow a mustache! It's been an eye-opening experience in that way."
Aaron Tveit has been "dying to do" a Stephen Sondheim show, but he never thought that his first one would be Assassins. He especially did not expect to be playing John Wilkes Booth in the cult-favorite musical about the various men and women who have attempted, sometimes successfully, to kill Presidents of the United States over the decades.
"When I was in college listening to the original cast album, in my head, I always sang the Balladeer," says Tveit, calling from London where he is making his U.K. theatrical debut in the production that just opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory. "When the Chocolate Factory asked if I was interested in playing Booth, I was like, 'Oh, wow. Well, yeah!' I've played a lot of younger men, kind of kids, onstage, so I was excited at the chance to actually play more of a man."
Since getting his break on Gossip Girl, Tveit, 31, has turned heads playing golden boys with a dark side. Those have included the troubled Gabe in 2009's Tony-winning musical Next to Normal; seductive con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in the 2011 stage version of Catch Me If You Can (the part originated onscreen by Leonardo DiCaprio); revolutionary leader Enjolras in the 2012 film of Les Miserables; and even clean-cut FBI agent Mike Warren on USA Network's Graceland. So Booth, the possibly misunderstood Shakespeare actor turned Abraham Lincoln shooter, might be right in his wheelhouse.
Read more 'Assassins': London Theater Review
Assassins, which has a book by John Weidman, premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 and was staged at London's Donmar Warehouse, directed by Sam Mendes, in 1992. The show made it to Broadway in 2004, where it won the Tony Award for best musical revival in a production that featured Neil Patrick Harris.
However, Tveit wasn't able to see that revival, and his only relationship to the show was through the cast album. He's relished researching the era during this process, saying history was his favorite subject in school and he's always been fascinated by the Civil War. But looking at the time period from the Confederate side is new territory for him.
"You start to kind of empathize with Booth in a way ,and then you have to step back and say, 'Wait a minute,' " says Tveit. "Yes, he was fighting against these things, but he did a stupid, terrible thing. The lure of the piece and the production is that it makes you think about the other side of history."
And Tveit is getting into the period in other ways as well. "I've never had a proper beard," he says of his newly cultivated facial hair, joking that it's all "hair acting." "I didn't even know I could grow a mustache! It's been an eye-opening experience in that way."
Since Booth was also an actor, Tveit says he can somewhat relate to the character's plight. But he's very careful to qualify the ways in which he identifies with the assassin. Though there is one topic on which both men can agree: reviews. In the song, "The Ballad of Booth," the Balladeer taunts Booth, singing, "Some say you killed a country, John, because of bad reviews."
"You can read 10 great things, and you read that one thing that somebody said, and that's the thing you can't get out of your head," Tveit explains. "So years ago, I made a conscious effort to stop reading them."
It's been three years since Tveit's been onstage, as he's been spending his time filming Graceland (which has been renewed for a third season, though Tveit's future with the series is unclear) and working on various indie film projects, including Stereotypically You, Undrafted and Big Sky.
He's enjoying stretching his stage muscles again — even his dancing ones. "I'm getting to move a lot in the show," says Tveit, explaining that all the actors remain onstage throughout the entire performance in director Jamie Lloyd's stripped-down concept for the show. "There's even a little bit of dancing, which sounds crazy for Assassins, but the fact that my character is an actor and would have been able to move onstage, it actually gives me that freedom."
He finds the London theater community not unlike Broadway, and many of his Les Miz co-stars, like Hadley Fraser, Killian Donnelly, Fra Fee and Alistair Brammer, are West End actors, so Tveit's been catching up with them. However, this time around has not been like being on set.
"We were working six-day weeks and had one day off, and on the one day off, I was just wrecked and needed to just recover," he says. "So this has been a very different experience." He added that he's had more time to explore the city. "There's a sense that there's theater happening all over. A lot of pubs and stuff will have readings and open mics. It just seems to be there's theater in the air here in a great way. I can't explain it."
While Tveit has no idea if Assassins will come to New York, the Chocolate Factory does have a strong track record of Sondheim shows moving to the West End — and in the case of Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, from there to Broadway. And while Tveit's been enjoying London-living, he can't wait to come home.
"There have been moments where I've just been yearning for New York City," he says. "London's a great place to be for a while, but I always say one of the best things about leaving New York is you get to come back."