An ingenue with a rock edge, Caissie Levy first burst onto the Broadway scene in Hairspray before going green in Wicked, taking it all off in Hair and headlining Ghost in the West End and on Broadway. Now, she’s reuniting with Hair love interest Will Swenson in off-Broadway’s Murder Ballad, the gritty rock musical opening May 23 at the Union Square Theatre. Levy succeeds Karen Olivo, who played city dweller Sara in the original Manhattan Theatre Club production of Murder Ballad in fall 2012 alongside Swenson, John Ellison Conlee and Rebecca Naomi Jones. Broadway.com chatted with Levy about being the new girl in the cast, hanging out in the East Village and getting “wild, messy and adventurous” in the vibrant new musical.
How did you discover Murder Ballad?
I saw it at Manhattan Theatre Club in December, because I wanted to see Will [Swenson]’s new show and support him. I’d seen Rebecca [Naomi Jones] in American Idiot and Karen [Olivo] in West Side Story and John [Ellison Conlee] in The Full Monty nine years ago, so I was just thrilled to see them all in this really cool show. It wasn’t until they were re-casting the role of Sara that I thought it could be a good fit for me. After the first audition, it was like, “You have a week of rehearsal alone, a week with the cast and then we go into tech.” It’s the fastest process I’ve ever had.
That’s intense! Are you holding up OK?
I am, but it’s a bit horrifying [laughs]. My legs are covered in bruises. It looks like I have a skin disease. But it’s the nature of the show, it’s intense not only emotionally but physically—we’re just running all over the set and fighting and screaming and crying. So it comes with the territory.
What hooked you about the character of Sara?
Sara's this girl with a wild, messy, adventurous past, and she finds herself in her early thirties with a great husband and a beautiful child, and all these reasons she should be happy, but she isn’t. She doesn’t feel alive, she’s stuck and depressed. She starts to spiral and behave badly, and I think that’s something everyone can relate to, whether you’ve been the cheater or you’ve been cheated on. It’s a subject matter people can latch onto and see themselves in—but hopefully not with the murder element of the show! [Laughs.]
What’s it like being the new girl in this already tight-knit cast?
I’ve never felt as supported by a company ever before. From day one, the energy was so great, and I think it’s a credit to them knowing what they wanted. Everyone went out of their own way to make me feel wanted and take a stab at things my own way. Not just physically—Karen and I are very different vocally, and we both have a different vibe going on. I think it’s really cool that they weren’t looking for a clone of her type. And Will and I are old friends, so we already have this shorthand in working very closely in a rock-y, sexy way. It’s like putting on an old, cozy sweater.
You’re working in the Union Square Theatre, which is where the cast of Hair rehearsed, right?
Yes, and that’s what’s so wild about it! Will and I walked in the first day, and the whole theater has been renovated—it doesn’t even look like the same theater. But we went downstairs to our dressing rooms and we were like, “Oh my God, remember when we had our first fitting for Hair in here?” Will pulled up a bunch of old photos on his phone and we were talking about how ridiculous we looked. It’s such a joy to work with him again.
Your leading men have incredibly talented wives! Is it strange making out with Will Swenson and John Ellison Conlee with Audra McDonald and Celia Keenan-Bolger sitting in the audience?
It’s so totally weird! [Laughs.] I mean, Audra and Celia are amazing women—they couldn’t be lovelier and they’re genius actresses. But yeah, it feels funny smooching their husbands. They know the drill, and they’ve had to do it themselves many, many times. But we did laugh about it, because what are you gonna do? We’re great friends, so it’s cool. But I definitely didn’t want to know when they were in the audience because it would be a little uncomfortable.
Speaking of spouses, has your husband [David Reiser] come to see you in the show yet?
He saw the second preview. He’s been assisting Andrew Lippa on Big Fish, so he was in Chicago working with the music team out there. He just got back before we started performing, so we have the whole summer to chill.
The Murder Ballad set is a throwback to the gritty, East Village bar scene. Does it bring back memories of going to school in the city?
Absolutely. The set could not be more authentic. It’s a working bar and you can get drinks there before the show. It’s dirty, it’s gritty; nothing’s too polished. It definitely takes me back to my early, crazy years when I would hang out downtown a lot. I used to live in the East Village near the Life Cafe, which sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. I used to go to the Lakeside Lounge—which also doesn’t exist. It’s funny, all the dive bars I used to hang out in have changed into really good restaurants [laughs].
Did you have fun at 54 Below in March? Do you think you’ll do more solo concerts?
I had such a blast and I would love to take my show back there again once things are settled with Murder Ballad. My music director Matt Hinkley and I are working on another concert. Maybe in July or August, we’ll hopefully book a show and do another gig.
First Ghost and now Murder Ballad—both heavy shows. Are you thinking about a fluffy musical comedy next?
I kept saying after Ghost I have to do a comedy because it was so depressing to do every day, and of course, now I’m doing something that wrecks me even more on a nightly basis. So yes, the goal is to do something funny next. During pilot season, I auditioned for a lot of sitcoms, which is so hilarious, since in the theater I get cast in these very serious, pensive, angsty shows.
What’s your dream screen role?
I’m a big fan of strange, awkward comedies, like the British Office. If I ended up working in on a comedy like that, something that wasn’t straightforward, that would be a good fit. But I like everything—as an audience member, I watch a lot of drama. Theater is my home, and it’s what makes sense to my heart 99 percent of the time, so right now I’m just thrilled to be doing theater in New York City.
Catch Caissie Levy in Murder Ballad at the Union Square Theatre.