This summer, Broadway audiences have been swooning over the latest TV star to make the leap onto the stage. Former Chuck headliner Zachary Levi is earning raves for his performance as a newbie blind dater (who gets set up with Krysta Rodriguez) in the new Broadway musical comedy First Date. There's a lot to love about Levi, who sat down with Broadway.com to chat about his surprising history in musical theater, his tenure in Disney's Tangled and his Huckleberry Finn dreams.
Broadway has long been on your mind. When did you first experience it?
I was probably 17 when I saw Annie Get Your Gun. That was the first time I had come to New York with my parents. As a kid, you hear about Broadway. If you live on the east coast, you have a good chance of going to see a Broadway show, but not if you grow up in Southern California. The closest I ever got was when my grandma brought me and my older sister to see Cats at the Pantages, but I was so young that I didn’t really remember the experience, per se. I remember liking it a lot, because there were people prancing around as cats. As a kid, you’re like, “That’s weird!”
Did seeing live shows inspire you to do theater?
I did a lot of theater because I loved doing theater. Not because of anything that I had necessarily seen, but as much as one can be fated or created to do something, I believed that that was my fate. Other kids were great at baseball or basketball or football; some kids were super brainiacs and understood calculus at 10 years old. I just loved entertaining people.
Take us back to your first time on stage.
When I was six, we did church summer camp skits and plays, which is when I first started memorizing lines and being on a stage. I remember I was so nervous that I puked before one of the shows and my mom had to bribe me onto the stage by promising she’d buy me a Nintendo game. I guess I have Nintendo to thank for my career.
When did you figure out you could sing?
I’m still figuring that out! I love singing and I’ve always loved singing. You only know you can do something based on people’s reactions to what you’re doing. I mean, I can think I’m a great chef, but if nobody hires me to cook their food, then I’m probably not a good chef.
You just recorded the cast album for First Date. That’s good validation, right?
I have yet to hear the put-together cast album, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m super stoked that we got to do it, because I know it doesn’t always happen, and especially out of the gate like this. We recorded it after our opening weekend, so it’s pretty fresh.
Your big singing debut was in the Disney movie Tangled. How do you feel about hearing those songs now?
I have a lot of friends with kids, so Pixar and Disney movies would constantly be put on, and Tangled was a favorite, so I’ve heard it many times. It’s awkward! Eventually I had to give in to it, because people really love the movie, and I do as well—I think it’s an excellent movie.
How about re-watching your other stuff?
[Laughs.] I often apologize for Alvin and the Chipmunks—which, by the way, is a good movie and the kids really love—but it’s one of those movies where the rewatchability is tough for adults, particularly because of the high-pitched voices. But with Tangled, adults come to me and say, “You haunt me. I’ve heard your voice three times a day because my kids won’t stop watching Tangled.” I never feel like I have to apologize for it because although they kind of rib me for it, they actually like the movie, too.
Your Chuck co-star Yvonne Strahovski made her Broadway debut last season. Did she give you any advice?
No! I love Yvonne and I wish I could have seen her in Golden Boy. I was in London the whole time she was doing it, but everyone said she was fantastic. I’m trying to get her to do another show, because I’m planning on being here for a while. I want to stay in New York. I want to do more Broadway, if I can. I’d like to experience different things—a musical, a comedy, a drama—and I just love the city so much.
How has the Broadway experience compared to your expectations of it?
So much of what I'm experiencing, like freaking out about not losing my voice, is specific to being in a musical. I’m definitely dealing with my own insecurities as far as being the newbie, but I’m also feeling surprisingly comfortable because I did so much theater growing up. Theater is still theater, you’re just doing it on the highest level and with big houses.
You seem to be genuinely enjoying the stage door, which isn’t every actor’s cup of tea.
The fact that I do stage door the way I do doesn’t mean other people do it wrong, because I’m a ham and I enjoy interacting with people. If our show was three hours and intense and draining, I don’t know that I’d be able to do what I’m doing now. The reality is, I have an hour-and-a-half show with no intermission. If I weren’t at the stage door, I might be doing the actual show, as opposed to shaking some hands and kissing some babies. And if I’m ever going to have a future in politics, I’ve got to start now.
That’s a very humble perspective.
It’s all community theater at the end of the day. You have to stay connected to your fan base and appreciate the people that are spending their hard-earned money to come and see you. And I get a lot out of it. I think that maybe more than anything, if I’m created to do something in this world, it’s to make people happy. And if that can make people happy, then it’s a fun thing to be able to do.
Broadway fans might be surprised to know that you landed the role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein, but had to pass when Chuck got picked up.
I’m really glad I had no say in it, because at one point, I honestly had no idea what to do. I had booked the pilot for Chuck but we hadn’t shot it yet, so my agent said, “While we’re waiting, Mel Brooks is doing Young Frankenstein on Broadway. You wanna go audition?” My only goal was, don’t suck. Never did I think I would get that job, and I’m assuming that a fair amount of people were like, “Who is this schmuck Mel Brooks wanted to play the lead in this musical?" But the decision was made for me because the Chuck pilot was in first position. I hope I get to work for Mel and Susan [Stroman] one day. There was so much talent in that cast, but it wasn’t my fate.
So you want to do more Broadway. Any dream roles?
I wish I was young enough to play Huck in Big River. I would love to do a role where I get to break the fourth wall a lot. I remember seeing The Boy From Oz and how engaging and charming Hugh Jackman was. I loved playing Jesus in Godspell. I believe wholeheartedly that the little production we did in Ojai at Libbey Bowl could translate to a Broadway stage. The problem is that the shows I would love to do—like Bye Bye Birdie or Godspell—have recently been revived. But who knows?
Fans love you for being the voice of geeks everywhere. Would you ever produce your own geeky musical?
I’ve got all sorts of crazy ideas for the stage. Especially if I can simultaneously breathe some new, fun energy into it. I’m appreciative that I’ve been embraced the way I have by Broadway, but I hear people talk about how it’s tough trying to get younger audiences excited about going to the theater. I would love to make something where the cool thing is to go to a Broadway show!
Have you advised other actor friends of yours to come to the stage?
A lot of kids—aspiring actors—come up to me and ask for one bit of advice, and I always say theater. Always, always, always. I think a lot of young actors want to skip to the riches and fame and fortune of TV and movies, but you don’t ever learn how to build a character like you do in theater. There are so many safety nets and so many tricks in filmmaking that you don’t learn the craft. This is where the craft is, and that’s why I’ve missed it so much.
So suffice it to say, you’ve found a home on Broadway.
I feel like all actors should. Because there’s nothing like it, and it’s amazing. And especially when you have a show like First Date, which is such a blessing because there’s a lot of laughs in it. Making a thousand people laugh every night? It’s the greatest drug in the world.
See Zachary Levi in First Date at the Longacre Theatre.