Try as you might, there’s no typecasting Will Swenson. Since his Broadway debut in Brooklyn, he’s played an eclectic collection of roles, from a vampire in Lestat to a hippie in Hair to a drag diva in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Off-Broadway, he originated the role of badass Arsenal frontman Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages and stalkery bartender Tom in Murder Ballad. Now, he’s playing motivational speaker and patriarch Richard in the off-Broadway musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine, opening November 14 at Second Stage. But wait, there’s more—Swenson will take on legendary Broadway baddie Javert in the new revival of Les Miserables this spring. Not to mention his happiest role: husband of Audra McDonald and dad to their "wee posse of three." Broadway.com chatted with Swenson about his forthcoming turn as a mean, mean police inspector in Les Miz and jumping (literally) into Little Miss Sunshine, even though it meant giving up his sweet transvestite dream role.
Will Chase was originally slated to star in Little Miss Sunshine—how did you get the role?
It was incredibly last minute. Will got an offer for Nashville the day Little Miss Sunshine was going to start rehearsals. I was at a picnic with my boys on Labor Day and I got a call saying, “Would you be interested in going in for the role?” I was thrilled because I absolutely loved the movie. Then they said, “It’s tomorrow morning, and you’ve got to start immediately.” I came in and sang one of my own songs and read a couple of scenes from the show, and half an hour later they called and said, “Can you start today?” [Laughs.]
Was that unnerving?
Murder Ballad had closed early, so I was just an out-of-work actor who was happy to have a job. I was glad to find out that the majority of the cast hadn’t been involved in any previous incarnations, so I wasn’t necessarily behind anybody else in the progression of learning it. I didn’t feel terribly like the new kid, as much as I could have under other circumstances.
We’re sad, however, that it meant you wouldn’t be playing Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show at Bucks County Playhouse.
Me too! I usually like to do new stuff, but there are a few roles on my radar that I’d like to do. Frank-N-Furter’s on there and Javert’s on there. So I was gonna be doing two of those in the same year, and I was sad to let that one go.
What is it like building a relationship with your Little Miss Sunshine family?
It’s been great, and I attribute that to [director/book writer] James Lapine. He kept the rehearsal room very light and fun. Every day when we’d come in, instead of just getting to work, we’d sit around, and he’d go, “So what’d you do last night, Will? How was your night, Stephanie, what about you, Hannah?” We would all just get to know each other, eat snacks and get silly on our breaks.
In this production, the bus is created with chairs on wheels—have you rolled into the audience yet? Any mishaps?
Nobody’s flown off the stage yet, and we created a little lip at the edge that is supposed to stop us—but we’re not sure if it might actually just propel us into the audience. The chairs are tricky to work with! Sometimes a wheel will turn wrong and somebody's taken a little spill a couple of times during the show, but for the most part things have gone well.
In Little Miss Sunshine, Richard is a motivational speaker—what keeps you motivated during tech and previews?
Whiskey, I wanna say? [Laughs.] No. It’s my kids. They keep things in perspective and make me remember that I am not the culmination of my acting parts, I’m their dad. Also, the idea of creating something new is a huge motivation. I love doing something that has never been seen before, creating new shows. You feel much less like a puppet, ‘cause you’re actually creating something, you’re not just trying to fit into a mold that a previous actor has created.
What if Little Miss Sunshine comes to Broadway while you’re doing Les Miserables? Who would you cast as Richard?
I will not put any energy out there as far as replacing me in Little Miss Sunshine [laughs]. That would send the wrong message to the universe! Every off-Broadway show I’ve ever done has had rumblings of going to Broadway, and sometimes they go and sometimes they don’t. I think this one has so much potential to play to an audience on Broadway for a long time. So I’m just saying a prayer to the theater gods that it goes next year instead of this season, so I can have my cake and eat it too.
Javert is a really scary guy. Are you prepared to get that mean?
Ooh, heck yeah! I’m ready to dive into Javert. The challenge of a role that’s been performed for almost 30 years is that people have an expectation of what this character should be, and the challenge is to bring something new to it. I had a religious upbringing and, without naming names, I’ve got a couple of people in mind who thought they were very, very righteous people who were real jerks. With those folks as my template, I think I’ve got a new angle on where to start with this character.
Do you and [fellow Hair and Murder Ballad alum] Caissie Levy [who'll play Fantine in Les Miz] have a contract clause about co-starring in shows? It’s starting to get crazy.
It’s getting to that, isn’t it? [Laughs.] We joked about it when we found out that we both got these parts. We were like, “So, I guess it’s just in our rider.” I wouldn’t mind that; Caissie’s one of the most talented girls I’ve ever worked with, and on top of it she’s just a great, great girl. We must be compatible on a certain level. Third time’s the charm.
We sang at one of the auditions to make sure that we sounded good together, and he’s an amazing guy. Oh my gosh, his voice is basically what I would aspire to, in my wildest dreams, to sound like Ramin! He’s a dad, like me—he’s got two boys, as well—so we’ve got a ton in common, and I really look forward to being onstage with him.
Audra has hinted about coming back to Broadway. Do you guys try to alternate for the kids? How does that work?
Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we had that much power to control shows? [Laughs.] Well, she might! I certainly don’t. We may have shows that line up soon, but there’s too many factors to try to plan anything specifically. When she was doing Porgy and Bess and I was doing Priscilla, we made that work. It was tricky, but it was incredibly fun to finish my show and walk across Times Square and she’d be finishing up signing autographs and we’d go home. It was like a neat day at the office together. If that happens again, that’d be fine, but if not, we tag-team with the other responsibilities of life, and we just make it work.
Have you guys ever gone on a double date with Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus?
We haven’t. That should absolutely happen! I was talking to Stephanie about that recently that they’re in a very similar predicament, both of them are very in-demand and it gets crazy. It’s hard to say no to work when you love it so much, but you have to carve it out.
Do you and Audra ever sing "The Confrontation" together at home?
Oh yeah, it happens nightly—no. [Laughs.] We’re a little bit more of a Roberta Flack family. But I think it happened once when I was auditioning for the part. We might have been goofing around and sung it in front of the kids just to annoy them. They think we’re so obnoxious when we sing loudly.
See Will Swenson in Little Miss Sunshine, opening November 14 at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre.