James Levesque: boys keep swinging in Madame Sousatzka
by Drew Rowsome
When you swing, being a triple-threat isn't enough. "Because I'm a swing in the show, it means I watch most of the time. Then I usually go to the rehearsal hall and physicalize it," says James Levesque of this role(s) in Madame Sousatzka. "It's one thing to see something, it's another to do it. There are scenes where all six of the people I'm covering are onstage and I have to be able to sort each of them out. And getting your head around that is a bit overwhelming. So I'll go through one and then I'll do another person's part."
Overwhelming but a dream come true. "When I was 12 or 13, I saw a documentary on the CBC about Garth Drabinsky renovating the Pantages for Phantom. I remember thinking 'That's what I want to do, I want to go to Toronto and do that kind of show.' That might also have been the first year that I saw the Tony Awards on TV. I suddenly had an awareness that there was something beyond what I had grown up with."
Instead of a lurking mystical phantom, Levesque landed a gig that resonates personally. "The relationship between Madame Sousatzka, the piano teacher, and her student, he's come from South Africa and he's a prodigy, reminds me of the relationship with my first singing teacher growing up in Calgary. I didn't just learn about music, I learned about art, and poetry, and she taught me to make risotto. She introduced me to a world I didn't know was out there. I realized I could be different from my family and that's ok. She helped me become myself. I started classes when I was 17 and in a way she helped me come out of the closet. She was telling me that if I was hiding something in my life, then when I got up onstage I'd always be hiding. Even if you're going to be somebody else, if you're constantly hiding a part of yourself, you can only go so far. That was a big thing for me. Until I came to terms with who I was, until I was honest, I couldn't really get up onstage and let myself be vulnerable, expose everything."
And not just personally, Madame Sousatzka grows more culturally pertinent by the hour. "Because of what's going on in the world right now it just seems more relevant," says Levesque. "The main characters are all refugees who fled different countries in the early '80s and wound up in London. What it's like to be forced out of your home and you're trying to find out where you fit in the new world but you want to hang on to who you were. I've never been in a show like this. I'm part of it so it's hard to be objective but I was in the workshop we did this summer, I was in the ensemble, and I had the opportunity for my agent and a couple of friends to come. The response we got from people was pretty overwhelming. It's a very moving show."
The book writer, Craig Lucas, is known for his gay-themed masterpieces Prelude to a Kiss and Longtime Companion, so it is not too much to hope for some gay content in Madame Sousatzka. "There is a character who is, I think it's pretty explicit that he's gay," says Levesque. "He grew up in England through the '60s, when it was still illegal to be gay. There's one scene where he explains the situation and, it's not like he says 'I'm gay,' but you understand that he is. I'm not understudying that role, there's two caucasian principal roles and he's older, he's in his '60s, so he's played by an older actor."
There is also a major song entitled "Rainbow Nation," that reflects the teamwork that has gone into Madame Sousatzka. "Composer David Shire has also written a lot of film scores," says Levesque. "He can sit at the piano and play jazz and just orchestrate a beautiful thing that is cinematic. They started out with just that but they've added pop stuff and South African arrangements that are done by Lebo M who wrote the South African bits in The Lion King. He came in this summer and he would take what David and Richard Maltby Jr the lyricist had written, and he would get us to improvise on top of it. So it blended into the music, it was quite a process, I've never experienced anything like that. There's such a depth that it brings you to another world. The whole show is about merging worlds. When you start integrating these things, that's when the magic happens. Music brings us together so instead of saying that's different from who I am so I'm not interested, let's bring all the special things we have to offer and create together."
There are high hopes for Madame Sousatzka to transfer to Broadway after its Toronto run. For a boy who first saw the televised Tony Awards while in remote Calgary it is an exciting prospect. "Not that I had thought that was in the cards for me necessarily but the fact that this has the potential to go to New York is really exciting. It's the same dream I had as a kid, a Broadway show is a big dream. And it leads to the opportunity to do other things. My partner and I had started the process of getting work visas to go to LA and try our luck down there. He's a photographer and he has some clients down there but you kind of have to be there to really establish yourself. And who doesn't want to live near to a beach?"