The Walnut Street Theatre opened its 2015/16 season with the musical, High Society. The musical High Society, is based on the 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story. This bubbly musical is full of energetic performances, and is one of those shows that is delightfully entertaining.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Paul A. Schaefer who plays Dexter in the Walnut’s production of this musical. Schaefer makes his Walnut Street Theatre debut with this show. Schaefer has many credits to his name, and most recently he has been in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in the roles of both Phantom and Raoul. When Speaking with Schaefer, he exudes charm and conveys his passion for theatre and his thankfulness for being able to make acting his career. I had the chance to speak with him about his character, Dexter, in High Society as well as what advice he has for people who aspire to be a performer.
Kelli Curtin: How do you enjoying being part of a Walnut Street production?
Paul A. Schaefer: It’s great! Everyone I know that are regulars here came out and told me I would love it. There is a reason people like to work here – the people here are really cool, the production value is really high, and the people here– from Bernard [Havard, the Artistic Director] all the way down are super good to us. And as a performer, I feel safe at the Walnut, I have been able to do good work and the environment is a pleasure to work in, and I am really enjoying it. I have never been here before, and I am thrilled to be part of a production here – this theatre has a great reputation in New York for putting up good quality shows.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about the current production of High Society?
Paul A. Schaefer: The show is about Tracy who is a socialite in the 1930s from Oyster Bay Long Island and who is to be married to George, who worked his way up in the family company. This show takes place during the preparation for the wedding. I play the part of Dexter, who interrupts the whole affair and tells a tale of how this editor for a scandal tabloid is going to expose the family patriarch, Seth Lord, for the affair he was having with a dancer in New York. Dexter explains to the family that the only way to get rid of the story in the tabloid is to let a photographer and writer come and do a whole rundown on the wedding – to allow these two do stories and take photos of George and Tracy’s wedding. I think secretly Dexter wants to ruin the wedding because he is in love with Tracy and wants to end the wedding. He tried to create as much chaos as possible.
Kelli Curtin: In your opinion, why should audiences come to see High Society?
Paul A. Schaefer: This show is really unique. It reminds me of another Cole Porter pieces, Nice Work if You can Get It. This show constantly exploits the touching comedy moments. We have these moments where we are dealing with issues like alcoholism or bad marriages and love that doesn’t happen even though you want it to happen, and then one of the characters will crack a joke in the next line. We are constantly doing sight gags and jokes right after these touching moments. The audience laughs and cries very quickly throughout the show, they are constantly being bounced around with emotion, and this show exploits that all the time.
It is so interesting being part of a show like this. I have never seen or been part of a production where I am listening to a character sing a song and is crying or dealing with something serious, and then all of a sudden they are flipping to a joke. This really works in this show. We use those touching moments to create comedy, and we use the comedy to create touching moments all the time in this piece. This is what makes this show unique.
The story of High Society is lovely and moving and fun. The casting is awesome, the people at the Walnut nailed the casting. There is so much talent with remarkable voices and so much great acting going on in this show. The songs are familiar, its Cole Porter, you really can’t go wrong with Porter. It is just a great fun show.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me about your character, Dexter Haven?
Paul A. Schaefer: I like to think that Dexter has been enlightened. He was this alcoholic, and what we do know about Dexter is that he is a corrupt person – there is a whole lot of additional information in the original play. The Philadelphia Story, where Tracy was not giving him enough affection, so then he went to drinking and turned into this horrible person. The judge gave Tracy a divorce and Dexter went to live on a boat for an extended period of time. He kicked his drinking habit and came back with a realization that Tracy’s expectations of people are too high and she will never be happy. Dexter is madly in love with Tracy. Dexter comes back to Long Island with a mission to point out her faults, and expose her. He hopes to humble her into to being a human being as opposed to this goddess-like person that looks down upon everyone else. I love to think that Dexter has been enlightened, he realized what he has done wrong and he has come back to create chaos, so he can finally show Tracy who he really is with hopes of her returning his love.
The character of Liz says something at the end of the play, “We all go haywire at times and if we don't, maybe we ought to.” It’s a beautiful quote, and it really is the moral of the story – the moral is people need to live it up and let loose sometimes, and that it is okay if they do, people shouldn’t feel guilty for that, it is all part of the human experience. Dexter is the opposite of Tracy who can appear rigid, he is just a relaxed and goofy guy who can expose Tracy’s unyieldingness. He is very intelligent and does everything gracefully with a smile even though it can be brutal at times. I love that dichotomy, the opportunity I have to play this kind of character that can say brutal things, but do it very politely, civilly and say it so effortlessly. Dexter rarely yells, he is always pleasant even when he is nasty – I love playing this character.
Kelli Curtin: Are there any similarities between you and your character?
Paul A. Schaefer: Yes. I think Dexter is a lot like me, but I also brought a lot of myself to him. I brought a lot of my goofiness, and a lot of my personality to Dexter. I think there is a core of Dexter that everybody who has played him has, and that is that he has thought this out, there is an intelligence about him and he has gone through some life experiences. I have gone through my own life experience and come out on the other end – I know who I am and where I am today, that is the phase I am at in my own personal life. I feel like Dexter is right there with me – he is like “I know what I am doing, here I am and I am here for something!” All the people who have played Dexter have that type of clarity naturally.
All of us as individuals are all so different, interesting and unique in our own ways. I am on stage playing myself – if I think to myself just be myself onstage I am going to come across as an enriched person because I am a human being who has my own life. I adjust different things because there are differences between me and Dexter. For example, my humor is very much like Dexter. However, I need to trust myself and know that even with these similarities between me and Dexter, I have to trust that it is interesting enough.
Kelli Curtin: How did you become interested in performing?
Paul A. Schaefer: When I was young I did church plays, musicals and began taking voice lessons in eighth grade. I thought I was going to go into opera first. I started doing musicals in high school, and I met a very good musical theatre voice teacher who completely changed my thinking about musical theatre. That is when I thought to give musical theatre a shot. I always liked listening to cast recordings like Les Misérables, but I wasn’t 100% sure that musical theatre was where my life was heading. I got into the University of Michigan, which has a really good program and I went there, I was really happy in the program and I went to New York and eventually began working in shows. My interest in musical theatre and how I became an actor was very natural, I just went where life took me. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I took an acting class and I met this acting teacher who literally changed my life. It was then I realized how much of this is a craft and how much of this is an art form. It was this moment when I found performing to be the best thing ever, and that is when I fell in love with this business. I seem to be the opposite of everyone I know who wanted to do this since they were a kid, and I really gradually found my passion. When I met that one particular teacher who really helped me understand performing is when I really found my passion and love for using my body as an instrument and responding to things and revealing emotions. There is so much power and joy in all of this.
Kelli Curtin: I had the pleasure of seeing you play Raoul in Phantom of the Opera last summer. Would you like to tell me a little about that experience and how has that experience prepared you for further roles?
Paul A. Schaefer: Phantom is a big ol’ show. Raoul, but especially the Phantom are iconic parts. I have probably played Raoul 300 times and Phantom 200+ times. I am a “cover,” so I have been constantly playing these roles over years. I am not really nervous when I play those parts anymore. Being in Phantom is exactly the opposite of High Society for me, especially playing the Phantom. The Phantom is a very difficult part, he is tortured, he has very high stakes and is very present on stage. There is power in every word and gesture that man does. So, he cannot move unless he has to, but when he does move it is very important. Every syllable he sings is directed to be very important, it is an exhausting and difficult part. The people who play this part have to live very carefully – eating right, exercising, taking care of themselves – because their lives become about playing that role. That role becomes your life – it takes about an hour or so to get the makeup on and also takes a while to get it off. Playing the Phantom prepares you for playing the hardest thing you could possibly do. The Phantom is so full of finesse, beautiful, important, tragic and expansive; he is just everywhere - I have never played a part harder than that part. There are moments in The Phantom of the Opera where that audience is watching the Phantom watch Christine, and they are getting the entire picture of her through the Phantom’s eyes. It is a powerful and intense role. Playing Raoul is a bit easier, but still pretty intense. The actors who play Raoul are running around the stage working pretty hard. I joined that show in my late 20s and that role has changed for me, especially in the way my life experiences affect how I play either of these roles. The cast in general for The Phantom of the Opera has to be good at adapting because it changes. Right now it is different than it was ten years ago – different actors come in, different directors, and that changes certain aspects of the production. We are all very good at adapting because of the changes that happen in the show.
Kelli Curtin: You have had a successful career. What advice do you have for aspiring performers?
Paul A. Schaefer: Whenever you find your love for performing, you have to maintain it. There are business ends of this career that are very difficult and very complicated and can deter you from enjoying what you are doing. If you are not enjoying what you are doing then you are doing something wrong. You have to find your love for it in all things. That is constantly challenged for actors when they audition and get rejected. The longer you go in your career and the more you audition, the better you get at it and realize that even if you are rejected you just weren’t right for the part for any number of reasons and move on to the next audition. As long as you stick to the love of what you are doing then nothing else is really important. Casting is so subjective in this profession – no one has any idea why or why not they were cast – people just need to remember their passion about theatre. The bottom line to my advice is have the right attitude, loving what you do and focusing on what you love is the best thing you can do. Also, train like crazy, you cannot stop your training – actors need to stay pliable and fresh – if they don’t they will become stale, uncomfortable and unconfident in their skills. Lastly, invest in therapy and invest in having a lot of life experience because knowing who you are is vital to you bringing yourself to parts. For example, if I did not know who I was as a person, how could I possibly apply those things to Dexter. How could I realize this character is like me in this way? I have had a lot of life experience and that has informed every part I have done. You have to invest in knowing who you are – having a clear identity.
Kelli Curtin: What gives you the most gratification as a performer?
Paul A. Schaefer: I want to affect people. I want people to lose themselves, forget about their lives or be able to relate to the show. I remember sitting in a theatre as a kid and listening to Davis Gaines sing one note in a song, and I remember it struck me emotionally. It was this gorgeously passionate part and the note was so rich, and it was that moment that I was like “hearing that note performed that way is why I want to be a performer.” That’s exactly why I do this, to tell a good story, but to affect someone in the audience in the way that it will stay with them. In High Society, I have an emotionally charged moment where it shows the simple honest love Dexter has for Tracy. I am hoping that the audience feels this honesty and love come through in that moment. If one person in the audience can relate that moment to their own lives it makes it all worthwhile, and it is great when that happens.
Kelli Curtin: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Paul A. Schaefer: I don’t think you can ever get the same effect from a movie that you get from live theatre. I am not saying that movies can’t affect us, because they do, there are several movies that I watch that move me emotionally. There is something very unique about watching someone do a performance live and in front of you. An example of this is when I saw Bridges of Madison County. This man, played by Steven Pasquale sings this song at the end of the show, “It All Fades Away.” It is a moment where he is looking at his whole life, and all of a sudden he sings and he is looking back at his life, and just realizing all the things that turned out differently. The music and lyrics and emotion are beautiful as the audience can feel his emotion as he conveys this passion that says I wish my life was something else. He exposes this part of himself and sings out, I was so taken by this part of the show. There is no movie or anything else that can affect me the way live theatre does. Theatre can hit people emotionally in a way that people cannot control their reaction. Live theatre is the only thing that can affect people viscerally. It is such a human experience to watch a show live and to escape from our own lives.
Paul A. Schaefer can be seen in the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of High Society that runs through October 25, 2015. For more information and tickets visit their website at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or call the box office at 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787.
Photo credit: Mark Garvin
Kelli Curtin is editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.