Adam Pascal

Last week, the “Night of a Thousand Judys” concert spectacular held its annual fundraiser event for The Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest agency dedicated to helping LGBTQ homeless youth. For the first time in its 8 years of existence, however, the event was totally digital.  

Night of Thousand JudysNight of a Thousand Judys honors the iconic catalog of Judy Garland, with tributes and songs from her career as movie star, recording artist and stage performer. Always a hot ticket with a robust and impressive lineup of vocal powerhouses, this year’s iteration featured performances from the likes of Lena Hall, Eva Noblezada, Alice Ripley, Ann Harada, Jessica Vosk, Natalie Douglas, Beth Malone, George Salazar, Nathan Lee Graham, Spencer Day, and Bright Light Bright Light.

Another all-star marking his first time performing at Night of a Thousand Judys this year was Adam Pascal. A musical theater legend best known for originating the roles of Roger in Rent and Radames in Aida, Pascal has been a consistent presence on Broadway stages for over the past two decades in shows like Cabaret, Memphis, Chicago, Disaster!, Something Rotten, and Pretty Woman. During last week’s fundraiser, he performed “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which Garland first recorded in 1956 and also included on what is still widely regarded as the greatest live album of all time, 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall.

To celebrate his Night of a Thousand Judys debut, I spoke with Pascal about the importance of the event and his connection to the LGBTQ+ community as a straight, cis-gender white male, talked about his new series of covers he’s recording from home, how to support the theater community when theaters aren’t open, reflected on Rent nearly a quarter of a century after its Broadway premiere, and much more.

ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI: What are some of your personal favorite Judy Garland performances?

Adam PascalADAM PASCAL: To be perfectly frank, I don’t know much about Judy Garland. Because of the nature of what this benefit is and who it’s for, I was asked to be part of it. I jumped at the chance really not knowing anything about Judy Garland other than “Over the Rainbow” and Dorothy. I had to investigate and to figure out the right kind of song that I felt would be good for me. Judy Garland just was not part of the lexicon of my life growing up, so I wasn’t part of this evening as a devout fan of Judy Garland. I mean, I am now but this wasn’t about my love for Judy Garland. This was about my support for the organization.

 Why do you think The Ali Forney Center is such an important organization to raise funds for?

For the entirety of my career—given how it started and the themes of Rent and how that show launched my career—so much of my fan base and so many of the people that I’ve come to know over the years have been part of this community and have supported me in my career. I’ve come to know so many people as part of the LGBT community and who are also homeless. Certainly back in the mid-90s in New York City, there was a fair amount of that.

The LGBT community has always been so unbelievably supportive of me. Me who is a straight, semi-suburban white guy. Why would they be so supportive of me? So I’ve always been very humbled by that support and so appreciative of it. I’ve always done whatever I can for the community in any way that I can, and I’ve been involved with so many charity events and with so many different organizations over the years. This was just another opportunity to show my support and show my love for the community.

As a straight man, what advice would you give to someone looking for ways to become an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community?

There are a lot of organizations such as the Ali Forney Center in which you can donate your time. You can donate money. You can donate all sorts of things. I encourage people to not only do that but to try and get to know people as part of that community. That’s always been the motivating factor for me. It’s not just an anonymous organization of anonymous people that I felt like, “Oh, let me just see if I can help somebody somewhere.” You know what I mean? I have a direct connection because I know so many people and have become friends with so many people.

So my advice is always to get to know people. Try and meet people as part of this community and understand why there is such a need for outreach and for help. It’s not just an anonymous community. You could donate your time and your money and your efforts to a million different organizations for a million different reasons. For me, it’s personal because of my personal relationships with people. I always encourage people to start getting involved by meeting and getting to know people. Don’t just make it some anonymous, blind donation of your time or your money. Not that that’s not valuable, but I think it’s ultimately more effective when it’s done on a personal level for personal reasons.

You recently announced that you’ll be releasing “COVID-19 Covers,” a series of songs that you are recording and producing while in lockdown. What makes “Heaven on their Minds” the perfect song to kick-off this series with and what other songs can your fans expect to hear?

I feel like so many people know me as sort of like a Broadway rock singer. And as much as I’ve tried to incorporate other types of material in the shows that I’ve done and expand my repertoire in terms of roles that I’ve played, I’m probably best known for the sort of rock vocal stylings.

“Heaven on their Minds” is such a great musical theater rock song. It’s one of the best and has always been one of my favorites. It’s been part of my acoustic live set that I do for a while. It just seemed like a fun song to get into. It allows me to use all of my skills, my musicianship, my arranging skills, and my vocals. It was a really great combination of just all the stuff that I can do. I did that on a MacBook Air with Logic software and a couple of guitars. It’s amazing what you can do at home by yourself. It’s a phenomenal and epic song. I thought it would be fun to sort of launch this project with a big song like that.

Some of the stuff that people can expect are a lot of the things that they’ve heard me do in my live sets. I think the next song I’m going to do is a song from Cabaret. There are going to be songs that I’ve done in shows that I’ve been in, songs that I’ve wanted to do and shows that I haven’t been in yet!

Hopefully, I’ll just keep doing these. But I have to say, I would like to start calling them something else—meaning I would hope that the COVID lockdown would end and I could keep doing them and then start to call them something else. Hopefully, they won’t fall into that category for much longer.

Is the goal to put out a full album with all of these or are they meant to be standalone releases?

Yes and no. Here’s the thing. I have been in this business for many years and played music and been in bands. You used to be able to make money from selling music, but you can’t make money from selling music in and of itself anymore. It doesn’t work that way anymore. I’d like to use these songs as incentives for people to enjoy what it is that I do, give them away for free, and use them as hopefully marketing tools for other things that I could potentially make an income stream from.

I do teaching. I coach vocal performance. I make Cameos. I’m doing all sorts of things to try to support my family while I’m in lockdown and I can’t work. I can’t get on stage. I’m just hoping that I can again use them as gifts to my fans, but then also as a way of generating interest in the other things that I do that can generate income.

Speaking of that, what has the experience of offering voice lessons over Facetime and Zoom during this lockdown period been like? Is there anything any of your students have taught you in any of these sessions that you are surprised by?

Well, I’m surprised at how people are still so excited by the idea of performing live and going into a career of live performance when we are in a situation right now where we have no idea what that future looks like. That’s been really surprising and encouraging to me. I would’ve thought that people would’ve been like, “Oh my god, forget it” or “I’ve got to go do something else” because that’s what I’m thinking.

It’s really inspiring to see that people are still so avid about pursuing those things as careers and as sort of extended hobbies, if you will. Doing them over Zoom actually works out pretty well. You use technology for everything—so whereas you used to need to be in a room with somebody and have a pianist to accompany them, now people can go online and get karaoke tracks. They have their own musical accompaniment so they don’t need that anymore. I can work with them over Zoom when they have their own accompaniment, so that’s been a great advantage of doing it virtually.

It also opens up the possibility of anywhere, anytime, anywhere in the world I can work with. So the limiting factor of having to be in the same physical proximity is gone. I think I’ll do this forever now. To continue to do these things over Zoom, I think people really enjoy it. It gives people access to things that they didn’t have access to before, so that’s been really exciting for me.

How else have you been spending your time in COVID-19 lockdown? What have you been doing to stay sane and what books/music/TV shows/movies do you recommend?

Yes! I’m about five or six episodes into this German thriller TV show on Netflix called Dark, which is so cool and awesome. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s awesome. I also just finished a show on AMC called Preacher, which was really great. Now that being said, I have started and stopped dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows where I’ll watch five minutes and go, “Oh my god, this sucks.” So you have to find the diamonds in the rough because there’s somuch content out there, and most of it sucks. So you’ve just got to sample things and find the ones that are good for you.

Again, I’ve been playing a lot of music, doing these recordings, and trying to stay as busy as I can workwise—the Cameos, the students, the whatever I can do, the MasterClasses. I’m just hoping every day that our business comes back soon. I know Broadway’s not coming back until after the new year, but I’m hoping national tours may come back a little bit sooner and maybe something that I can jump on someday. Who knows? Like everybody else, I’m hoping that life will sooner than later return to somewhat of a normalcy.

Going off of the news that Broadway won’t be reopening before 2021, what are some ways that you recommend that people can help support the theater community while still staying at home?

You know what they can do? Wear a mask. That’s what they can do. Wear a mask and social distance and behave yourself. Don’t be so selfish. Don’t act like the horrible, typical selfish Americans that we are. Let’s be like the rest of the world. There was a time when I was younger where America was the leader and people looked up to us. Well, you know what? People don’t do that anymore. People are ashamed of America, as they should be, and nobody looks to us as the forbearers of how to act and behave.

We need to look to other countries now and act like they act. What people can do is wear a mask and try and help get this under control. The first inkling of freedom people get, they go nuts. The fighting and claims of “I’m not wearing a mask and fuck you” is so selfish. I wish I could leave this country. I hate it. I’m so embarrassed. I’m mortified to be an American. I’ve never thought in my life that I’d be ashamed to be American, but you know what, right now I am.

What advice would you give to people in the entertainment industry who are struggling to find work and/or stay creatively fulfilled during these isolating times?

That’s hard. Part of me says, “Don’t be so worried about staying creative during this time.” If it’s coming naturally, of course let it flow, but don’t feel like you need to write your COVID opus or write your album or your musical about what it’s like being in lockdown or your book or whatever it is. Just get by and don’t lose your mind. Stay sane in whatever way that is. If you have to watch Family Guy 18 hours a day to stay sane, then you should do that. I don’t think that this should be a time where people feel like they need to be creative or that they need to do anything other than survive.

Get through the day. Try and not sink into a horrible depression. Of course, don’t start sinking to drugs and alcohol. Even if you’re a creative person and being creative is your career, that doesn’t mean that that’s something that needs to happen right now. This is an unprecedented time in our culture and in our world, and it calls for unprecedented measures. Again, if staring at the wall all day makes you feel better, then that’s what you should do.

My advice for how people can stay creative? Don’t, unless creativity is naturally occurring, which sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. The last thing you need to do is be beating yourself up because you have writer’s block. All we can do to stay sane and to stay healthy and that should be the priority. It’s okay to use this as a period to recharge.

What is your response to #WeSeeYou? What does being an antiracist mean to you, both within the context of this industry and personally?

It’s hard to listen to the stories and not go, “God, how did I not realize it?” Then you look back and you go, “Well, yeah. Of course, of course.” I think about all the shows that I’ve been in and I’ve been like, “Why are there so many fucking white people in that show? Why didn’t they cast more people of color in the show?” There’s just no reason. I’m like, “Why?” I think back in my career and I think about. Why, why, why, why, why? Then I read the stories and I hear the anecdotes of people’s experiences and I’m just flabbergasted.

You think that you are in such an inclusive business, and when I say business, I mean specifically theater. There’s an initial assumption that everybody loves each other and it’s all inclusive. I think that it comes from the fact that musical theater has been such a haven for the gay community and such a place of acceptance for the gay community in terms of actors and writers and directors, right? But you know what? Gay people can be racist too, and I think that people forget that. One doesn’t necessarily imply the other. Just because you are somebody who may have experienced oppression in your life because of who you are doesn’t mean that you can’t do that to other people for other reasons. I don’t mean to imply that theater is racist because of gay people, I just mean that everyone can be racist, no matter who you are personally. I mean, I’m a Jew. I’ve certainly experienced plenty of anti-Semitism in my life. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t then in turn be racist in my own way. So one thing doesn’t imply the other.

I think that people don’t automatically think of the world of musical theater as someplace that can be inherently and institutionally racist. But then you hear these stories and you hear these anecdotes, and again, and then if you’re someone like me who looks back on my own personal life in theater and think, “Yeah, wow. Why, why? And why I didn’t start to question anything?”

It’s disheartening, but I do also think that if there’s any institution that will turn around from this, it’s the world of theater. I don’t have a lot of hopes for this country. I don’t have a lot of hopes for the Black Lives Matter movement making a dent in this country. I’ve got to be honest with you, I really don’t. I think that this country is a failed experiment and I don’t see anything turning it around other than aliens coming down and saying, “You’re not alone.” And then the human race uniting as one. I don’t have high hopes for them, but I do have high hopes in the world of theater because I just think we’re more enlightened. I really do.

Even though we have behaved in this way, I still think we are more enlightened and I still think there is a larger capacity for self-reflection, self-realization, inclusion, atonement and adjustment and making the necessary changes. I think that maybe the theater world can be sort of the model of how to do it. So I am hopeful in that regard.

Next year, Rent will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Broadway premiere. Looking back nearly a quarter of a century later, how would you say being part of the original cast of one of the most beloved and iconic musicals of all time has shaped you both personally and professionally?

RENTSo professionally, it launched my career and it launched it in a way that one could only dream of. But that in and of itself has its downfalls. There’s only one way to go from the top and that’s a difficult trip to take. Whereas it has launched my career, it’s also made it more difficult in a way because I’ve had to come down and find that sort of mid-level place to stay slow and steady to maintain a career and win the race.

Personally, that same issue comes into play. I thought that I had my ego under control, but I didn’t. That kind of experience blows up your ego and then the only place to come from there is down. Again, you have to find that mid-level middle ground of okay, I was the toast of the town for a minute in that show, but that doesn’t mean that it has to or will stay like that forever—or even should!

So it’s been difficult for all of those reasons, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The people and the friends that I made in that show changed my life forever and changed my perspective forever and hopefully, made me a better person. I think that the experience in that show makes you a better person.

If Rent is something that you connect with, it means that there’s love in your heart. It means there’s something good in you. There is something seriously wrong with the people who see that show and walk out and are like, “Fuck this, this sucks.” If you walk out of there angry, like you just saw something shitty, then there’s something wrong with you. There just is.

Overall, I’d definitely like to think that Rent made me a better person.

Following the smash success of Hamilton streaming on Disney+, what are the odds of there being a filmed reunion concert/event with the original cast of Rent to reflect on the show’s legacy?

I don’t think that there is a future for theater on film in the way that Hamilton just gave you on Disney+. I think that Hamilton is a complete anomaly in every way. I don’t think people have the slightest interest in seeing a staged filmed version of The Sound of Music. Nor should they, because the mediums don’t mix in that way. They don’t work. You watch something on the stage because of the experience of watching it on a stage. It’s presented in a certain way because you’re in the room and you’re perceiving it in a certain way. When you film that same presentation, it doesn’t translate.

Now, I haven’t seen Hamilton on film yet, but I don’t have to see it to know that the world loves Hamilton. They can’t do anything wrong. I think that of course that is going to be successful in that medium, but I don’t think that that really serves for 99.9% of other musicals. You know what I mean?

Again, Hamilton is an anomaly and a hundred times more successful than Rent ever was. You’ll never see anything else like it. I think it’ll go down in history as the most successful musical ever. It’s such a one-off.

I don’t think that there is a place for film versions of stage musicals that you actually film their stage presentations. It just doesn’t have the impact as it does when you’re in the room with it. Quite frankly, I don’t want it to! I want the experience of people coming to a theater to remain as important and special as it is. If this were to be something that became popular and ubiquitous now, then I’d be out of a job because you do the show, you film it once, and then just show it all over the world. And nobody would come to theaters anymore. So I don’t want that to happen.

As far as the Rent question that you asked, I think that sure, Rent always becomes more relevant when things are bad in the world because it’s hopeful and it inspires hope. That’s why the show will always have a place in our society and in our culture, because things are always going to go bad. People will always look to things that bring them hope, and that’s a show that does that. It inspires love and acceptance and joy in a way that many things don’t.

Whether the original cast will ever reunite again? Probably not. I think it was incredibly difficult to get the 15 of us back together for the Rent Live thing. And even then, Kristen Lee Kelly wasn’t there, so it was only 14 of us. So I don’t see that happening.

Also, as we get further and further away from the original cast, people don’t care. I mean we care. I care. People who love Rent care, but the masses aren’t clamoring for it. People move on. It’s sort of like, do you want to see the original cast of Hair reunite? Who even knows who those people are anymore, right? I don’t really see that happening. But it is the 25-year reunion coming up. Maybe something will be tried. You’ll never get us all on stage to perform, I can guarantee that. But maybe something somewhere at some point, who knows?

Anthony (Rapp) is one of my closest friends, as is Jesse (Martin). I’m still very close with those guys. The greatest thing about doing that Rent Live thing and all of us getting back together was we started a text thread for the original cast, and now we’re all back in contact with each other, which is really lovely. But that’s unique. I feel very fortunate that we all are back in touch with each other, which is very nice.

You recently collaborated with Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steven Brault on a track for his debut album, A Pitch at Broadway. What was it like working with him?

A Pitch at BroadwayI was completely shocked when they told me about this because I don’t follow sports. I don’t anything about baseball. I didn’t know who Steven was and I had no idea what to expect when I met him in the studio. But working with him and meeting with him, I felt like I was working with and meeting a fellow musical theater actor. He is not some baseball meathead. He’s a really sweet, intelligent, talented kid who just happens to be an amazing baseball player, but he could very easily have become a Broadway performer as well. He just took a different path, but he’s incredibly talented and has the mentality and the sentiment of an actor and as a performer.

It was a really great and unexpected surprise to work with him. I really enjoyed it and I was really proud of him and am really proud of him for following his dreams after being in an industry that can be maybe not so inclusive to the world of musical theater. The world of professional sports is not known for their open-mindedness or their acceptance or their inclusion of people that may be different than them. So the fact that Steven loves theater and is a great singer and had the complete sort of just like, “I don’t care what anybody thinks” attitude? I loved it. It was really, really inspiring. I was really impressed with him.

Aside from everything we’ve already discussed, are there any new projects you’re working on that you can share details about?

Not really, no. I’ve got to be honest with you. I have my older son who’s starting college in the fall, and we’re still trying to figure out. Is he actually going to go or is the school actually going to be having classes? There’s a lot going on right now in my life. So the fact that I even got it together to start doing these cover songs is enough for now. When I first started doing it, I didn’t even know what I was going to do with it. It was just like, “I need something to do!” So I just started laying down tracks, and it started to come together. Then I was like, “Oh, maybe I could use it for this.” Then it actually conceptually became something, but it just started as just like, “I’m bored. I need to do something.”

If you were running for President this year, what would your campaign slogan be?

Make America great for once.

You can watch the 8th annual Night of a Thousand Judys for free here and can donate to The Ali Forney Center here.

Night of a Thousand Judys

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.