Pop-Culturalist Chats with Chris McCarrell
Chris McCarrell won the hearts of many when he made his Broadway debut in the re-imagined revival of Les Misérables. Originally cast as Joly, Chris would eventually take over the role of Marius Pontmercy until the show closed in 2016. Currently, he’s starring as the title character in the Off-Broadway production of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. The show has been a favorite amongst both fans and critics, earring three Drama Desk nominations. Pop-Culturalist was lucky enough to chat with Chris about the show’s preview process, the possibility of an open-ended run, and how the audience shapes his performance.
P-C: How did you get involved with The Lighting Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical?
Chris: I got involved by getting an audition, and I thought that Percy Jackson was cool. I knew nothing about it, then I Googled it, and saw everything online about the story. I read the Wikipedia article about the novel and was like, ‘This is a cool story.’ I went in and auditioned and, by the time I got home, I knew that I had it. It was a very quick process from the time I got my audition to the time I got the show—like 24 hours.
P-C: Were you familiar with the books before you auditioned?
Chris: No, not at all. After I got the part I read the first book, and it was so funny! I was like, ‘This can be the easiest role ever. This kid is me!’ It was kind of funny the way I stumbled over something that feels like such a part of me that I didn’t even know about before I did it.
P-C: Did you draw on any personal experiences when you were shaping Percy?
Chris: I would say I drew upon what others perceive as being unfocused or scattered–it can actually be really powerful if you hone it in. All my life, I’ve kind of dealt with people thinking that I wasn’t paying attention when I couldn’t sit still; in reality, I was just thinking about more important stuff. I really relate to him in that way–being underestimated because you seem like you’re not aware of what’s going on when, in reality, you are.
P-C: We saw the show in previews. Has a lot changed since then?
Chris: Yeah! This preview process was like the most cut and dice preview I’ve ever been a part of. They would stay after each show and either come up with new blocking or come up with ways to fix things. Every show during previews was almost a whole new show–right up to the opening night. We would add stuff in, take stuff out, change some lines, but then we froze it on the opening night. I don’t know exactly what night you guys came, but I’m sure there’s a few little tweaks in things that you haven’t seen.
P-C: How challenging was that?
Chris: What was challenging is that it’s a show that relies a lot on pacing, timing, and special effects working really smoothly. When we were implementing a lot of new stuff in front of audiences, sometimes we figured out parts didn’t work by not landing them. I’d be saying a new line, we’d try a new bit, and the audience was just silent. We were like, ‘That doesn’t work.’ I had to stomach the entire audience just staring at me. I put on my armor for these shows. I felt like I was a gladiator for the show, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, but I’m so glad we went through that instead of being comfortable because the show is much better now than it was in the beginning.
P-C: Is there one particular moment that stands out to you during that process?
Chris: Yes. There was a time we when kept polishing how we ended the relationship between Percy and Annabeth and how much we wanted to point to them having this little love connection going on. When we did too little, it didn’t really read. When we went too far, it seemed like we were a couple by the end of the show, and we didn’t really want that so we kept tweaking how we left that relationship and what was the most interesting way to walk away from it.
P-C: What did you guys settle upon?
Chris: We settled upon this medium ground. There’s a moment when we catch each other–we’re holding hands and we catch each others’ eyes–and she breaks away really quick and walks off stage. We added that moment in to make people a little like, ‘Oh, what’s going on there?’ Then, at the very end, after I get hurt, she is there helping me get back to my feet again, and we kind of have that moment where we’re like halfway going for a kiss, but we don’t end up actually kissing. So, we did stuff like that, but there’s a lot of guess and check–what moments were the most effective and what was too much, what was too little–but I like how it is now.
P-C: Do you have a favorite number to perform on stage?
Chris: Sometimes it feels like one big number. I would say I really love the dream sequences–when I get knocked out or when I fall asleep–because the show is very fast-paced and hard-hitting, but then, when the dream sequences happen, it kind of becomes more ambient and ethereal. That is really fun to sing and physically live in that world for a little bit rather than more rock hard-hitting physicality. It becomes this underwater world for a second. I love those moments when I can be a little more abstract and stylized, vocally and physically.
P-C: What is it like working on a show that’s targeted towards kids but also appeals to adults? Did you have to adjust your approach to acting or performing because of that?
Chris: My relationship with the show each night depends so much on how the audience is relating to the show. Sometimes, we have very young audiences, and they laugh at different things than adults laugh at. When the loud thunder happens, the entire place blows up in screams and stuff. It feels like a young show that I’m in, and, then, when millennials come in, it feels balanced–there are fun effects, but there’s really good dialogue happening with nuance, jokes, and winks at the audience. When people respond to that then it feels like that kind of show, and then when adults come and laugh at more of a parent humor, then it feels like more of a parent show. I’ve never been in a show that feels so different depending on who is watching it. We usually have very mixed crowds–everyone from adults to kids and teenagers are coming. Everything gets this balanced reaction, but when you get an audience that is more towards one demographic than the other, it really feels like a whole other experience.
P-C: Keeps it really exciting!
Chris: Yeah, it’s fun! It keeps it fresh for us in a way too, ’cause there’s so much room to reflect the style of the show.
P-C: How would you compare your experience from doing a show that’s on Broadway to one that’s off?
Chris: I feel like on Broadway, in my experience, the answer is usually, ‘Throw money on it.’ If you have to make an effect work—if you have to make magic happen—magic on Broadway equals money. The most magical moments are usually really, really, really brilliant people spending a lot, a lot, a lot of money to make them happen. As for Off-Broadway, in order for us to make all of our magic happen, it’s a whole other skill set. It relies much more on the actors on stage rather than automation or lighting. We really have to be extra because we can’t rely on crazy special effects that are made outside of our control. A lot of the special effects are made by us doing a lot of…I almost feel like a magician up there, distracting people from what I’m doing behind my back to get my sword. I really have to be on it if we want cool moments to happen. On Broadway, the really cool moments…you just kind of sit there and they happen. Here, I’m very active in every magical moment that happens. I would say that is the biggest difference. You can’t really hide behind anything out there; you have to really be on it. For the audience, I think it gets back to the root of what makes Peter really fun, like, ‘How are you going to pull this off?’ and people don’t know how you’re going to do it. Then you do with the least amount of materials and money. It’s definitely a creative process that I enjoy much more.
P-C: You were a theater kid growing up. What is it like doing it professionally now? What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve learned being in this industry?
Chris: I felt like as long as I was making a living acting then I would have made it. All the stuff that has happened since I graduated college has been icing on the cake. I just wanted to be a working actor, but I was never really coming for Broadway. I always dreamed about Off-Broadway and going to different theaters around the country doing special shows that I felt ownership of. Broadway came so much quicker than I thought it would. It’s kind of been a surprise. I didn’t think that the commercial side of this industry would be so accepting to how I approach this art form because I kind of think of theatre as a way to make people think differently about the young guy who’s dark-haired and tall. There’s kind of a perception in most shows that he’s the boring guy running after the girl, and I try to revolutionize that archetype a little more. I’m happy that the industry is so ready to accept my take on characters–that aren’t the most commercial, honestly. That’s been a big surprise, that I haven’t had to shy away from really big productions because people are really comfortable taking risks on these characters, and they like people coming in that are able and want to take risks themselves. The biggest surprise, I would say, was how welcoming New York theatre has been to my vibe.
P-C: If you could be part of any revival, what would it be and why?
Chris: I would want to be in Light in the Piazza. I’d say Light in the Piazza or Ragtime because Light in the Piazza is the perfect example of a show that you walk into it and you think it’s going to be this love story of this beautiful blonde girl falling in love with a beautiful Italian guy. They have these archetypes set up, then, all of a sudden, they blow it up, and it’s nothing like the story you expected it to be. It becomes very human and messed up. It’s roughed up which makes it much more realistic and more exciting to me; Light in the Piazza is the perfect show when it comes to what I try to do in each show that I’m in. There’s so much I could do with that it, and I think it’s one of the most gorgeous things ever written!
P-C: Has there been any conversation about transitioning to Broadway?
Chris: The magic of the show really relies on what I was talking about earlier, how we don’t throw money at everything. I think it would lose a ton of its magic if it became too commercialized, but I know there’s a lot of talk of maybe transferring it to other Off-Broadway theaters for a more open-ended run and maybe amping up our budgets a little bit in that arena.
P-C: We hope that happens! You’ve done quite a few solo shows around New York City. Do you have anything upcoming that you can chat about, maybe another performance at 54 Below?
Chris: No. I did two concerts, and there’s so much work! It doesn’t seem like a lot of work on paper when people see it, but actors–at least when I do it–when I do 54 Below, I’m directing, stage-managing, accounting; I’m doing everything. I have to find a music director. I have to figure out a band. I have to figure out how we’re going to pay them. There’s so much work. It’s not like I get to pick a few songs, walk up, and sing. Now that I’ve done it, I have to have much more inspiration to do it again. The two times I did it I was like, ‘Can I pull this off as a 23 year old?’ and then I did and I was like, ‘Phew, that’s over!’ If I ever go back to the solo concert world it will be for a very important special theme of a show or something that really inspires me to craft the whole show. It’s kind of like directing a whole new musical in a way, on a lesser scale. I have no solo concerts coming up at all. Right now, Percy Jackson has 100% of my attention because a lot of people are looking at the show for what the next level is and what’s the next step, so I definitely have to be here right now putting all my attention here.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
P-C: Guilty pleasure TV show?
Chris: All my TV shows are guilty pleasures! When I’m sick, I like to binge watch The Kardashians, which I hate myself for. I can watch literally six hours of Survivor in a day, easily. Right now, I’m watching the show Hunted…
P-C: On CBS?
Chris: Yeah, about people running away from law enforcement. I like stuff like that; I like reality TV shows. I kind of like when people are not acting. They’re trying to get something done–Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother. If you saw my account on my TV, it’s just a whole list of guilty pleasures. The last thing I want to do when I get home is watch someone act. It’s the last thing I want to do! Game of Thrones–that is literally the last thing I want to be doing when I come home from a day of work. It’s like watching more people act, and I’m like, ‘Oh my Gosh, my whole life is acting.’ It’s fun to watch people fight for a hamburger on Survivor.
P-C: Guilty pleasure movie?
Chris: Spirited Away–it’s an animated movie that my brother showed me when I was a kid, and it’s so weird, but I love it. It’s a weird Japanese fairy tale. I would say that’s a guilty pleasure because it’s so odd! I like to watch Cirque du Soleil movies, like the documentary-movie things. I don’t know if that’s a guilty pleasure, but, yeah, Spirited Away–Japanese anime.
P-C: Favorite book?
Chris: I read a lot of philosophy books. Alan Watts – The Book. He’s an awesome philosopher, and he wrote it for his kids to start their spiritual journey. It’s a short introduction on how to think about the world in more open terms which really revolutionized my life when I read it.
P-C: Favorite play?
Chris: My favorite play that I ever saw was Jerusalem with Mark Rylance a few years ago, and it was like three acts. It was so long and I’ve never been more glued to a stage. I find it more and more that I get overwhelmed at Broadway shows. I’m sitting there trying to enjoy it and I’m like, ‘why am I being silent right now?’ and then I’m like, ‘it’s because there are so many lights and so many things happening, I don’t know where to look’. I can’t even sit still. When I go to a really good Broadway play and just sit there and there’s silence and I can truly see what these people are doing, I love that. That was the first play that really opened my eyes to that part of me–the part of me that wants to sit in a 3-hour long play and listen to every single word that comes out of every single person’s mouth. So yeah, Jerusalem.
P-C: Favorite musical?
Chris: I like them all for different reasons. In the past few years, it’s so standard, but Hamilton is a freaking genius production, even if you take away all the cultural connotations about it. It’s just a really, really well-done way to tell a story in a completely new way that makes you think about the source material so differently and makes it so much more relatable. I thought it was just awesome.
P-C: A band or artist that fans would be surprised to learn is on your playlist?
Chris: Yeah! Lately, I have been loving The Chainsmokers. I hate myself for that, but I love their songs. I will never forget…I think it was the VMA performance where they performed, and I was like, ‘How are people getting away not being able to sing at all?’ I respect them as beat makers though.
P-C: Hidden talent?
Chris: I’m really good at snowboarding. I’m not athletic at all with my hands, but with anything with my feet, I become athletic. I’m a really good ice-skater and snowboarder. It’s just so random! I’ll say it out loud–I’m a really sick snowboarder!
P-C: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Chris: [sings] ‘All that I do is not enough for you…’ “It’s Gonna Be Me” by *NSYNC. I put that on, all the 90s kids come up, and we just jam up together, our childhood dreams, and I can be so disgustingly nasal and poppy and it’s just a great event.