Pop-Culturalist Chats with Joe Carroll
Bandstand, Broadway’s first 6 Certified production about the veteran experience, has been a labor of love over the past few years for everyone involved. For the actors cast as members of The Donny Nova Band, that required dedication and practice beyond the traditional song and dance rehearsals; they had to become instrumental musicians, too.
One of those band member-actors is Joe Carroll, who was previously seen stealing hearts on Broadway as Prince Topher in Cinderella. In Bandstand, he plays Johnny Simpson, a WWII veteran who deals with its aftermath by using pills; Johnny joins The Donny Nova Band as a drummer. Carroll’s ability to share Johnny’s struggles between his dark and light sides while showcasing his musicianship is impressive and touching.
So, Pop-Culturalist was thrilled to talk with Joe Carroll and learn more about the creation process and the importance of the story of Bandstand.
P-C: How did you prepare for this role?
Joe: I was asked to do a reading of Bandstand two and a half years ago. When this happens in the theater community, a casting office throws together a group of actors they like and trust and say, “Hey would you come and read this thing?” For 90% of the shows that I’ve done, that’s where the buck stops. You get in a room, you read it, and then it’s over. But Bandstand just continued. I’d say a couple months after that [initial reading] we did another reading; then, there was a full-fledged workshop production near Lincoln Center. It was more produced, and there was more money behind it with choreography. It was more off-the-page, off-the-music stand. And then it just continued and continued. It eventually got to the point where they wanted to do a full-fledged production at Paper Mill Playhouse. Again, that’s sort of where these things stop, but after that, we got another call in the fall of this past year saying that we were going to go to go Broadway.
From the beginning, the characters all were musicians. I think the casting office knew that I played the drums because I did Once. That was my Broadway debut, and I played a couple different instruments in that show. But, in Bandstand, there was no music to start. When we did the first reading, it was very clear that the musicianship was at a whole nother level. It’s swing, it’s jazz, and it’s extremely complicated. So that’s where [preparation] started. All of the guys in the band, their roles were much smaller. The writers mentioned that they figured that they were going to have to hire professional swing and jazz musicians to play these charts, but then they continued to mine through actors and continue to audition people and see people and meet people, and they realized that there are a lot of actor-musicians in New York who could do this.
So, for me [preparation] started with the music. The last song that we play in the show—”Welcome Home” which is Laura’s big torch, 11 o’clock number—is 260 bpm on the metronome click. That means nothing to most people, but that’s extremely fast, and it’s right on the cusp of being really extremely fast. I couldn’t play it when we started. So, my goal from the beginning was to try to figure out the genre and to do it justice as a musician as best as I could because people get masters degrees and spend lifetimes playing this music. So, it was all about the music. The more that we did readings and development, the more the writers kept throwing stuff at all of us in the band to try to develop our characters more and more.
I always viewed [Johnny Simpson] like a golden retriever. He’s the guy in the band who is really happy to be there. I’ve played in a lot of bands, and there’s usually one guy who’s really happy to be there. I feel like that was kind of where [his character] started. Then, the whole idea of portraying someone who has come back from conflict is something that I’ve struggled with a lot because I feel like there’s a lot of mediocre representation of the military experience. It feels like an easy thing to write about, an easy thing to make a movie about, you know, being on the battlefield. This is a show really about guys coming home, and this idea that they’re able to try to readjust and to try not to make that stereotypical or cliché because we, even as actors, have no idea what that experience is like. All we can try to do is do the best we can to shed some light on what someone who might have gone through this is going through while having absolutely having no experience to equate it to. So, it was a lot of research, reading books, watching documentaries, and talking to veterans to try to see what we could do to possibly portray their experience in an honest way. That continues to be hard because I feel like it’s easy to fall into what you’re doing as an actor: you’re saying lines, and you’re getting a laugh. But, you have to know where it stems from and what you’re doing. So looong answer short: [preparation] started with the music, and we started to develop the characters later.
P-C: As the characters were getting more developed, could you go to the writers if you guys had an idea about your character? Or did you just do what they wrote for you?
Joe: It was extremely fluid and extremely open. A lot of times I feel like I would say, “What if we tried this?” and the cool thing is the writers were constantly open to that stuff—especially Andy Blankenbuehler, who’s at the helm. He’s where the buck stops. So we’re in a room, and we’re working on something, and it’s not feeling right. He’s like, “Well let’s try it this way; let’s try it.” Sometimes as an actor, you need someone to say, “Yeah, let’s try it this way,” and then you go back to do it the way the writers and director originally wanted. You get to that point just by playing around and figuring it out. They were extremely open to collaboration. That’s what I like about the theater, in particular. I feel like the best artists are the best collaborators; the people who say, “That’s the best idea in the room. It’s not my idea, but let’s go in that direction because it’s the best for the piece.” Geoff Packard, who plays Wayne, is a little older than me, and he’s been in the business for a while. He had this great temperament, and it never came off as being a diva or being a jerk. He’d be like, “What if we tried this?”, “What if we took it in this direction?”, and the whole room would be like, “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s try that.” So, there was this real air of collaboration. At the end of the day, though, the writers are the ones putting pens to paper, and that, to me, is the hardest job—you know, to sit in a dark room and figure out how things were going to make sense or not make sense. They would have the final say and the final stamp of approval, but it was extremely collaborative. I was extremely grateful for that.
P-C: How did having to play instruments while doing the normal dancing/singing/acting routine affect your rehearsal times? How much time did you have to spend to, like you said, get to that level where you could play those faster songs?
Joe: All of the musicianship levels varied, almost as much as you could imagine. Our trumpet player is a professional trumpet player who makes a living playing in Broadway pit orchestras and has a masters in trumpet performance. Then it ran the gamut. Geoff played trombone in high school and hadn’t picked it up again until this process started. I had played drums before, but never really played swing drums. Our bass player is a really accomplished cello player so he was able to transition. We worked to the bone. Before the Paper Mill production, we had a whole week, 10-6, six days a week, just playing at what we called “band camp.” We just played the music all the time. Basically any time during the rehearsal process for Broadway when we weren’t needed for scene work or weren’t needed for choreography, we were in a room with our Associate Music Director, Matt Perri, who plays keyboard in the pit. He was like our shaman, our Mr. Miyagi. He was our leader when it came to trying to figure out these tunes. We practiced hours and hours a day while we were in rehearsal, while we weren’t in rehearsal, and while we waited for it to come to Broadway. Corey [Corey Cott] especially learned so much. His piano chops went from zero to sixty. From Paper Mill to Broadway, he was practicing two to three hours a day. He played some stuff at Paper Mill, and now he plays basically everything when he’s sitting at the piano. It’s remarkable what he’s been able to do. So, it was all a labor of love, but it was extremely fun and extremely dense, but Matt Perri led us through all of that. He would treat us like musicians, you know. In acting it’s a lot of, “How are you feeling?” It’s emotional responses to, like, how your mom didn’t love you enough when you’re a kid. When you’re a musician, it’s more like, “These are the right notes, and these are the wrong notes. You’re slowing down here. Now, you’re speeding up.” That’s it. So, he held us to those standards and treated us like we were professional musicians. We appreciated that a lot. I don’t even know how to quantify [rehearsal time]…hundreds of hours!
P-C: That’s very interesting. That’s like using your left brain versus your right brain to do this one role.
Joe: Exactly. Andy is the master of the left and right brain because in choreography, and especially things like ballet, you know, you can either do three pirouettes or you can’t. You can do the steps or you can’t. But then you get into directing, and it’s like, “What about this? Maybe this will work. Let’s try this.” There’s no right answer. And there’s no right answer when you’re creating a Broadway musical. I think this is what is going to make him one of the great director-choreographers of all time with the Jerome Robbins and the Bob Fosses of the world. He is able to toe that line to perfection. I’m certainly excited to see where he goes next and the things he does in the future. As far as musicians, we were right there with him. There were right notes, and there were wrong notes. Then, we’d get into the scenes and be like, “What if we tried this?” He was right on board the whole time. We’re all really grateful for that.
P-C: What is your favorite part of the show?
Joe: I think there’s two very moving parts. In Act I, we sort of play in isolation, and we’re followed by the fallen ghost soldiers. We had always played this piece of music which starts with the sax solo before we all start to play together. We came into rehearsal one day at Paper Mill, and Andy had this idea of these ghosts leaning on [the band] and how [they] get relief from that. In Act I, it’s pills for me and drinking for Davey. The music, though, is what lifts it to another place where we’re able to remember the ghosts of our past, and use the music as a healing mechanism not a masking mechanism like alcohol or drugs. There was nothing on the page but music, Andy came in with this idea, and it was like the air got sucked out of the room. We were like, “This is brilliant. This is what the show is.” So, that’s really special every night because you hear gasps from the audience. I come walking out with these two guys on my back, and I’m sort of pacing around. I take out the pills, pop a pill, and the audience kind of gasps. They’re with you in that moment. It’s so cool. Then, at the end of the show, getting to play the “Welcome Home” finale [is the second moving part]. It is just so fast. The writers have said many times they wanted to write a song where the audience wasn’t sure if the leading lady was going to be able to get through it every night. It’s right on the edge of her voice; it’s super high and very belty. It’s very emotional. Then, for us, it’s so fast that, like, I’ve dropped sticks mid-performance. I’ve broken sticks mid-performance. Sometimes you just can’t keep it up, and that’s exciting because we start on that journey [each night] like, “Maybe we’re gonna get through it, maybe we won’t.” So, it’s very rewarding.
P-C: During “Welcome Home” when I was there, people got up and gave it a standing ovation. I’m sure something like that happens in a number of performances. How does having that type of reaction during the show change things? That doesn’t happen for every Broadway production, obviously.
Joe: No, certainly not. I think, for us, it’s just fulfilling to get through the song. Like, if we get through it, and my arm doesn’t fall off, it’s a success. When the audience responds that way, though, it really does feel like the whole evening was a success. The piece now [after developing it] has gotten to a point where you’ve spent two, two-and-a-half hours with this band of misfits trying to re-acclimate, and this love story [between Corey and Laura] that is so gut-wrenching. By the time we get to that moment, then, it’s a relief for the audience. They go, “Wow, that’s extremely impressive!” They are also rooting for the goofy drummer, for the O.C.D. trombone player, and rooting for this love story. The characters are not winning for the whole evening, and then they win, in so many words…meaning that they don’t, but they do. [The standing ovation] happened in our first preview. We finished the tune, and everybody stood up. There was a moment where we all were like, “Whoa. This is amazing!” I’ve never been a part of something that’s gotten a standing ovation in the middle of the second act, so that’s very cool.
P-C: How did the pre-show ritual of dedicating a show to a particular veteran start?
Joe: That’s a good question…I think it happened sort of organically. We would circle up and focus before Paper Mill, but then we eventually had so much access to this organization called Got Your 6 which Michelle Obama started. They certify artistic endeavors that accurately portray the veteran experience. It’s a wonderful organization, and we got to talk with them a lot. They read our script and gave the writers notes saying, “These are things we wouldn’t say. This is how we would phrase this,” and so, I think, it was somewhere around that time where we were like, “We all have veterans in our families. We all have known people and are directly effected by the military experience. We should try to throw this up for someone who we love who was giving the ultimate sacrifice.” I think our first performance was for our bass player Davy’s (Brandon James Ellis) grandfather. He comes from a whole family of veterans. His father passed away while we were in previews; he was a Vietnam veteran. His grandfather was a World War II and North Korea vet. His brother was in the military as well so we gave it up for them. Then it just continued. Every night we have somebody we dedicate the show to. We’re really proud of that.
We have vets see the show, and they’re extremely moved by it. We had a guy who was sitting in the front row. We got to curtain call, and he saluted us. We looked down at him, and he said to us, under his breath, “I’m a veteran.” We brought him backstage, and he was so blown away by being backstage at a Broadway show. He said, “I served in Vietnam, and I work with veterans sometimes, and I come to Broadway shows. I live in New Jersey, and I come in for the weekend. I see two shows on Saturday and see a show on Sunday. This is so moving.” And we dedicated the show to him that night. We feel like there is something special being said there. We have this big wall backstage of all the people who we’ve dedicated the show to and pictures of members of our Bandstand community friends and family members who serve. There’s a picture of my grandfather who was a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, too. We call it our Veteran Wall. It is very cool, and we pass it every night when we’re going on stage. We’re very proud of it. Who exactly came up with it? I don’t know, but I’ll say it was Corey.
P-C: Before Bandstand, one of the shows you were in was Cinderella. What is the biggest challenge of being in a brand-new musical versus a revival?
Joe: This has been my first brand-new, from-the-ground-up show ever. I did a new play in college once, but this is completely new. Cinderella was always working. The jokes was there; the music really worked. I was able to just ride on the hard work of so many people who created that show. Bandstand, because it was so new, had no template. I think the hardest part of when you’re going through drama school is that they don’t train you to do new shows. They don’t train you to create something from the ground up because they don’t have access to brand new shows. We do revivals in college all the time. You do the greatest production of Brigadoon that the University of Michigan has ever seen, but it’s still Brigadoon. Luckily, they got a lot better about that. Michigan and a lot of other programs do new shows now because they realize that developing new characters and new work is the most important thing. At Bandstand, I just felt like we were sitting in rehearsal looking at this blank piece of paper. As Sondheim says in Sunday in the Park with George, “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” Sometimes, on Tuesday the endless possibilities are exciting, and on Wednesday the endless possibles are suffocating. You just kind of go through the process, trying to throw things at the wall, see what sticks, see what works see, and what doesn’t. I think it’s equal parts thrilling and frustrating to do a new show because, sometimes, you just want to look to the heavens and say, “Tell me what to do so that people will buy tickets to my show,” but, then, what ends up happening is that you have to trust that what you’re doing is good, and it’s the best that it can be.
P-C: If you could star in the next biggest Broadway revival, what show would it be?
Joe: After this experience, I’m really excited about the thing that hasn’t been written yet. I remember doing a reading of a show with Michael John LaChiusa, and one of the guys in the cast said, “Yeah, I’m going to do a reading next week.” I’m like, “Oh, what’s it called?” He said, “Oh, it’s Lin-Manuel’s new show called The Hamilton Mixtape.” To be able to go from that moment in 2013-2014 when no one knew what that was to now when it’s a cultural phenomenon! Like doing this reading of a show called Bandstand in 2013, and now it’s a Tony-nominated Broadway musical…those sorts of things are really thrilling. But [for a revival], I’m a Shakespeare nut. I’d really love to do something with Shakespeare in the Park. I’d also love to do the classics. I love My Fair Lady. I love Oklahoma and those old timey classic shows.
P-C: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received that you would pass on to a young performer?
Joe: My dad makes labels. He has a label company in Michigan. My mom’s a caterer. So, I come from a background that is not theatrical or entertainment. I was deciding in college between doing a summer stock job—it would have been three great parts in rep at the a theater that was not going to pay me a lot of money—and another. The other was, like, Tree #8 in the background, but at a theater that was going to pay me a lot of money. So I called my dad, and he said, “You have to make decisions as if you’re a rich person; as if the money doesn’t matter. Because then you’ll make better art, and the money will hopefully come.” I could see him, like, sitting in his office at the label factory giving me this pearl of wisdom about art and about theater. I keep that with me at all times. Then, he went on to qualify that like, “If you have kids and a mortgage and responsibilities, then you have to pay your bills. That’s completely fine, but, for now, go where the art is. It doesn’t matter if they’re not going to pay you anything. You got into this because you like to do plays. Keep doing plays, and keep telling stories.” That was the biggest [piece of advice] because money is hard. You have to pay your rent, and you have to keep your lights on, but try to steer yourself to where the good theater is. To where the good stories are. Sometimes, those good stories are on television, and they’re going to pay you a bunch of money. Sometimes, they’re indie movies where they’re going to give you a turkey sandwich, and that’s it, but…then that movie could become Moonlight. “You have to go where the art is,” was a gem from the guy who makes labels—which I love.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty pleasure TV show and movie
Movie is That Thing You Do. It’s the movie that made me want to be a drummer. And then TV show is Family Guy.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Favorite play or musical
My favorite musical is Once. I remember seeing the original production of August: Osage County. I was sixteen. I sat in the third row, and I just felt like I was acted at for three hours. It was unbelievable so that’s probably my favorite play.
I like to cook. My mom’s a chef, and I worked in catering kitchens so I know how to julienne a pepper. I know my way around the kitchen.
Go-to karaoke song
I sang it at one karaoke night: “Natural Woman.” Some actors love karaoke, but I don’t love karaoking. Last time I was at karaoke, it was at Sing-Sing in the East Village, very very late at night, and that came on, and that’s it.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel