Adam Pascal wanted to be in "Memphis" long before he ever saw "Memphis," which sounds a little crazy.
"It's only insane on the surface," the 41-year-old actor says, laughing. "The reality of it is that I'm a Broadway leading man and there are very few Broadway leading man roles. I knew that that was a show that I would be able to pull off."
He was right: Pascal, a veteran of "Rent," "Aida" and "Cabaret," has slipped into the role of Huey Calhoun in the Tony Award-winning musical, taking over from Chad Kimball.
"I'm built to do this. It's kind of what I'm best doing," he says. "I'm physically made to do it. I'm emotionally made to do it. For whatever reason, I have the right sets of skills to make doing musicals something that I really, really love to do."
The musical, written by playwright Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, keyboardist with the band Bon Jovi, is set in 1950s Memphis and traces the burgeoning romance between Huey, an R&B-obsessed white DJ, and a black singer played by Montego Glover.
Pascal approached the producers for "Memphis" two summers ago about coming in and finally got the role in late October when Kimball chose to leave. The day before his audition, he saw the show for the first time.
"What an incredibly pleasant surprise I had when I finally did see the show and loved it. Again, I didn't care if I liked it or not. I wanted this job. I knew it was right for me," he says. "But, having seen the show, it was a huge sigh of relief."
Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in California who directed "Memphis," says Pascal was one of the first names he and the creative team considered when they learned of replacing Kimball.
"There's not that many people that I think their talents, their vocal chops and their adventurousness can fill this part all the way up. This is a really hard part," says Ashley. "He is on stage all the time for 2 1/2 hours. He has eight songs of his own — it's really challenging, really dominating role."
One of the toughest challenges is the power tune "Memphis Lives In Me" that Pascal calls "one of the best songs ever written for theater." The song demands a super-high note be hit at the very end and Pascal says he gets up there about half the time. "It doesn't necessarily serve any purpose other than my own ego," he says.
Pascal came to fame alongside Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs in the original cast of "Rent." He originated the role of Roger, the AIDS-infected singer frightened of falling in love and earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance.
He also originated the role of Radames in Disney's "Aida" by Elton John and Tim Rice, and was the last MC in the Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall production of "Cabaret." Blessed with a youthful face and a strong voice, Pascal says he's drawn to all kinds of musicals but is known for rock-inflected ones.
"I certainly don't want to be pigeonholed as 'the Broadway rock guy.' I kind of am, and that's OK. But it's really my job as an actor and a performer to make people see my abilities beyond that. And I actually think this is a role that helps do that," he says.
Pascal reprised his role as Roger in the Chris Columbus-directed film of "Rent" and was cast alongside Jack Black as Theo, the lead singer of No Vacancy, in "School of Rock."
Although he initially tried to distance himself from "Rent" in the years after appearing in the musical, Pascal has now come to terms with its role in his career. He's even gone to see the new off-Broadway production.
"To be connected with something that has inspired so many people, that has moved so many people, that has touched so many people — there are worse things to be connected to," he says. "I owe my whole career to 'Rent,' to that incredible springboard that it gave to me."
Pascal is a musician as well and has put out three solo records. He performs his music on tour, playing an upright bass and guitar with a piano player and a drummer. He has, of course, added songs from "Rent."
"I would say the first few years, I wouldn't have touched anything from the show. Then I sort of came to the realization that I'm spiting at the audience. It's not for my own ego. The audience wants to hear it, so they should hear it."
One thing he hopes an audience will hear one day is his stage adaptation of "Operation: Mindcrime," a concept album released in 1988 by the heavy metal band Queensryche, whom Pascal, a longtime fan, calls "the intellectual, thinking man's metal band."
The album follows a disillusioned man as he becomes involved with a revolutionary group as an assassin and Pascal has gotten permission from the band to try to turn it into a musical. He wants to expand the book — he says some of it may need to be "defanged" — and create a story-driven musical.
"I think I'm smart enough to know who the audience is for this. And it's not Queensryche fans. That has to be clear," he says. "The audience has to be the people that are coming to 'Memphis' and to 'Wicked.'"
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