Interview: It’s a Hot Summer for Dan Domenech!

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From Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, and touring productions, to television, cabaret, direction, and choreography, Long Island native Dan Domenech does it all and loves it all. Best known to fans for his guest appearances on the TV series Glee and his roles in the musical hits Heathers and Rock of Ages, Domenech brings his outstanding talent, irresistible charm, disarming good looks, and unbridled ebullience to everything he does on stage and in life, radiating a contagious spirit of excitement and humanity, and thrilling audiences with his captivating performances.

Dan Domenech. Photo by Ian Brown Photography.
Dan Domenech. Photo by Ian Brown Photography.

Dan was gracious enough to meet with me for breakfast before a long day of rehearsal and the evening’s first preview performance of Smokey Joe’s Cafe at Stage 42, for a lively conversation about his career and background, his current work, and his reflections on life in the theater.

Deb: What have you been up to since I saw you last summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, in your unforgettable performance as Che in Evita?

Dan: I got back to New York and hit the ground running with auditions! I toured with the original band from Rock of Ages, symphonies around the country, and with Neil Berg’s concert shows 100 Years of Broadway & 50 Years of Rock and Roll. It allowed me not to be out of the city for too long and to spend time with my family. I was in Maine for the run of Smokey Joe’s Cafe at the Ogunquit Playhouse in May and early June, then during our break I took a two-week vacation to England with my sister. While we were there, we made a twelve-hour trip to Dublin to see the Smokey Joe’s saxophone player perform at Malahide Castle with Nile Rodgers. He gave us backstage passes, and for the finale, “Good Times,” we were invited on stage in front of 20,000 screaming Irish fans! So that was nuts. Then it was back to New York, to begin rehearsals for the Off-Broadway revival of Smokey Joe’s.

Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper, and Max Sangerman. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, Dwayne Cooper, and Max Sangerman in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What’s your role in the current production, and what do you love most about the show?

I’m one of the standbys, which means we cover all of the cast in the show – their vocals, musical instruments, choreography, entrances and exits, and how they move the set pieces – and have to be ready to go on for any of them at any time, so we’re there for every performance. I’m there, along with Shavey Brown for all of the men, and Bronwyn Tarboton and Antoinette Comer for all of the women, to go on at a moment’s notice.

As far as what I love about the show, my generation was obsessed with it when it was on Broadway in the 1990s! It ran for over 2,000 performances, making it the longest-running musical of its type in Broadway history, nominated for seven Tony Awards, and winning Best Musical. We loved the music and the personalities of that cast, which are very important in this show, because it’s a blend of the cabaret style with the theatrical. It’s all told with the music (there’s one spoken line in the show – an ad lib by Jelani Remy. He just came out with something in rehearsal that had the whole room laughing, so they kept it in. I won’t tell you what it is, so you’ll be surprised when you hear it). There’s a mini-story in each song, which audience members can make their own. The actors are all playing themselves and we had such a great experience working on our out-of-town run that the camaraderie is palpable.

You’ve embraced a wide range of media, shows, and venues, and you seem equally passionate about all of them. What do you find valuable about being able to do such a variety of work?

You’re never put in a box, and you gain a lot of experience. As a result, you can bring value to any project, because you have a background in different roles. It also lets you get your pom-poms out and be a cheerleader for everyone else in the production because you know what they’re going through.

I got started doing community theater on Long Island, at The Cultural Arts Playhouse. Rent was big at the time in New York, and my friends said I should go audition. I checked Backstage Magazine and saw there was an open call. The process was grueling – there were fourteen callbacks over four years – but two weeks after I graduated from going to school for Computer Graphics of all things, I got the call! So I thought that was the universe telling me, “Don’t give up this dream!” It was perfect timing, like it was meant to be, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t maintained my variety of interests and training, and been open to everything I love doing.

Dan Domenech as Che in Evita at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
Dan Domenech as Che in Evita at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Is there a particular role or production that has been your favorite to date?

It’s hard to say that, because you really commit to every show you do. Che was great because the whole team there at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival for Evita was such a family. Rock of Ages because of the music – you feel like a rock star for two hours! With Heathers, each ensemble role had an appropriately named personality that reflected people you were in school with. Fans would come to the stage door dressed as the “new wave party girl,” “hipster dork,” “preppy stud,” and all the others. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each part you play feels like one of your children.

In addition to your active schedule of performing, you’ve also done volunteer work with different non-profit organizations. How did you become actively involved in social, and especially children’s, advocacy?

There are a lot of groups out there making the world better any way they can, and when you’re in a high-profile show, they find you. When you’re on a performing schedule, you have your days free, so when they ask for you to bring your guitar to play for kids stuck in the hospital, away from their friends and family, during the day, it’s a no brainer. It doesn’t cost a dime, and it means everything to them. I’ve been involved with Love146 [which works toward the abolition of child trafficking and exploitation through survivor care] and Lollipop Theater Network [which brings entertainment to hospitalized children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses].

Even in a show with kids in it, they look up to the adults in the production, so it’s important to set a good example and let them know that they’re a valuable member of the cast! Whether it’s on social media or in person, I do my best to be accessible because I remember being their age, wanting to talk to my theater heroes. There’s no book on how to engage with your fans, it’s a learning process, but the best way to relate is just to be human and not to let your persona get in the way of your personality.

Art by Zenobia Pogue.
Art by Zenobia Pogue.

Tell us a little about your upcoming one-man cabaret, Bootleg Famous: To Broadway and Beyond, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.  

They reached out to me during the run of Evita, to see if I would like to come back for a one-night concert, like the amazing Dee Roscioli [who played the title role] did last summer. A couple of months later, I got an email, and we scheduled it for July 30. It’s 90 minutes, with sixteen songs and stories about my career. I was lucky enough to secure David Gardos, who will come in from Broadway to accompany me on piano. He’s a world-class pianist with a wide understanding of different genres. I chose some of my favorite songs, from my early days growing up in community theater to what I’m doing now, and fit them into a story. I want the audience to know that we’re not that different. The things that make you successful in the theater are the same things that apply to any profession – work ethic, dedication, sacrifices, and giving 150%.

Is this your first autobiographical show? What is most challenging and most satisfying about performing your own original work?

Yes. Keeping it within the time constraints has been a challenge. How do you tell the whole story and pick which are the important parts? An hour and a half goes by really fast! Then there’s the question of how personal do you get? I don’t just want to talk about bad experiences, break ups, or problems for an hour and a half; you want people to feel good, but also want to be as real as you can be.

What’s your first creative memory?

There was a TV show on Nickelodeon called “Pinwheel” – I was obsessed with the opening song and I still remember it [he sings a few lines]. My aunt, who lived four blocks away, had brought a piano over to our home, and I would sit and plunk the melody. I must have been about three or four at the time. I didn’t catch the performing bug, though, till a fourth-grade talent show where I sang “Holidays” from Hey Vern, It’s Ernest. There’s a VHS of it out there somewhere and I’m still trying to get my hands on it. Little Dan, with his Max Headroom suspenders, a gold glitter top hat, and grandfather’s cane that doubled as a pool cue. It was hilarious.

Are there any dream roles that you would like to perform in the future, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to play?

The ones that haven’t been written yet! [He rolls his eyes and laughs.] That’s such a stock answer, but whoever came up with it is a genius. I’m always interested in new work that speaks to me and our current times. You develop a different perspective as you mature and gain more life experience. Playing Che in Evita really put into perspective just how many years had gone by; there was such a political and sociological depth to him that I hadn’t recognized as a young performer, but I could now appreciate as an adult. I would like to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter again in The Rocky Horror Show, which I did at the Dallas Theater Center in 2014. OH! I just saw Denzel Washington in The Iceman Cometh, portraying Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. He seemed to have all of the answers for everyone on the outside, but underneath the surface he was traumatized and unstable. There. That’s my new dream role.

I also want to direct more. Larry [O’Keefe, the songwriter for Heathers: The Musical], Kevin [Murphy, the book writer], and Andy [Fickman, the director] handed me the opportunity of a lifetime to direct the changes to Heathers with the Stage to Screen Acting Academy on Long Island, before they brought it to the Other Palace Theater in London. [They just announced a full West End run a few days before this interview.] I never expected to get the same sense of fulfillment from directing as I did from performing, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What can we look forward to from you once the summer season ends?

Smokey Joe’s Cafe! We’re currently in previews and officially open on July 22; tickets are on sale now through January 2019. We have producers that have a total of 36 tony Awards among them, an amazing creative team of heavy-hitters, a five-star cast, and dozens of hits you can’t help but sing along to. That’s an opportunity you don’t turn down.

Thanks, Dan, for giving us an inside look at your shows and a taste of your infectious enthusiasm!

Smokey Joe’s Cafe plays an open-ended run at Stage 42 – 422 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

Art by Lily Nellist.
Art by Lily Nellist.

Bootleg Famous: To Broadway and Beyond plays on Monday, July 30, 2018, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Main Stage – 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 282-WILL, or purchase them online.