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Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

Ten Questions with Jason Graae
The stage, concert, and television star returns to the Coachella Valley for one night only Interview by Robert Sokol

Jason Graae
Song and dance man Jason Graae moves easily from theatre to cabaret to opera and beyond. Featured on dozens of cast albums, concert recordings, and showtune compilations, he also recorded three solo albums including "Perfect Hermany," a celebration of the music of Jerry Herman. New York audiences have seen him in A Grand Night for Singing, Forever Plaid, and Falsettos, among other work. His television credits cover three decades and include recurring roles on "Rude Awakening" and "Six Feet Under." He has traveled the country in a national tour of Wicked and spent innumerable nights on cabaret, benefit, and concert stages nationwide. His work with the Los Angeles Opera includes The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus and he premiered the musical Scrooge in Love! in San Francisco. A regular visitor to the Desert, the irrepressible and inveterate storyteller takes the stage at Coachella Valley Repertory this week with a new performance in which he contemplates life, musicals and more–probably not in that order.

1: The title of this show is Graavitas. What sort of wisdom will you be imparting?

Jason Graae: You've seen my shows, so you know how deep I delve. (Laughs.) I just always wanted to use that for a title. I was gonna use it for when Debbie Gravitte and I did a show together, but that hasn't happened yet. So I thought, "Well, I'm gonna use this and hopefully the show will fall in line after I pick the title." I like to work a little by the seat of my pants, and I do like a deadline. Coachella Valley Rep, call them nutty, but they wanted the name of the show, so I gave it to them. Then I thought, "Okay, now I better have a show to follow up." It's like so many of my shows–a hodgepodge. No. A smorgasbord. I can say smorgasbord because my dad was Danish. (Laughs.) Really, I'm delving a little deeper than maybe usual, and it is a work in progress. I don't want to call it a workshop because, you know, full ticket prices and all. I'm certainly doing songs that I've done before, but many new ones as well, so I can't wait.

2: Knowing your career, it would be very easy to think of you as a Broadway baby, but you been a California dreamer for such a long time. What is the Left Coast appeal that has kept you based in Los Angeles?

JG: I've lived here over 25 years, and I only lived in New York 16 years, and that's just shocking to me. I came out here to do Forbidden Hollywood, but kept my apartment in New York. The whole cast, we just got so much TV. It was like an in-house industrial doing Forbidden Hollywood out here. Everybody was coming to it, and it was quite a hot ticket for, you know, six months, nine months. I just loved it and I loved doing the TV. So I kept my apartment in New York and was going back and forth for a while. Then I got Ragtime out here and right around that time I think my New York landlords got wind that I was subletting my apartment. They wanted me to come back and prove that I was still living there, and I couldn't so I had to let the lease go. So, I never really meant to move out here. It just kind of happened when I got kicked out of my apartment. I do love it out here, though.

3: This is your second visit to the Valley in as many months. What do you like about this place out here and what do you dislike about this place out here?

JG: I love coming out there any chance I get. It's always for a short amount of time, so it always feels a little like a vacation, a real treat every time I get hired to do anything there. I've been working with Michael Childers through the years, and I just adore him. I love the audiences there because it really is quite a mixture, you know, of a very classy, highbrow group of people but then there's also like the low-brow, campy artists as well. It's a real mix, more than any other place I know.

4: What makes good cabaret for you?

JG: When I lived in New York, it was not my bag. I remember seeing Andrea Marcovicci and just absolutely loving her. I remember Amanda McBroom was like a lightning bolt when I saw her perform. There were people that I just loved, but I was a theatre guy, so I didn't really get that world that much. Then when I started doing it, you realize, like, everybody can do cabaret. Anybody can get up and do a cabaret show. Anybody. They don't have to have a great voice. I just want them to have a clear point of view. I want to know who they are when they're performing. If I get to know who they are, I'm thrilled. Even if I don't like them. I'm thrilled. When you see somebody great it's so moving, and I get so transported and I guess so thrilled to be in that world. That's what it's about to me.

5: You're known as something of a Jerry Herman aficionado. Have any new composers caught your ear?

JG: Dave Malloy, who wrote Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. That score! I've listened to that album almost more than any other album in my life. I just love it. I love Jeanine Tesori. I loved Kimberly Akimbo. Adam Guettel. Probably my most listened-to album is The Light in the Piazza. Stunning. Of course, Jason Robert Brown. I love so much of his stuff. I'm so happy that he just continues to write and is having great success. William Finn. I got to do Spelling Bee out here in L.A. I love his stuff. He hasn't written nearly enough shows, but his music and his lyrics are just sublime.

6: You've cited Danish actor Victor Borge as an inspiration for you. How so?

JG: When the Nazis invaded Copenhagen in Denmark, my dad was living there and he got a visa to Finland and then got on a boat with the Royal Danish engineers and other people to go to America from Finland. Victor Borge was on the boat. My father loved Victor Borge, who was on Hitler's most hated list. So, my dad got really drunk one night with his friends and he went up to Victor Borge, whose real name was Victor Rosenbaum. My dad was a Danish Lutheran, but we have a lot of Jewish blood in our background. So, he said to Victor Borge, "Hey, Rosenbaum, I think you should do a show for the people." Borge looked down and said, "It's not that kind of cruise." When I was Off-Broadway doing Forever Plaid, he came to see the show and he waited around to talk to us afterwards. I told him the story and he laughed. "We were all drinking on that boat." He talked about how much he loved the harmonies. In the middle of him talking very specifically about our show, one of the cocktail waitresses walked by and he just stopped mid-sentence and followed her with his eyes in this long, slow take as she walked out of the room. "You all are fine," he said, "but she was my favorite." I called my father when I got home, he was living in Chicago then, and I told him what happened. My dad, who was not a sentimental sort, cried. He was so excited. I think that was the first time he kind of thought, "I think my son's doing okay."

7: Is it true that your mother was a dancer on Broadway?

JG: Yes. Well, she was a dancer in New York, not on Broadway, but she did dance at the Copa, and she danced at Ben Marden's Riviera, which was in Teaneck, just on the other side of the bridge. She thinks it was mafia run. She was in the chorus line with Kate Mostel, Zero's wife, and Dodie Goodman. She was 17 years old. My mom did get cast in a national tour with Mary Martin. Also, one of her best friends growing up was Dorothy Loudon. They were in all the recitals together. Mother could tap and was also a ballet dancer. I asked what Dorothy Loudon did at all the recitals and my mother said, "She just got out there and was hammy and sang loud. Nobody really thought too much about her." So began a bitter rivalry through the years. They were like The Turning Point in real life.

8: Your resume has Broadway, and cabaret, and opera, and voiceover, and recordings, and movies, and television, and, and, and. What sort of projects haven't you tried that you'd like to tackle?

JG: Feature film. I did one feature that was voice work for a Disney cartoon. Home on the Range. It wasn't one of their big, big moneymakers but it was well received, and it was Alan Menken. Carole Cook played the ranch owner, the lead characters were cows played by Roseanne and Jennifer Tilly. David Burnham, Greg Jbara, and I played Randy Quaid's cousins or nephews, and we have one song so the three of us got to do it in the studio together. We didn't see anybody else. Ah, showbiz.

9: If you had not pursued song and dance–and caught it–how would Jason Graae be spending his life right now?

JG: I truly feel that I would be an oboist. I really wanted to be a concert oboist. I felt like I could have done that, but you know, I was in college. What did I know? Chances are I would have been in an orchestra somewhere. If I was lucky, I'd hopefully get to, you know, be a soloist as well. I really loved playing in an orchestra, but I felt like I couldn't just sit there. "I've got to do more. I need to go where there's more rejection and pain." So, I chose the thea-tuh. I just find the rejection intoxicating.

10: Multiple Choice question: A) What's going on in the world right now that's important for you to talk about?; B) What is there about this gig that you think we haven't covered, and you want audiences to know?; Or C) What is a deep, dark secret that you've never revealed before but you're going to tell now? Only pick one.

JG: Well, it won't be C. (Laughs.) I would like to just give a shout out to my absolutely magnificent pianist and musical director Jerry Sternbach who I've known from Reprise! out here in LA. I just love him, and we've had a very long relationship. I've really been lucky to work with some really incredible, incredible musical directors like Alex Rybeck and John Boswell and Rick Jensen. So many incredible people, and Gerry and I are reunited for this show, and I'm really thrilled about that.

Graavitas happens at 7:00 p.m. on June 20, 2024, as part of the annual Summer Cabaret Series at Coachella Valley Repertory, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City CA. Tickets are $50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 760-296-2966, Extension 0.