By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
It's almost necessary to describe Murder Ballad with urgent words.
A rock opera about a love triangle that ends in blood, it hurtles forward like a bullet. With book and lyrics by Julia Jordan and music and lyrics by Juliana Nash, the show, now at Union Square Theatre, evokes not only the passion that makes us kill for love, but also the thrill of watching a violent love story. It wants us to get heated up and then wonder what our enthusiasm means.
That's partly why director Trip Cullman puts the audience in the midst of the action, placing patrons at tables throughout the stage. Patrons are often just inches from the actors as they fight, seethe, and kiss, which makes it easier to feel the story's energy.
For Caissie Levy, there's been a similar wildness behind the scenes. She plays Sara, a woman torn between the stable man she married and the dangerous rebel she loves, but unlike everyone else in the cast, she's new to the production. Murder Ballad had a successful run at Manhattan Theatre Club last fall, and when it was time for the Union Square remount, all the actors returned except the original Sara, Karen Olivo. Once Levy got the part, she had to catch up at warp speed.
"The whole thing has been so fast," she says. "I had one week of rehearsal alone in a room with the director and the writers and the music team. Then I had a week with the cast members, then we went into tech. That's the fastest I've ever put anything up that wasn't a reading."
She found some benefits in working so quickly. "I'm a very detailed, borderline neurotic actor," she says. "I want everything to be perfect. I want to think through everything. I want to know my character inside and out. I want to know what their astrological sign is. But what's been nice about this process and how fast it's been is that I've had to rely on my instincts. I've had to make fast decisions about what makes sense for the character and not second guess them."
That's a major change from Levy's recent jobs. She originated Molly, the female lead in Ghost the Musical, on both Broadway and the West End, and before that, she played Sheila in the Broadway revival of Hair. "Compared to that, Murder Ballad has been a very 'Off-Broadway experience,'" she says. "It hasn't been months and months of tech and rehearsal and meet-and-greets and photo ops. It's just, 'Okay, here you go. Here's your costume. That looks good. Now let's get on stage.' It hasn't been about anything but the story."
As she tallies up performances, Levy is discovering new textures in the material. "It's a rock show for grown ups and grown-up issues, and that's what I'm responding to," she says. "You have the kid and the marriage and the job, but not everything is feeling right. It's a relatable story, and it's set to this kick-ass rock score with grown-ups singing instead of teenagers. It's refreshing."