Metro Weekly

High Notes: ‘Falsettos’ star Nick Adams on the power of theater and why he’s happy to ‘play gay’

Nick Adams has starred on Broadway in La Cage and Priscilla, but playing Whizzer at the Kennedy Center marks a personal career high

Nick Adams — Photo: Evan Zimmerman

Nick Adams had a genuine pinch-me moment at the start of the national tour of Falsettos. In San Francisco, on opening night, Adams — who stars as Whizzer in the show — had the opportunity to meet the musical’s creator William Finn.

“He came for our official tour opening to check in on the show and to celebrate with us,” Adams says. “And I spent, I would say, the better part of opening night in a corner nestled with him, talking with him about the show and sort of gushing over it. Being like, ‘I can’t believe that we’re here together right now.’ Because I spent my young adult life listening to this music.”

Finn was equally taken with Adams. The composer and lyricist apparently had “nothing but kind things to say” to him — and then came the kicker. “He actually said he normally hates ‘The Games I Play,’ this beautiful song that I get to sing at the end of act one. He said, ‘You made me like it again.’ I’ll never forget that.”

That’s about as high praise as it gets for an actor. But for Adams and the rest of the cast, it was a precursor to the glowing responses the show has been getting across the board, and across the country. And that Falsettos is even touring the country in 2019 is a notable achievement, given that the musical — among the first to present gay life and same-sex love — made its Broadway debut all the way back in 1992.

The source material is even older than that, as writer James Lapine helped Finn fashion Falsettos out of two of his one-act plays that had previously run Off-Broadway. Lapine would go on to direct the original Broadway run — which garnered a Tony for Best Book of a Musical and another for Best Original Score — as well as the 2016 revival, and now again with the 2019 tour, produced by Lincoln Center Theater.

As Whizzer, Adams is the man the show’s main character, Marvin, decides to leave his wife and child for. Whizzer follows a rich tragectory of prominent gay stage roles that Adams has played over the last dozen years, including Broadway stints in La Cage aux Folles in 2010, as one of the Cagelles, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which he played Adam/Felicia in 2011.

A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Adams has the fortune of being able to cite his parents among his biggest supporters — and among Falsettos biggest fans.

“My dad said he never thought that he would love anything more than Priscilla until he came to see Falsettos,” he says. “I come from a home of divorce, and that’s in the show. And my stepmom said, ‘I saw myself in this in a way I didn’t anticipate.’ She just knew that it was going to be about this gay couple…. They didn’t really know the show before they saw it. And they both were just wrecked by the end of it. And they said, ‘Yeah, this is probably our favorite thing we’ve ever seen.’

“I remember I wrote James Lapine an email to tell him about what they said: ‘This is just so brilliantly written and so heartfelt and so honest.’ It just presents people in a really truthful way, which is rare. I think in a lot of musicals, there’s a clear hero and everything seems very glamorous and happy. And this is definitely not that, it’s very true to life. And the reality of humanity is presented in an honest way.”

The show lights up the stage of the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center starting June 11 — a day after Adams’ 36th birthday. The two-week run will mark the actor’s second time at the Kennedy Center, following his debut stint as one of four backup dancers for Ne-Yo in tribute to Barbra Streisand at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors.

Adams says he hopes people in Washington will have the same rapturous reaction to Falsettos as his parents and many others who have seen the show thus far — including in places as far off the beaten showtune path as Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Dallas, Texas.

“The score really has some of the most beautiful melodies in the musical theater catalog,” Adams says. “And that’s the thing — people get wrapped up in the emotion that’s carried in the songs. It’s just fantastic. But as a full piece, to see it — God, it’s a ride.”

Nick Adams — Photo: Evan Zimmerman

METRO WEEKLY: What led to you being cast in Falsettos?

NICK ADAMS: I have an interesting history with Falsettos. I first became familiar with the musical when I was in college at the Boston Conservatory. I just fell in love with it. And I hoped someday I could play Whizzer. It’s a rare opportunity when a dream role happens. And I’m living everyday in gratitude because it happened.

I expressed interest in doing this revival in 2016. And I ended up doing a preview concert in Chicago called “Broadway in Chicago” in Millennium Park for 20 dozen people. The casting director for the show called my manager and said, “James Lapine requests Nick to come and do this preview for shows that are touring through.” There was no indication whether or not I would’ve even been on the table for the role, but I guess I was on his mind for this. So, they flew me to Chicago and I did this concert and sang our final duet, “What Would I Do?” It was a thrilling experience and…two weeks after, I had a session with James Lapine and the casting director for the show.

It’s wild. I mean I grew up with Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, and those are both James Lapine musicals [co-written with Stephen Sondheim]. I mean, he’s a theater legend. So to audition for him was already a surreal experience, but then to have him be the one that says, “Yeah, that’s the guy” for a show that he co-wrote, I still can’t believe it. So it’s been amazing.

MW: Can you give a little background on Falsettos and Whizzer’s role in the show?

ADAMS: At the center of it is Marvin, who divorces his wife and leaves her and their son Jason to run off with his best friend Whizzer. He realizes he’s gay and comes out of the closet and tells her, “Look, I’m in love with my friend.” And all the complications that come from that — trying to navigate going through a divorce and still being a part of his son’s life and not really being sure how to be a good father. He’s not really sure what his relationship is with Trina, his ex-wife. And he’s not able to really let her go yet.

And then my character Whizzer, being thrown in the mix of trying to navigate this established relationship that’s now broken, but trying to insert himself in there and be a father figure for Jason in a way, and a best friend to him. And there’s also the character Mendel, who is Marvin’s psychiatrist that knows all of the ins and outs of his relationship with Trina, with Jason and with Whizzer, who then falls in love with Trina and ends up marrying his patient’s ex-wife. I don’t know about the morality of that, but that ends up happening.

That’s basically Act One in a nutshell. Act Two is set two years later. Marvin leaves Whizzer at the end of Act One, so they break up and they’ve all sort of grown up a lot since Act One, when we meet them again. And then we have the introduction of two new characters, two lesbian friends that enter the picture. And in Act Two, we begin to deal with the very early inception of the AIDs crisis. And not to give it completely away, but the magnitude of what that was like in this community at that time. Act Two takes place in ’81. It’s not only named, but you feel the gravity of it by the end of the show.

Nick Adams — Photo: Greg Vaughan

MW: How often are you singing in the show?

ADAMS: It’s completely sung-through — it’s almost three hours of singing. It’s very singular in the way that it’s written, almost like an opera. All the exposition, everything is told through song. I sing nonstop. I have a few songs that I sing by myself and then multiple duets, basically every other song, with the rest of the company. But I have two really powerful moments that I get to do just by myself.

MW: Do you have a favorite song?

ADAMS: It actually kind of morphs every performance. “The Games I Play,” I’ve always loved that song, and to bring it to life feels really incredible and it’s really emotional and it becomes a really intense moment in Act One. I love the quartet we sing, “Four Unlikely Lovers,” Marvin and Whizzer and the two lesbians, Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, in Act Two. And it’s really really beautiful, it’s one of my favorite songs in the musical theater canon.

And then there’s a duet that I sing with Max von Essen, who plays Marvin, at the end of the show called “What Would I Do?” — I don’t know if there’s another love duet between two men in a musical that’s as powerful. And Max is one of the greatest theater singers of my generation, so to get to sing with him every night is a dream.

And “You Gotta Die Sometime” is such a beautiful acting piece. I’m in the hospital alone, it’s a song about really surrendering to death and kind of trying to make sense of it all. At first glance I was like, “Oh, that’s going to be such a tough thing and it’s going to be really hard emotionally.” And I’ve found that it’s one of my favorite moments in the show, because I get so lost in it and it feels like I’m actually alone with the song in the room, and the song is a friend of mine. It’s been a really incredible journey with that one, too.

I’m so emotionally wrung out by the end of the show. But it’s so satisfying and it’s such an important story and a beautiful story and I’m honored that I get to share it. To have dreamt of being a Broadway actor as a young queer kid, to then get to be a part of a show that’s so important to our community, it’s the ideal. I just feel like I’m really living my dream right now.

MW: You also played gay on Broadway in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

ADAMS: Priscilla is an iconic gay film and the musical was a joy to be a part of. To be able to celebrate individuality and acceptance in that way was incredible. And the people that came to see that show had such a great time, it was such a night of entertainment, but they also were really deeply impacted by it. And we felt that as a cast, and it was incredible to share that with audiences.

For me, that show was so important because it was my first time starring in a show and originating a role. I’ll never forget it. Falsettos is much different in its denseness and its emotional requirements. It’s profound, it’s powerful, and we really connect with a young audience on this show, which I didn’t anticipate. For it to hold up and not feel dated and still be relevant and to connect with LGBTQ teenagers is unbelievable. We had a student matinee here in L.A. a couple of weeks ago for thousands of teenagers, and I was just so touched. And we did a talkback with them afterwards and for them to say, “I feel represented, it’s the first time I’ve come to see a musical where I feel I can see myself. And see that love is the most important thing at the end of the day. And that we choose our family.” That takeaway for us was just so special. It was really tangible how things have changed since I was in high school.

I grew up in the small town of Erie, Pennsylvania. People would’ve walked out or booed when there’s two men holding hands. Or the school wouldn’t have allowed it. To see thousands of kids that were rooting for these characters was pretty powerful.

Nick Adams — Photo: Evan Zimmerman

MW: I imagine that even today in Erie, though, it would be a different experience than it was in L.A., if the show were produced there.

ADAMS: I think that’s what’s powerful about bringing a piece like this across the country. It’s important and it’s valuable and it has a place and it has a need. And that’s what I think is so great that Falsettos is touring. We started this show in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and did two performances there before we left to go to Dallas, which is also — although it’s more liberal then I would anticipate — it’s still in Texas. And I just love that we went to those cities. And people in Arkansas, it’s a very polarizing show in that way — some people got up and left as soon as the men kiss on stage.

Other people would stick through and you could tell they were sort of uncomfortable. By the end of the show, they’re sobbing and they’re seeing past what they thought was wrong. They’re invested in the love story and the heartbreak of it all. I think that’s what theater’s supposed to do. This show, if anything, challenges you to think and feel and not just be entertained, which it also does. But it’s more than that.

MW: Let’s talk more about your upbringing. When did you come out?

ADAMS: I came out after my freshman year of college to my family. And it was more about me being able to speak it and actually say it out loud and not so much about the fear of my parents not accepting it, because I’ve been fortunate that they have been 100% supportive of my life as long as I can remember, and encouraged me to go into this profession. And they never thought twice about it. And so I felt like I was self-aware enough and in touch with who I am, once I’d left home, that I could share that with them. And they thanked me for opening up that part of my life to them — they’ve been fantastic.

But I lived a closeted life in high school and I went through girlfriends. I went away for a summer when I was 16 to do summer stock in Cincinnati. I lived by myself in an apartment there, and I was surrounded by a bunch of people who were living their true selves. And I think that was the first time I really was able to kind of give over to that. And then I had to go back to finish high school after that and pretend again. And it was challenging, once I’d already experienced what that was like and knew, okay, you’re definitely gay.

MW: Were there any openly LGBTQ kids in your high school?

ADAMS: There was only one. I went to a private Catholic high school that has a small arts program — which is why I wanted to go there. But there was only one guy who was out. And I think that also deterred me from coming out because I saw the way that he was treated, and it made me afraid to be honest. But I was severely bullied and made fun of by anyone that wasn’t in theater. Kids would call me gay in the hallways and everything. I look back on it and I wish I would’ve just been like, “Yeah, I am, and so what?” But I didn’t have the courage to do that then and I see that so much now. I know that back in my hometown, and at the high school that I went to, there are openly gay kids, and it’s really inspiring to me that they’re that self-aware and courageous to just be, “Yeah, this is who I am.”

MW: As a kid, did you want to be on the stage?

ADAMS: It’s all I ever wanted to do. I remember seeing my first show when I was nine years old and I turned to my mom and said, “I want to do that.” And a few weeks later I was auditioning for my first show at a community theater in Erie and I got one of the leads and I just really never looked back.

My dad took me to New York to audition for a Broadway show when I was 16 and I remember it was an open call. Hundreds of people lined up on the street, kind of like what you see in movies or hear about — it was just like that. We waited for a couple of hours and I auditioned. I remember I got a callback and so we were like, “Yeah, this could happen.” It’s within reach, it could be part of my future.

MW: What was that first show that inspired you?

ADAMS: The show I saw when I was nine was a musical revue at the community theater I ended up kind of growing up at. But then I saw Chicago on my first trip to New York. I was 15 with my dad and my step mom and my friend Rick. We drove to New York and we saw Chicago and Cabaret and the crazy thing is, eight years later, I made my Broadway debut in Chicago. Which is nuts. I remember sitting in that audience thinking, “How the hell do I get there?” It just seemed so unattainable at the time. “How do these people get up there? What do they have to do?” And then here I am in that same show. And it was still running with some of the people that I had seen when I was fifteen.

MW: Another notable gay-themed show you’ve been in on Broadway was the revival of La Cage Aux Folles.

ADAMS: I did the production with Kelsey Grammar. To have been a part of that and Priscilla and now Falsettos, it’s like I’m really checking off all of the important musicals.

That was also really an amazing ride and an incredible experience. And a good trajectory sequence of events, because I ended up doing Priscilla right after that, so it’s what kind of got me ready for the world of drag in a different way. The producers of Priscilla came to see me in La Cage and they were able to see me in drag and sort of see what that would be like. So it helped with that process as well.

MW: Had you done drag before La Cage?

ADAMS: I had in college. At Boston Conservatory, they do an annual drag show, a benefit that my class started. We would do that once a year and it was fun and ridiculous. That was really the first time that I did that. When I did Chicago, I did the national tour first before I joined the Broadway cast. And I understudied Mary Sunshine on the tour and then when I joined the Broadway company I was the Mary Sunshine standby. And that is a reporter [played by] a man in drag. That was my Broadway debut, as a standby for Mary Sunshine. So I’ve been in three different drag roles in Broadway shows.

Nick Adams — Photo: Evan Zimmerman

MW: Do you enjoy drag?

ADAMS: There is something really exhilarating and freeing about it — it’s very transformative. It is like wearing a mask — you feel like you become someone else, and it allows you to embody someone other than yourself. I don’t necessarily miss shaving my legs and pushing makeup into my eyebrows everyday, but I really respect drag queens and what that art form is. And I love to go and watch drag shows and support queens in New York and across the country, when we’re in a town that has a good drag show. But that’s not something I do outside of an acting realm.

MW: Do you like playing gay roles? And do you ever worry about being typecast?

ADAMS: Look, I’m happy to play well-written gay roles, absolutely. I am a gay man, so obviously I think it’s amazing when we have great roles that represent our community. And I’ve also played straight characters — if it’s a good show and if it’s a great project, I’m excited to be a part of it, I’m not limited to one or the other. I had a point in my career where a previous agent of mine said, “Look, you decided to be open about your sexuality, so now that’s going to be a hurdle for us to overcome.” And I replied, “I gotta go. If that’s your perspective on this, we have to part ways.” And we did. I’m not going to live an inauthentic life, or represent some other version of myself just so I can book a job. I just don’t think that’s the way to live your life. So I don’t regret anything and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to play some incredible roles and still be true to who I am.

MW: You’re in a long-term relationship with actor Kyle Brown, who was also in Priscilla. Are you married?

ADAMS: No, but I’ve been with my partner for over eight years. We met on Priscilla. He was in the ensemble of the show, and I thought he was cute from the first day, and he was sweet and a great dancer. And I remember any time I had to be partnered with somebody in the ensemble, our choreographer kept putting us together. It just sort of blossomed when we were up in Toronto, out of town. I thought it was going to be like a “showmance” situation. And then, here we are eight years later and we’re still together.

We ended up doing Wicked together as well, he was my understudy in Wicked and we toured the country for a year and a half. So we’ve been lucky, it doesn’t always happen that you get to work with someone you’re in a relationship with.

MW: Is there ever the challenge of going for the same role or competing in that sense with Kyle?

ADAMS: Not really. We are much different performers and at different stages in our careers. And we’ve been really lucky that we haven’t had that dynamic. But I think we both would be really encouraging of each other, we’d be lucky if one of us were to book it if we were up for the same thing. But we’ve been really good about not really being competitive with one another or holding crazy expectations to live up to. We are just very realistic about the business.

MW: Do you think marriage is on the cards?

ADAMS: I don’t know. We’ll probably get married. I think because I come from a home of divorce — my mom was divorced twice — it’s not something I ever grew up thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait to get married.” And it also wasn’t a reality yet. And as I get older, I can better understand the importance of what that would be to share with him and why I would want to do it. It’s hard because of our careers. When to plan it, when to do it. Do we want something that’s going to be crazy expensive or be huge, or just something between the two of us? I don’t know. But at this point, that’s my guy and I don’t ever see us not being together. So maybe we should just do it. But our relationship is great and so I’ve kind of also been, “Do I need to change anything?” People get so stressed out about weddings.

MW: Right, and a wedding and the planning for it can ruin a relationship.

ADAMS: Exactly. And I think we are so good, I don’t necessarily want to do anything to throw that off. But I also don’t know if I necessarily see the need, other then yeah, it’d be nice to have a ring and show that we are each other’s person. But it’s not something that I’m dying to do in the near future.

MW: You’re pretty active on social media. Is that something you like doing?

ADAMS: Yes and no, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s sort of a requirement now for the entertainment industry — you’re expected to help promote whatever project you’re working on and to engage with a fan base. And in some ways that’s great, because I really do like to hear from people that come to the show, and I like to put the show out there and have an outlet to feel like I can connect with people. And when I was seeing shows when I was a kid, you maybe saw the actors at stage door if you were lucky.

It’s such a different time that people can, at any time, contact you or message you or let you know if they liked your show or your performance or didn’t like your show or your performance. So, there’s way less privacy with it. And I have to maintain a good balance of how much I engage and how much I don’t. But sometimes people will misinterpret kindness for a true friendship and think that they actually know you. And then that becomes awkward and not the best scenario.

But I try to be active and engage with the people that follow my account and are interested in my career, because I’m grateful. They’re the people that are the reason that I am working — they’re paying for the tickets. It’s also a really important way that I can get a message out there in the small platform that I have. And be an advocate for our community and to help get important causes out there, political messages, all of those things are really useful on social media. And social media lends itself to spreading those messages.

With Instagram alone, I was able to raise over $50,000 for AIDS Walk New York one year, and that was through people’s generosity and from me being able to spread the word that I needed help with fundraising. And boom, it happened. So, it does have a lot of benefits and I think they outweigh the negative aspects for the most part. But I hate when I go to my page and somebody writes some shitty comment on one of my photos or a video or something. It’s like, “Just be nice people, you don’t need to be an asshole.”

MW: I’m assuming next year, come presidential race time, you’re going to have to pick your battles and figure out how to engage.

ADAMS: Exactly. Everyone gets so fired up online, it’s like you can’t not respond sometimes, you have to engage: “What the hell is wrong with these people?” And it gets really frustrating. My boyfriend’s always saying, “Babe, calm down. Don’t reply, just block that person.” I’m like, “No, but they have to understand my message.” It’s going to be tough, but it’ll hopefully be worth it.

MW: If you were able to raise so much money for a good cause, maybe you can help get the right person elected next year? No pressure or anything.

ADAMS: Exactly. I tried my best for Hillary. We’ll see what happens the next round.

Falsettos opens Tuesday, June 11, and runs to Sunday, June 23, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $49 to $139. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

For more on Nick Adams, visit www.nicholasadams.com.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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