Piece of My Heart
Interview by Wayman Wong
Also see Beth Herstein's interview with Elizabeth Canavan, Rosal Colón, and Liza Colón-Zayas of Between Riverside and Crazy
With a book by Daniel Goldfarb, Piece of My Heart aims to set the record straight about this Bronx-born music legend who died at only 38 due to a weak ticker. In a breakthrough performance, Resnick, 27, charts Berns' rise and fall in the world of music execs, the mambo and the mob. Laura Collins-Hughes in the New York Times hailed the Carnegie Mellon grad's "healthy good looks" and vocals, while James Hannaham in the Village Voice singled out the "magnetic" young star for "his casual brilliance and dreamy voice."
Interestingly, Jarrod Spector played Berns during the past few years of workshops for Piece of My Heart, but when Beautiful: The Carole King Musical went to Broadway, so did Spector. Cassandra Berns, the songwriter's daughter, said, "Rachel Hoffman at Telsey (+ Company Casting) sent us Zak. And once he walked through the door, he was amazing." Brett Berns, the elder son, added, "Our father was soulful and sensitive, but also a fighter and lover. And Zak just embodies our dad's spirit, heart and soul."
Wayman Wong: Congrats on Piece of My Heart. So many legendary artists have recorded Bert Berns' songs, including the Beatles, the Isley Brothers and Janis Joplin. How's it feel to bring back his story and his songs?
Zak Resnick: Great. It should've been done a long time ago, but Bert is finally getting his due. The show is about Bert's life and, for various reasons, he was blackballed. We see how he finds his voice, visits Havana and becomes a music mogul through the eyes of his daughter Jessie (played by Leslie Kritzer). And, omigosh, Leslie is so funny. She puts everything she has into the show, and she's a blast. All of the songs we sing are killer. Theatrically, and from a pop perspective. This kind of rock 'n' roll is timeless.
WW: You get to close act one with one of Berns' most famous songs, "Here Comes the Night." You start out sitting at a piano and singing it as a soulful solo, but slowly your ensemble joins you, and you belt out the skyrocketing last note.
ZR: It's like "Defying Gravity" for me. Any actor would love to end act one like that. It's a dream. It's also a foreshadowing of things to come for Bert, good and bad. He's just signed with a label, so that's exciting. But he's also just turned 30 and because of his weak heart, he was once told he'd never live past 30. Bert would produce 51 pop hits in the next seven years. Maybe he was so brilliant because he knew he had an expiration date.
WW: Which other songs do you particularly enjoy?
ZR: I especially love hearing Linda Hart (who plays Bert's wife Ilene) sing "I'll Be a Liar." She's a riot every night and it's always different. Linda's a special, special performer. I also really like "Up in the Streets of Havana." It's gorgeous and Sydney James Harcourt does a fantastic job. Derrick Baskin is amazing on "Twist and Shout," and "Look Away" is unreal.
WW: Brett and Cassie Berns have been championing all these songs and their dad's rightful place in pop history. (And they're represented by the fictionalized "Jessie" in the show.) What's it been like to have them in your corner?
ZR: Brett and Cassie are the best source of information on Bert, and they've been so supportive and kindhearted. They've been to almost every show. They've done a valiant job, and we've been extended for two more weeks. That's due to their drive.
WW: How would you describe Bert?
ZR: Bert's a tricky guy. Nowadays, in the music industry, people count the number of words in a song, and that helps determine how much of a percentage you get paid. When Bert co-wrote songs, it didn't matter how much he wrote, one line or three-quarters of it, he split it 50/50. He was very fair. Also, Bert was a label chief, a songwriter and a producer, and back then, no one was all three things. But Bert had a dangerous side, a side that knew the mob. He was willing to do anything to protect his work.
WW: You've written songs in the past. Has playing Bert inspired you to do more? And which songwriters do you enjoy nowadays?
ZR: Songwriting's always been a passion, so I want to do more. And I love Sara Bareilles, the Script, John Mayer and John Legend.
WW: You made your Broadway debut as Sky in Mamma Mia! and there you sang one duet, "Lay All Your Love on Me." But in Piece of My Heart, you've got nearly 20 songs. Has that been a quantum leap for you as a leading man?
ZR: Yeah. I was absolutely terrified when I realized how much I had to sing. It was a huge, huge gap to jump. But I think there's been a combination of warming up and conditioning to my voice, and maybe I'm just lucky. I was built this way. I feel a lot of weight is on my shoulders to help this show succeed, and I'm happy to have the weight. It's humbling and an honor to be entrusted with this story. And when I saw the cast list for our incredible company, I thought, "Holy shit, we're gonna blow the roof off the theater!"
ZR: (Laughs.) I mean, how can anyone feel anything but amazing? I think I kinda lucked out. Our show has a terrific publicist (O&M). But I do have a girlfriend, Carleigh Bettiol. We met on this show and we're very happy. She is just like no other.
WW: You've starred in Piece of My Heart, Mamma Mia! and Disaster! Do you think jukebox musicals get a bad rap?
ZR: I think they do. And some of them deserve it. But Beautiful is incredible. Jersey Boys really hit the nail on the head. And Piece of My Heart is doing something special. Denis Jones, our director and choreographer, is fantastic. He's got a great eye for making things super-smooth and easy to follow. I loved working with him on Disaster! and I love working with him here.
WW: I hear you always had a drive to perform and, at 14, bugged your dad to fly you to Orlando for an open call for Rent.
ZR: I did. I wanted it so badly. I was this silly, overweight kid who wore a sweater in 95-degree heat in Florida because the character of Mark wore a sweater. When I was in middle school, I was a butterball. It wasn't until I booked Mamma Mia! [on Broadway, years later], when I knew I had to be basically naked onstage eight times a week, that I got a trainer and kicked my ass into shape.
WW: Speaking of Mamma Mia!, you used to sing and serve next-door at Ellen's Stardust Diner.
ZR: When I left Carnegie Mellon, I got a job waiting tables at Ellen's, which is at 1650 Broadway. I was there for two years. Then, I got Mamma Mia!, which then played the Winter Garden, which is attached to Ellen's. Then, I left Mamma Mia! almost two years later and got Piece of My Heart, which takes place at 1650 Broadway. I can't get away from that address!
WW: I imagine Piece of My Heart would love to move to Broadway, too. Any idea when you might hear anything?
ZR: Your guess is as good as mine. I think it would do well there, but it's tough to get on Broadway. Still, our fingers are crossed!
(Wayman Wong has covered theater for the New York Daily News, Talkin' Broadway, Playbill.com and GoldDerby.com.)
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