Interview with Danny Zolli
This recent quote well describes the dynamic Danny Zolli: "With an enormous vocal range and the ability to sing everything from Broadway to razor sharp rock & roll to quiet and gentle ballads, Danny Zolli has been winning over audiences worldwide for more than fifteen years." I had the pleasure of chatting with Danny recently and here's what he shared with me.
Pati Buehler: You have been in 17 productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and won critical acclaim for not only your portrayal of Annas, the high priest, but for playing the roles of Judas and Jesus as well. Can you count your performances of these roles?
Danny Zolli: Wow! I played all of the roles so many times in US and International Tours. If I had to guess, it's almost an equal division of all three roles. In total, I've done about 2,300 performances.
PB: That's amazing. Tell us what it's like to play the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar.
DZ: Superstar is not a play about religion, or at least not in my interpretation. The directors I worked with have, for the most part, agreed. You have to be respectful about the faith and respectful about the character. However, by playing Jesus and walking around doing the Stations of the Cross, you're not doing the piece justice. If you want to do a piece about religion, you have Godspell or Cotton Patch Gospel.
It's more of a show about politics, brotherhood and betrayal; some of the basic human elements like trust and love. The best part about playing Jesus is that you have the opportunity to take something that is really intangible to most people and make it real and very tangible. You suddenly give people the opportunity to take something that has always been out of their reach and put it right in the middle of their hands. Perhaps answer questions or pose new questions. It can be very humbling.
PB: Do you have a favorite production of Superstar or any special memories from the show?
DZ: I had my first opportunity to do the show in 1986. Shortly after I moved back to NYC, I was booked to do the first national tour in 1989. Getting the opportunity to go out on the road as such a young actor was really an amazing thing. I think one of the greatest moments for me was when I was cast to do the national tour with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson from the film with Dennis DeYoung, the lead singer from Styx, as Pilate and Irene Cara playing Mary Magdalene. That to me was like getting traded up to the Red Sox. It was absolutely incredible. Not only did I have the great opportunity to do the show so often, but also I was getting a chance to do it with people who were my heroes. It was a chance to see if I could hold my own and, not just that, but to be their understudies. Pretty amazing!
PB: Your "Gethsemane" is so emotional and powerful. What do you draw on to get that degree of emotion?
DZ: You draw on every conversation that you never had and probably should have. You draw from the pure possibility of knowing you have to do something but not wanting to do it and stepping up to the plate and doing it anyway, sacrificing yourself for the greater good. I think if you take the element of Jesus out of the song, that's truly what the song is all about. Perhaps doing the right thing even though it's not necessarily the best thing for you. There is so much pain, so much angst involved. In my personal opinion, it's not a song you can just stand up and sing. There are 100 performers who can sing the song. Again, in my opinion, to coin an old expression, if you're not willing to cough up a lung' doing the song, which is what I think the drama of the song requires, don't do it. You have to be willing to go through the pain to get the strength of the message of the song across.
PB: Whose "Gethsemane" do you admire?
DZ: My version is sort of a cross between Ted Neeley's and Ian Gillan's. I took what they had created and made it my own. I think it's important that you put your own little stamp on it. I was so fortunate to work with Ted and some of the other people. Having done the show so much, I think I have gained a perspective on these characters that very few other performers have. I'm very thankful that I had the chance to learn from some of the best.
PB: You have done Ché in Evita, the title role in Candide and Tobias in Sweeney Todd. You were cast as the Arbiter in two different Chess productions. What role, if any, currently on Broadway would you like to play?
DZ: I would love to do Marius in Les Mis but it's too low. (laughs) I'd love to do Jean Valjean, but I'm too small and too young. I'd love to do Phantom because I love playing dark characters. I've had the opportunity to play vampires. Right now on the Broadway scene, there isn't much. I take that back, I'd love to do Rif-Raff in Rocky Horror. I think that would be a trip!
PB: Over the years you have shared concert stages with Jose Carreras, Peter Frampton, Phoebe Snow and Zack Starkey (son of Ringo Starr). That's a pretty impressive list. Tell us what is was like to work with a few of these great performers?
DZ: I have been so fortunate to meet and work with some of the greatest rock and roll people in the world. Working with Peter Frampton and doing the British rock symphony was an amazing experience. Being onstage with a 69-piece orchestra and with one of the greatest rock bands ever, center stage at the Beacon Theater. Singing Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven". Also having the chance to sing Beatles material. It was really an honor to me because I was able to live out the rock and roll fantasy of every kid who grew up in the '70s. Very Cool.
Once, while performing in San Diego with Superstar, I had the opportunity to meet Stevie Wonder. After the show, Stevie came backstage to meet the cast and I was terrified to meet him. So they dragged me over to him and introduced me. Stevie says "Ah, the brother with the chops!" Well, I nearly lost my mind. I was so excited, I called everyone I knew. There's not a day that I don't drop on my knees and say" thank you" for the opportunities I've had.
PB: The inside cover of your CD reveals a huge fondness for your family. What role do they play in your life and your career?
DZ: I'm really fortunate that I have an amazing family, my mother, father, big brother and big sister. We not only truly love each other, but we also really like each other and spending time together. When I was younger and getting into the business, my folks were very supportive but cautious, as any parent would be. They've been truly proud of me for the moments that I've succeeded and equally proud of the moments where I didn't succeed. I measure the caliber of how my life is going by my friends and my family and the amount of love we share together. My family and friends are incredibly important to me. To have the opportunity to make the album and be able to really thank them in, as public a way as I ever thanked anyone, was an honor for me.
PB: It really doesn't get any better than that. Danny, we've got to talk about your voice. You possess one of the highest ranges I've heard. How do you maintain that range level?
DZ: I've always had a fairly large range from one end to the other, even as a kid. I grew up in a household of many varieties of music all the time. I remember my brother listening to The Beach Boys, Billy Joel, Styx and things like that. So when I would sing along with my brother, I always got the high part. I found it challenging to sing the higher end stuff. How do I maintain it? Well, it's really just a question of doing it. I've spoken to Broadway performers and younger performers on how to sing pop and rock material for theater because the music world for a rock and roll singer is very different than the musical theater world. You really learn by doing. It's like any other muscle. You have to continue to use it correctly. You have to learn the techniques to be able to maintain. Warm up your voice every day. Practice, a lot and if you start to lose your voice, rest it. That's about it.
PB: Tell us about your early years. When did the singing start?
DZ: (laughing) Rumor has it, about 7 or 8 yrs. old. I was with my big brother and sister at the corner pizzeria waiting for our pizza. The jukebox was playing "Beach Baby" by Tony Burrows. My brother and sister were probably singing along. They said I chimed in and wouldn't shut up. The next thing I know, I'm up on the table singing really loud because I knew most of the words. I guess that was my first public performance! Actually, I performed in community theater, school chorus, really any opportunity I could sing, I did. I was a very small kid, not big like I am now (laughing) and it was a way for me to be taken seriously. People told me I did well and it pleased people, so it did it. I had done Winthrop Paroo in the The Music Man a few times and the audiences really responded to me lisping and singing "Gary Indiana". The time that I really figured out this is what I really was when I was playing Tobias in Sweeney Todd, my first semi-pro job. Also, when I did my first production of Superstar. The first time I sang "Gethsemane," I realized this was something really important. The audience gave me a standing ovation in the middle of the show. To have that happen really blew me away.
PB: Your first solo CD "A Story for Another Day" is a great mix of music from ballads to rock and roll with an awesome "Gethsemane" finale. What went into the making of your CD?
DZ: This was something I had been wanting to do for years. People were telling me "Danny you gotta make a record". Finally, an opportunity arose when a record company said, "You gotta make a record and here's the money." Big Difference! Realistically, nobody wants to hear Danny Zolli sing 'musical theater' songs. Really, I've walked the fringe edges of musical theater and rock and roll my entire career. I wanted to make an album that I wanted to listen to and make an album that people would not go straight to "Gethsemane" because they were a fan of Superstar. The ultimate compliment is that people are not only playing the whole CD but also leaving it in their CD players.
I pretty much gave up a year and a half of my life to give this everything I had. I hired musicians; I worked out most of the arrangements with the guys who produced with me. I sang every vocal on the whole album, except for one song. I got a chance to play on some of the songs. My 11 years of piano lessons from my parents finally paid off. I chose songs that mean something to me. These were songs that I love, song that I grew up with like "I Won't Hold You Back", a song from when I was in high school. It was off the Toto IV album. That was the song that, if you went to a party and you weren't making out by the end of that song there was something seriously wrong with you! These are songs that I love to sing. I figured I may not get another opportunity to do this, so I chose songs that are important to me and I know meant something to a a lot of other people.
PB: Any new projects for the New Year?
DZ: Well, I'm planning to start performing solo in the city and hopefully incorporate some songs from the album and branch into something I've wanted to do for a long time, which is a Jazz show. Hopefully I will do some gigs at Arci's or Joe's Pub. I have this dream of doing "Danny Zolli's Big Broadway Rock and Roll Show Band" which, if I can figure out how to do it, it will blow the heads off everybody in town! Just go out and have some fun, make some noise and sing some of the classic rock songs we all love and some of the theater songs that nobody gets to do. Y'know, go out and make some noise.
PB: Sounds like a winner. Thank you for sharing so much of your talent and your story with me. It's been real fun.
DZ: Oh, I appreciate this so much. This has really been an honor. Thank you Pati.
Danny's CD, "A Story for Another Day," can be purchased from his website at www.dannyzolli.com and at Colony records.
Also see Pati's recent interview with Craig Schulman.
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