Jake Epstein’s new one-man show, Boy Falls from the Sky, was set to open on January 8, 2022, when COVID shut it down. The production will now premiere on Apr. 19 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Not until Epstein is actually on the stage in front of an audience, will he believe that the performance is taking place.
Boy Falls from the Sky is a labour of love that Epstein has been working on for over three years. It is a very personal musical memoir about the lows of his career, particularly his Broadway experience. In other words, showbiz is laid bare.
Epstein, 34, has been a fixture on stage, both in Canada and elsewhere, since he made his professional debut as an 11-years-old in Soulpepper’s Our Town at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. His next claim to fame was being cast as the Artful Dodger in Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish production of Oliver at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Epstein is best known, by the public at large, that is, for playing Craig Manning, a musician with bipolar disorder, on the hit TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation.
A hit TV show, however, was not what Epstein wanted. Rather, it was the lure of Broadway that beckoned, so Epstein moved to New York. His career, spanning musical theatre as well as straight plays, film and television, would be the envy of many, but, as Boy Falls from the Sky reveals, all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
For this interview, the actor and I got together via Zoom, and a candid conversation ensued.
I understand that you were just one final run-through away when ‘Boy Falls from the Sky’ was cancelled. What does this do to an artist who has invested so much of himself into a project?
It was devastating, soul-crushing, like an Olympic athlete whose race is cancelled. Boy Falls from the Sky was my chance to play a great role, so the cancellation was brutal. I thought it was the end of the production. What is so ironic, is that I created a show about life’s disappointments, and here was a life disappointment. All you can do is have a sense of humour. I think there is a sequel here — the ups and downs of making a show.
How long was it before you found out that Mirvish was still going to put on ‘Boy Falls from the Sky’?
About a month and a half. I was told the show would be postponed until spring, but my cynical brain told me it wasn’t going to happen. In fact, I was already moving on to other things — auditioning, writing.
Did you do any more work on ‘Boy Falls from the Sky’ in these four months?
I continued to tweak it and update it — but that process could go on forever. I also did out-of-town tryouts like performing the show in March at the small Revival House theatre in Stratford. In fact, one of the ways the show has evolved is with audience feedback from these specific and strategic out-of-town performances. Theatre is a living thing and needs an audience. I’d just get in the van and go.
Four months is a long time. Did you lose any musicians? You do have an onstage band.
We have three musicians — piano, bass and guitar — and we lost two of them — the bass player and the pianist — because they had prior commitments. The pianist was also the music director, so that was a big loss, but we were lucky to find fantastic new people, although we had to build chemistry all over again. The score is written out now, so that helps with the survival of the show. This is the biz I’m in. It’s filled with absurdities.
Can we go back to your background? Was your family in the arts?
My dad is a lawyer, but he really supports the artists in the family, my mother, me, and my sister Gabi Epstein who is also an actor/singer.
So you were introduced to theatre early in life?
That’s how we spent our family vacations. For nine years in a row, we’d drive to New York and see one show. Gabi and I would research which one to see. We’d usually choose productions that had kids in them, like Les Miz or Lion King or Big. It was an expensive trip, and so generous of my father to give us that opportunity to experience Broadway. During the drive, we played Broadway albums, and Gabi and I would imitate every voice we heard. We had this weird dream of being on the stage one day.
What is the genesis of ‘Boy Falls from the Sky’?
I was asked to perform my act in Lennox, Massachusetts, but I didn’t have an act, so I worked up something that became this show. One of the sources was storytelling. My wife, Vanessa Smythe, who is an actor/writer, hosted monthly storytelling evenings at Crow’s Theatre where people told real stories about their own lives. This encouraged me to start writing down some of my experiences. Robert McQueen is my favourite director, and I pitched him the idea of me being a musical theatre actor who hated musicals. I suggested a show that went deeper than a cabaret, but was not a therapy session, and that’s where we began.
The heart of the show is your Broadway experience, and it seems to have been a great lie. From an outside perspective, getting cast as Peter Parker in ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’, and originating the lead role of Gerry Goffin in ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’, seems like a very big deal.
Getting to Broadway had been my dream and obsession. Everyone was so excited for me, and I told them that I was living my dream. I never told anyone the truth about the downside. I kept the real experience to myself. The reality is that I came back to Toronto and stopped singing.
I understand that stage fright was one of those negatives you kept to yourself.
I started off doing national tours of hit shows like Spring Awakening and American Idiot, the Green Day musical. I experienced stage fright with Spring Awakening. There is immense pressure when you’re playing lead roles at Washington’s Kennedy Centre or the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. In Spring Awakening, there were several sex scenes where I had to pull my pants down. I couldn’t stop shaking, and I got a bad review. Stage fright was something I had to live with, knowing that each new city meant another review. In American Idiot, I also broke my voice because I had to rough it up to sound like Green Day.
‘Spider-Man’ is one of the most infamous shows in Broadway history. Julie Taymor, who had such a success with ‘Lion King’, really bombed on this one. That must have been an adventure.
I joined the show after Julie Taymor was replaced, so I was in the revamped version. She is a genius, but she was given free reign and had no one to tell her no. The show did eventually open, and ran for three years, so it wasn’t a flop. Initially, they said they had developed new techniques for flying, but actors were getting injured. I was told they had figured it out, but I still suffered repetitive strain on my ankles and wrists. I never told anyone that I needed pain killers or that I was injured. I was a super hero in pain. (The title of Epstein’s show is taken from a Spider-Man song.)
But originating the role of Gerry Goffin in ‘Beautiful’, Carole King’s first husband and song-writing partner, had to be the ultimate dream.
It was a real gift. It opened in 2013 and I was on Broadway for a year.
What was it like playing Goffin, who is vilified in the musical?
It was a tough time because of the wall of hate from the audience who saw Gerry as the villain. At the end of the show, I was booed, and after a while, it wasn’t fun. People told me that they hated me when they’d wait at the stage door for autographs. Carole King and Gerry’s wife had asked the creators not to make him the villain because he was dying, but they did it anyway. They cut scenes which showed what Gerry was going through, which would have made him more sympathetic and complex. Instead, I was this brooding, intense character, and I was overthinking the part, and battling stage fright that I hadn’t felt in years. I also started to have vocal problems. Then I was told they were not renewing my contract. I was fired.
But you took up the role again when you were asked back to play Gerry in 2016.
I did it with Chilina Kennedy — two Canadians on Broadway with Brooklyn accents. Performing with Chilina allowed me to not only enjoy the show, but appreciate the role of Gerry. Also, coming back was not the same pressure. There was no conflict about the script and the character. Gerry had passed away. In fact, I went to lunch with Doug McGrath, who wrote the book for the show, and he apologized to me about where the script had gone with Gerry’s character. Apparently, they needed a villain so that the Carole King character had something to play against.
It seems that the Broadway experience was more negative than positive.
I was, in fact, done with musical theatre. I moved back to Toronto, and became interested in straight plays. Boy Falls from the Sky is both a play and a cabaret. More importantly, this show has allowed me to find my voice and to sing again. I’m now coming from a healthier place.
How are you on the subject of reviews?
If you make a movie, you can’t change anything. Reviews can’t affect the product, but a stage show is ongoing, so a review can have impact. To this day, I won’t read reviews. They’re not helpful, even if they are positive. I look at them like they have nothing to do with me. It’s a conscious decision to get lost in my work.
How do you regard the current Broadway scene?
Broadway is like Las Vegas now. The quality is not better, just bigger. The mechanics of theatre are the same everywhere, you use the same muscles, but there is something special about being a New York actor. It’s more exciting, because when you leave the stage door of a Broadway theatre, you are stepping out on to 44th St.
How did the Mirvish organization get involved with the show?
I put it on at the Toronto Fringe, and my producer, Derrick Chua, invited all the producers to come and see it. We were hoping to find a partner — someone who saw the potential in it. John Karastamatis, Mirvish’s director of sales and marketing, came, and thought it would be a good Off-Mirvish show. With Mirvish on board, we got additional resources like rehearsal space, and this allowed us to develop new material for the show.
What would you say your greatest challenge was in writing ‘Boy Falls from the Sky’?
Editing! I had enough material for four solo shows, but Robert helped me figure out which stories I really wanted to tell. He also pushed me to admit the truth that I didn’t want to say — that I had been fired. He also suggested including shows that I didn’t get, as well as the audition experiences where I was really vulnerable. There’s a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, I don’t tell everything dark that happened to me.
What do you want people to take away from the show?
That it’s a good story. It’s a piece of entertainment that is comedic and joyful. It’s me letting go of expectations. It’s me healing, and making peace with life.
Any final thoughts?
I made my professional debut at 11 in Our Town on the stage of the Royal Alex, and now I’m on that very stage with my own show. How great is that?
Boy Falls From The Sky is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre from April 19 until May 29.
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