The Hollywood star chatted with us just hours after he got the news of his first Tony nomination
Best known for his lead role in the NBC series Chuck, Zachary Levi has starred in a number of films including animated features, he’s performed during the Academy Awards and he was just honored with his first Tony nomination for playing Georg Nowack in the Broadway revival of She Loves Me, also starring Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski and helmed by veteran director Scott Ellis. The romantic musical comedy which first premiered in 1963 about two parfumerie clerks in Budapest who despise one another has been extended through July 10.
The musical earned a total of eight nominations with the aforementioned actresses also nominated as well as the production for Best Revival of a Musical, up against The Color Purple, Fiddler on the Roof and Spring Awakening. Louisiana native Levi grew up a theater kid starring in shows, and debuted on Broadway in 2013 musical comedy First Date opposite Krysta Rodriguez. Zachary is among serious heavyweights in the Best Actor category including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. in Hamilton, Danny Burstein in Fiddler and Alex Brightman from School of Rock and is grateful to be included.
New York City Monthly had the rare pleasure of speaking with the newly-minted Tony nominee the day of the announcements—Levi shared that She Loves Me is an ensemble show full of joy, he spoke highly of his creative partners on the production and told us how he heard from people he hadn’t heard from in years following his performance on the Oscars…
Zachary, Congratulations. Not only was it a great day for the entire show but you earned your first Tony nomination, just one of eight for the entire production of She Loves Me. How did you learn of the exciting news?
What a crazy amazing day. When I found out I was sleeping, I just figured if something nice happened someone would call me and sure enough my agent called me—I think he was waiting to hit dial. As soon as he heard “Za-” he called me and said “Good Morning Tony Award nominee Zachary Levi!” I’m gobsmacked, so humbled. This is only my second Broadway show, and to be in the company with the other nominees—this huge year for Hamilton and Lin [Manuel Miranda]—it’s just really really amazing.
Being a kid doing theater and dreaming about doing Broadway and to be nominated for a Tony Award is just amazing. Our entire show, Scott Ellis, Warren Carlyle, Paul Gemignani really created something magical for She Loves Me—I wish they were all nominated. It’s kind of one of the only bummers about this—you’re stoked but you really want all your teammates to have the same honor.
You are no stranger to the stage, starring in shows since you were a kid. You’ve done television, film, you’ve been animated. How did you happen to join the cast of She Loves Me and why Broadway for you at this point in your career?
Growing up doing theater, that was my first love. As an actor, I think it’s where we should all start—it’s where you really learn to build a character and understand story structure and improv in case something goes wrong to stay present in a scene. I always wanted to get to the highest level of Broadway, it was just a matter of timing.
I almost did Young Frankenstein but I booked the pilot of Chuck first, and then it got picked up. Then when First Date came along—that was an original show with my first role on Broadway. I had the right window in my career and it felt like the right show. There were other things that had come along like revivals or replacements for other people in other shows. But I wanted the New York theater audience to see me in something that they wouldn’t judge me based on someone else in a role previously.
I got a little bit of critical love from that, but stepping into She Loves Me was kind of a fluke. Josh Radnor was supposed to play this role but there were scheduling conflicts, he had to drop out, and I got a call from my agent with the offer for She Loves Me. I had never seen the show before, and said basically ‘you can’t say no.’ You can’t ask for a better dream team. It’s an all-star team of Broadway—the whole cast, and working for the Roundabout [Theatre Company] who are just awesome. And it’s the 50th anniversary year which makes it all the more special, cherry on top.
Stepping into this was more than a little daunting. It’s easy for me to get in my head. I’m mostly known for Hollywood stuff—and working with all these very seasoned people with Broadway experience—I didn’t want to stick out and think everyone is great while people think “that guy’s not bad.” I’ve been trying to do the best I have—I’m so grateful for Scott and Warren and Paul and my scene partners Laura, Gavin [Creel] and Jan. I’m just trying to work as hard and learn as much as I can. It’s just very very humbling. Since I was a little kid all I wanted to do was entertain people; I felt it in my bones, I wanted to make people laugh. I was the middle boy in between two girls so I was always dying for attention. To be recognized this way is a really big deal. It makes me feel like I belong, so it’s amazing.
You are of course starring as Georg opposite Laura Benanti’s Amalia. The musical was just nominated for Best Revival of a Musical not to mention you and Laura were both nominated for Best Actor and Actress. Laura has a lot of Broadway experience, what has your chemistry been like during this musical?
The material that we were given by Joe Masteroff and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick—it’s just a great piece, they wrote something really special in 1963. They captured such incredible charm and the lights and romance—and so Laura and I and all of us are so blessed to have such great material to start with. We all have seen the story—the parfumerie is also the same source material for Jimmy Stewart [The Shop Around The Corner] and You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Even if people don’t know She Loves Me, they know the story, it’s a lovely charming story.
But Laura, I consider her to be very much like me—we were spazzy theater kids. She grew up in New Jersey with two parents who were performers, I was growing up in Southern California with no one in my life. Actually, my dad is a bit of a singer but nobody in my life were actors. Laura gets it. She’s so incredibly trained, she’s been doing vocal training since she was a fetus. She really gets comedy and that’s such a huge thing. Everyone in the cast, no one of us would have the performance we have if we weren’t surrounded by the whole cast—it really takes a village. The whole show collectively doesn’t work unless we’re all there giving it all that we have.
Tangled was arguably your first major breakthrough singing, which were songs by Alan Menken who is known as Disney film composing royalty. Do you think fans who mostly knew you from your sitcom days were surprised that you could sing and would you say this was a major launching pad for your current Broadway work?
That’s pretty correct. Maybe. The second part of that is a maybe. Because I had gotten cast in Young Frankenstein, people in town were kind of aware of that, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt when Tangled came out and Mandy [Moore] and I sang at the Oscars. It’s just my voice not my face, so people didn’t know it was me until the opening credits. People texted me like “Dude that was you in Tangled?” when Mandy and I sang there at the Oscars at the Kodak in front of the millions of people around the world. My phone would not stop beeping, people who have known me for years were messaging me like “you sang at the Oscars?” That was definitely a cool shift, I’ve loved singing my whole life. Unless you know me or we go karaoke, again I just think it’s all in the timing. I was really blessed to do Tangled and it was nominated for the Academy Award.
Since Chuck was a comedy and you seem to be a natural for this type of format, can you share if She Loves Me has much humor? You would think with Jane Krakowski in the cast.
Oh yeah. It is very truly a romantic comedy musical. There are some serious moments in the show and you gotta play those—I think some of the best comedies, if you just play everything for laughs, you might get some laughs out of it but you don’t get the payoffs. There’s stakes and real heavy moments. Ninety-percent of the show is funny and fun and feel-good and there is some really fun physical stuff—and Jane slays man. There’s a reason why she’s nominated. Michael McGrath and Gavin Creel—I can’t say enough about our cast. It’s very delightful. It’s not like an adult comedy, it’s not like The Book Of Mormon. It’s a throwback—it really is a period piece but it’s still very relatable comedy.
Broadway is hot this year, so many great shows. Besides all the nominations and recent attention, why should theater-goers come to see She Loves Me this season?
Theater-goers should come to see She Loves Me because it really is an excellent two-and-a-half hours of entertainment where you walk away with a skip in your step—you feel joy, humming the tunes and getting to see many talents. It is a fully-cooked, truly-realized gem of a show. And I say that excluding myself from those words. I feel like I’m doing a good job, but I speak for everyone else I get to share that stage with. It really is a special show—there’s a reason why it has lasted nearly fifty years now. It was special then, in the 90s when revived and it is now. It’s a delightful time at the theater.
Photo Credit: Eric Blackmon