On May 10, I had the unique pleasure of attending Aaron Tveit's first-ever cabaret show at 54 Below in New York City. Tveit, best known for his stage (Next To Normal, Catch Me If You Can) and big screen (Les Miserables) work is set to take over television this summer with Graceland, USA's gritty and gripping new series about federal agents.
It's been a long road to his first lead TV role and that's exactly what Tveit's carefully cultivated cabaret show highlighted as song selection transported audiences back in time; from his first audition to his last, while also highlighting tunes that have altered his personal and professional destiny.
ETonline recently caught up with Tveit to find out how he approached crafting this 54 Below show, why Taylor Swift was a major factor, what excites him about audiences finally moving into Graceland and if he's ready for the fame that comes with being TV's hottest new star.
ETonline: How did the 54 Below show come together?
Aaron Tveit: They actually asked me last year if I was interested, but I had just finished Les Mis and shooting the Graceland pilot and I didn't want to throw anything together, I wanted to take my time. The timing wasn't right last year, but they came around again this season as I finished up Graceland. It was fantastic because I got back from Florida in early March and had two months to really devote to putting this show together.
ETonline: At its most inclusive point, how many songs were in consideration for the show?
Tveit: It's actually been a joke between me and my manager, but I've had a running list for years of songs I've wanted to sing. When this came up the first time, I really started honing in, but I probably had, at different times, 30 to 40 songs [laughs]. Basically, I didn't want to sing anything for the sake of singing it. There were some songs where I really wailed, but because it's such an intimate space anything I chose to sing simply to make sound was going to come off an inauthentic. So I was really happy with where it landed -- every song I sang, I loved for one reason or another. I didn't have to worry about selling a song.
ETonline: And I love how you framed the show like it was a musical journey through your life.
Tveit: Yeah, the idea of the show was to sing songs that have meant something to me over the course of my life. I feel like, through that, I got to share a lot more of myself than I usually do.
ETonline: Like your love of Taylor Swift by singing We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together?
Tveit: Exactly [laughs]. I said this every night after I sang the song, but that was a late addition. Because everything else I was singing had so much emotion, I needed something a little lighter -- but when I came up with that idea, I knew there was a week between the first show on May 3 and the second show on May 10, so I figured if it bombed, I could take it out. But it went over well. It's interesting, a lot of my friends and family thought that was the moment I kind of showed everyone my humor; the silly side of me that friends and family know, so that could be what people were responding to. I have a big sense of humor, and people who know me know that silly side of me, so moving forward, I think it gives me the freedom and confidence to do more of that.
ETonline: Graceland is arguably your most high profile gig to date. How conscious are you of the fact that fans are going to want to start seeing those heretofore unseen sides of you?
Tveit: I am aware, but it's really no different from my standpoint. I've been a little more self-protective in public over the last few months because, on the heels of Les Mis, I've been getting recognized more in public. But New York City is still a very anonymous city. People just go about their business. I feel like I've been dealing with that building over the years because of the Broadway community, so I'm treating it in the same way -- I've always tried to keep my personal life private. I didn't get into this business for notoriety or fame. I don't go to places to be seen and that's not going to change. Yes, this show will have a broader scope, but I don't think it’s going to change that much. You just have to be aware of it, and if you want to keep certain things private, there are choices you can make to do that.
ETonline: Is that why you're not on Twitter?
Tveit: That's not why I'm not on social media, but it is a nice benefit now [laughs]. It's a double-edged sword though because if anyone in my position told you that's not a positive thing, they'd be mistaken. I really experienced the power of social media with the 54 Below show. It was more successful than my wildest dreams. I hoped it would do and sell well, but I had no idea the response would be so overwhelming. But, I'm also happy that I don't see it all the time because I think you could get caught up in it.
ETonline: Do you plan to do another 54 Below run?
Tveit: I hope so. I love working in film and television, but I do miss singing on stage. You can't find that anywhere else, so I hope this opens up a whole new concert world for me. I had so much fun and it went so well, I hope it leads to more.
ETonline: There's a consistency required for a Broadway show (the Wednesday audience needs to see the exact same show as the Friday audience) that you don't need for a cabaret show. Was it fun to loosen that up a bit?
Tveit: It was. The song order ended up staying the same but on a night-to-night basis, the reactions from the audience were different at different times. It was kind of like being at an improv class, so I just tried, in my banter, to stay open to whatever I was receiving from the audience. It really was a very different and very fun experience for me to feel that interaction with the audience.
ETonline: A lot of other Broadway artists have released solo albums -- is that part of your plan?
Tveit: I don't know. This could ultimately lead to that, which has been in the back of my mind as a possibility but it's nothing I've actively thought about doing because, in a wonderful way, I've been too busy. To really delve into that, with original music, takes as much energy as I've been putting into other things because it would have to be great. I'm open to it, the timing just hasn't been right yet. That's why I'm ultimately glad they're making a live album out of the 54 Below show because it kills two birds with one stone.
ETonline: They are?
Tveit: Yes, they're making a live album! It's funny because the CD was available for pre-order on Amazon at the end of April, before I'd done any shows yet. It was so cool that people wanted it without even knowing what would be on it. That will be out in early September, so we recorded every night, I'll listen to all the songs and create one album of the best moments.
ETonline: We're a few weeks away from the premiere of Graceland. What are you excited for people to experience with the show?
Tveit: I'm really interested to see the reaction -- the last few weeks, especially living in New York, I've seen the entire [promotional campaign] roll out, which was weird because it hadn't really connected in my head that anyone was going to see this show because we had the whole thing in the can for almost two months [laughs]. It's really awesome and we're all so proud of the show, plus the response from the people who saw the pilot has been tremendous. I'm a huge television viewer myself and because I watch a lot of TV, I know what's expected from a story and even I was continually surprised by every script. For some reason, I expected [the producers] to say the show would be one thing but then decide they suddenly didn't want to go that dark, or have me be that tough -- but they really went for it with the season. USA has a typical kind of show, and the viewers are used to that, but I hope they can adapt to a slightly different show. This is the kind of show that people who watch HBO or AMC are used to seeing -- especially as we get into the second half of the season.
ETonline: That's interesting -- I feel like actors almost always say they're too busy to watch TV.
Tveit: Oh, I watch a lot of television. I always have. Especially in the last five or six years, I think you're seeing the best writing on TV. And I think some of that has to do with the fact that, unlike a movie or a play where you work off one script, you really get to take these characters on a journey. I recently re-watched the [Graceland] pilot, which I hadn't seen since we went back to start filming, and to see where Mike [Tveit's character] starts in episode one compared to where he goes by the finale, it's a pretty epic transformation.
ETonline: What shows are on your summer to-do list?
Tveit: I watched the first few episodes of The Americans, but then my schedule got crazy with Graceland and the Oscars, so I'm catching up on that. Game of Thrones and Mad Men are on now, then I'm catching up on this show called Rectify. Breaking Bad and The Killing start soon and Graceland is starting -- it's a pretty busy summer, but I always love summer TV. That's another reason why I'm so thrilled Graceland premieres when it does because, in my mind, I always watch TV in the summer and I hope this kind of adds to that equation.
premieres June 6 on USA, while Aaron's 54 Below album is available for pre-order here