Entertainment » Theatre

Jake Epstein: From ’Degrassi’ to ’Spring Awakening’

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 19, 2010

For actor and musician Jake Epstein, the offer to take over the role of Melchior Gabor, the sexually-driven male lead, in the national tour of Spring Awakening, was one he could not refuse. Epstein, best known for his role as Craig Manning on the hit Canadian series "Degrassi: The Next Generation," had long been a fan of the provocative show, which won the 2007 Tony for best musical and is currently touring the nation. It comes to Atlanta's Fox Theatre on March 9 for a week's run.

The 22-year-old described being part of the national tour as both a "dream come true" and "terrifying." EDGE caught up with the multi-talented performer about his rock star fantasies and the art of performing nude scenes in front of family members.


Right for the role

EDGE:How has the show been going?

Jake Epstein: It’s been amazing. The whole experience for me, joining this tour, has been a dream come true. I’ve been a huge fan of the show since it was on Broadway, and saw it when it came through Toronto. I hung out with the cast there, and literally a month later, to join the tour was incredible.

EDGE: How did the tour opportunity come to be?

JE: I auditioned a year ago for the part and came very close. I was in school at the time, flew down to New York and didn’t end up getting the part and kind of forgot about it. A year later, when Kyle [Riabko] left the tour, they were looking for replacement, a long-term one, and they couldn’t find the right person. Someone in the cast who I’d been spending some time with mentioned me and they brought me in again. I guess I was what they wanted!

EDGE: Were you nervous walking into the role?

JE: I was terrified, absolutely terrified! It’s a huge responsibility being in the show. It’s such an amazing play with such great music that I still feel that pressure to live up to the potential that the show has. It’s definitely scary to be performing with people who have been doing it for over a year, being the new guy, but I live for this. I love that it’s so scary. It really puts you on edge being in the show and I think I’ve thrived on how scary that process is.

EDGE: What has been the biggest challenge for you?

JE: The music [by Duncan Sheik] is very challenging. I come from a real theater background and sang in lots of rock bands all my life. I grew up in a very musical family and have taken some singing lessons, but the amount of singing has been a huge challenge for me. Also, some of the content of the play, including the brief nudity can certainly be really scary to do in front of a large group of people.


Overcoming challenges

EDGE: How do you overcome those challenges?

JE: You turn off your brain. If you’re thinking about it, you’ll be too scared something will go wrong. At the end of the day, you have to just trust yourself and jump.

EDGE: How has the feedback been for the show?

JE: It’s been amazing, there’s a loyal fan base for the show... It’s been nothing but packed houses and we’re lucky enough to be getting standing ovations every night. It’s been a really warm reception. People come to the stage door and talk with us every night and that’s been a lot of fun.

EDGE: How did your family respond to the sexual themes in the show? Have they gotten a chance to see it?

JE: They loved it! It was a little awkward. I think I purposely put them in the audience on the opposite side of where my behind is shown on the stage, but they’re supportive. I’m so lucky to have my family support me the way they do. They came up for the opening and I think my mom cried the whole way through. My dad loved it, and my sister is a singer and she also loved it.

EDGE: Spring Awakening, as well as Degrassi, touch on many controversial issues surrounding sexuality for young people, also including gay plot lines. What are your thoughts on that?

JE: Well, the original play was banned for 50 years! On one hand, it’s really important for everyone, especially teenagers, to have things to relate to, especially when they’re going through something really difficult. To know that it’s normal and that everyone goes through those things is great.

I think the controversy’s what makes for great art and great theater. To show things that are very safe doesn’t excite me as a performer, but to do something really relevant and topical can serve as a conversation starter between parents and kids who see the show. I think it’s great.

EDGE: How does all of this compare to Degrassi? Do you keep in touch with your castmates from that and do you miss it?

JE: Some more than others, but I definitely keep in touch with a bunch of them. That was my high school. I went to a real high school, but I spent most of my time on set at this made-up high school, so it’ll always have a huge importance in my life.

EDGE: You’ve been doing theater for some time, but you said in another interview that you were originally a jock. Could you tell me about making that transition? Did you receive flak from schoolmates from getting involved with theater?

JE: I was pretty fortunate because I went to an arts elementary school and high school. My switch from being a "jock" was when I auditioned for the arts high school, and I only auditioned because you got to miss days of school. I thought it was sweet. I got in ... and I fell in love with the arts and theater. Because I was in an art school, I was never made fun of for it, everyone loved it, even though some of my friends on the soccer team didn’t totally understand it.

EDGE: You seem to carry a lot of passion for this role and show, what do you feel has drawn you to it so intensely?

JE: I love that it is a rock concert. I always had a love of musical theater, but found it a little cheesy. Some of the stories are really sugar-coated. Here was this show that - yes, there’s some choreography - but it feels like performers up there rocking out, with the band on stage. I love that. I love that the story line didn’t talk down to its audience and didn’t shy away from showing intense things that happen in peoples’ lives. When I first saw it in New York, everyone was screaming and freaking out. It was such an exciting feeling being in the audience and it was really special, unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

EDGE: It’s almost like living out a rock star fantasy.

JE: Yeah, a total rock star fantasy! Come on, you whip out a mic from under your jacket and just go. I have to pinch myself; it’s unbelievable.

EDGE: What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the show?

JE: The play deals with all these serious issues and I hope there’s discussions that may be provoked because audiences relate to it and are moved by it. But at the end of the day, I want them to be entertained by the show. It’s really funny, you can laugh, cry and rock your head out to the songs. I hope audiences will see it as special more than just a Monday night at the theater.

Spring Awakening plays March 9 through 14 at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, Georgia. For show times, tickets and other information, visit the Fox Theatre website.


Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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