Tony Award-Winner Levi Kreis Connecting His MILLION DOLLAR Music To Human Emotions

Singer/songwriter/actor Levi Kreis will be appearing for one night only at the LA LGBT Center's Renberg Theatre August 19 as part of his BROADWAY AT THE KEYS national tour. I have had many an opportunity to interview, photograph, and just hang out with Levi years before he won his Tony Award in 2010 for his Broadway debut role of Jerry Lee Lewis in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Needless to say, I was very excited to catch up with the busy Levi prior to his prepping for his LGBT Center appearance.

Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Levi! Our paths haven't crossed in over a decade.

So great to reconnect with you, Gil!  

What sparked the initial concept of you latest CD (now tour) BROADWAY AT THE KEYS?

I've been busy with stage and film work the last seven years. When I was last on Broadway, it was with the Tony Award-nominated revival of VIOLET. Through the experience, I found myself reconnecting with my southern roots. My roots have often influenced my material as a singer/songwriter, with more bluesy compositions being used on shows like Sons of Anarchy, The Vampire Diaries, and others. I started to wonder what it would be like to bring my singer/songwriter sensibilities to some Broadway classics. To rebel against the overproduction, the ostentatious belting, and performing at people. I wanted to explore something simple and vulnerable. I wanted to tell the story of the songs in a way that we're not accustomed to hearing them. Nothing showy or self-aggrandizing. Just profound honesty.

This is your sixth CD, not counting the album you recorded at age six or the cast CD of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, right?

Damn, you're good. Yes.

Is there any common theme to your song choices in BROADWAY AT THE KEYS?

Finding your place in this world. I've certainly been trying to do that as I enter the second chapter of my life. Since my last album in 2013, I have changed so much. My values are different. My view of self is different. My view of the world is profoundly different. It's weird, but my 30's have been rather disorienting for me. So much to understand. I seemed drawn to songs that help me imagine. Songs that encourage a dream. Songs that give hope, and a glimpse of the seemingly impossible. My favorite being "Corner Of The Sky."

The LA LGBT Center is just one of the six stops on your national tour. Any immediate plans to add more cities? Or does your schedule not allow it?

There are actually ten stops altogether. I just completed the first leg of the tour. We thought that was going to be enough, but we seem to be adding dates this week. I can't say no to adding dates because it's likely the only time I will tour this album.  

Have you appeared at the LGBT Center before? Or just been part of the attentive audiences for the shows there?

It's about time I get to perform at the Center! After all, some of my closest friends have performed there. This is my debut. Very excited!

You won a Tony Award for "Best Featured Actor in a Musical" for your role in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. What do you remember of the night you won your Tony? Or was it all a blur?

It was more than the Tony win for me that night. I was in the darkest time of my life. That night, I wasn't just astonished at being the recipient of such recognition, but it was very much a finish line for me in a lot of ways. It was important to me because it proved that I could somehow come through the hardest time of my life and still maintain a strong work ethic and a generosity onstage that truly connected with people. That's what made me most proud of that moment.

A major factor component of you landing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis must have been your piano-playing virtuosity, right?

Actually, not at all. When I was asked to do the first workshop for MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, it was because I had been working with the producers on a beautiful new work called ONE RED FLOWER. For all intents and purposes, it was this piece that was going to be my Broadway debut - a beautiful story about five guys in their one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. We workshopped it across the country. Just three weeks after securing a theater in New York City, 9/11 happened. I was told that after this tragedy, it was just too ambitious to invest in a musical that centers around our country being at war. It was so disheartening. This piece was healing. Veterans would come up to us and tell us that this piece felt like their first welcome home. Upon returning to Los Angeles, the producers had received the script of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. They believed in my ability to create rich southern characters and to understand southern humor. They had heard that I played the piano, but had no idea how well I could play. It was a surprise to them. It's interesting. Alongside my nomination (and win) as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET was nominated that year for Best Book. We gave a lot of time and expertise to developing these characters and nurturing the subtle arc of the story. Since it's departure from Broadway, and over the last few years, it's so sad to see that it's become more of an impersonation/tribute show with an approach that all but abandons the book. It used to be as much about the characters as it was about this iconic rock n roll music.

You started playing piano, by ear, when you were six years old. How many hours a day did you sit at your piano practicing as a little kid?

Ugh, countless. At least three hours a day. I had a full scholarship for classical music to Vanderbilt University - in high school. It was under a special pre-college program that allowed me to begin my college curriculum during my sophomore, junior, and senior years. Very busy kid. LOL!

Who were your musical icons growing up who you wanted to emulate?

I seldom emulated icons of pop culture. I cut my teeth on the gospel music of the south. I feel like so much of where I learned to sing, and communicate, is from the church. As they taught me, if you're gonna sing it, sing it with conviction!  

Do you need to read sheet music or just hear a tune once to play it?

Generally, I like to just hear it and play. Which makes it difficult for me to keep my reading chops up.  

Does your piano-playing by ear carry over to easily memorizing scripts or grocery lists? 

Ha! I wish. I'm horrible to go grocery shopping with.

Your songwriting efforts have been in a variety of projects encompassing various genres of music. Do you have any favorites in categories of music that you like to write for? (folk, pop, classical, country, Christian, musical theatre?)

As you know, I identify most as a singer/songwriter. This has been my primary livelihood since you and I met in 2005. I have built my audience through prominent features on several prime time television shows over the years. Without me realizing it, those features have branded me clearly within the minds of my fans - lyrical insightful laments of love and loss set to a haunting piano and a raw, vulnerable vocal - this is how they would describe my music. This is why I wanted to take the same approach to the newest album Broadway At The Keys. Nobody had done that with Broadway classics before. I'm staying in that lane these days. My first original album in five years is coming out this winter. There is a flirtation with my Appalachian roots on the record, but fans who really know my work are going to be extremely satisfied. I feel it's the best material I've written in my career thus far. I'm getting antsy to share it!  

Which do you prefer, being on stage performing in front of a live audience? Or sitting in your quiet space writing/composing songs?

I've always been very autobiographical in my original material. I tell of my past addictions, my six years of conversation therapy, my experience being gay-bashed with a brick to the back of the head in Hamilton Park, New Jersey. My divorce. I mean, not that I'm trying to exploit the ever-so-popular victim culture, but I know I'm not the only one who experiences these core human emotions. When that connects with fans, they are usually gracious enough to return to me their own story. The things they went through. Their personal victories. It's a seriously beautiful bond that makes this undesirable life of entertainment all worthwhile. Because of this, seeing them face to face, on the road, that is everything for me.

How would you describe your character Jimmy Ray Brewton in Del Shores' new A Very Sordid Wedding coming out later this year? 

The film has enjoyed some successful premieres this year, starting off its tour across the country as the #1 Specialty Box Office Film in Palm Springs. It's been selling out houses all over the country and is currently premiering in east coast cities. Del Shores is someone who is very dear to me, so working with him was something he and I both had been waiting for! He asked a lot of me. It was tough to channel the men who taught me how to hate myself as a child. To say some of the things I have to say and believe them? That was hard. But I really love playing the villain. This is the second film this year I get to play the antagonist of the film. I'm loving it.  

There's an incredible YouTube video of you performing the theme song of Del's Southern Baptist Sissies, "Stained Glass Window."

I was excited to reprise Olivia Newton John's performance of the theme song. Audiences get a kick out of that song.  

What's in the near future for Levi Kreis?

My future is one day at a time. My future is reminding myself that it's the quality of life between the awards and movie premieres that matter. The day-to-day stuff. Loving my family and my partner a little better every day. To appreciate the blue birds that sit on my deck in the morning. To enjoy a summer shower without having to obsess about a to-do list. That's the future that matters.

What feelings would you like the LGBT Center audience to leave with after your curtain call?

Don't think you've seen anything like this before - just come. You will laugh as hard as you cry.  

Thanks, Levi! I look forward to experiencing your raw and haunting BROADWAY AT THE KEYS.

Thanks, Gil.  

To let this talented man wow you, log onto www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre for available tickets for his only one-night engagement in Los Angeles. If you happen to be in travelling, check out Levi's website www.levikreis.com for this tour cities and dates.


THIS JAM-PACKED CRAZY WEEK, PART I: THINGS TO FIND TIME FOR (Non-Fringe)

Sometimes there's just too much happening.  Too much to write about in a week in this surprising city, which appears to be so predictable and obvious – 80 degrees and sunny, ho hum – but has so many places that few people seem to see. Are the places hidden? No. But people drive by every day, completely oblivious. Which is great, because now the Twisted Hipster gets to tell you about them.

So you, sitting in front of your 48” flat screen, diligently plowing through your Netflix queue while keeping an eye out for anything of interest on those premium channels – I'll start with you.

So here's my only HIPSTER LAMENT of the week – for that vaunted reboot of TWIN PEAKS by David Lynch and Mark Frost (Showtime).

Jake Wardle, James Marshall and David Lynch behind the scenes of Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

There are many fascinating scenes and brilliant, troubling visuals in the first five episodes – but oh that silly narrative!  I don't require linear storytelling by any means – and I appreciate a good anti-narrative – but there's just no attempt to create genuine human beings or explore the darker recesses of human behavior.  Many of us were delighted by Season 1 of the series in 1991, with its sense of an infernal corruption lurking beneath the Normal Rockwell exteriors of small-town American life. But Season 2 descended into self-parody and melodrama, becoming quite a bore.  The 25 year hiatus has done nothing to help Lynch rediscover his movie-making mojo.  For example: Detective Dale Cooper has mysteriously returned to earth with no sense of self whatever.  He's just a blank slate.  As such, he walks into a Las Vegas Casino and hits 30 jackpots in a row, winning $425,000 – all of which means nothing to him.  Which is fine – nothing means anything to him now.  But such a feat would draw enormous amounts of publicity in any world that I'm aware of, and yet it doesn't create even a ripple here.  Even when he helps a sad old lady win two jackpots of her own - something she would certainly tell everyone about.  So what world are we in anyway?   Not one that will have any interest, I fear, for other than diehard fans of Lynch's self-indulgently nostalgiac convolutions.

Carrie Coon in the series finale of THE LEFTOVERS

On the other hand, a big HIPSTER TIP for the series finale of THE LEFTOVERS (HBO), "The Book of Nora."  Even if you've never watched a single episode before, even if you've never liked a single episode before, you still have to check this one out.  First, there's the magnificent acting work of Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston and, most of all, Carrie Coon, whose brilliance is almost beyond belief, given the very difficult journey she has been asked to take.  But it is precisely that journey, and the wondrous narrative gamble that it involves, which makes this one of the great final episodes of any series.  Kudos to series creators and final episode writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta.  You have dreamed up such a rich and strange version of the world in your series, and you have saved your best for last.

Oh, and BEST GROOVE OF THE WEEK: “Dirty Old Town” from David Byrne's Rei Momo. 

Yes it's from 1989 (the real one, not the Taylor Swift version), but it never gets old.  Then again, “The Call of the Wild” and “Loco de Amor” are pretty great cuts too.  Hell, just put on this CD in your car on the grayest of days, and the entire sky will light up in Technicolor.  But watch out – your feet are gonna be dancin' all over those pedals!

Moving on to matters of THEATER – which is exploding right now in Los Angeles, exploding with talent and purpose and fearlessness.  Here are two shows closing very soon which I urge you to see.  They are without doubt two of the best shows I've seen this year and I wish I had time to see them again before they close.

NEXT TO NORMAL by Bryan Yorkey and Tom Kitt at East-West Players has been extended until June 18 – see it.  If you've never this power-punch of a musical before, see it.  If you've seen it on Broadway or at the Ahmanson or anywhere else, then see it again.  Because Deedee Magno Hall and Iso Briones, as the most troubled and troubling mother-daughter relationship in any musical this side of Carrie, are that good.  So is the rest of the cast.  Director Nancy Keystone has done beautiful work with the actors and has broken down the beats gloriously.  This is not suitable for children, but it's perfect for any adult who has lived and loved and suffered in the modern world.  And there are some lovely rock ballads.

THE GARY PLAYS by Murray Mednick and directed by Guy Zimmerman are 6 related plays presented in 3 separate installments by the Open Fist Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, and it has been extended one week, to June 10.  So you have one more chance to see each installment: Part I is on Thursday at 8, Part II is on Friday at 8 and Part III is on Saturday at 2 pm.  The plays are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling.  Director Zimmerman describes them this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else.  And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son's murder, is an iconic LA character.”  There's so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau's depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character's skin.  For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity.  My only criticism is that it's almost too much to take in, like eating three rich meals in one sitting.  I almost fainted from all the artistic calories, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.  Hope you don't either.  And kudos to Martha Demson and the Open Fist Company of actors for bringing it all to such vivid life.

Favorite line, spoken by Rod Menzies as Daddyo: “I'm an old hipster, and I know what's what.”  Yeah.