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Dave Thomas Brown on starring in Clueless the Musical
Growing up, Dave Thomas Brown didn't dream of becoming a musical theatre star. Oh, he definitely wanted to be on stage, but he studied drama in both high school and college at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. When he arrived in New York, he joined the Flea Theater's acting ensemble The Bats, performing in plays there and with other Off-Off Broadway companies. But his big break actually came in a musical, as a replacement in the lead role of homicidal high school hottie JD in Heathers the Musical. That's where Tony-nominated director Kristin Hanggi first spotted Brown, which led to her inviting him to play Josh, the snarky heartthrob of Clueless the Musical, currently having its world premiere at The New Group.
"I'm really an accidental musical theatre actor," admits Brown. "I've always been able to sing" -- just check out his uncanny Mandy Patinkin impression -- "but I got my BFA in acting. Once I sort of fell into musical theatre, I realized I could bring my classical training to it, and I kind of got addicted. I want to follow in the footsteps of Patinkin and other performers like that, actors who really deepen the work of musical theatre. They're singing and dancing but grounding it in truth and action."
If that sounds a bit highfalutin to apply to a tuner based on a 1995 coming-of-age romantic comedy set in Beverly Hills, remember that Clueless was actually inspired by a classic: Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma. The movie's sassy style (all that plaid!) and authentic lingo ("As if!") were only part of what turned it into a sensation. Writer-director Amy Heckerling made sure the characters constantly defied expectations, upending their respective teenage stereotypes to reveal the complex humans underneath.
Adapted for the stage by Heckerling, the musical follows the film closely but adds songs, recognizable '90s pop hits with rewritten lyrics to support the story of pampered princess Cher Horowitz (played by Disney Channel star Dove Cameron), who makes a mess of everyone's love life, including her own. Her ex-stepbrother, Nietzsche-reading college cutie Josh, judges her at every turn, but you don't need to be familiar with the source material to know where they're heading.
Brown has been involved with Clueless the Musical since its first reading in 2016, and he's gratified to finally see it up on stage in front of audiences filled with fans of the movie. "We definitely have adults and kids who are dressing up like Cher," he says. Paul Rudd, who played Josh in the Clueless film, even attended with his young daughter. "He was sweet and kind and generous and complimentary," Brown says. "I can't imagine how surreal that was for him to see a stage version of a movie he was such a big part of creatively."
While Brown declines to give his exact age -- "Let's just say I was born in the late '80s" -- he saw Clueless a few times as a child, but he never worried about that influencing his performance. "The cast was never given a rule not to watch the film," he says. "It's understood we probably would have seen it, and we were encouraged not to feel a taboo about this version versus that version. It's the same writer, the same world, but we're trying to create the life of the film, not a facsimile. I think one of the reasons I wasn't incredibly nervous meeting Paul was that I knew I wasn't playing the character the same way. I'm only ever going to be a Dave version of Josh. People have played Hamlet for hundreds of years -- not that I'm comparing Josh and Hamlet, although I think Josh would love that! But each actor's Hamlet is different. I'm always going to approach every role I play like I'm originating the part."
Brown doesn't name-check Hamlet causally -- he's got a quote from the Shakespeare tragedy tattooed on his arm: "This above all." Although that's Polonius' line, it's a testament to the actor's commitment to continue to pursue parts in plays, too. "I had the fortune of originating a role in the play The Legend of Georgia McBride in New York -- that was a big thing for me," he says. "As much as I love doing musicals" -- his Broadway credits include American Psycho and a stint as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon -- "I'm always going to want to play Hamlet someday."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Will Connolly, Dave Thomas Brown and Dove Cameron in Clueless the Musical. Photo by Monique Carboni.
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