A Conversation with Caissie Levy
Maureen in Rent. Penny in Hairspray. Elphaba in Wicked. Sheila in Hair. Fantine in Les Miserables. Elsa in Frozen. The common denominator? Caissie Levy. Hers is a career defined by hard work; by working her way up.
We met up to talk about Frozen and about her take on a Disney princess but we wound up talking about life and love, about musical theatre and self-care, and about impostor syndrome and what it means to “make it.”
Let’s start with today. How are you before heading into the weekend of shows?
It’s Thursday so yesterday was a big day. Wednesdays are always kinda like, whoa. It’s the beginning of the week and now we’re doing 1pm matinees on Wednesdays.
So what time do you have to warm up then?
Luckily, now that I have Izaiah who is two and a half, I’m up every day at 6:30 no matter what. Being awake warms me up. I need to get the right amount of sleep but being awake sorta gets me there. I do a gentle warm up.
Does it feel like you’ve done this so many times now that the songs just rest in a place that’s comfortable for you to sing?
Sort of but also I need to check in with myself. I don’t like to over-warm-up. I like moderation. Sort of like how I eat my meals in moderation for the show too. I like to snack a little like have a piece of toast or an egg and have my coffee and then wait an hour or two and then I’ll have a Power Bar. I’ll do a few scales while I’m in the shower. I’ll get dressed, play with Izaiah—we’ll be singing and talking anyway—and drop him off at school or with a sitter. At the theater, I’ll have a cup of tea, do some more scales, and go visit my friends in their dressing rooms. Talking warms me up. I also do a proper physical warm up at half-hour where I’m stretching and breathing. I sing a little and Patti and I do a warm-up in my dressing room where we jump around like fools. That gets the energy going right before I get on stage so that by the time I’m out there, I feel ready but I haven’t stressed myself out or over-taxed my voice.
You said check with yourself and I know you’re regimented with how you spend your time. What creates that tunnel for you where you can invest in some self-care?
I need my alone time actually and I need my time with my son. Prior to having a kid, alone time would be my sort of reflection/check-in time; my time to power down a little bit and put my phone away. I nap or read. There’s so much stimuli all the time. Now that Izaiah is in my life, spending time with him, even though it’s high energy, is that sort of reset button as well. As long as I get a little bit of time with him. Some days it’s not a lot, like on Wednesdays it’s not a lot at all which is hard. He misses me and asks for me and we FaceTime and that sort of recharges my battery. But I definitely need that alone time and I need quiet. At half-hour, I’m someone who closes my door. I like to visit everybody and then have peace and quiet before I go on stage.
Do you feel great at the end of the show? The music is just so happy.
It’s funny, my stuff in the show isn’t particularly happy but the show is. It’s hopeful and joyful and I do feel that way at the end. There’s a combination of things. I like that Elsa has a moment of joy at the end after struggling the entire time and I also love the exchange between us as actors and the audience because they are really good to us. We have wonderful crowds and every night when we come out and get a standing ovation, I kinda can’t believe it. Every single night. I remember, this is what I’ve waited my whole life to do; to be on Broadway and bow on Broadway. It’s so weird and wonderful that these people liked what we did. That’s still a genuine surprise and thrill and that makes me feel good every night.
Does that moment of joy help you snap out of the darkness of the character?
Yes. That and I usually go check-in with the ensemble girls before “the white out” and we have a few laughs. Those things keep you light and airy so that even when you’re doing the dark stuff on stage, you don’t feel like you’re taking that into your life.
You said you waited your whole life for that moment. Apart from the personal aspects of navigating time spent with family versus work, your industry is a tough one. But you’ve lasted and persevered where others have not. What’s the key to sticking around?
That’s such a good question. I think it’s a combo platter of never falling out of love with it—even when I thought I should fall out of love with the business because maybe I’d be happier day-to-day or happier this month or this year—but I just love what I do. I can’t quite extricate myself from it. That’s served me. I’m also very ambitious, I always have been and I hold myself to a very high standard. I suffer for it a little bit. I’m definitely hard on myself and it’s only in the last few years where I’ve gotten better at being kind to myself and saying, “okay, it doesn’t have to be perfect every time and you’re not going to win every battle but you can enjoy things even when they aren’t what you thought they were going to be; all the things we learn as we get older. That’s helped me stick around. My partner, David, my husband, having him in my life, we’re coming up on seven years of marriage and he’s the best. He calms me, he supports me, we do that for each other. There’s something extraordinary about the way he is as a person. He’s very steadying in my life and without having that support system, I can’t imagine. I would’ve done it, I would’ve continued because I know me, but I don’t know that I would’ve had as much enjoyment in the last decade on Broadway if I didn’t have him to come home to every day. That’s just lucky that I found him.
How do you handle the periods of not being in a show?
It can be hard. I remember the longest stretch I’ve gone without working was after Les Miserables and before First Daughter’s Suite. In that time I ended up getting pregnant and I started First Daughter’s Suite when I was three months pregnant. But I felt disconnected from the business and luckily I was focused on this amazing thing growing inside of me but I also thought, “oh god am I ever going to work again?” I feel that way every time I finish a show. I think I’m never getting hired again. I think they’re going to find out I’m a hack.
It’s that impostor syndrome.
Yeah. I think most people who I find sane feel that way. I think there’s something wrong when you don’t doubt yourself. There’s a healthy amount of self-doubt that can be good because it keeps you humble, it keeps you in check, and you don’t get too big for your britches. It’s a weird, hard business.
You mentioned how you felt when a role ends and while I’m not asking when this role will end for you, I do want to ask, at what point do you start to look ahead?
I think that changes show-to-show and where you are in your life. I have to say that right now, I am so fulfilled at Frozen. I love our company, I love the part, I love what I get to sing, I love the acting I get to explore. For the first time in a while, I’m not looking ahead just yet and I’m trying to savor this. I think I start to get restless generally speaking about six months in. It’s been a year with Frozen from the time I did the lab, then Denver, then here. Those things help because you’re in a different city and things are changing. You’re cutting and adding things. Now, post-Tonys, we are hitting that stride where we can just do the show. It’s really nice. I imagine this is when people start to look for the next thing but so far, I’m good.
Do you read reviews?
I don’t when they come out; I do months later.
What’s the value in waiting?
I’m too sensitive so I ask David to read them and give me the temperature. You sort of know anyway, but I find if I read specifics—either good or bad—it ruins it. Reading the good stuff ruins a good moment for me because I become hyper-aware, “oh they liked when I did that thing” and then I’m not doing the thing anymore. It’s funny, Rachel Bay Jones is a friend of mine and when we were doing First Daughter’s Suite, when the reviews came in for our show, I said “I don’t read them, I don’t want to know.” She said, “Well, I do read them.” I asked her how she weathered that and she said, “I’m my own business and it’s my business to know what I’m selling and what people are seeing.” And I thought that was a really good argument for that. I always read them months later but by then, I know what I’m doing enough and I’m strong enough in my own work. I’m aware that some people love you and some people hate you and no matter what you do, you can’t change it. But by then, I feel like I’m insulated from them changing the way I perform.
Let’s talk Tony Awards. This wasn’t your first Tonys in which to perform, but you’ve never risen from beneath the stage at Radio City to a wall of applause. How do you approach that mentally?
What I do when I have something big coming up like a Broadway opening, a new show, the Tonys, I visualize it for as much time in advance as I possibly can. So as soon as I got this job, I thought to myself, whether or not this show is nominated or I’m nominated, there’s a high probability I’m gonna be singing “Let It Go” on the Tony Awards. So I picture myself in the audience watching myself on stage and it helps me feel like “This is no big deal.” I mean, it’s an amazing thing but I can see it happening and it’s going well. So, visualization is corny but it helps me.
It’s not corny.
Yeah. It’s really powerful actually. I do it with opening nights and first previews because you’re always so nervous and thinking “Can I pull this off?” I did trick myself on the Tonys a little bit because I had to. “Don’t think about the TV cameras, don’t think about the magnitude of this song, don’t think about the fact that everyone is waiting for this part of our performance, don’t think about the fact that you’re rising on an elevator in a $40,000 gown.” It can be very overwhelming.
I will tell you that I was very nervous in the wings. There’s so much waiting around at the Tonys. You are shuttled backstage and then you stand around for like an hour. That’s when I go a little bonkers; the waiting. Once I hit the stage [snaps] I’m usually good. Backstage it was quiet, I was trying to insulate myself from other people’s energy because some people get really hyper before they go out and I get very calm. I had my people around me who knew that and they acted as a barrier. I checked in with my cast, I was joyful and happy but I was focused. As soon as I stepped on stage on Tony night, I thought, “These are all my friends. These are my peers. My friends from all the other shows are out there. Gavin’s out there. All these beautiful people who I adore and who I know are cheering for me are out there. And this is what we do every night so let’s give this audience a snippet of what we do every night.” And that took the pressure off. This isn’t our show, this is a small representation of it. That allowed me to be freer.
I asked some of my friends, people who are theater-goers and who aren’t involved in the arts, if they could ask you a question, what would it be. Three are from Texas and they saw Frozen this summer.
The first is: Will she come sing to me in the delivery room in December?
That’s awfully sweet.
The second is: The dress change in “Let It Go” is magical for the audience. Is it for you or are you focused on the mechanics of it?
Now, I am able to chill a little bit with it but it’s technical and at the beginning, it was very precarious. It didn’t always go right. In tech, we had some issues. It’s very dangerous on my body and I was thrown to the floor a couple times just because we were ironing out the kinks on how to do that properly. It’s all done by people, it’s not a magic trick like some of the other things in the show, but that’s also what makes it magical when it works. Mostly, it’s super magical because I hear that roar hit right when it happens and then it doesn’t stop until the end of the song.
In the beginning of “Let It Go,” there’s an energy shift. You can hear the audience sit up in their seats.
The attention, yes.
I sent the video of you singing on The View to someone and they said, “I wish the audience would quit oohing like that through the entire song but I told them, that’s what it was like seeing it in person too. Yes the kids were oohing at everything, but when that dress changed, we were cheering like we were at a football game.
Yes, that is the best way to describe it. Yes.
You said you hear that roar. Is that akin to the roar at the end of “Defying Gravity” from when you did Wicked?
Yes. I would totally compare the two but this is on another level, I find. There’s something about not flying through the air but still getting that response, and being way down stage near the audience and feeling like we’re sharing that together. It’s a little more immediate than when you’re ‘defying gravity’ and you’re above everyone. There’s a separation there. You know it’s spectacular, and it’s so cool when you’re flying, obviously. They’re both insanely technical but what’s cool about “Let It Go” is that once the dress change happens, I get to just stand downstage and sing and share and watch the crying and the cheering from both the kids and the adults. After “the cold never bothered me anyway,” and it blacks out, that wall of sound hits me and almost shoots me up stage. I have to walk upstage pretty quickly before the drop comes in and every night, I’m like [gasp]. You know when you fell out of a tree as a kid and you had the wind knocked out of you? That’s how it feels every night. I feel like, [gasp] I can’t believe I get to do that. It’s crazy. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
It truly is amazing.
It is! It’s amazing. That’s when I’m like, Caissie this is fucking magical. Theatre is so magical. It’s just nuts. When you get a great song and a great character that makes people feel things and you give them something beautiful to look at and there’s just a person on a stage singing a song in front of 1500 people, and it just happens once that way, I mean, come on. It’s the best thing ever.
One last one: How did you stay away from comparing this role to what Idina created the Disney film? I mean, it is different take on it because there’s just so much more of it. This is a real character rooted in real stakes.
I loved Idina’s version from the jump. When the movie came out, I was like wow that’s a perfect Broadway musical and also a great song. But then everyone was singing it so I sort of on purpose didn’t sing it. But then I got to do a fun mash-up version of the song at The Broadway Princess Party and I realized it was a fun song that actually did suit me.
It’s such an iconic song, it’s almost easier to distance yourself from it because obviously it’s going to be different. It’s the Broadway version, I’m doing it, not Idina, and this is whole other property. No one on the team wanted me to emulate anything she did. They all wanted me to do it how I wanted to do it. I sing how I sing so it wasn’t a conscious choice to do this lick differently or to do this phrase differently. It’s actually very physical. My costume weighs 40 pounds in that number so a lot of it is negotiating what I need to do physically to get the cape to fly, the glove to fly, the dress change to happen, even moving my arms is difficult with what I’m wearing, so that affects how I sing it. And I really just approach it from an acting standpoint. That’s what informed a lot of the phrasing decisions. What was great was Stephen Oremus, our amazing music supervisor, just let me sing it and live with it for a while. So did Kristen and Bobby [Lopez]. That’s what let me make it my own because I was already finding it fresh for myself. Disney never wanted it to be a replica so I never felt the pressure to do that.
These are the questions from three friends who are in the industry in various capacities. The first is from an actor: How do you juggle being a professional and doing what you have to do to take care of yourself/your voice, while also being a member of the team? How do you negotiate that?
That’s a hard thing to negotiate. I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the years watching the people in the company who were the leaders of the show; who had the starring roles and who tended to be the connectors of the building. I would watch them and try to take mental notes. I picked up little tidbits along the way. One of the things is knowing yourself well enough to know your limits. For me, it’s finding time to connect with everybody but not going out to have drinks every night because then I won’t be able to do my job. I don’t want to feel distanced from everyone so I visit dressing rooms. Patti and I will often throw a drinks thing or order food for the cast because we’re on the top of the food chain and we want to unite everybody even if we don’t get to hang all the time.
I also try to have those real connections with people who I work with day-in and day-out, and talk about problems and our lives. But you do have to protect your heart so you have something left over to give out on stage. I find that’s still something I negotiate. On Wednesday night, I had a really tough show emotionally and I felt really depleted. I felt like I didn’t have enough to give my husband, I didn’t have enough to give my kid, I didn’t have enough to give my costars, and then I got out on stage and knew I had to give these people what I had, and by the end of the show, I was just wrecked. I just had nothing left and I slept for ten hours. I had a babysitter come over at 7 in the morning when my kid wakes up and I had to sleep. I had to recharge. I didn’t do that day the way I should have. So I’m constantly negotiating it.
It’s a really good question. I think as I’ve gotten older and worked more, I’ve learned a lot about my limits, what makes me happy and fills me up, and also what I need to protect and when I need to step away. Now as a mom, that’s also made things very clear because there’s just no time for anything that I can’t give energy to. So it’s hard. I find my friendships suffer when I’m doing a demanding role, which is usually. I have a lot of guilt about not checking in with my friends because I think about them all the time. And I know they get it but that’s stuff that’s hard to remedy. It’s what we were talking about earlier about being kind to ourselves. We just can’t do everything. I personally feel that the way to have it all is to realize you shouldn’t have it all at every moment. That question is something I think about on the daily, the balancing act of being what I need to be for me and for the audience—which is my job first and foremost—and then how do I disperse it to every other aspect of my life. You do have to sacrifice to do what we do. And it’s worth it, but sometimes you’re not at every party.
The next question is: What’s it like to see fan create social media accounts dedicated to you? Their profile pics are of you and such?
It’s so weird. The best one ever was when I was in London doing Hair, I took a fan picture with someone and about a year later, one of my friends texted me and asked, “Why is your picture on Grindr?” It was someone’s Grindr profile picture was me with them at the stage door.
This last one piggybacks on something I was going to ask so this is half hers and half mine: What’s it like to be a real life Jewish princess?
Which goes into the question I was going to ask you anyway which is: Does your faith play a role in your career?
It doesn’t really inform anything in my career. I’m not at all a religious person. I’m a proud Jew, I’m culturally very connected, but it has virtually no impact on the roles I play. Other than it’s part of who I am and I bring myself to every part I play. I don’t think of myself as an ambassador for anything really when I’m playing these parts. However, especially with Elsa and the reach of Disney and the reach of Frozen, a lot of young Jewish kids have messaged me and said “wow I’ve never seen a Jewish-Disney-Broadway-Princess hyphenate.” This idea that representation matters is not just a racial thing, it’s a religious or a cultural thing too. Judaism sort of treads the line between that. I do think it’s cool for that person to see themselves and in that way, I’m super proud I can represent them a little bit. I went to a summer camp called Camp Ramah and a lot of alumni from that camp or current campers will send me notes saying ‘I have your name on my bunk and now you’re on Broadway and I’m a singer too!’ That’s really sweet and it means something to me.
Do you feel like you’ve made it?
True. So, what is your definition of success?
You know what? I do feel like I’ve made it. I feel like what that means to me is working in the business, doing what I love, making a paycheck from it, and touching people’s lives. It’s the working; the doing. That’s what makes me feel successful. I don’t love the waiting around part so I’m constantly working and trying and changing. That is success to me. Awards and all of those things that come along with longevity and the traditional idea of “making it” are all nice and wonderful. I haven’t won the awards or been nominated for the Tonys and that can be hard at times because you tend to ingest a lot of what’s being thrown at you. “This will be the part that does x, y, and z for you,” and “this is going to take you to a new level,” or whatever. The reality is, the joy and the wonder that I’ve experienced from playing Elsa is the win right there. Would I love to be nominated for a Tony one day? Of course. Was I a little sad it didn’t happen this year? Totally. But does it define if I was successful in this job or not? No chance. So I think it’s just constantly checking in with yourself. What is real and what is not? What was my 12-year-old idea of success and what is my now 37-year-old idea of success? That’s just valuing yourself enough to know what matters. Having good people around you helps and doing a show you believe in helps. It’s always nice to be in something you actually think is great, which I do.
What happens when you’re in something that’s not great?
I’ve often wondered about that. What do you do when you find yourself in that show?
I’ve been in a couple things where you know it’s problematic or that it has moments that work and moments that don’t, or songs that work and songs that don’t. When you’re inside of something, it’s hard to be objective and really know if it’s good or not, but often, you have a pretty good idea. You’re hired to do the gig and make it the best you can. In those moments, for me anyway, I’ve tried to tweak things with the writers or director or voice my concerns within reason to be a team player; really picking and choosing if there’s something I can contribute or is this a time to be silent and say yes and do the thing anyway. You never want to be the actor who’s yapping about this or that. You want to choose your battles and then when you do speak up, people realize it matters. So I’ve had to pick those moments in shows and sometimes, things aren’t fixable.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Was there a specific moment when you knew this was what you were going to do for the rest of your life?
I remember being eight years old, on stage for the first time, and knowing I loved it. The same year, I saw Les Miserables in Toronto and I remember being incredibly jealous of the young Cosettes. I was so jealous. I wanted to do that. That awakened something in me. I moved to New York and went to AMDA at 19. I was in school sort of half taking it seriously and half not, I wasn’t the star student, but near the end of my time there, I sort of emerged as someone I think people knew was going to work. Once I was on tour with Rent, I felt like I’d found my spot. There’s something about being younger rather than being older that makes you fearless in a way that’s so awesome. I think we get older and get more self-aware and that can be to our own detriment. When I was 19 and 20 on the road, it was just what I did. It wasn’t a cockiness but it was a lack of knowledge that kind of served me. It was just what I was doing. I was playing Maureen in Rent. Cool. Looking back, how amazing is that?
Yes. It’s amazing!
I remember when I auditioned for schools in Canada because that’s where I grew up and it didn’t occur to me to go anywhere else. I went to this AMDA audition and I got this letter from New York telling me I got in. I thought it was crazy and I called my brother. I told him I got into a school in New York City and he said “Dude! You’re in the NBA!” I was like, you’re right! He said, “That’s like getting into the fucking NBA! You got into drama school in New York City?! That’s amazing.” You need that reality check to be like, “holy shit.” I love those moments. Those are moments you look back on and remember.
Let’s talk about your Broadway debut. Hairspray. What did you learn in that experience that you’ve carried with you through every show since?
So much. In Hairspray, I started in the ensemble in the Toronto cast. I covered Penny and Amber for nine months. Then I got moved to the tour and was in the ensemble for nine months. Then I got promoted to Penny on the tour for nine months. And then I got brought to Broadway.
That’s a lot of Hairspray.
Yes. I can still do that show in my sleep. It’s actually the only one I can do all the choreography for. That experience taught me so much. I was an understudy so I covered two parts. I was in the ensemble and this was immediately after playing Maureen in Rent so it was an immediate humbling. So then to have the responsibility of covering two opposing roles, being in the ensemble, dancing a ton which, I’m a decent dancer but it’s not my first thing, then getting promoted within the company and the dynamics of that, and then moving to Broadway—it felt like the biggest win of my life. It makes me emotional to think about it. It just meant everything to me and I felt like I had worked for it and it wasn’t handed to me. That’s one thing I will say about my whole journey in this world we are in: I’ve never felt like it was handed to me. I didn’t go to the fanciest school, I wasn’t the fanciest one in the school, and I didn’t get on Broadway right away. I worked my way up and it happened from being humble and patient and hardworking and kind and making mistakes and fixing them. Then when you get the big things, you appreciate them. So on my Broadway debut, my parents were sitting out there and that scrim went up and we sang, “Good morning Baltimore,” I remember looking out and saw the thing I wanted my entire life. I am the luckiest.
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