In the 10 years since Stephen Kopel finished his musical theater degree at Wichita State University, the New York City resident has been working on Broadway with the likes of Tony Award winners Sutton Foster and Joel Grey in “Anything Goes.”
He’s also palled around with Harry Connick Jr. in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Mary-Louise Parker in “Hedda Gabler,” Vanessa Williams and Barbara Cook in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” and Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto (yes, the new movie Spock) in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Not as a fellow cast member, said Kopel, a Lenexa native who performed two seasons in the Music Theatre of Wichita ensemble before heading to New York in 2004. Instead, he’s the casting director who put those stars into the shows.
“I was fortunate to find out early that performing was not my real love,” Kopel said with a laugh. “After watching (Music Theatre’s producing artistic director) Wayne Bryan, there was something very intriguing about finding a script, analyzing it, figuring out who would be best in the roles, and then auditioning and picking the right people. Wayne spent a lot of time showing me how it was done.”
Bryan also helped Kopel secure an internship at New York’s famed Roundabout Theatre, where he is now casting director. With his casting partner Jim Carnahan, he’s also populated shows for regional theaters like The Guthrie in Minneapolis, The Old Globe in San Diego, Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and Denver Center Theatre.
“It’s a real left brain/right brain thing that requires a lot of analytical skills, but also a lot of creativity,” said Kopel, who spends his days auditioning and casting and most of his nights attending performances to see how his actors are doing. He’s also responsible for recasting when a star moves or leaves for a new project.
“It’s a tricky balance, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding to work on a show from the ground floor up,” he said.
Now Kopel is back in Wichita to stage the award-winning off-Broadway musical “Violet,” at his alma mater, WSU.
Interestingly, this student production comes about a month before a new version of “Violet” starring Sutton Foster – two-time Tony winner as best musical actress for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and the aforementioned “Anything Goes” – opens on Broadway (previews begin March 28, opening set for April 20).
And, yes, it was Kopel who cast Foster in that upcoming show.
“It’s interesting to do both of them at the same time. They are the same show and yet they are different,” Kopel said.
“Violet,” written by Brian Crawley based on a short story by Doris Betts, features music by Jeanine Tesori that ranges from rousing gospel to spirited bluegrass to poignant country ballads. The show opened offBroadway in 1997 and won Drama Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards as best musical.
The period drama set in 1964 in the Deep South tells of a bitter, isolated young woman named Violet with a disfiguring scar on her face who finally gets up the courage to travel cross country to ask a faith-healer to make her face normal. On the Greyhound bus, she meets two young soldiers on the way to Vietnam. Monty is a shallow womanizer who casually seduces her, and Flick – a young black man – feels a kinship with her as an outsider.
“Violet has in her mind that nobody will ever love her because of the scar on her face. She uses it as an excuse to hide from the world,” says Claire Gerig, a senior from Wichita who plays her. “When she discovers that the faith-healer is a fraud, I do love how brutally honest she is – giving as good as she gets. I admire her courage.”
Gerig, who was seen as Sister Sarah in WSU’s “Guys and Dolls” and as the mother in Music Theatre’s “Mary Poppins,” said she identifies with Violet through her humor.
“I think her sense of humor is akin to mine – a little sassy,” Gerig said. “But I wish I had her courage to take more risks.”
Playing Monty is Joshua Brown, a senior from Jefferson City, Mo., who played cool gambler Sky Masterson in WSU’s “Guys and Dolls” and eccentric showman Bela Zangler in“Crazy for You.”
“Monty is a shallow young man who uses his charm and good looks to get what he wants. He’s used to things going his way without working too hard. In the end, he’s just a spoiled brat,” Brown said with a laugh. “At first, he just flirts with Violet. But he keeps coming back because she doesn’t fall for him like other girls. She represents a challenge to him that he’s not used to.”
Playing Flick is Kansas City junior Demetrius Hodges, seen in WSU’s “Crazy for You” and “Good News.”
“Flick is a very nice guy, a good guy who is a little vulnerable. He’s been discriminated against because he’s black in the South in the 1960s, but he is always pushing to better himself. He knows how far to go without getting into trouble,” Hodges said. “He becomes very protective of Violet because he knows what it’s like to be different.”