’Round’ and About :: A Chat with David Costa
If you’ve seen musical theater in Boston, you probably have seen David Costa. He was featured in last fall’s production of "Cabaret" at Club Oberon, as well as in the IRNE-winning "The Hot Mikado" at the New Repertory Theatre, where he also appeared in another IRNE winner, "The Wild Party." Costa picked up his own IRNE nomination for his work as Eddie Ryan in "Funny Girl," and scored an IRNE win for his role as Bobby Child in "Crazy for You," both at the Fiddlehead Theatre. That’s just a sampling of his wide experience on the Boston theater scene, and it doesn’t even include how he’s rounded out his skill set: Costa has also served as a choreographer (his work on "Fiddler on the Roof" also received an IRNE nomination).
As a model, Costa has lent his talents to some of biggest names in the fashion world: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Marc Jacobs, and has appeared in various films and TV commercials.
Now he joins Leigh Barrett, Shannon Lee Jones, Aimee Doherty, and De’Lon Grant as one of the five cast members in "The World Goes ’Round," a glittering jewelry box of a revue that presents 29 selections from the oeuvre of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
Costa is certainly no stranger to Kander and Ebb’s work, since he not only appeared as Nazi villain Ernst Ludwig in Cabaret, but also appeared as Fred Casely in "Chicago" with the Festival Theatre.
Costa spoke with EDGE recently about the show, which continues in the Charles Mosesian theater at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown.
"It is an intimate show, but there is a lot of staging and dancing," Costa told EDGE during the telephone interview. "Hopefully, the audience will feel a part of it. It’s too big for the Black Box," a smaller space also located at Arsenal for the Arts.
"It’s really a retrospective of Kander and Ebb’s music," Costa added. "A lot of music people know ’Cabaret’ and ’New York New York,’ and then there are songs people may not have heard of, maybe because it’s from a show they’re not as familiar with. But there are also songs that they wrote that never really found a home, but that people really enjoy."
Asked what quality the songs share that allows them to be culled from their respective contexts in Broadway shows and presented in revue form, Costa offered a typically thoughtful and informed response.
"What Kander and Ebb do so well is they tell stories," Costa told EDGE. "Every song is about a person in a particular time in their life, and I think that people can relate."
That the songs encapsulate stories of every sort -- comic, tragic, even operatic -- is clearly the case. "The World Goes ’Round" offers everything from "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" to a hilarious ensemble piece centered around the caffeine-powered frenzy of modern life to a chilling horror number, "The Kiss of the Spider Woman," which Costa sings in his role as "Man One." It also allows Costa to revisit Chicago, though in a different role -- that of Amos -- when he dons a bowler hat and white gloves for a semi-Vaudevillian turn through "Mr. Cellophane."
As it happens, Costa met Fred Ebb once -- through his long friendship with Liza Minnelli, no less. Costa shared the story with EDGE.
"I knew Liza pretty well for about ten years; I kind of worked for her, in a way," Costa recounted. "I met her -- it was a weird, long set of circumstances, and I didn’t really know who she was, but saw her and was really blown away by her performing. It’s the kind of performing that I respond to: She just goes up there and gives it, and doesn’t hold back. I think she liked that I wasn’t a Liza stalker who had all her albums, and really had an honest opinion. We kind of hit it off.
"Somehow -- I don’t even know how it happened -- she would call me when she would be on a television show, and I would tape it for her," Costa continued. "I would tape all her shows and send them to her, and then if I ever wanted to see her in concert, she would get a seat for me, front row center.
"I think it was 1992," Costa added. "She was at the Providence Performing Arts Center. I was finishing my master’s degree. Liza called me and I went to the show, and after the show I went to Liza’s dressing room, and we were kind of hanging out. When I left there was this man standing outside of Liza’s dressing room, waiting -- just very quietly, you know, leaning against the wall. He had on a tweed sports coat. I can picture him so vividly.
"Liza was, like, ’Oh, Freddie, this is David.’ In my mind, I’m like, ’I think that’s Fred Ebb!,’ " Costa recalled. "We didn’t have a long conversation at all; he seemed very quiet, and very humble. I don’t remember what I said to him. I basically just shared how much I loved his music. He didn’t seem to have an ego at all, which was really nice."
Costa shared his approach to musicals, telling EDGE that his view of song lyrics is that they are another form of dialogue.
"A song is just like doing a monologue," Costa said. "You’ve got to tell a story. I always think about where the person is physically, emotionally, etc. when I sing the song. The great thing about this show is that I get to play different characters.
"One of the songs from the show is called ’Arthur in the Afternoon,’ " Costa added, by way of illustration. "It’s from ’The Act,’ which was a Broadway show starring Liza Minnelli. I believe it was directed by Martin Scorsese in the early 1980s. I guess it was a terrible show; it was a bad book, but there were a lot of great songs, like ’City Lights,’ in it.
"There’s a number from the show called ’Arthur in the Afternoon.’ Shannon Lee Jones, who sings the number in the show, was working on it last night. She was doing such a brilliant job, and while I was watching her, I was thinking of how you really have to be something of a triple threat to do these kind of shows. She was acting the song so beautifully, and bringing so much of herself to it. But she also has to do this major dance and be able to sing. There’s a lot that goes into each number."
Costa’s fortunate in that he’s able to make acting his day job, so to speak. But he did have an earlier career as an educator, he told EDGE.
"I taught first grade and graduate school for ten years," the actor and singer recollected. "I always wanted to go into theater since I was a little kid, but it kind of was frowned upon in my family; I grew up very religious. At 27 years old, I did my first show ever -- ever," Costa reiterated. "And that’s a whole other story. That’s an article and a half!
"It was a professional production of ’Fiddler on the Roof,’ and it was a regional summer production, so I was able to do it [around my teaching scheudle], and I was just... I breathed for the first time in my life," Costa recalled. "I knew that this is what I’m meant to do.
"I continued teaching and doing theater, and teachers work really hard, and I was getting burned out and had a lot on my plate. One day I thought, ’You know what? I need to do this.’ It’s hard to teach and be there 24/7 for the kids and also do anything else. I thought, ’I can always come back to teaching.’ I was actually nominated Disney Teacher of the Year, and then quit! That was interesting! I’ve been doing theater [as a primary career] for ten years now."
Asked whether working with kids influenced his approach to acting, Costa offered an insight into both professions.
"I think teachers are performers, truthfully," he told EDGE. "I think most teachers are frustrated Broadway performers. When you have a classroom of 35 first graders who are all at different levels, many with special needs... I had a certification in special ed, and many of my students had Downs Syndrome, or autism, so you’re dealing with children at all levels. You’ve got to be singing and dancing every five seconds to keep their attention. Performing feels really natural, actually."
Costa draws on the skills he learned as an educator even now.
"I’ve done some choreography, and done some teaching of theater with children, which I enjoy, because [having had experience as a teacher] I can be clear and break things down, and I enjoy that.
"But basically I do acting" as a full time profession, Costa added. "I do some modeling, and this year I started a head shot photography business for when I’m not working, which is really great, because I love people and I know what casting directors are looking for. I know how to make people look good and feel comfortable. That’s been a lot of fun.
"When you’re in this kind of life it’s either feast or famine," added the performer. "You’re either really busy or things are really slow, which is the reality of it. That’s difficult, sometimes.
"You caught me at a good time right now."
"The World Goes ’Round" continues through July 31 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.