Time has been a precious commodity for Ashland native and Tony nominee Steve Kazee leading up to Sunday night's awards.
"Things have been chaotic, to say the least," Kazee said by phone Monday from New York during a few free moments on his schedule.
Kazee is up for best actor in a musical for his performance as Guy in Once, the stage adaptation of the surprise hit 2006 movie. The show itself leads the Tony nominations with 11, including best musical.
Not just a nominee, Kazee is a contender, considered by many observers to be in a race with Jeremy Jordan of Newsies the Musical and Norm Lewis of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. (Ron Raines and Danny Burstein also are nominated for their performances in Follies.)
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"At this point, I don't really care," Kazee says. "It's such an honor to be part of the evening and to be mentioned in the same breath with the rest of these guys. Norm Lewis is one of my most favorite people in the world. He's the nicest man I've ever been around, and also one of the most talented."
Throwing bouquets to other fellow nominees, Kazee says, "The award comes in the nomination. ... Whatever happens, I know the next day, I'm still 'Tony Award nominee Steve Kazee,' and I'll take that any day of the week."
He says he could not have dreamed of that when he was growing up in a mobile home in Ashland, struggling to find direction.
Kazee, 36, was introduced to music by two choir teachers, Cindy Jackson at Boyd County High School and Michael Campbell at Fairview High School.
Jackson said she had been tipped off that Kazee, a sophomore at the time, could sing, and she invited him to join choir.
"You could see immediately that he had a special talent," says Jackson, who now teaches music at Ashland elementary schools. But he didn't have drive, she says.
When she put on a production later that year in which Kazee had a solo, he was skipping rehearsals. She told him that if he would come to practices and perform, and at the end of the experience could say that he didn't love it, she'd give him $25. "When it was over, he said, 'You don't owe me anything. I love it,'" Jackson said.
Jackson says she didn't do anything special. "His talent was going to come out, whether it was me or someone else that saw it," she says.
But Kazee says Jackson and Campbell put him on a path to Morehead State University and a well-known audition there for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He accompanied a friend to the tryout, not planning to audition himself, but Kazee ended up singing Happy Birthday and being cast in a supporting role.
"In that small a theater department, you're just happy if there are guys who are interested," says Scott Bradley, who was a Morehead student at that time and music directed the production of Joseph. "If they're talented, that's like a bonus. He was really green, but he had a natural performing instinct."
Even though Kazee found theater at Morehead, that didn't drive him through school. He left and got theater gigs in Florida and New York for several years, but he returned home when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and reenrolled at Morehead, graduating in 2002.
Bradley was at the Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions in the early 2000s casting for Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg when Kazee walked on stage.
"I had not seen him in four or five years," said Bradley, who is now resident musical director at Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind. "I expected it would be Steve Kazee, the guy who was kind of playing at theater when I knew him. He got up there, and it was like a different human being had inhabited his body. The light went on for him at some point."
Kazee was on his way to New York, though he's never forgotten people who helped get him there.
"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Bill Layne, Travis Lockhart, Kozy Hamilton, these people at Morehead State who brought me into the theater world," Kazee says. (Layne, Lockhart and Hamilton are retired now.) Folding Williams and Campbell into the tribute, he says, "They all saved my life, and to this day, I can't thank them enough for everything that they've done for me and the person that they helped me to become so I can be where I am today."
By early 2005, Kazee was performing on Broadway, as a replacement performer in the hit Spamalot. He then had parts in short-lived productions of Seascape in 2005 and To Be or Not to Be in 2008. He also did some work on TV, landing a lead role in the defunct CMT comedy Working Class last year.
Until Once, his highest-profile stage role had been playing Bill Starbuck in the 2007 revival of 110 in the Shade. That part had him opposite legend Audra McDonald, who is expected to win her fifth Tony on Sunday night for Porgy and Bess.
Kazee admits that he, like many others, was leery of a stage version of Once, a quiet and intimate movie. But those concerns were overcome for him and many others, judging by the reaction to the show.
"What was always wonderful about Once, its songs and its staging, has been magnified," New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote in his review. He said Kazee "manages to find a soulful, quietly erotic energy in his passive character, and his singing voice shifts by stealthy degrees from tuneful plaintiveness to howling pain."
Despite the success, it has been a painful year for Kazee. He broke up with his longtime girlfriend, stage and TV actress Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy on NBC's Smash. Then his mother, Kathy Kazee, died just as Once was opening on Broadway. He briefly left the production to be with her in her last days. When he came back to Once, he had to lead a story in which his character deals with his mother dying, eight shows a week.
In light of that, when asked who in Kentucky is rooting for him, Kazee says, "I feel like the whole state is pulling for me. This week, it's been crazy. There have been so many people from Kentucky at the stage door."
That's another thing that has Kazee jazzed about the Tonys: People back home unable to travel to New York to see Once will get to watch him and the rest of the cast perform during the ceremony.
A self-described theater nerd who likes to cruise YouTube for Tony performances, Kazee says he appreciates how performances, such as Jennifer Holliday's rendition of And I'm Telling You from Dreamgirls on the 1982 awards, can define a show.
"There are so many performances that stand out, and to be able to have a chance to possibly be one of those performances is really thrilling," Kazee says.
Preparing for the awards is one of many commitments, including several TV appearances, that have had Kazee in constant motion. Then there is the matter of doing eight shows of Once each week.
"Most days, I'm getting out at 8 o'clock and going all day long, ... getting home at 11:30, 11:45, and not being able to get to sleep until 2, and then right back up at 6 to get ready for the next day," Kazee says. "It's all good problems to have. I call them 'champagne problems.'"