The long game pays off for Broadway's newest arrival, Zachary Levi
NEW YORK >> To one day get to Broadway, Zachary Levi made the calculated choice to not initially go to Broadway.
The southern California native grew up as a passionate fan of theater, but knew he had to play a long game to make those dreams happen.
First up, he had to become a TV star.
"I knew that people who win Tony Awards have a hard time getting arrested in Hollywood, but if you could get on some schmucko sitcom in L.A., Broadway comes a-knocking, saying, 'Hey, come and be in our show,'" Levi said, laughing.
Broadway has indeed come knocking for the former star of "Chuck" and "Heroes Reborn," who is starring in a revival of "She Loves Me," considered by many to be one the most charming musicals ever written, at the Roundabout Theatre, where it opened Thursday.
Levi, who made his Broadway debut in 2013 in a small summer show, now finds himself among a Broadway All-Star team: Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath and Peter Bartlett.
The 6-foot-4 Levi hopes he doesn't stand out for the wrong reasons. "I don't want people walking away going, 'You know, for a Hollywood guy, not bad.' I would hope that people walk away going, 'I didn't even think about it.'"
Levi plays a clerk of a perfume store who exchanges love letters with a pen pal only to discover she works alongside him. The story has been adapted into the films "The Shop Around the Corner" with James Stewart and "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks.
Levi, an actor with a self-effacing manner, solid moral compass, flawless comic timing and leading-man looks, is a worthy successor to Stewart and Hanks. "They're major influences," he said.
"I've always kind of found myself fitting into the Everyman role. As much as I'd like to feel like I can compete with the Brad Pitts of the world, that's like Adonis-y, leading-man stuff and I'm just a little goofier than that, I guess."
Tony-nominated director Scott Ellis said Levi belongs alongside his veteran and celebrated cast mates — calling him a rare find — a leading man who is also funny.
"He brings a beautiful, beautiful soulfulness, humor, truth to this role," Ellis said. "He has stepped up in a major way. No one is going to be able to walk away after seeing him and not go, 'That's a guy who's not only a terrific actor but that's someone who can carry a musical.' And there are not a lot of them out there."
As a kid, Levi loved to tell jokes and do impressions. He adored TV sitcoms, computer games and animation. "I joke that half of my acting influences are cartoons," he said.
Theater became an important outlet. "If you're a spazzy kid who likes to crack wise and sing and dance around like an idiot, that's your home," he said.
In middle school, he did a production of "Grease" and later a regional production of "Marvin's Room," which got him noticed by a retired manager, who got him an agent.
He did the TV show "Less Than Perfect" for four years. Broadway came calling in 2007 with an offer to audition for the musical "Young Frankenstein."
He flew across the country and performed in front of director Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks. "I start stomping my foot in time to the music so they can't see me shaking," he recalled. Though he forgot some lines — he rates the audition a C-plus — he got the job. Then "Chuck" was picked up and he had to do that instead.
Broadway came again after "Chuck" ended in 2012 — and Levi took it. He starred opposite Krysta Rodriguez in the charming musical "First Date." One critic said he was a "strikingly adept stage comedian." Another praised his "vitality and off-kilter humor." At the stage door, Levi brought out a stereo and he and Rodriguez turned signing autographs into a dance party.
For his latest foray, Levi took over when Josh Radnor of "How I Met Your Mother" had to back out, Levi, whose film credits include "Thor: The Dark World," took the job because of the cast, songs and Ellis, even though he insisted after his last time he wouldn't return in a musical.
"There are so many things I still want to do," he said. "I feel like I've been really, really blessed that I've been able to check off so many boxes and maybe that will be my legacy to do a little bit of everything."
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