Alex Newell is a true force of nature: From his debut on The Glee Project to a breakout role on Glee itself—followed by solo music and collaborations with Clean Bandit, Blonde and The Knocks—he's always defied expectations.
Now Newell is making another dream come true, as Asaka, Mother of the Earth and one of the primordial gods in the current Broadway smash Once on This Island.
He calls Asaka "funny, loving, caring, and free thinking," but insists she's not a pushover. "All of the gods are there to protect and care for everyone, but they still need to teach life lessons," he says. "People have free will, though the gods test us. It's hard to say a god is just supposed to be there all the time for you."
Last staged on Broadway in 1990, Once On This Island chronicles the tale of Ti Moune, a bold peasant who falls in love with Daniel, a handsome wealthy boy from the other side of the island. When Ti Moune rescues Daniel from a car accident and brings him home, she's convinced they are fated to be together. But Asaka and the other gods might feel differently.
Newell has long been a fan of the show, and was the one who suggested playing Asaka to director Michael Arden (Spring Awakening). "I told him that the only role I wanted in this role was Asaka," he recalls. "I didn't want to play Papa Ge. Asaka was my wheelhouse, the most like me."
Asaka was previously played by female actors Kecia Lewis-Evans and Lillias White, but Newell insists he wasn't trying to make any statement on gender by taking the part. "I don't think about gender anymore," he says bluntly. "I just do what I want to do."
Asaka's standout number is also Once On This Island's biggest showstopper: "Mama Will Provide." It was an anthem before the revival and Newell feels an obligation to give it 100% every night. "Even when I'm deathly ill, trying to scrounge up my voice," he says. "No matter what Im doing. The song was so iconic before. People know it—and they expect it a certain way."
Though the production has received eight Tonys nods, including Best Revival and Best Director for Arden, it feels like a travesty Newell wasn't nominated himself. But, at only 25, he says he's blessed to be doing what he's doing.
"I get to work with some of the best actors on Broadway," he told NewNowNext days before the nominations were announced. "I say hello to everyone—I want to be in their presence. Lea Salonga is the voice of all voices—she sound the same as when she was 19, night after night. Tamyra Gray, Norm Lewis... Kenita R. Miller breaks my heart every right!"
And Once on This Island provides a unique education for a Broadway newbie: Performed in the round, it requires the cast to remain on stage for almost the entire show, which has no intermission. And the gods' costumes get progressively more ornate as the story continues.
There's also the matter of the live animals, a wild card in any production.
"No one named the chickens, so I did," says Newell. "Effie, Deena, Lorrell and Michelle. Yes, I named after the Dreamettes." In addition there are two goats, Sparky and Peapod, which alternate performances. "Sparky's a pro but Peapod is a teenager, so he doesn't always understand whats going on," Newell explains. "He head-butted someone and once he tried to eat my costume."
What's next for the out performer whose already made his mark in television, music and theater? Newell has a world of possibilities before him, but he's not quite ready to leave Broadway.
"I'll stay with [Island] as long as they want me, but I'd like to do a more traditional musical," he reveals. "Our show is in the round, we're on stage all the time—it's one of the hardest things I've ever done. I'd love to do a traditional show—a two-act with a proscenium. Ultimately I want to be the Danielle Brooks of Broadway. Y'know, film a TV series during the day and then a show at night."
Once On This Island is now playing at Circle in the Square Theatre.