‘It is creatively satisfying to play
a part that is so human and flawed’

Mike Cohen
15 min readJun 10, 2024


Jewish Telegraph, June 2024

CAST: Caissie Levy as Diana Goodman in Next To Normal with Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Jamie Parker, Trevor Dion Nicholas, Jack Wolfe and Jack Ofrecio. Picture: Marc Brenner

OLIVIER Award nominee Caissie Levy returns to London’s West End later this month to reprise the role of Diana Goodman in Next To Normal at Wyndham’s Theatre. Here, the Broadway star talks to MIKE COHEN about the musical, which is running from June 18 to September 21, and her incredible career.

FOR the first four years of his life, Caissie Levy’s son Izaiah thought his mother was a princess . . . Elsa, to be exact. Canadian-born musical theatre star Caissie had originated the iconic role of Elsa on Broadway in Disney’s Frozen.
“My son only knew me as Elsa,” laughed Caissie, who also has a three-year-old daughter, Talulah Ruby, with husband David Reiser. “He would be backstage all the time, and in my dressing room. We’d be at the playground, and he’d be like ‘my mom is Elsa’, introducing me to people, and I would be like ‘Oh my God’.
“For a long time he didn’t really understand that I was an actor. He thought I only played Elsa and was his mom.
“Now that he’s eight and has seen me do many more shows. I think he’s understanding now that I go to a theatre and play a part — and then I come home.”
The 43-year-old’s current role is a world away from family friendly Frozen. Rock musical Next To Normal, which was staged at London’s Donmar Theatre from last August to October, has now made the move to the West End with a three-month residency at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Caissie plays Diana Goodman, a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Married to Dan (Jamie Parker), she has a son Gabe (Jack Wolfe) and daughter Natalie (Eleanor Worthington Cox).
The musical examines the effect her mental illness has on her family and addresses themes including grief, depression, suicide and drug abuse.
Caissie had friends who workshopped the show in 2007/8 before it premiered on Broadway in 2009.
“I was doing the revival of Hair on Broadway in the same season,” she told me. “I was good friends with Aaron Tveit, who played the original Gabe, and I knew the director Michael Greif because I had done Rent, and that was his show. “
Apart from an American tour in 2010, the show wasn’t staged professionally again until the Donmar production.
“Our producers, mainly David Stone, who shepherded it to Broadway originally and who was instrumental in its creation, has always been very careful about who is allowed to do productions of it, and I think they were just waiting for the right director and the right theatre,” Caissie explained.
“This is a very new production. It’s different than the original. The writing is the same, of course, but (director) Mike Longhurst’s approach is very different than the original, which made it an exciting venture to have in the UK.”
She added: “I was doing Leopoldstadt on Broadway. And Mike and I had just done Caroline, Or Change right after the pandemic — we were one of the first Broadway shows to open after lockdown — and he messaged me on Instagram to ask me to play Diana Goodman and come back to the UK to the Donmar.
“It was the quickest ‘Yes’ I’ve ever said.”
To prepare for such an emotionally-demanding role, Caissie delved deep, reading books on the subject.
She said: “I watched a lot of YouTube videos of people talking about their own experiences with bipolar, family members of people who live with bipolar and I drew from my own life experience with friends and family. I kind of threw that all into the pot.
“When we got in the rehearsal room, we were really able to take the time to explore and feel safe enough to try things. A lot of it was just sort of diving in honestly and not being too precious, while, at the same time, knowing that we were coming at it from a place of education.”
Caissie added that the Donmar brought in doctors, psychologists and therapists to help the cast navigate the themes.
“Because of the way it’s written, and how beautiful the music is, and how human it all is, it feels like a play with music,” she said. “It doesn’t really feel like a musical.
“The way the music is seamlessly woven into the story and into these characters’ lives makes so much sense that it feels right. It doesn’t feel silly or inappropriate in any way. It feels like what the characters need at the time.
“I bring a lot of myself to the role. I’m bringing my motherhood card into my performance. I’m bringing my own experience with depression and anxiety, of which I’ve always battled, nothing to the level of bipolar by any stretch, but I like to say I have a healthy amount of depression.
“It’s like anybody else. And I’ve never been shy about speaking about that.
“I’ve been married for a long time. I bring that to my relationship with my husband in the show and I’ve experienced highs and lows in my own life as well.
“Any role you take on, you innately bring part of who you are to it. That’s part of the casting puzzle.”
Caissie continued: “Then there’s plenty that I have not experienced. And that’s where the research comes in and the discussing with people who are living with bipolar. That’s the missing element that I can’t bring from my own life, but I make up for by doing research and reading.”
She describes it as the hardest role she’s ever played.
“It’s absolutely exhausting . . . in the best way, because it’s so creatively satisfying to play a part that is so human and so flawed,” Caissie said. And she’s trying her best.
“What’s great about Next To Normal is there’s no clear-cut bad guy, which is how it is in real life, which is why it moves people so much, and why they feel so connected to all of these characters.
“At any given moment, you might be judging one character and having empathy for another. And the next scene it’s going to flip.
“It’s about these people making choices that are really complicated and not always linear.
“And it’s exhausting because I never leave the stage. I go through a lot of extremes. So it does hit me like a ton of bricks, and by the end of the night, I am absolutely shattered . . . vocally, physically and emotionally.”
For last year’s London run, Caissie’s family weren’t with her in London.
She says she found it difficult being away from them for so long, although “in some ways it was easier because I could just take care of myself — even though I missed them so terribly.
“This summer, I’m going to have them with me, which is such a gift and also will be a new challenge. I won’t get to just sleep all day if I need to, because I’m a mom, and I have to get up and make my kids’ breakfast at 7am and deal with somebody throwing up overnight or just somebody crying in the middle of the night.
“I won’t get the sleep that I got last summer, so it should be very interesting to see how it all transpires. But that’s the life of a working parent for anybody in any industry.”
Having a husband involved in the same line of work has also be a bonus for Caissie.
She said: “I couldn’t do any of this without David. We are such a pair and such a team.
“He was an actor for years when we were first dating and married, and he is a theatre professor now, so he absolutely is in the business.
“But we’re not doing the exact same thing anymore, which does help both of us with our work because we fully understand the other one. But we have a little bit of healthy distance as well.”
She added: “You have to have a partner that’s up for the challenge of raising your kids and doing long distance and being a team from afar.
“I just count my lucky stars that I have him in my corner, and that we can navigate all of this craziness together.”
Caissie was born in Hamilton, Ontario. Her father, Mark, was a doctor, while her mother, Lisa, was an administrator in his medical practice.
Her older brothers, Robi and Josh, are also in the entertainment industry, working as film directors.
Caissie found herself in demand straight after graduating from New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 2002.
Within a week she had been cast as Maureen Johnson in the American tour of Rent.
Her Broadway debut was in Hairspray in 2006 as Penny, which she had performed on a national tour.
She was then in the ensemble in Wicked before taking over the role of protagonist Elphaba.
Her Broadway role as Sheila in Hair brought her over to the West End in 2010.
The following year, she originated the role of Molly in Ghost the Musical at Manchester’s Opera House. It moved to the West End before heading back over the pond to Broadway.
Her other credits include Murder Ballad, Les Miserables, First Daughter Suite, Caroline, or Change, The Bedwetter, Leopoldstadt and, of course, Frozen.
She has also been cast in an off-Broadway revival of Ragtime, which will run in New York from October 30 to November 10.
But for now, her attention is on Next To Normal.
The cast had hoped there would be life in the musical after the Donmar run as every performance was sold out.
“We knew that the hunger for the show was very much there in the UK,” she said.
“It’s the entire same cast which is so rare. So often you lose someone along the way when something transfers, just due to scheduling.
“But all of us feel so strongly about the piece that we couldn’t see a way in which someone else would play these roles, so we all were very much on board to come back, and it was just about making sure everyone was available.
“It could have happened with other people, of course, but to have the magic of the original company all transferring is really special, for sure.”
Caissie says the problem in waiting for a transfer to be confirmed is having to decline other offers.
“But there was no question, I wanted to be part of this transfer,” she said. “The West End, the London and UK theatre community have been so welcoming to me over the years, and to get to bring this back and create this part in this production has just been such an honour. So there was no way I was going to miss it.”
Tom Kitt, who wrote the music for Next To Normal, has helped Caissie mould the character of Diana Goodman.
“You don’t always get the writers in the room,” she said. “He and I have known each other a long time, and so to have his support and guidance was really special, and also he gave us the freedom with his music to interpret it in a new way.
“On Broadway, it was done with scaffolding and big lights — very in your face, glitzy, a very different vibe than what we do in our production, which is set in the kitchen of a home, and we’re very much homebound in it.
“So it sort of alters the way in which we approach the scenes, and having the freedom to reinvent or re-examine what worked so brilliantly about the original production and put our own stamp on it for this production was really exciting.”
Her role in the original run saw Caissie nominated for a prestigious Olivier Award for best actress — although Nicole Scherzinger took the gong for Broadway-bound Sunset Boulevard.
You could say she was quite happy with the recognition by the Society of London Theatre.
“Oh my God!” she said. “I was over the moon. I was so thrilled.
“It’s funny because I’ve been in contention for a Tony nomination many, many times, and it’s never happened for me. And when I was earlier in my career it was something that I really focused on and really wanted.
“And as I’ve gotten older and had a family and played all these roles, I realised not having those nominations hasn’t held me back in the slightest.
“I’m fortunate to always be working, and working with fabulous people on wonderful projects.
“So it wasn’t something I was chasing and yet when it happened, it felt so beautiful to have that validation and that recognition from the community of just saying ‘yes, we see you, we see your work, we appreciate it, we believe in you’. I found it really moving.
“I didn’t think I was going to win it. I know the heat around Sunset Boulevard was so huge, and we had already closed, so I was pretty certain I was just going to be staying in my chair so I could just enjoy the night.”
Caissie was encouraged by her parents to embrace the arts as a youngster.
She told me: “My parents are huge theatregoers, and very musical, so there was always singing and theatre in our house growing up.
“We all did acting, singing and dance lessons. We went to the theatre all the time. My parents love art, so it was always part of our lives.
“And it’s too bad not one of us became a doctor and took over my dad’s practice. But my parents have always been super supportive of all of us, which is the best thing a parent can do.
“My parents were very much ‘you do what makes you happy’. I was the kind of kid who went to my acting lessons and did plays, and then I rode my bike around and climbed trees.
“I played basketball through high school . . . I kind of did well-rounded kid-things.
“But it was, I guess, near the end of high school that I got very serious, and I always sort of knew in my heart that I wanted to be on Broadway. That was always the goal.
“Once I went to New York for the first time. I was like, ‘I gotta move here’. So I did.
“I always sang, but I was actually kind of shy about it, too, so I wasn’t the kind of kid who was performing in my house for my family. I was a little bit reserved about it, sort of an introvert extrovert thing.
“But there’s something I find really liberating and exciting about being on stage and acting and singing for people that just gets me outside of myself, and that’s probably why I do it.”
She attributes the fact that she is constantly in demand to “staying a student”.
Caissie explained: “I want to learn and grow. I watch the people who are just ahead of me and try to emulate what they do so well. And so much of the business is relationships.
“I’m often telling young people when I teach or do a talk back that it’s all well and good to be talented, but you also have to be someone who people want to be in a room creating with for a month at a time.
“And you have to be someone who people want to hire to do a long run, and if you can do that, you’re gonna work.
“And so, pardon my French, you don’t want to be the most talented a*****e in the room, right?
“You want to be talented, but you have to dare to suck, and, if there’s something I’ve done right, it’s that I’ve continued to dare to suck.”
Caissie describes herself as a proud Jew.
“My kids are Jewish, my husband’s Jewish,” she said. “We are very culturally connected to our Jewishness.
“I’m not observant or religious, but I feel very proud of of my Jewishness and it’s been cool because I didn’t play Jewish roles for so long.
“I was always the girl who couldn’t get an audition for Fiddler on the Roof.
“And then I got to do Caroline, Or Change and Leopoldstadt back to back, and it was really exciting to bring that part of myself to the roles.”
In Caroline, Or Change, Caissie played Rose Stopnick Gellman, while in Leopoldstadt — about a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna — she was Eva Merz Jakobovicz.
“My great-grandparents came from Poland and Russia. But we’re all Canadian,” she continued. “My family has been in Canada for a couple of generations and now I’m American as well, and I live in New York. So we are spreading our wings.”
Like it or not, social media plays a major role in whether a production plays to full houses or closes early.
Opening Night, starring Sheridan Smith, was a casualty when people took to Facebook and Twitter with negative reviews. It eventually closed two months early.
“You can’t deny the influence that social media has over our culture just in general, whether it’s a film or a piece in theatre or a political movement,” Caissie said. “We just have so much access to everyone’s opinion at all times.
“As a consumer of theatre and film, I might feel differently than I do as an actor as far as the role social media plays and what we do. But it’s basically not my business to look at that stuff, because it will affect what I do on stage.
“As an actor, I have to trust my director, trust the writers, trust our producers to guide the production in the way that they best see fit, and I have to trust my instincts.
“If I allow too much of that noise in, it will affect what I do on stage, maybe positively, maybe negatively, but it will affect it and I don’t think it’s invited into my process in the same way that I wouldn’t read a critic’s review of my work.”
One of Caissie’s most unusual jobs was as a backing singer for Rod Stewart.
“That was the most random and coolest job I’ve ever had,” she told me. “Basically, I had just had my son. I was five months postpartum, and one of my old friends, Bridget, was his backup singer.
“She and I had done Rent together. She messaged me and said one of the backup singers is leaving, so I should put myself on tape and audition.
“I thought I’m never gonna get this job because I had to do choreography and dance, and I hadn’t danced since my Hairspray days.
“But I landed the job and flew out to Las Vegas and backed him up with two other girls, one of them being my good friend, and did his Las Vegas Residency.
“It was so much fun, but I was super nervous because it was out of my wheelhouse a little bit.
“I’ve never sung backup for a rock star before. I was doing choreography, wearing a shimmy dress and dancing across the stage like Tina Turner. It was a blast.”
Caissie has also appeared on a number of cast recordings, while releasing an album of her own, With You.
Another recent issue in the theatre world is stage dooring after a show.
Some performers have reported being manhandled by fans at the stage door, with one saying someone tried to kiss her and another being followed from the venue.
“There’s no question there should be barriers up,” Caissie said.
“We’ve had that on Broadway for many years just to keep things orderly so that people don’t feel crazed, whether it’s the fans or the actors.
“Also it is absolutely not entitled by anyone for an actor to stage door.
“It’s always nice when an actor can have the time to stage door, but sometimes we’ve got to catch trains. We’ve got to get home to our kids.
“Sometimes we’re not feeling well, and we’re trying to conserve energy so we can do tomorrow’s show. There’s a myriad of reasons why actors don’t sign at the stage door. And then on the days that they do, that’s a nice bonus, but nobody is entitled to that in their ticket price.
“Most people understand that we’re just regular humans. And once we turn the corner, nobody cares about us anymore. We’re very grateful that people care enough to want an autograph or a picture, but you just have to do it in a respectful way, so that everybody can feel good and safe.”
She added: “I love meeting fans at the stagedoor. It’s so special talking to fans and hearing their stories, especially with a show like Next To Normal.
“A lot of people want to share their personal stories after the performance. And, understandably so, because it attracts people who have either battles with mental health issues themselves or their family or friends, and it can be really intense for them to watch it. So I can understand why they want to talk to the actors afterwards.
“And then there are days, too, where the show has hit me particularly hard, and I’ve got to just go home to bed. I don’t actually have any more to give other than what I gave on stage.
“I never want to disappoint people, but I also have to be smart with my health, so it’s always a balancing act.”
Caissie is also hoping that something happens with the off-Broadway show The Bedwetter — based on Sarah Silverman’s memoir.
“It’s very much still kicking around, and they want to make it happen on Broadway at some point,” said Caissie, who played the role of Beth Ann in the show.
“But I think it’s still going through some revisions and some workshopping.
“I don’t really know anything more about it, but it was a great experience working on that.”



Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email Mcohen@jewishtelegraph.com with your Jewish arts stories