A year after his electrifying performance in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera House, actor/musician Heath Saunders is back in the Chicago area at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire for the summer as the lead role in Darling Grenadine.
The productionan offbeat, melancholic spin on the comedy musicalstars Saunders as Harry, a charming commercial jingle producer and Katherine Thomas as Louise, a kind musician. Saunders talked about his experience in the musical, his thoughts on acting and identity in the LGBTQ+ community.
Windy City Times: How does it feel to be back in the Chicago area?
Heath Saunders: Well, saying Lincolnshire is in Chicago is misleading. But it's nice. I love the Chicago area. I had a great time here last year [ in Jesus Christ Superstar]. When I got the opportunity to come back to the area I was, like, "Absolutely, yeah."
Originally, I'm from Seattle, and I live in New York now. One of the things that's nice for me about Chicago is that even though it's not a coastal city, the water is so much a part of the city. It's actually much more similar to Seattle. In Manhattan, even though we're surrounded by water, it feels like the water is just like an oppressive wall.
WCT: And a lot of people, when they come here, don't even know we have a beach on Lake Michigan.
HS: There's a sense that in the Midwest, there's no water. But I find Chicago more water-centric than New York.
WCT: So what are you up to when you're not performing?
HS: I'm a roller-coaster fanatic, and I'm 20 minutes away from Six Flags, so I literally will go there on my off days by myself. I have a season pass and everything. Other than that, [I] sleep. I can sleep very efficiently and long for someone who is particularly active.
WCT: Tell me a little about Darling Grenadine.
HS: Darling Grenadine is a … God, it's funny. Talking about it is really hard because it does what I call "bait and switch," which is the first 25 minutes of the show are like a very cheery romantic comedy. Then it sort of takes a really intense, dark turn and then it stays dark for the rest of it, but I won't tell you what the dark turns look like.
Don't think it's a romantic comedy because that's a lie. There have actually been some audience members that are like ... [Saunders makes a horrified face.] It's a little much, but it's a beautiful piece. It's a bit like that movie 500 Days of Summer, which got canceled because you know, toxic masculinity. It's a little like that in the sense that it's a happy rom-com until a point. There are things wrong with these characters. That's a good way of thinking about it but the musical version of that but it's not that at all. But in its tone.
WCT: Tell me about your character.
HS: I play a guy named Harry, who is a composer/singer/songwriter who is sort of spinning his wheels because he wrote a jingle that gets him all his money, and so he sort of stops trying until he meets this girl who inspires him and he gets going, and you go, wow. That's healthy. But no. He's a composer who has some like deep, deep-seated demons he's grappling with.
WCT: And how do you identify?
HS: I use queer, if I do have to identify. I have long and storied opinions about why I use what words I use.
WCT: Tell me a little about that.
HS: I went through a real wave of all sorts of terms that would feel good to me. Sapiosexual, which is like being attracted to intellect; or demisexual, which is like half sexual or like all these sorts of things. There was a time when I was like I'm a demisexual homoromantic and I was, like, "Oh my god; this is exhausting."
Part of the reason I actually backed off of it is that one of the things I recognized about my own identity that was hard was it always felt strange to me to identify as anythingto identify myself by what I would call my behavior. By [this] I mean, for me being attracted to other male-bodied people in the world is not really defining my experience in the world at all. Being gay means X, Y and Z things about you. But that becomes a part of who you are in the world, and I have always felt outside of that experience.
It wasn't until in the last five to 10 years with this sort of expanded conversations about gender started happening that made me recognize this challenge, which, at the core, is that in order to identify as gay, it means that I have to say that I know the other person's gender. We've been sort of moving in this space where we're recognizing that gender is, in fact, a self-defined experience. It seems inappropriate for me to say that I'm only attracted to men when I actually can't decide what makes somebody a man.
WCT: In the play, you're playing a seemingly straight man in a heterosexual relationship. So you're working to kind of change the narrative for the audience to experience something they're not expecting and, by that, I mean seeing someone who might look queer playing someone who the audience knows as a straight man. Is that something you would agree with?
HS: What's interesting is that is what I have realized as an actor. My existence tends to do that pretty effectively. It's actually legitimately interesting that I can feel when I go on stage when people are not here for what I am. But I'm doing a job. My job is to tell this story as effectively as possible.
Darling Grenadine plays at The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through Sunday, Aug. 18. See www.marriotttheatre.com/show/darling-grenadine .