Simpson at home on the stage
The Aspen Times
If you go ...
What: “The Producers,” presented by Aspen Community Theatre
When: Today and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Aspen District Theatre
When Corey Simpson first watched the 2005 film version of Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers,” he thought the music was “fun” and the material “nuts.” He liked the idea that there was plenty of tap-dancing in the show. But what really jumped out was the character of Leo Bloom, the meek accountant-turned-Broadway mogul. And what Simpson liked best was the turning.
“You have this character with this huge arc in the show,” Simpson said. “He goes from this neurotic prude, controlled corporate guy, to having a best friend, having a wife, headed off to Rio. He’s breaking the law. It’s so fun to have a character who has that much change in the show.”
Simpson’s appreciation of Bloom is especially keen since he took on the role in Aspen Community Theatre’s current production of “The Producers.” And his enjoyment of Bloom’s transformation, from a robotic pencil pusher to a dynamic impresario, might be particularly sharp because of how much of an arc Simpson’s life has been. After spending much of his youth and early adulthood in the theater, Simpson took a nearly decade-long leave from the stage and mostly parted ways with the arts. In his first year of college, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he studied math and science with an eye on a degree in aerospace engineering. Later he spent eight years doing digital marketing for National Geographic on the Front Range, a period in which theater played little of a role in his life.
“I barely stepped in a theater the whole time in Boulder,” he said. “None of my friends knew me as an actor or musician.”
For these past few months, at least, Simpson is fully back in the world of curtains, rehearsals and tap shoes. Leo Bloom is a starring role in “The Producers,” the one made famous most recently by Matthew Broderick, who appeared in the mega-hit Broadway musical, which opened in 2001, and the 2005 movie. Simpson’s timing and chemistry with co-stars Bob Moore, who plays the scheming Broadway veteran Max Bialystock, and with Lauren Koveleski, who plays Leo’s love interest, Ulla, are on the mark. His tap skills are in fine form.
But theater these days is a part-time pursuit. Simpson has a day job, at Timbers Resort in Carbondale. The next theater gig might be months away.
“I just thought it would be a lot of fun to do a big comedy as winter’s coming on,” he said. “I put on my corporate hat in the morning, then get to be a goofball with Bob and Wendy (Moore, Bob Moore’s wife, who is the director of ‘The Producers’ for Aspen Community Theatre). That’s all I wanted to do.”
For long stretches of his 42 years, theater was most of what Simpson did. Raised by parents who were both professional drummers, he was pulled toward the world of performance. When he was 1, he went on tour with his parents, who were part of the band Heritage.
“I was always around actors and dancers,” Simpson said.
The parents knew people at the Guthrie Theater, in the family’s hometown of Minneapolis. At age 9, Simpson auditioned for “A Christmas Carol” and got a soloist’s part, the beginning of his professional career. He got hooked, doing commercials and several more years of “A Christmas Carol” in addition to a full load of school plays. He also excelled academically, graduating high school as valedictorian and taking a rigorous slate of classes as a college freshman: calculus, differential equations, physics.
“You hear life is so hard as an artist,” Simpson explained of his course of studies. “I felt I should use my science and math acumen.”
But rough math classes didn’t completely distract Simpson from his passion. Toward the end of his first year of college he took some theater classes, then auditioned for the Bachelor of Fine Arts program in theater and acting.
“I felt like I was back with my family again,” he said. “I realized I needed to do what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do. I had this creative side to me.
“The greatest thing about theater was, I always tended to be a rule follower. Theater was the opposite — all about freedom, expression, emotion, connecting with others. I didn’t come by that naturally when I was younger.”
After earning his degree, Simpson went to Fairbanks, Alaska, to do a summer of Shakespeare. After playing the spirit Ariel in “The Tempest,” he returned to Minneapolis, where he found that his old contacts were happy to have him back. He got agents who lined up all kinds of roles. He took a job as the assistant to the directors of Illusion Theater, which translated into more contacts and more acting work. In some ways, it was too much, and in others, it wasn’t enough.
“I started to realize some of the theater I was doing to pay the bills wasn’t the kind that fed me artistically: song-and-dance-type revues performed at the Mall of America — which was one of the better-paying gigs in Minneapolis. Best Buy at 3 a.m., pole-vaulting for a commercial,” Simpson said. “At some point I decided I needed a break. And stability. And I was missing Colorado, the laid-back atmosphere.”
In Boulder, Simpson began meditating. The practice got him grounded but didn’t awaken any buried love for theater.
“I don’t know that I missed doing theater. Or maybe I don’t know how much I missed it,” he said.
When he did embrace a dramatic change in his life, theater had nothing to do with it. Wanting to see what everyone else associated with National Geographic did regularly, Simpson and his partner, Todd, sold their house and traveled — six months across the U.S. and nine months in Southeast Asia.
Two weeks after returning from Asia, Simpson was in Minnesota, visiting his dad, when his mother told him his stepgrandfather, who lived in the Roaring Fork Valley, was sick. Simpson came to visit and fell into a job subbing for the music director for the children’s theater company Jayne Gottlieb Productions, which was a week out from presenting “West Side Story” and “Annie.” It was the next awakening.
“Even in that week, I rediscovered how incredible the theater experience was for these kids,” he said. “Teaching these kids love and confidence through theater was a whole different experience than professional theater, which was cutthroat. It reignited my passion for the theater, for creativity, the community. We had something to give to these kids, where kids could feel good about themselves, be themselves.”
Simpson was back in. He was music director for 25 shows over four years with Jayne Gottlieb Productions and also served as an acting coach. He did some music directing for Theatre Aspen’s Teen Conservatory. Eventually he saw the need to get onstage himself and entered quietly, with a staged reading two years ago at the Aspen Fringe Festival.
“Working with those great people — Graham Northrup, Emily Zeck, Kent Reed — re-energized me. I realized I missed it too much,” he said.
Simpson participated in Take Ten, which brings promising playwrights to Aspen to present short pieces. Last year, he took a role in the chorus of Aspen Community Theatre’s “Crazy for You.” He then joined the organization’s board. Learning that it would be presenting “The Producers” this year, Simpson began focusing on Leo Bloom.
“The Producers” earned a record 12 Tony Awards after opening on Broadway 12 years ago, a reflection of the unique comic voice of Mel Brooks and the gifts of stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. But the show also proved enormously accessible to a wide audience; it ran for six years, and tickets were in high demand. The popularity was a bit surprising — the show is loaded with inside-Broadway bits and a Borscht Belt sensibility. And, oh yes, the story Max and Leo creating what is meant to be the most off-putting musical ever to reach Broadway: “Springtime for Hitler,” featuring a mincing Adolf Hitler.
“Mel Brooks went as far as he could push any topic he could think of — then took it a step further,” Simpson said. “We have a production number performed by Nazis. We have a song, ‘Keep It Gay.’ Then a bunch of very old women chasing after Max.”
Simpson has found that the way to sell such material to an audience is to become thoroughly involved.
“We know we have to take ownership of that material,” he said. “When you’re doing comedy on those topics, you have to commit completely. That’s the only way the comedy can get through. Otherwise it can get really scary for an audience.”