Q: How did you begin dancing? / Where did your passion for the performing arts start?
I started singing when I was 10. I made my way to the lunchroom, I got to the door to the lunch room open and I heard all this noise coming back at me. Little did I know I was experiencing social anxiety. I froze at the door and said nope, not going in there. I turned around and walked up the hall. The door that was open at that time to the music room. And I sat in there and ate my lunch. I was listening to music. At the end of the day I left and came back to the music room. [The teacher] said “Come over to the piano. Do you know how that song goes?” And I sang along. I spent the next three years going to the music room every day for lunch. That teacher became my first voice teacher. We would have lessons after school. He had teachers who were very special to him growing up. They took him under their wing and never charged him. So for ten years I never paid for a voice lesson. He saw something in me as a musician. And that relationship led him to teach me how to play the piano. Eventually I started doing gigs. I was still a kid. It started with, “the PTA is hosting a breakfast with Santa Clause and you’re going to sing Christmas songs.” I was like, 12 and I did it. Someone in the room would say, “Wow, you have a beautiful voice. Will you sing at mine and my husband’s anniversary next month?” And then someone there would say, “Will you sing at my daughter’s wedding?” And it kept steam-rolling. I sang in a restaurant every Saturday night for two years. People just got to know me. I’ve never had a real job. No waiting tables—which is snobby to say. My jobs have always been performing and educating.
When I got to high school, I became interested in shows. I saw the musical “West Side Story” my freshman year. I thought it was amazing, so I became involved in musicals. I come from an athletic family. I made the choice that I would be a part of that world, the musical world. I was born in New Jersey so I always went into the city to see shows. I would see these shows as a 13 year old boy. I became entranced by that world and the idea of singing as storytelling. I love how you can take songs and create a story in one night. I became interested in acting. We had an amazing program at my high school. I still thought I was going to go be an English teacher. But my [musical theater] teacher said, “Look into colleges for performance.” I didn’t even know that was a thing. He showed me a bunch of schools online. In a book it said I should look at Carnegie Mellon University. I said to him, “I don’t want to go to school in Ohio.” He said, “Obviously geography is not your strong suit. It’s in Pennsylvania.” So, I started taking it seriously. He helped me with my college auditions. I was waitlisted at Carnegie Mellon. I was going to go to Rutgers University and not do musical theater but acting. In late June, a month before college started, I was pulled off the waitlist at Carnegie Mellon. I made the decision at the last minute to go there. It changed my life in so many ways. There are a lot of doors that it opened for me. I had such wonderful teachers. That’s why I’ve always been so passionate about being a good educator.
Q: What has performing arts taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?
I think the way I approach everything is with a lot of passion, pathos, and humanity. You have to do that as an artist. You have to view the world a bit differently. You have to have an opinion but also be accepting of other opinions. You need to create characters from different backgrounds. Being an artist is about openness and humanity. Today I found myself getting frustrated at Facebook. I was looking at someone’s feed and hearing the things being said. As simple as that is, in that moment I made a choice to not retaliate, to not post an article on their feed being like “you are wrong!” I think artists are patient and considerate. We’re basically trying to be good human beings—to teach others to be good human beings. I do this all the time. When I teach I say, “It’s not always the most talented people who get and continue to get the job. If you are someone people want to work with you are going to work.” It’s not about putting on an act. You really have to practice those things. You have to practice empathy and kindness. I always say that dancers are the most disciplined people I know. I did “ An American in Paris” and I watched the dancers from the wings everyday. I watched them get up at 10 a.m. and take class together on the road. They knew they had to practice every day to get better. Practicing kindness and understanding is no different. It’s a muscle. Jenn Colella (the Tony-nominated actress from “Come From Away”) teaches a class on kindness. I think it’s our job to set examples and to live by them. We need to do that more than politicians and teachers because what we do is so widely seen.
Q: Have the performing arts helped you overcome any hardships in your life?
When I was 13, my dad died. I have three older brothers, a couple of whom found their way into drugs and other things. I had something that occupied my time. I was passionate about it and I could focus my energy into it. I could release myself into it. I could find a way to escape and be emotional. I could vent because the work you do as a singer or actor is all about communication. I’m in a business where I have to communicate. It was free therapy. Then when I was in my 20s I did go to therapy for the first time. I don’t know if I would have found my way to any of that if I hadn’t been in this business. People guide and take care of you in this world. It saved my life when my dad passed; I was able to create music and sing for people and make others happy.
Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of the performing arts that influence and inspire your artistry?
I sometimes get upset with myself because I think, “What do I do beyond [musical theater]?” It makes me feel like I’m not well-rounded when I see people with other things that drive them. My wife and I love to travel. We love to be outdoors, to cook and be with family. Those are things that fuel us, silly as it sounds. You need a community around you whether they are involved in theater or not. You need a community that will take care of you when you don’t have a job.
Friends are so important. It’s harder as you get older to find lasting friendships. Our friends are like family. We’re brothers and sisters. I can genuinely say that we don’t know how to do anything else.
The thing I like about what I do for Broadway Dreams is that I hire my friends to come be instructors. I have a connection to a community of artists that is fairly deep. It’s not just people I worked with in my career but people I may want to work with. I’m in a position where I can write an email and ask people to teach. It’s very cool because it allows me to broaden my scope. When teachers come in, they have such amazing experiences because these kids are so amazing. At Broadway Dreams, we teach class during the week and do a show at the end of the week. We may have a big star come in and we’ll create numbers to put in a show. Every time a new teacher comes in, they often don’t know how to put the show together.
The kids inspire them to do the work. Teachers will say to me often … that they get so moved by these kids that they come in with all these new ideas. Their creativity is flowing into building a show around the people in the room.
I took this job while I was on tour with “ An American in Paris.” I thought, “Why would I take a job in education?” The person who hired me said, “I want you to still perform. We’ll work around you.” My wife said, “If it scares you, you should do it.”
I almost had this thing in my brain where I think it’s what I do now. Am I only a teacher? I did five Broadway shows, am I just a teacher now? It’s a part of who you are, what you do as a teacher. But you can decide what you want to be at any given time. Somewhere down the line something will cross your path that you were not expecting. But you’ll go and do it. In the past several years I take things as they come. When I go back to Broadway Dreams the things I get from teaching make me a better performer. In “American in Paris,” I closed the show on Broadway and then went on the road with my wife.
I’ve been teaching at Broadway Dreams for eight years, but about three years ago I became the educational director. And two to three weeks into the “American in Paris” tour we we’re in Toronto. It was so cold, dark and miserable we weren’t talking. And then my wife [Kirsten] said “You realize you are better in the show now?” She was pointing out that having something else to do made me better at the thing I loved. As a result of teaching I was better onstage. I hear this a lot from friends that have kids. They’re like, “Once I had a kid I started booking all these jobs.”
Q: How can performing arts be a platform for social justice issues?
People need to produce new work. For example, take the revival of “Oklahoma!” They fully shifted the lense from a classic musical. They made us look at the show in a whole new way. It made us see how backwards, unjust and racist we are as a society. A lot of people didn’t like that production because they wanted a warm and fuzzy version of “Oklahoma!” That’s not what that was. But I loved it. You can reinvent things by putting a spin on them. It makes audiences think; it challenges them.
There also isn’t enough is being done to support and create new work. A lot of artists aren’t being funded. They do these amazing experimental pieces for 50 people in site specific places. And it’s reaching a small group but the idea is to reach a wide, broad spectrum. How do you take that and bring it to the masses?
There’s a lot to be said about what we are living through. A lot of anger and frustration from the artistic community because we tend to generally be more liberal and socially accepting. There’s a lot of anger and frustration and it’s our responsibility to put that out there in society. We need to engage with society. This is why I get frustrated when people in office want to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts. We need to engage with the part of the world that thinks we’re snobs. They don’t have a great understanding of what the arts are. They’ll ask, “When will you get a real job?” I was doing “Sondheim on Sondheim” on Broadway ten years ago this month at the Roundabout Theater Company in NYC. It’s not a production company. At the time, we all made the same amount of money. There were many stars on the show and I could barely pay my rent with that money. And I was working on Broadway! When the show closed another show went on with another big TV star. The star said on TV that she didn’t make a lot of money. People started to question how we can live off that? People just have no idea. There is a perception of what we do is that we are taken care of and we make money but the reality is artists are constantly struggling. We need to connect with the rest of the world and say that we struggle too. We chose to do this. And if we do that, maybe we’ll be able to bridge the gap. How do you get people to listen to facts? As artists, we’ll never stop saying what we think, what we believe.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)
I was lucky that the show I was doing on Broadway was always set to close on March 1st. We closed and were not affected by COVID-19, meaning we didn’t get kicked out of the theater. My wife is starring in “Rock of the Ages” Off-Broadway. Her show was closed. She, like a lot of other artists, was told to collect unemployment. It’s likely that she won’t go back into the show until late summer at the earliest, although nothing has been announced. As artists it affects our health insurance. We get insurance by the week. She’s out of work. And I don’t get health insurance at Broadway Dreams. I work as an actor to get health insurance. So my health insurance will run out in September. Our union is trying to appeal to the government to get a subsidy.
If you’re unemployed, how do you pay into something to get health insurance? We moved out of NYC. It’s the epicenter and all our friends are there. We’re concerned for them. We have friends who live in our building so they check our apartment. We thought we’d be gone for a week so we didn’t pack appropriately. I can’t be with my mom in NJ. There are lots of complications for us personally.
With Broadway Dreams, I’m employed full-time through the year. I’m still working for them. We started giving free classes Monday through Friday for two hours a day. We have had upwards of 400 kids join us on Zoom every day from all over the world. They log in and take class. I do interviews with Broadway people. We have agents and casting people. We still provide content free of charge during this time. Broadway Dreams operates during the summer, from June to September. We do over 10 intensives in the US and in Germany. We have to wait and see if we can even do that. I’m supposed to be in Russia next week. We were supposed to do a program there. Obviously, we’re not doing that. That’s cancelled. We’ll have to see how it plays out for the summer. We have a meeting to discuss that tomorrow, to figure out possible alternative plans. Nobody knows how this will play out. Even the people we talk to who say, “In August we’ll do x, y and z.” Everyone is speculating. It’s totally up in the air. I think it would be foolish to think we’ll be going home in the next few months.
Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?
We’re here [Pennsylvania]. We made the choice to leave NYC. Now that we’re with my in-laws, it’s the most family oriented we’ve been in months. [My wife, Kirsten] and I are cooking for the entire family. We’re doing grocery shopping and making sure her parents are eating healthy. We are trying to keep in touch with people but beyond that we’ve gone inwards. In terms of other people we’re seeing people doing a lot of good. The frustration is when not everyone acknowledges this is a serious thing. Because we’re in the mountains, we have to drive to do larger grocery shopping. We drove through a town where not everyone was wearing masks. So many people were out. It seems silly. But I guess people won’t abide by something so simple.
Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)
I think artists are built for this. We’ve been preparing for this. We are fully prepared for unemployment. Something could be cancelled at a moment’s notice. Artists are thriving in a way because they are putting their creativity to use. I think that's also a bit of a false narrative, that gives off the impression that if you’re not doing something, you’re not doing it right.
I think this is a reset button. The planet needs to reset. We need less planes and factories. It should be the same thing for artists. You don’t have to think about creating. If you’re someone who always compares yourself to others, no one is working. You can’t play that comparison game.
Maybe it’s as simple as teaching yourself how to cook. Learn a new language. My brother-in-law is watching Spanish television so he can practice again. My wife is teaching herself how to play piano. It may not benefit you directly, but it’s for your betterment. But it’s the artists who are fully prepared to make the most of every moment.
Of course theater will come back stronger than ever. People will have something to say. There will be films about this. People are feeling these strong emotions. I think it will be a slow burn. I think in September people will still be skeptical to sit in a 1,200-seat theater. It will be slow coming back. We really have to know a vaccine works. The industry will take a hit. People will be slow to come back to it. But artists will create during this time. When the industry is ready, there’ll be so much to say.
People keep saying Shakespeare wrote during quarantine. You can create. But also realize we hit the reset button. Take a break. I have students asking me what they need to do. I just say no one is doing anything right now. No one is doing a senior showcase. Once you hit reset then maybe you’ll be ready to create and do something. But we can’t beat ourselves up for not being motivated right now. It’s hard for a lot of people to feel motivated. Maybe it’ll be a new Renaissance. We haven't had one of those in a while! We’re in a dark age. We’ve back-tracked a lot. But we may be headed for a rebirth. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I think it’s clear that great art has always been born out of great trouble.