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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 



Ensemblist Training at Elon University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady




Found in 2000

One of the nation’s newer Music Theatre BFA programs is that of Elon University, a liberal arts school in North Carolina. In less than two decades, the school has built a strong reputation for educating actors in many different types of Broadway shows.

This focus on versatility comes was a keystone of the program from its inception says Cathy McNeela, William S. Long Professor and Professor of Performing Arts: “In building Elon’s Music Theatre program from the ground-up, we were able to create a program that valued each student as unique and creative artists. From the start, the heart and spirit of our MT program has always been evident. Many people describe our program as being a safe space filled with unique, individual artists with incredibly diverse skill sets.”

This importance on diverse skill sets in echoed by the program’s alumni. “I chose Elon because I knew that I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into being one thing,” says JJ Niemann, an Elon graduate in the ensemble of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. “I saw I would be allowed freedom to explore every facet of myself, my skill sets, and my interests from dancing in an ensemble or taking on a lead role to choreographing and assistant teaching.”

 Elon Alumni Drew Reddington, Nasia Thomas, Madison Johnson, Gerald Caesar and JJ Niemann

Elon Alumni Drew Reddington, Nasia Thomas, Madison Johnson, Gerald Caesar and JJ Niemann

Niemann is one of more than a dozen Elon grads currently working on Broadway, from Dear Evan Hansen’s Taylor Trensch to Mean Girls’ Barrett Wilbert Weed. Longtime Broadway ensemble stalwarts like Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton) and Lindsay Northern (Wicked) also cut their teeth at Elon. In addition, 11 Music Theatre majors from that last five graduating classes have performed on Broadway, from vocal-heavy shows like Beautiful and The Great Comet to dance-centric productions like Cats and Holiday Inn.

“Our triple-threat training at Elon equips students with a large toolbox of skills to use in Broadway ensembles,” remarks McNeela. “We train students equally in all three areas, with numerous core acting classes and acting electives, private weekly voice lessons every semester, several contemporary and pop/rock vocal classes and a dozen types of dance classes.”

Elon’s music theatre majors take a course titled Dance for the Musical Stage (DMS) all four years at school: “DMS not only focuses on dance technique, but the character being danced, uncovering the motivation behind every move made while remaining true to what makes you unique,” says Gerald Caesar, an original cast ensemblist of A Bronx Tale currently playing Simba in the national tour of The Lion King. “I didn't enter school with a dance background, so this class made a big difference in the way I approach dance/ensemble characters.”

“In DMS we learned a lot of original Broadway choreography ranging from Agnes de Mille's ‘Hornpipe’ to Andy Blankenbuehler's ‘96,000,’" says Adam Kaplan, currently playing the lead role of Calogero in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. “Learning all these different styles helped us to be more versatile dancers and taught us to pick up difficult choreography at quick pace.”

Elon’s concentration on versatile performers is not limited to their dance classes, but a focus throughout the department’s curriculum. For Matt Meigs, a veteran of three Broadway shows and current Wicked tour ensemblist credits his Performance in Music Theatre for helping him “learn to academically and emotionally tell a story through song. Some might overlook how important an ensemble might contribute to story through song, but that is what brings a musical from ‘great’ to stunning and unforgettable.”

 Adam Kaplan and Ginna Claire Moffat in HAIR at Elon University

Adam Kaplan and Ginna Claire Moffat in HAIR at Elon University

“One of the reasons I chose Elon is because they believe that the best kind of performers are the ones who are worldly and multifaceted artists,” remarks Kaplan. “So a good portion of our curriculum was spent outside of the center for the arts. One of my favorite classes I took outside of my music theatre requirements was a class called Entrepreneurship in the Arts. While not geared for music theatre majors specifically, it taught me to think about myself and my career as an actor as a business”

Beyond the classroom, McNeela and Elon Faculty use the show's productions as an opportunity for ensemblist training: “In most shows, we also have two assistant choreographers per show who also act as swings for the production – so, if desired, students are able to master the art of swinging a huge production at some point throughout their four years.”

Beyond classes and shows, each year the Music Theatre department puts on a revue called “Grand Night,” which the entire program participates in. Every number is choreographed, staged, musical directed, and arranged by music theatre students. “This is a great opportunity to build ensemble skills, as students participate in a range of numbers from choral and a capella arrangements to full-fledged production dance numbers,” says McNeela.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Elon program is how they encourage students to to study life outside of the theatre. “At the root of every happy person in this industry is a fulfilled personal life, so we encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities presented by going to a liberal arts school instead of a true conservatory,” says McNeela. “We encourage them to broaden their horizons and pursue all passions, including studying abroad, pursuing extracurriculars, minoring, and even double majoring if they desire it.”

One of Elon’s alumnae who spent time studying abroad Ginna Claire Mason, who performed in the national tour of Newsies before playing Glinda in Wicked both on tour and Broadway: “I think well-rounded people make well-rounded performers, and the more you can learn about the world, the better! Experiencing different cultures burst my little bubble and opened my eyes to the beauty of our big, diverse world.”

“We want our graduates to leave Elon with every tool in their toolbox that they may need in this industry. But most importantly, we hope students leave Elon as well-rounded, informed artists who are unique, confident, and connected to the world inside and outside of the performing arts.”

The Remarkable Thing About Understudies

Mo Brady

by Mo Brady

 Alex Gibson

Alex Gibson

Theatre lore thrives on the stories of great understudies stepping into roles. From Shirley MaClaine's star-making turn in the original production of The Pajama Game to Sutton Foster’s famed ascension into the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, some of Broadway’s best-known backstage stories feature talented actors stepping up to the plate. Just this week, the theatre community celebrated Tee Boyich’s Broadway debut, where she went on for a role in Mean Girls that she doesn’t even cover with less than five hours rehearsal. In these cases, the understudies are championed and celebrated (and for good reason, they are wonders to behold).

But when an understudy’s performance doesn’t make the headlines, is it any less remarkable? This week, I saw SpongeBob SquarePants with two swings performing onstage: Alex Gibson (on for Jon Rua) and Juliane Godfrey (on for Vasthy Mompoint). What struck me about each of their performances was not how much they stood out, but how seamlessly they fit into the show. SpongeBob’s ensemble tracks are extremely busy, with actors swiftly changing costumes and moving set pieces. The most impressive part of Juliane and Alex’s performances were that they never seemed to miss a beat.  

 Juliane Godfrey

Juliane Godfrey

Not only did each actor fit into the performance, they each looked to be right at home in their roles. From Alex’s LOL-inducing turn as a Hamburger Showgirl to Juliane’s smooth moves as a Plankton backup dancer, these actors weren’t taking simply on the roles of other actors - they were making the roles their own. I’d argue that is what makes a swing, standby or understudy truly remarkable: not simply their ability to step onstage with competence and grace, but to keep the audience’s focus on the story.

Ensemblist Training at Point Park University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady

Point Park University

School of Theatre

BFA in Musical Theatre

Founded in ?


“We don’t prepare our students any differently for the ensemble than we do for principal work,” says Zeva Barzell, M.F.A., Associate Professor and Head of Musical Theatre at Point Park University. “They are able to build and create character whether they are a principal or in the ensemble.”

Situated in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, the B.F.A. in musical theatre degree is “a triple threat program in that we give all areas of training equal emphasis.” This broad focus on acting, singing and dancing is reflected in the degree course requirements. In addition to taking private voice lessons, Musical Theatre majors are required to take two courses in ensemble singing. PPU also offers a 400-level course called Theatre Professional Seminar, with weekly seminars on a variety of topics from acting unions to taxes for the performer.

“My jazz classes at Point Park focused on being specific with style,” says Megan Sikora, PPU graduate and Chita Rivera Award winner. “My instructor, Ron Tassone, taught a new combination everyday so you had to be a fast learner. I definitely had a leg up because of him.”

"From the beginning of my time there I knew that I was going to focus on ensemble work and that meant taking my dance training to the forefront and really taking advantage of the dance classes," says Amy Van Nostrand of Broadway's Holiday Inn: The Irving Berlin Musical. "I just knew that in order to compete in New York I needed a higher level of dance ability. My jazz teacher Kiesha Llama White was a critical part of that training. Her class combined technique, story telling, and a fearlessness to push myself that fully prepared me for a professional career."

“Kiesha Lalama's dance class was great blend of traditional jazz and contemporary dance,” continues Jeff Kuhr, a long time swing with Kinky Boots on Broadway and tour. “We would even learn iconic choreography from different shows like ‘Dance at the Gym’ from West Side Story.”

Thanks to this intensive and comprehensive training, PPU alumni are often found in Broadway’s most dance-heavy productions or in dance-focused roles. Last season on Broadway, former Point Park students were seen in 11 different Broadway musicals, from Hamilton to The Great Comet. The original Broadway revival cast of Cats included three Point Park grads: Callan Bergmann, Shonica Gooden and Ahmed Simmons.

“Our hope is that our graduates walk away feeling confident, ready to work, competitive in their field and knowledgeable and curious artists with integrity, strong work ethic,” continues Barzell. “We don’t just train the students to have the skill to get work, but also create artists who have a passion and respect their craft and a taste for excellence in their work.”

PPU’s cultivation of students’ passion for success is based on the philosophy that it takes tenacity to succeed as a musical theatre performer. “You have to have discipline and drive to survive in this business,” says Sikora. “At Point Park, sometimes I took four technique classes a day!”

However, this intense focus on ability is not taught in a way that pits students against each other. Barzell notes, “We strive to create an environment in which, although competitive, the students work as an ensemble so they are competitive with themselves and not at the expense of each other.”

Mike Cannon, dance captain of Broadway’s Aladdin and veteran of five additional Broadway ensembles remembers one specific class that inspired collaboration: “In our freshman Rehearsal and Performance course, we were asked to group up to perform a piece.  That helped us to think less selfishly. Instead of us all thinking what solo would show us off, it made us think of how we could come together to perform the most exciting numbers.”

“Outside of class, I would say the support of my fellow students and faculty helped me feel confident as a professional artist,” says Sikora. “When I was there everyone was rooting for each other and it felt like you couldn't lose.”

Why I Hate “The 10 Hottest Chorus Girls and Boys” Lists

Mo Brady

by Mo Brady

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 3.37.03 PM.png

I’m all for a shout out to the talented artists working in Broadway ensembles. I love the opportunity to celebrate and champion these artists. But what I can’t stand is this proclamation that the only thing “chorus boys and girls” can be celebrated for are their bodies.

Of course, these actors wouldn’t be able to celebrated in this way if they didn’t have alluring photographs of themselves posted in various states of undress plastered on their Instagram profiles. But ensemble actors don’t get a lot of chances to be featured in major New York publications. If I were in their shoes, I’m not sure I would pass up the opportunity to be featured either.

However, why does the conversation have to be solely about their physical beauty? Why can’t this list mention the talents, experiences or ideas that actually make them attractive? While the listicle includes a mention of the actors’ Broadway credits, there is not even a single sentence about what make these performers worthy of being celebrated.

Or if we are going to celebrate their bodies, can they be celebrated for the incredible ability these bodies have to kick and turn and tumble eight shows a week? Why do they have to be shown in alluring “come and get me” poses, instead of shown presenting their skills or talents?

This is 2018, people. It’s the year of #TimesUp. Audiences are capable of celebrating beautiful people for more than just their beauty. We can do better.

3 Ways You Can Create Your Own Opportunities

Mo Brady

by Nick Maccarone

 by Nick Maccarone

by Nick Maccarone

As actors, our job is to tell the story on the page. Whether we’re gracing the stages of the Barrymore or performing in a cramped black box in the East Village, we are always in service to something larger than ourselves.

Still, it’s normal to wrestle with a little self-doubt from time to time about whether our contributions, however earnest, are as important to the story as we’d like to think.

But what I’ve discovered in roles as varied as “boy in the headband,” to playing the lead in some of the country’s most reputable regional theaters is regardless of how brightly the spotlight showcases your talent, each role is vital in some unique way.

I’ve also learned that whether you’re fresh out of drama school or a Broadway vet, we have more power over shaping our careers than we’ve been led to believe.

Here are just a few ways fellow ensemblists can create their own opportunities while pursuing a professional career on Broadway.

1. Pick up a pen

Don’t think you’re a writer? Think again. Roughly 18 billion texts are sent around the globe each day, while we write nearly 15 times that in the form of email.

And though it’s unlikely the prose of your Tweets, Posts, and IM’s will impress a literary agent, the fact remains you’re always communicating through writing.

So, what if you took that same need to connect with others and used it as a way to share your unique voice?

Today there are countless ways to be heard. You can start a blog, pitch an article, or write an eBook. And the good news is most platforms are not only user-friendly but also free.

The truth is, no matter where you are in your career, someone somewhere can benefit from the lessons you’ve picked up on your journey. You have insights that can inspire and even shorten the learning curve of someone trekking a similar path.

2. Become Friends with “Big Mo”

Two years ago, I finally decided to stop complaining about the lack of meaty roles coming my way and do something about it. So one afternoon, I plopped myself square in a chair and wrote what would become my first short film.

To say I wouldn’t be thanking the academy any time soon would be a gross understatement, but the point is I ended up making that little movie.

And another.

And another.

This summer I’ll be shooting my first feature film.  

Where am I going with this?

Momentum begets momentum.

Beginning a project and actually seeing it through fosters the confidence that’ll propel you to the next bigger and bolder endeavor. Writing that play or composing a musical number no longer feels unreachable because you now have proof the ability to create something original lies in your hands.

3. Build a Tribe

Invariably, when you tell someone you’re an actor or an artist you’re met with the reply, “That’s a tough career.” But what most people don’t understand is what makes this path so challenging is the solitude of the pursuit. Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time alone.

And it’s that very isolation that builds self-doubt and causes us to lose our drive. We are after all wired for connection.

So what can we do about it?

Form a group of like-minded artists who you can bounce ideas off of and will raise your game. You want to surround yourself with folks that will hold you accountable to finishing what you start and lend a supportive ear when the going gets tough.

Creating a modern day campfire can be an invaluable resource for the actor or artist who needs to be reminded the work she’s doing matters.

Finally, remember to pace yourself. Hamilton wasn’t written in a day. Focus first on falling madly in love with your craft rather than seeking validation. Try not getting too caught up on the number of Likes, Tweet, or Posts. In order for your work to resonate with others it must ultimately ring true with you.

So make haste. The world is waiting.

Ensemblist Training at Florida State University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady

Florida State University

School of Theatre

BFA in Music Theatre and BM in Music Theatre

Founded in 1981


The Music Theatre program is a joint program between the College of Music and the School of Theatre at Florida State. “During their four years at FSU, they are expected to take the movement and dance classes as seriously as if they were dance majors, pass their dance juries and grow significantly in their technique,” says Kate W. Gelabert, Associate Professor of the School of Theatre. “From the first year in Movement I through their last semester in Workshop, they have been in movement and dance training to work together as an ensemble.”

“FSU’s training is a truly well rounded experience, which makes for a very useful ensemble member,” says Michael Fatica, most recently an ensemblist in Broadway’s A Bronx Tale. “The MT students study acting technique ranging from realism to Shakespeare. They study voice with graduate opera students. They study all types of movement, dance and choreography, learning to incorporate acting and intention into their dance vocabulary.”  

 Christiani Pitts and Michael Fatica backstage at  A Bronx Tale

Christiani Pitts and Michael Fatica backstage at A Bronx Tale

“I didn’t really grow up dancing but when I got to school I was placed into dance/movement related classes for multiple hours a day every day,” says Justin Bowen, Fatica's classmate veteran of four Broadway musicals. “Since graduating, every job I have had has had moments of heavy movement and dance. This is something I never would have been comfortable with were it not for my experience at FSU.”

In addition to their focus on dance and movement, the FSU MT program also encourages students to develop the talents which make them unique. “The program is really good at bringing out the best in everyone as an individual,” says Christiani Pitts, original cast ensemblist of A Bronx Tale who took over the principal role of Jane last year. “They do a great job of fine tuning what makes you special, all the while still training you to improve your weaknesses. This is so helpful in ensemble work because your skill set will be well-rounded.”

Part of the reason FSU’s program is able to develop so many artists into working ensemble actors is that the faculty values ensemblists. “I tell students it is easy to be a soloist or principal but it takes great skill to be a successful ensemble member,” says Gelabert.

While well-known FSU alumni include Tony Award nominee Montego Glover and former Phantom of the Opera Davis Gaines, more of the school’s talented actors trod the boards of Broadway ensembles from Cats to On Your Feet! Last season, three FSU grads played missionaries in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon: Stephen Christopher Anthony, Christian Delacroix and Hardy Weaver.

 Justin Bowen, Leslie Donna Flesner and Amanda LaMotte in Broadway's  Hello, Dolly!

Justin Bowen, Leslie Donna Flesner and Amanda LaMotte in Broadway's Hello, Dolly!

Many of these alumni return to the FSU campus to assist in current students’ training. This winter, FSU alumnae and Broadway stalwart Jessica Lea Patty (9 to 5, Bandstand) returned to campus to direct and choreograph their production of The Addams Family, which she also performed in on Broadway. “We bring back as many alumni as possible to give them their stories of the business and what success means to them,” says Gelabert.

FSU graduates certainly find success in Broadway ensembles. Alumni currently working on Broadway range from Tiffany Everiste in Aladdin to Morgan Rose in School of Rock - The Musical. The Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! features three classmates from Florida State University, Justin Bowen, Leslie Donna Flesner and Amanda LaMotte, who all happened to be roommates during their time in Tallahassee.

“Working with Leslie and Amanda is a dream,” says Bowen. “No matter what we’re going through I have family with me in the building. There’s an incredible feeling of support having them with me at work every day.

On a recent trip to New York City, Gelabert was able to watch her former students perform in ensembles of three shows: School of Rock, Groundhog Day and Hello, Dolly!: “Watching two of my former students, Amanda and Leslie, next to Bette Midler in her entrance to Hello, Dolly!, it made me cry. I love my job!”

For more, read our feature on Ensemblist Training at Point Park University.

"The Show Is A Living Memory."

Mo Brady

by Mo Brady

 Chris Bailey in rehearsal at The Muny

Chris Bailey in rehearsal at The Muny

“Mounting a production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a monolith project,” says choreographer Chris Bailey. “The entire show is staged from the overture to the bows. You could take two weeks to stage one number. It’s complex and brilliant, but daunting.”

Bailey first came to The Muny six years ago to recreate Rob Ashford’s original choreography for Thoroughly Modern Millie. “At the time I went to The Muny as a favor to Rob, but I found that I really loved it,” says Bailey. “Working at The Muny has become a big part of my summer each year.”

Since 2012, he has returned to The Muny to stage Into the Woods, My Fair Lady and Tarzan among others. Last summer, he took the reigns of a complete production at The Muny for the first time, both directing and choreographing Newsies.

One of Bailey’s favorite aspects of working at The Muny is how it feels like a return to the impetus of theatre: “Commercial theatre takes a lot of technology to create. When you go to The Muny, it’s like going back to basics. Obviously they use modern techniques, but a lot of what they do now is the same as they did 100 years ago. They still built wooden sets that are pushed on and offstage by stagehands.”

The most successful Muny directors and choreographers are those who know how to create incredible theatre on an efficient schedule. Having staged a show at The Muny every summer since 2012, Bailey is able to thrive under the theatre’s unique production timeline.

This June, The Muny in St. Louis will stage the first professional production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in nearly 30 years, with Bailey serving as production supervisor. Performed as a revue, the show features dance suites from On The Town, Billion Dollar Baby, West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, Call Me Madam and Fiddler On The Roof. “When you stage a musical revival, audiences always attend with a great deal of nostalgia. But this is like staging eight revivals worth of nostalgia at once. I think expectations will be high.”

While the show took home the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1989, its epic staging has made it difficult to recreate. Bailey was a part of the initial discussions about what it would take for The Muny to take on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. “When we started our research, I went to the New York Public Library of Performing Arts. They had lots of videos and lots of paperwork from the original dance team. But the most incredible, detailed and clearest notes were from Cynthia Onrubia.”

A Broadway legend in her own right, Cynthia Onrubia worked as Jerome Robbins’ assistant on the original production, in addition to supervising movement on the original Broadway production of Cats and the last two Broadway revivals of Cabaret. For The Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Onrubia will serve as director.

 Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway marks Bailey’s first time working with Onrubia. Even before rehearsals have begun, he has seen her skill set for bringing this project to life. “She has this incredible intimate knowledge of the show. When she teaches the staging, she doesn’t watch any videos. The choreography is engraved in her mind and on her body.”

For The Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Bailey will helm sections of the show, including the mammoth West Side Story suite that closes the first act. However, he is not a stranger to the choreography of Jerome Robbins: “I grew up watching the film of West Side Story. It’s the kind of dancing that I want to do: real people expressing themselves.”

In fact, he used the original West Side Story choreography when he staged The Muny’s production in 2013. However, the staging for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway contains some adjustments from the show’s original production. Those changes range from different arms or feet in “Cool” to an extra stanza of choreography in the Cha Cha portion of “Dance at the Gym.”

While the Muny’s cast for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway has yet to be announced, Bailey can confirm that it features current Broadway performers alongside younger talents. Bailey notes that this mirrors the casting of the original production, where professional ballet dancers like Robert LaFosse were dancing alongside teenagers making their professional debuts.

“The show is a living memory,” says Bailey. “Our dancers will be recreating movement that other people in the Broadway community originated. Renowned ensemblists like JoAnn M. Hunter originated tracks in the Broadway show. In our production, someone will be doing exactly what JoAnn did thirty years ago, dancing the same movements to the same music in the same spacing. Who knows if these young performers will become the next stalwarts of Broadway.”

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opens The Muny’s historic centennial season June 11 - 17. 

Tour Guides to Margaritaville

Mo Brady

by Mo Brady

Broadway audiences have seen André Ward and Rema Webb onstage time and again (whether they know it or not). These two performers are mainstays of the New York theatrical community - the kind of actors who have originated so many ensemble tracks in so many successful musicals that they never spend much time out of work. Rather, they commute from Broadway show to Broadway show on a seemingly endless rotation due to their incredible talents and reputations.

 Rema Webb

Rema Webb

Remember Mrs. Brown in The Book of Mormon, who enters the Salt Lake City airport dressed as Rafiki from The Lion King? Rema Webb originated that track.

Remember Ja’Keith Gill, the LOL-inducing boy-band agent in Rock of Ages? André Ward originated that track, returning to it multiple times during the show’s six year run.

Seen The Lion King on Broadway in the last ten years? You probably saw Rema Webb in the ensemble, or understudying Nala or Rafiki or Sarabi or Shenzi (all roles she’s played in the show). André and Rema are both the Broadway legends you’ve never heard of.

Escape to Margaritaville offers audiences the opportunity to see these two standout ensemblists in their first principal original cast roles. Rema and André shine as Marley, the proprietor of the Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, and Jamal, the hotel’s bar back/massage therapist (don’t ask). They each act as touchstones for the audience throughout the lighthearted show, bringing laughter and heart to the proceedings.

 André Ward

André Ward

Humor has rarely been in such good hands on Broadway as when Rema or André take ahold of a laugh line. The production relies on their talents to keep the cotton candy-textured plot afloat - and to great success. Their decades of training as Broadway ensemblists have given each of them a seemingly perfect grasp on how to make audience belly laugh with joy.

I can’t attest to the exact ages of Rema or André, but I can tell you they are no spring chickens. Yet, they both give so much energy to their performances you could mistake them for their 20-something counterparts. In Margaritaville’s second act, we get to see André dance with such specificity and verve, it’s hard to believe he spent the first act of the show hiding this incredible skill set. And for playing a character who falls in love with a 78-year-old, Rema’s Marley is surprisingly youthful.

Rema and André lead the ensemble of Escape to Margaritaville with immense joy. While the show’s smaller roles are played by skilled Broadway veterans (Matt Allen and Jennifer Rias each give standout performances), it is Webb and Ward who guide the audience through the soulful, silly odyssey of Escape to Margaritaville.

  Escape to Margaritaville

Escape to Margaritaville

"Quietly Making a Difference"

Jackson Cline


  Escape to Margaritaville

Escape to Margaritaville

I can’t remember the last time I saw a same-sex couple portrayed onstage in a casual way. In almost every musical with gay characters, there seems to be a major plot point relating to coming out, fighting for gay rights, illness or other struggles. These stories are extremely important to tell, but it’s just as important for audiences to see gay characters experiencing normal, everyday life. If sexual orientation is not a plot point, then the gay characters are often jokes.

Before this week, I had never seen gay characters populate an onstage world with such normalcy. Quite honestly, Escape to Margaritaville was the last show I expected to see this in.

 Justin Mortelliti

Justin Mortelliti

In Escape to Margaritaville, Justin Mortelliti and Julius Anthony Rubio play a gay couple on vacation at the Margaritaville Hotel. We see them dance together, drink, meditate, play card games, and even escape natural disasters. But never do they become stereotypes. Never are they the punchline of a joke. They’re simply people populating a world.

Justin and Julius’ characters never step into the spotlight to speak or sing solos. They never draw attention to themselves. The audience does not even know their names. But they’re quietly making a difference.

As a 22-year-old gay man, I found myself moved by this production’s decision to tell this story. I’ve seen and been a part of a lot of theatre, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gay couple portrayed quite like this.

Many audience members probably won’t even notice these characters, but I can only imagine how powerful watching Justin and Julius ooze confidence, joy, and pride is for LGBT youth struggling to embrace themselves.

Thank you, Escape to Margaritaville, for being giving me the opportunity to see myself onstage. Not as a joke, not just as someone struggling to be himself, but as a confident, joyful human being who contains multitudes.

 Julius Anthony Rubio

Julius Anthony Rubio

Three Kids Who I Hope Are Getting What They Need From Rise

Mo Brady

by Kevin Bianchi

As someone who’s not in high school, it’s easy to take Rise at its surface level. It’s easy to watch it and wag my finger while I rant to my dog about funding the arts in education. It’s easy to laugh at similarities between this show and its musical prime time predecessors. It was very easy to watch and wonder how in seventeen years no one has ever called Mr. Mazzuchelli on his bullshit. But mostly, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a teenager watching a show about teenagers.

So I hope, truly, that kids all over America are watching this show. I hope they’re watching this show and getting from it what they need to make life a little easier for them.

1. Kids Who Need to See Themselves Happy

I have no words for how thrilled I was to see LGBTQ teenagers on TV who were not there just to be victims. I love that gay kids, and especially closeted ones like Simon (that’s where this is going, right?), can turn on Rise and see a brave, gay person stand up to his parents (imagine standing up to Stephanie J. Block!?). But the LGBTQ representation that excited me most was Michael. Michael wasn’t introduced to the audience as a storyline about queer suffering. He’s just a kid in choir with a good voice who who was fortunate enough to have adults that didn’t call him by his deadname. And he gets to play MORITZ? That’s the shit. Maybe tougher times lie ahead for Michael. But for now, he’s just a happy, welcomed kid. And I hope that kids out there who need to see a world where their queerness isn’t questioned exist are watching Rise and seeing it there.

2. Kids Who Need Permission to Contain Multitudes

One of my favorite things about Rise was the ownership that Robbie took over wanting to play football AND be in the play (oh, sorry, Mr. Mazzuchelli - “the show”). It took a little push from his awesome mom, but it was so cool to see a teenaged character that, after the initial manipulation from a teacher, was genuinely excited to try something new. And when he learned to enjoy that new thing, he took such ownership of it that he delivered an ultimatum of doing both or neither to his coach. High School is the worst. And getting in a neatly defined box and never moving outside of it lifts a little bit of the world’s weight off of someone’s shoulders. I hope that kids who want to, or are presented he chance to, try something new can watch Rise and see that that’s okay.

3. Kids Who Need a Troupe

There were a lot of things that Mr. Mazzuchelli said and did in the first episode that I didn’t agree with. But what I did agree with was the speech he gave to he cast about what it means to be in a troupe. Every theatre kid can attest to the feeling of walking into the auditorium or choir room or wherever at the end of a long day of high school bullshit and feeling it all go away, there’s always some drama (“Save the Drama For the Stage!” says a poster in every drama classroom in America), but I have never known theatre folks to be anything but welcoming, inclusive and loyal to a fault. I hope that any kid who feels othered is watching Rise and feeling like there’s a place for them in a place they least expect it.

Not to compare apples to moodier apples with a blue filter on them, but Glee’s message was “WE ARE OUTCASTS AND THAT IS FABULOUS COME AND OWN YOUR WEIRDNESS WITH US.” Rise feels like a quieter, assuring call to kids dealing with very real, grown up hardships that, “Hey, you. Yeah, you. You are not alone.”

The kids on Rise are kids who, for varying reasons, have had to grow up quicker than their peers. Not your typical latch-key kids, but kids who have sick parents or parents that need parenting or who have bravely shown the world that they are something something other than typical. And as much fun as I’ll have tuning in each week, I hope that kids everywhere are hearing the show’s call and feeling better about going to school the next day.

"I Was Just Lucky to be Thrown Into It."

Mo Brady

Broadway ensemblist and star of NBC's Rise Damon J. Gillespie takes us onto the set of the new musical drama to share his experience filming the musical within the show, Spring Awakening.

 Damon J. GIllespie

Damon J. GIllespie

In this episode I did "All that's Known" which is Melchior's first number in Spring Awakening. Since Robbie, my character, is comfortable rapping, he raps the first verse of the song. As soon as Duncan Sheik saw me do it, I freaked out, like "THIS MAN WROTE THIS MUSIC," and here I am rapping it. Luckily, he came up to me and goes, "You know I was a little hesitant but I really like it." Literally the biggest sigh of relief after this, I feel like if Duncan let me rap, I got to do a Lin-Manuel Miranda rap in THE FIRST EPISODE... like things are gonna be okay? :)

We got to rehearse the musical-within-our show, Spring Awakening, kinda like a normal show or play. It felt the same but much more rushed, because we're trying to get the pilot done so they can edit it and see if it can get picked up by a network. I really enjoy filming, this is my first experience with a full-out TV drama episode, and I liked that we just got in and got out. I'm extremely appreciative that I had such a good working experience. Everybody that did it was either working on Friday Night Lights so they had a really great chemistry and short hand. I was just lucky to be thrown into it.

Thanks to creative people like Lin, Duncan, and Steven Sater, musical theatre is in this awesome new era. I know I'm not the first person to say this but like I feel like this show is going to perpetuate that theatre movement. Just like Josh Radner says "it's young, provocative.." 

Inside the World of a Universal Swing

Mo Brady

by ElAna Rebitzer

Tess Ferrell was onstage when she got the news, whispered from her stage manager from the wings, that a different ensemble member was hurt. Within seconds, she moved to take over this new track, which she hadn’t performed in over six months, and her muscle memory wasn’t as helpful as she would have liked.

 Tess Ferrell

Tess Ferrell

“I was mid-air, with my leg up, asking my dance partner where my exit was,” she recalls with a laugh.

For a swing, a performer who is responsible for knowing multiple understudy roles and being prepared to jump into them with only moments of notice, Tess’s story doesn’t sound out of the ordinary. Often, a swing will be responsible for all of the roles of their gender in a show; sometimes needing to know five or more different tracks throughout the show. And since most shows with ensembles need at least one swing, many different performers have, at one point or another, had experiences swinging and jumping into roles last minute.

Even more rare and challenging, however, is the role of universal swing. Universal swings, like Tess was in Wicked for two and a half years, are responsible for knowing ensemble tracks in multiple different companies of the same show.

“I have to know what all of these men do in the show - all of their choreography, all of their blocking, how their set moves,” says Antuan “Magic” Raimone, who is beginning his second year as one of two male universal swings for Hamilton. “I have to know what each of those six men do, and that exists for all the companies. I’m currently in New York, but I could be sent to Chicago, or California, or maybe even the new Phillip tour.”

Because the position necessitates having multiple companies of the same show running simultaneously, most shows will never need to employ universal swings. According to Magic, only a few shows, normally ones that have sent out multiple tours, ever create that position.

“It’s also a matter of having multiple companies of the same show that are also equity,” Raimone says. “For instance, when and if there is a non-equity tour of Hamilton that goes out, I will not be able to perform with that show, because I am in the union.”

Even for the few shows that do necessitate universal swings, the role differs vastly between shows. For example, Tess did not have a full time contract with Wicked.

“If I was not on contract, I was not working,” says Tess, “and I was on unemployment for those weeks. You basically have an understanding with Wicked that you do work for them, and if you were to audition for something else and get far in the process, they would want to be kept abreast of that kind of information.”

 Trevor Leaderbrand

Trevor Leaderbrand

Magic, on the other hand, is attached to Hamilton at all times, and is expected to show up at the theater just as a Broadway swing is.

“The biggest difference between me and a non-universal swing is that I could be called to leave the city,” he says. “Everything else outside of the title and position is the same - we all have rehearsals together, we all have the theater together.”

Since universal swings have to move from company to company, they sometimes get more notice about upcoming roles than a swing who is only attached to one company does.

“I knew my tracks months in advance sometimes,” says Trevor Leaderbrand, who was a universal swing with The Book of Mormon for four years. “It just would be filling in for someone who’s on a vacation. In some ways it was easier than being a swing, because I wasn’t as stressed unless i was covering a swing.”

Despite this advance notice, the role of universal swing comes with its own unique challenges. Though each company is technically performing the same show, over time, each of them develop small differences from each other, whether because of changes to accomodate a different set size, or different ensemblists having different solo moments.

“It’s kind of like building a puzzle,” Tess says. “It’s the same picture, but it’s cut into different pieces.”

These slight variations mean even more tracks for universal swings to memorize. According to Tess, while covering two tours and the Broadway company of Wicked, she was responsible for knowing 19 different tracks. In order to avoid confusion, Magic tries not to think about the tracks for other companies while he’s based in New York.

“I do not watch or review shows for other companies, because that would only confuse my brain,” Magic says. “The only time I concern myself with what’s happening in Chicago is when I get to Chicago.”

 Antuan “Magic” Raimone

Antuan “Magic” Raimone

Unfortunately, sometimes swings have to switch companies without time to review all of the differences between the two. According to Trevor, one of the challenges at a new company was making sure he had enough time to recall the different tracks and adjust to any changes that had been made while he was away.

“You would assume someone who was a veteran would know the show better,” says Trevor, “but when they have dance brushes or clean ups sometimes they make changes and I wasn’t there for it. it never really got easier for me, it always was sort of like an uphill battle in some ways.”

In addition to the challenges of recalling all of the different tracks, being a universal swing occasionally brought with it social challenges as well. Stints with a company could vary from a single week to months at a time, but, according to Tess and Trevor, it could be isolating.

“You’re not a permanent member of the community,” Tess says.  “You’re perpetually an outsider. Every time you go somewhere, there’s a person there that you don’t know, who maybe has been there for months.”

“After a year or two I kind of realized that I was never a part of anyone’s idea of their tour family,” Trevor adds. “Sometimes it was a great thing to just be alone for a week ... but the other side of the coin is i never felt really at home in one single company, especially as people kept leaving and coming.”

Though Tess, Magic, and Trevor all noted that their stage management tried hard to keep them with companies for longer periods of time, the nature of the job makes it hard to plan vacations or time off.

“When I was an understudy, I wouldn’t know where i would be a month out,” Tess says. “If I was trying to get to a wedding, or go on vacation, I was never really sure where i’d have to book my flights out of. I booked flights with layovers that would be near the touring companies.”

Though Magic still works as a universal swing, both Trevor and Tess came to a point where they felt like it was time to leave their positions.

“It just got very hard to have the motivation to remember the fine details with a smile on my face,” Trevor says, “and that’s just sort of when you know you need to leave. Performing eventually became stressful for me and I just really stopped enjoying it.”

While Trevor stopped performing professionally after he left Book of Mormon, Tess’s journey with Wicked continued on. After she quit her official title of Universal Swing, she remained a vacation swing, and worked on-and-off for the show for almost a year before accepting a position as a swing attached to the Broadway company.

Magic, Trevor, and Tess all agreed that being a universal swing was invaluable training for them in their future careers.

“I think it was necessary to learn that you’re never going to be perfect,” says Trevor. “I wish everyone could start as a swing, because it is an intense education on picking up fast, knowing awareness, and selling something you may not be ready for!”

While an intense, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating experience, Magic notes how being a universal swing brings with it some unique reward.

“It is such a beautiful gift to see material that I am so familiar with become so brand new because it’s a new set of people doing it,” he says. “There’s something familiar, but also so original and unique. The cast who does it every night, they don’t get that. That’s something that I get to have.”


"The Roar of the Crowd was Breathtaking."

Mo Brady

by Stephanie Bissonnette

On the night of our final Broadway dress rehearsal for Mean Girls, our amazing director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw brought all of the Broadway debuts onstage before the show. None of us knew that this was gonna happen.

My heart was beating so fast! The look of joy on all of our faces is truly a moment I’ll never forget. I get to share my debut with some amazing talent including Tina Fey! 

The icing on the cake was looking out and seeing so many people who have helped me through my journey since moving to NYC. Roommates, friends, classmates and audition buddies. The artists who give New York its pulse. The ones that help you with the self tapes, teach you that dance combo, and eat pizza with you when you get cut. The roar of the crowd and the standing ovation that followed was truly breathtaking. I’m so grateful to Casey for giving us that moment and super grateful our amazing SM team quickly pressed record so we could cherish this moment forever! 

 Stephanie Bissonnette (fourth from right) with other  Mean Girls  actors making their Broadway debuts

Stephanie Bissonnette (fourth from right) with other Mean Girls actors making their Broadway debuts



“Just You Wait…Just You Wait"

Mo Brady

by Chad Campbell

 The cast of  Rise  on NBC

The cast of Rise on NBC

I will always be excited to watch a television program that champions musical theatre. As someone who watched SMASH & Glee, I wasn’t sure what Rise would bring to the table that these two didn't, but it quickly became clear that there will be much more emotional depth and real-life scenarios being played out on screen without a side of camp.

Welcome to Stanton: a steel town where high school football plays a major role…and theatre certainly does not. When Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) takes over the school drama department from Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez), he hopes to find artistic fulfillment within himself, as well as inspire the inner artists in many of his students by producing Spring Awakening. But, of course with any good television show, there are obstacles that arise in the personal and professional lives of all those involved.

In an era where the current White House administration is proposing an elimination to the funding of major arts organizations, I think Rise is coming at an important time. Do I realistically think it will make a massive impact? No. But if the messages in this show can help even a small percentage of Americans realize the importance of arts education, then it’s not just a new weekly form of entertainment. There is one scene where Perez’s character argues for arts funding, comparing it to the funding of sports, and I hope that it will make people think about what is going on at their local high schools. As a public school graduate, myself, I definitely remember the importance sports played at my school, including a levy that many community members voted to renew, generating over $7 million to create a new sports complex; I can only imagine the kind of impact that amount of money would have had on our arts education.

 Chad Campbell

Chad Campbell

One of the biggest joys I’ve received from watching Rise thus far has been reliving the memories of when I got to play Melchior in college. My director was very adamant about using our Spring Awakening production as an impetus for important discussions within the cast and on campus about depression, sexuality, suicide and other issues, particularly amongst teens. Similarly, I hope that with a major network television show touching on these topics, it will help create an open line of discussion for kids and their parents about some of these difficult issues.

After getting a sneak peak of Rise, I am definitely adding it to my watch list this season (as if I wasn’t already planning on watching it). Within the first two episodes Stephanie J. Block and Sean Grandillo make appearances, and I am excited to see what other Broadway alums we’ll get to see. Be sure to tune in on Tuesday, March 13 at 10 pm on NBC for the premiere of Rise.

 (Baby) Chad Campbell in  Spring Awakening

(Baby) Chad Campbell in Spring Awakening

"...As Long As I Was There."

Mo Brady

by Dennis Stowe

Original cast ensemblist Dennis Stowe shares his thoughts on becoming a standby for the Broadway production of Aladdin, after performing for almost four years in the show's ensemble. 

 Dennis Stowe

Dennis Stowe

The line we have to walk in this business between being OK with where we are but still having ambition and wanting “more” is an interesting journey. My journey has put me here; after four years of working in the ensemble in Aladdin, I am now the standby for the two roles that I covered, Jafar and the Sultan. With that, I'm taking on my first principal contract on Broadway!

I have been blessed to work in many capacities throughout my career and was never comfortable checking off any one box; “singer/dancer," “dancer/singer," “dance captain," “ensemble," “principal” are all boxes I have checked and am grateful and lucky that I was able to. My Broadway career up until now has been in the ensemble, many times as an understudy and I absolutely love every chance I get to perform on a Broadway stage. Ensemble work, to some, can sometimes feel thankless and under appreciated but I never really looked for validation in my work. I just wanted to tell the story in whatever capacity I was asked to. Downstage on zero or upstage in the dark never mattered to me, as long as I was there. 

Now I’m being asked to not only support but to shine, and that feels good. It feels good that the work I’ve put in to being a good ensemble member and good understudy is being recognized. My body is getting a break, I’m being paid more, and I get to start a new chapter in a long-running show that I love and get to tell the story in a different way. I don’t look at it as a move up but rather a move FORWARD.

I would encourage every ensemblist out there to always be dedicated to telling the story. Because just when you might be thinking no one’s looking, you get a very welcome surprise that they are!

5 Debut Questions: The Lion King's Hanifa Jackson-Adderly

Mo Brady

Today on our blog, we welcome The Lion King ensemblist Hanifa Jackson-Adderly to Broadway and learn about her journey to the Great White Way:

 Hanifa Jackson-Adderly

Hanifa Jackson-Adderly

1. What's your name and hometown?

Hi. My name is Hanifa Jackson-Adderly. I'm from Philadelphia, PA.

2. What is your role/track in your Broadway debut?

After performing with three national tours of The Lion King, a temporary position opened.

3. How did you find out you had booked the part?

They asked me to join the Broadway company in a zebra/female lioness track. 

4. What's been the most surprising thing about preparing to perform the show?

The most surprising thing about preparation for performing is The Lion King on a Broadway stage... it is so large and complex. Pride Rock comes out from underneath and they have an elevator that brings the grasslands up from below.

5. What are you looking forward to most about your experience on Broadway?

The magic of the stage alone is unreal. I’m looking most forward to walking up to the stage door and thinking, "One of my biggest dreams are coming true. It is time!"

Radiating Joy

Jackson Cline


When I think of Broadway, one of the first names that pops into my head is Donna Marie Asbury.

 Donna Marie Asbury

Donna Marie Asbury

This Broadway stalwart has been playing the role of June in the New York company of Chicago since 1999, having previously performed in the first national tour. Her other Broadway credits include the Balloon Girl in the Angela Lansbury revival of Gypsy, as well as the original companies of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Smile, and Merrily We Roll Along. What I’d give for story time with Donna! 

I grew up seeing Donna Marie Asbury’s name in the Chicago chapter of the Playbill Broadway Yearbook every year and soon found myself researching the career of this quintessential ensemblist. I was absolutely fascinated by her career and continue to be today. It’s very possible that she was my primary impetus for buying a ticket to Chicago when I first moved to New York (100% true).

I recently revisited the Broadway production of Chicago and had the great privilege of seeing Donna perform yet again. It was if not a day had passed.

Maintaining a performance in a long run is no small feat, especially when one is onstage for the majority of the show. It requires tremendous talent, focus, and creativity. Donna makes it look effortless nearly 20 years into her run in the Broadway production.

She wrings every joke out of her “Cell Block Tango” monologue, tackles Ann Reinking’s Fosse-inspired choreography with finesse, and remains committed to being a present storyteller. Even when she’s simply sitting onstage, not a part of the action -- watching the same scenes she’s watched from the same chair for 19 years -- she remains totally engaged with the performance.

 Donna Marie Asbury (second from right) & the cast of  Chicago

Donna Marie Asbury (second from right) & the cast of Chicago

All of this is impressive, but perhaps Donna’s greatest onstage quality is the joy she radiates. From the second Donna steps onstage with her million-dollar smile until the end of curtain call, it’s clear that she loves her job and is still excited to tell the story. Her energy is electric, filling the stage of the Ambassador with light.

Donna is a beautiful reminder that a long run is so much more than a steady paycheck. May we all find as much joy in our everyday lives as Donna exudes when she performs. How lucky Chicago is to have her.

"Bringing My Heart and Self to the Role"

Mo Brady

by Zach Adkins

Anastasia ensemblist Zach Adkins shares what he looks forward to most about taking over the role of Dmitry  - and what he will miss most about performing in the show's ensemble.

 Zach Adkins

Zach Adkins

I think there was always part of me in Dmitry, even from the beginning. During staging rehearsals watching the wonderful Derek Klena navigate and create this role, I knew that certain things he was doing wouldn’t work on my body. So, I started early on in the rehearsal process putting my own views and movement to Dmitry. As many understudies know this is typically not asked of us. A lot of what a Stage Manager and Resident Director are interested in is maintaining what is being created when we freeze a show. But I’m not exactly speaking to hitting marks and cues on stage, more of bringing my heart and self to the role.

I’ve gathered from the last three years of understudying leads, that people really do want to see you shine in these parts, even as an understudy. If you allow people to see you in the role, truthfully and honestly, they’ll start to connect with you behind the scenes more, because theatre has that amazing quality of bonding people with similar experiences.

Moving into the role full time will be a great adventure. Of course when you step away from a track you built, even an ensemble track, you hope your replacement will pick up on the small additions and traditions you’ve made, on and off stage, to your track. There are so many great moments I share with this strong ensemble, I think that’s what I’ll miss most. Whether it’s portraying silly black-marketeers in “Rumor in St. Petersburg” with the hilarious Kevin Munhall or if it’s being the classiest couple at the Neva Club with Shina Ann Morris, those moments will live on, if not on stage, with me. 

As an understudy you hope one day you’ll be bumped into the role. You wait, you hope, you look for the opening, for someone to give you that break. I’m grateful to this creative team who took the time to look past the contributions I’ve been making this year in the ensemble of Anastaisa and see me in a new light. It’s these kind of people that should be celebrated in our business. Because I’m here to tell you, understudies are some of the smartest, hard working individuals you’ll find in the theatre. And they deserve to be taken seriously in recasting and not groaned over when your favorite star is out. These men and woman are the next crop of art influencers and shapers and I couldn’t be more proud to have started my career in their ranks. 

 Zach Adkins

Zach Adkins

"We are an ensemble of strong women."

Jackson Cline


 Kimberly Dodson

Kimberly Dodson

The original Broadway production of The Color Purple opened in 2005. I was 15 years old. I saw the show that summer and became obsessed.

Seeing black women in leading roles on Broadway was something I had rarely experienced.

The Broadway community doesn’t like to admit it, but we are not above the racism and sexism that has always existed in this country. In many ways, we are a reflection of it. Interesting roles for women and all people of color are simply not here. Broadway has always been a white man’s game. I spent years searching for myself on the stage (and still search honestly) hoping to one day be that one black girl in the Broadway chorus.

The summer of 2005 was only the second time I’d seen a Black woman leading a Broadway show. The first was when I was 9 years old, when I saw Heather Headley and the cast of Aida. I had seen her 2 years prior in The Lion King, so I thought Heather was it! Thanks to my mother, I knew the greats: Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Pearl Bailey. But Heather was now! Heather Headley’s very presence made me believe maybe Broadway was somewhere I could belong.

I remember leaving The Color Purple with my mouth agape. Four?! FOUR WHOLE BLACK WOMEN LEADS IN A BROADWAY MUSICAL?! I was shocked. I felt like I’d never seen so many Black women in my life! Not just Nala in love with Simba, or Aida in love with Radames. But a Nettie and a Sofia and a Shug Avery….and a Celie. Hilarious, romantic, strengthening, and complex female relationships performed by multiple people who looked like me.

I listened to the soundtrack every night and added “I’m Here” to my list of favorites.

For years after, the voice of an actress named LaChanze sang me to sleep.

 Kimberly Dodson and LaChanze

Kimberly Dodson and LaChanze

If you told 15 year-old me that I’d make my Broadway debut with that very same LaChanze and 14 other women, I would have never believed you. But, here I am, about to make my debut next to LaChanze in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day were established to celebrate the accomplishments of women nationwide and internationally across history. It is also a time of great pride and empowerment for women as we continue to work toward a more equitable existence. However, it is difficult to celebrate the accomplishments of women when I am constantly reminded how much more work needs to be done.

As a Black woman, the last 5 years for me have been exhausting. I have lived through the height of the Black Lives Matter movement; a continuous reminder that our country continues its tradition of devaluing the lives of black people. I have struggled through this past year, as all women have, being bombarded with daily reminders that our bodies are not our own. As people who look like me are still being murdered by the state, as women and men continue to struggle with conversations of sex and consent, as we keep hash-taging #BLM and #SayherName and #MeToo, as we continue to wade through the stale waters of the Trump era, I just wonder will it ever stop. And what I really wonder is what does Broadway even mean to all of this.  

Bertolt Brecht said that art should not be a mirror but a hammer to be used to shape society. And I couldn’t agree more. Yes, even commercial, Broadway theatre. Broadway isn’t about to change policy. But theatre, culture, the arts have always been, and should always be, the leaders in changing attitudes. This is why representation on the Broadway stage is so important. It is important to tell stories showing fully realized women characters and characters of color. It tells women and actors of color that there is a place for us on the stage. But it also can have a deep impact on audience members. I often imagine a man from a small town visiting NYC, seeing a show, and experiencing a fully realized, multidimensional Latin American female character bringing him to tears. The theatre can have lasting impact on how audience members chose to interact with the people in their own communities and their own countries.

In order to produce real lasting change, equal representation on the Broadway stage must be recognized as meaningful and important by the greater Broadway community; its creators and consumers. And I don’t mean just placing women and people of color anywhere; I mean making a conscious effort to tell our stories. We need roles where we are presented as fully human.

We also need to move past the idea that representation on the stage is enough. Even on a production that tells a black woman’s story, our creative team is all male. All but three shows currently on Broadway are directed by men. And even the women directors with shows on Broadway are all white. It’s time to start advocating for more women of color leading the creative processes on Broadway.

Although no one show will fix Broadway, I think Summer is a meaningful first step. Just as Hamilton did not cure Broadway’s race problem, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical will not cure Broadway’s gender AND race problem.

But, in a show of 22 people, 16 of us are women. The entire ensemble is made up of just women! And to go even further, 11 of us are visibly women of color. I REPEAT. 22 PEOPLE. 16 WOMEN. 11 VISIBLE WOMEN OF COLOR. 3 BLACK FEMALE LEADS. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is blowing the expectations of my 15 year old self out of the water. I’ve never worked with so many women, particularly black women. Having come from predominantly white spaces, and, given Broadway’s history as being “The Great White Way” not just for it’s bright lights alone, I never thought this would happen. I feel very lucky to be a part of this particular cast, where I am seen and reflected in all corners of the stage, and the casting is a step out of the ordinary.

 The women of  Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

The women of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

We are an ensemble of strong women. We’re opinionated and outspoken and smart and we actively encourage one another to be powerful. Some people (usually men) believe that a room of women will be one of competition and of catty behavior. This is so far from the case with the cast of Summer.

The relationships we have with one another really fuel our rehearsals and our performances. I feel validated by these women. We lift each other up with words of encouragement and positive affirmations. We have fun! We play as we work. I feel respected and I feel as though I can be challenged by these women and feel safe. We work through issues without ego, with the goal of simply completing a task.

Watching these women work has been empowering. I have been in too many rehearsal rooms where women were encouraged to “smile more” and remained silent in the face of disrespect -- fearful of losing out on the next gig. Seeing these women in leading roles asking challenging questions, pushing the men behind the table for clarity, taking charge of their roles, offering suggestions and demanding respect every day has been amazing to see. I think we all feel emboldened by the current climate of this country. With these women next to me I am reminded I am not the only one exhausted. We are all exhausted. But we are not alone.

There are also practical advantages to being in a cast of women that inevitably takes on a political dimension. We loudly and proudly talk about our periods. There are 4 mothers in the company, so we talk childbirth, child care, pumping and breastfeeding pretty regularly too. We praise a beat face and a naked one. And with 11 black women in one room (a first for many of us) we take advantage of talking about natural hair. There is safety in numbers, and I have never felt more at ease knowing this particular company is behind me.

Every day we tackle the life of a strong black female icon. One who’s life reflects the issues our country is in desperate need of discussing today.

It’s a very powerful sisterhood. One that recognizes the challenges we face as women, as women of color, as an ensemble, and as women on this planet. And the men in our company feel it too. We have 6 of the best and most supportive men in our company. I never wanted to do Broadway just any way. I wanted my Broadway debut to really feel like something that mattered. Not everyone is going to be excited about a Donna Summer Musical. But what everyone should be excited about is the possibilities this show opens up for representation on the Broadway stage. The 16 of us represent strong and powerful women (and men!) in this show. It is exciting to be in a company representing the life of such a powerful female force in music.

What excites me about this casting is the young person in the audience, dragged by their parents to see a show about a woman they’ve never heard of, taking place in a time they weren’t alive for, but who finds themselves on the stage. Not just in the back corner alone, but scattered throughout the stage, moving in and out of the spotlights. My hope is that that young person sees themselves in me, in all of us, and is inspired to join the arts and pursue their passions. Seeing someone who looked like me on a Broadway stage allowed me to pursue this dream. My hope is that all people can look to the stage and feel seen. I hope Broadway works to become a place we all can belong.

“The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” - Gloria Steinem

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” - Bertolt Brecht