Podcast guest Douglas Lyons shares his journey from Broadway performer to (future) Broadway composer.
It was mid-April 2011 when my agent called and asked me that dramatic question I'll never forget: "Do you wanna be on Broadway?" It had been a two week, four callback process, and I knew the job was down to me and two other guys. Combined they had done a total of seven Broadway shows to my whopping zero, so hopes were pretty low. But in some angelic fate I booked the job: The Book of Mormon.
My first rehearsal was coincidentally the morning of the 2011 Tony nominations and I was joining the Original Broadway Cast as an additional swing. Less than two weeks later, I found myself smiling behind Matt Stone and Trey Parker on a double decker bus posing for People Magazine. Cue head explosion.
There's a lyric in the show: "This book will change your life" and the show lived up to its promise. My Broadway debut at Mormon lasted 13 months and I hopped on an opportunity to join the First National Tour in an onstage track.
On the Mormon tour during our Denver sitzprobe, I met a someone who really would "change my life," Ethan Pakchar, who would tour with us on guitar and unexpectedly become my first writing partner. We wrote music in hallways, dressing rooms and hotels around the country and found ourselves recording a live album in NYC in August 2013, kickstarting a writing career.
After leaving the Mormon tour, I was blessed, yes #blessed, to book a role in the Original Broadway company of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, where I spent the last three years and ten months of my life. I loved it. Talk about life imitating art, singing Carole King every night opened my eyes to a new idea, that maybe just maybe I too could be a songwriter. Writing with Ethan started as just a hobby but somehow, over time, a real passion and interest sparked, and I found myself not only an actor but also a writer in the theater.
The Lyons and Pakchar album, #Love (Live), began to open some doors. I got to get my feet wet as a lyricist working on a new musical feature film from a friends recommendation, and Ethan and I started working with an agent at William Morris Endeavor. Quickly I learned that the writing world is extremely different from the acting world. There are no breakdowns or open calls. No one is looking for your "type." There's a blank piece of paper, and no one cares if you write on it or not. Doesn't that just sound encouraging, promising and worth the chase? And somehow I still wanted it.
My focus began to shift. My average day became three-four hours of emails for writing projects, plus a two-three hour writing session, into a producer coffee from 5:15-6:25pm at FIKA on 41st and 6th, so I could make my half-hour call at Beautiful on 43rd at 6:30pm. Wild fun yea? Yes and no. The opportunities to meet people and grow yes, but the schedule and it's toll on my self care, not so much. I started to evaluate my time to see what made me happy. As I said, Beautiful is one of the best shows to happen to me, but I had to stop and ask myself: Is eight shows a week what you really want, or are you attached to an old dream with a blessed paycheck?
The answer: I wanted both. I wanted to perform eight shows a week, but also to write something that actors could perform eight shows a week. But ultimately I would die trying to do both simultaneously. This fork in the road presented itself in neon paint just around the time anxiety began to set in. Audition appointments would come in for new opportunities and I'd freak out. "What if I book this?" It would mean I couldn't go on a writing retreat. "But all your friends are booking their next Broadway show." "You haven't booked anything, what's wrong with you?" The funny thing is I had booked something, but with my pen.
Thanks to the kindness of Beautiful giving me time off, Ethan and I found ourselves in residence at Goodspeed Musicals in their Johnny Mercer Writing Colony. This would be the beginning of many other writing opportunities. Our show Five Points was selected for workshop at The Musical Theater Factory in 2015, The Sheen Center and 11th Hour Theater Company in 2016 and Theater Latte Da in 2017. Now mind you this was all during Beautiful, but I wouldn't leave until I had something else, and then I did.
This summer I found myself in a fierce dreadlock wig playing Simon Zealotes in Jesus Christ Superstar at The Muny. I honestly could have asked for a leave of absence to return to Beautiful, but after much deliberation and a few tears in my Astoria apartment, I left after almost four years of bliss. As a 17-year-old freshman at the Hartt School, my dream was to be an actor on Broadway! At 21, (okay fine 30) my new dream is to be an actor AND WRITER on Broadway. If you had told me this ten years ago, I would have laughed in your face.
The representation of writers of color in Musical Theater on Broadway is small, and I want to change that. I'm not alone in this, as I know a whole host of people who look just like me who are hungry for that debut. My personal mission is to create theatrical work that demands diversity and not just when casting "colorblind." I'm talking writing theater pieces that only work because a colorful cast is embedded into the breakdowns of the script from it's inception.
It's funny how dreams shift. I didn't expect to be here and yet here I stand. In summary, the idea of "Broadway" is just the beginning for all of us, for that dream may spawn something else within you that leads you to another path in the business. Don't be afraid of that voice, you aren't a failure, you can't see it in the moment but you are only expanding yourself and your possibilities. You can do both, or all three, just find the balance.
As I finish this article in Minneapolis at Theater Latte Da, where Five Points will get it's fully staged World Premiere in 2018, I'm also staring at my phone awaiting a call from my manager to see if I've booked this final callback I had on Friday. And even if I don't, that's okay. For what I do have is some balance and a new dream to boot. Dear Broadway, I've got one Broadway debut down and one more to go.
Update: Manager called. I booked the job.
Catch Lyons and Pakchar in Concert at Rockwood Musical August 28 featuring stars from The Voice, Hamilton, Come From Away and more. Also don't miss Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical at The Atlantic Theater Company Sept 16-Oct 8.