Every kid who grows up doing theater always dreams of making it to the big time, the top: Broadway. I was no exception. Born and raised in the Bronx, my exposure and access to the Great White Way was just a short trip downtown on the 6 train (I never did see J.Lo, by the way). Pining meets preparation and wishing turns into working on your craft toward that goal. After many years of “putting in my due” on gigs in community theater and summer stock, early morning call times, and driving a van with the set you’ll build and strike on children’s theater tours, I became an Equity member in 2005. This led to more work in regional theater and showcases in New York City and the Equity chorus call audition I attended that changed my life.
A month-long series of callbacks and work sessions culminated with an offer to be part of a new Broadway show called The Book of Mormon. This show written by some of the creative minds behind “South Park” and the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q. had been in workshops for a few years prior and was ready to hit the main stem. And they wanted me. I would be part of an original Broadway cast, a dream come true. Yes please, sign me up!
I was cast as the Ugandan Male Swing/Mafala understudy. This was a novel concept for me. Sure, I understood what an understudy was and up until that point figured that’s how “the show must go on,” went on. What does a swing mean? Ultimately, when it was all explained I would be an off-stage actor responsible for eleven tracks, covering nine ensemble roles and understudying two principal leads. As daunting as this might seem it would be my Broadway debut and my naiveté of what I was about to walk into helped tremendously. I threw myself into the challenge of the work, learning more about myself while simultaneously memorizing lines, choreography and multiple vocal harmonies for each song. Irony is not lost on the fact that some of the hardest work on Broadway is not always necessarily onstage. The life of a swing ebbs and flows as much as the name denotes. All the information you need to amass and retain has to, in some instances, be at the ready at a moments notice. Compounded with that is the unpredictable nature of mounting a new show on Broadway. Would all this work be in vain if my show doesn’t run long enough to go on in any one of these eleven tracks committed to memory? Would I have technically performed on Broadway then? A goal reached or just slightly out of the grasp of semantic fingertips. Fortunately The Book of Mormon was a hit and nine Tonys later those concerns dissipated.
Eight years have now passed and The Book of Mormon is still going strong. I have had the opportunity to meet a staggering amount of wonderful people and work with legends in the industry. Over the course of that time I have been able to perform all of those aforementioned tracks in a myriad of combinations. My favorite few is going on for an ensemble track for the matinee and then a lead at the evening show, having a scene with the person you played earlier. Or not being scheduled to perform and then getting a call from stage management that you’ll be on for a track you haven’t done in four years... in two hours. There are not many Broadway shows that come around with the longitudinal fortitude to last like Mormon has and I’m thankful for the opportunity to not only be on Broadway, but thrive. Like those in the business say, it’s a “government gig.” Goal achieved with no end in sight. So, why would you leave?
With any show that runs for several years people come, people go, some return a few times over. Mormon still has a couple of original cast members donning the boards since opening in 2011. I would attribute that to management and their understanding of what we as artists strive for in our careers and personal lives juxtaposed to the needs of the show and the business at hand. Offstage performers are necessary to keep a show running but they always relish for the opportunity to get onstage and do what they love most. Every chance on presents to the powers-that-be their worth as members of the cast and as performers in general. Actors, whether working or otherwise are constantly auditioning for other shows or projects to keep momentum going forward or to satiate another part of their creativity. Mormon allows ensemble members and swings to petition for a leave of absence if cast as a principal elsewhere. Giving way for their actors to embody a new character on their career path, this producer practice is a rarity on Broadway which does wonders to keep company morale boosted and vibrant. A few years ago, I was able to go on to play Curtis in Sister Act in Vermont and Mister in The Color Purple in Pennsylvania last year all while having my Broadway home-base family in which to rejoin. I even had the chance to take over Mafala temporarily on Broadway in 2015. Each jaunt away helped breathe new life into the Broadway swing life I knew all too well. But being offstage is still that and after eight years a change was welcomed.
Well...sort of. On the heels of awaiting approval from management for a leave of absence to do another show I was offered the role of Mafala, one of the principal leads I cover, in the Australian tour of The Book of Mormon. The amazing news meant that I would no longer be a swing and would be performing nightly as a lead but it also meant that I would be leaving the Broadway company indefinitely. What a decision to make. I’d always wanted to perform on Broadway and here I was doing so for many years. But more complex now is an offer to stand mid-stage and deliver a song well entrenched in the annals of musical theater history for audiences internationally. Hasa di... well you know the rest. I was grateful to the producers and creative team for willingly deciding to part with me as a swing in order to continue to assist the show in a different capacity. This at a point where I yearned for more time onstage. Serendipity has always intervened itself as a part of my life so I already knew the answer.
February 17, 2019: I took my final bow on Broadway, performing onstage that night, incidentally, and singing the last word in the show. Befitting, I guess, since it takes what I sang to leap into an uncertain future from a well stabilized past. Metaphorically speaking of course, no need for them to be literal on your person to have the balls to take a chance.
And March 20, 2019 is opening night for The Book of Mormon in Brisbane, Australia when I will be officially assuming into my role I will be officially assuming into my role. Mafala Hatimibi. Moving up, down under.
Tyson Jennette will be playing the role of Mafala in the The Book of Mormon tour through Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth for the rest of this year. A proud CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) Tyson is also an American Sign Language Interpreter who holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. Represented by FirestarterEntertainment.