by Kenny Francoeur
On Thursday, May 2, theatre goers shuffled into Studio 54 for the evening performance of Kiss Me, Kate. They found their seats, ventured to the restroom or (more importantly) bar, and opened their Playbills to see if they were correct about the number of Tony nominations Kelli O’Hara has received or how many iterations of Law & Order Will Chase has appeared in (the answer is three). Making their way to that night’s paper insert, they were informed that the role of Paul, normally portrayed by James T. Lane, would be performed by Justin Prescott. The lights dimmed, the orchestra played, and they sat back to enjoy a night of classic musical comedy unfold before them. While the audience got to experience the electricity emanating from the stage, Justin Prescott got to experience what many young hopefuls can only dream of.
On any given night, the SUNY Purchase grad and Broadway veteran enters the stage door and prepares for yet another day at work performing his ensemble track, including his favorite angry cab driver feature. Although certainly not “old hat” for him, Justin Prescott is definitely used to crossing the stage door thresholds of New York City’s theatre district, this being his eighth Broadway show since debuting in Fela! in 2010. He has also enjoyed being the recipient of not one, but two Legacy Robes for both Paramour and Head Over Heels. Kiss Me, Kate marks his third Broadway Cast Album that he has recorded. He seems to collect successes like bottle caps. But with all his accomplishments, the one on Thursday, May 2 was still new: Prescott had never performed a principal role on Broadway.
He has always enjoyed success as an ensemble member and swing in his past Broadway contracts, but this show marks his first understudy of a principal role (although he technically understudied two featured dancers in After Midnight). Having now worked in both a swing and understudy capacity, Prescott says it’s not for the faint of heart. “Preparation is key and staying abreast on the information is what will keep you from feeling like a crazy person whenever you go on.”
Speaking of “going on,” Prescott feels grateful that his experience came with ample warning. “I found out the day before that I’d be on, so that gave me plenty of time to post on social media and personally invite my close friends; two were able to come. Also, the day I went on, there was already a put-in scheduled which made performing that night even easier.” But all the preparation in the world still couldn’t take away the thrill of this experience. “It made me feel like I’d arrived. I’m not only working with some of the largest names in the business, but I’m on stage performing with them as a fellow principal!”
Favorite part of the evening? Getting to lead the show’s most iconic production number, of course! “Too Darn Hot” is generally always a show-stopper, but Warren Carlyle’s choreography paired with an absolutely fierce ensemble of dancers not only stops the show but does turndown service. But as far as Prescott’s memory of the experience, “all I remember is seeing Adrienne Walker, Hattie, because she’s who I’m singing to most of the number.” An experience to which all swings and understudies can relate.
For the rest of the show, Prescott proudly admits that no one had to “shove with love.” But that didn’t stop those little moments of panic that occur when you are playing a different role than the one you inhabit every other night. “My regular track and my understudy track never have a real interaction throughout the show. But I will say, I would hear the musical [and] line cues for my normal track and would have a mini heart attack for half a second because I thought I was missing my entrance!”
In a moment Prescott will never forget, tears filled his eyes at the very end of the show as the little boy from Houston, TX, whose teachers urged his parents to enroll him in dance classes because he couldn’t stop moving, got to take a solo principal bow on a Broadway stage.
But, as most beautiful moments in life do, the moment ended, and Prescott returned to his ensemble track the following night. “Not gonna lie, for me it was bit clunky as I did get a little spoiled by the spotlight. I had a bit of the principal withdrawals, but after the second show back, I was sort of back to normal.”
It is the reality check that comes with being a Broadway swing or understudy. One night you are onstage in a principal role/swinging into an ensemble track/making a debut and witnessing all your hard work and sacrifices and training paying off and your dreams coming to fruition. The next day, that paper insert that meant so much and validated your career choices now lies as litter outside of the stage door, where all the loose scraps of paper fell from playbills as each theatre goer clambered for signatures the previous night before piling themselves in taxis and escaping Times Square.
But with a true heart and burning passion, this reality check does little to deter Ensemblists like Justin Prescott from pushing forward in pursuit of their dreams and their art. In fact, it serves as inspiration. That young first grader from Houston, with teachers and a family guiding him toward dance and thespianism, has grown into a Broadway performer with a luminous smile who has trained his body to be a vessel for storytelling. Any future success that Prescott achieves should come as no surprise, to his family or to us.