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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. 

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Making Your Broadway Debut

Mo Brady

by Anna Altheide

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The Ensemblist spoke with five  actors (Nikhil  Saboo, Kimberly Dodson, Khadija Tariyan, Jack Sippel, Tiana Okoye) who each made their Broadway debuts in 2018 in smash Broadway hits. In front of a live audience at BroadwayCon 2019, each gave their take on the audition process, transitioning from out-of-town engagements to Broadway, and their best takeaway moments thus far.

“I Hope I Get It”

Nikhil Saboo (Mean Girls): “I auditioned in January, February of 2017 for the lab, and there was this thing called No Right of First Refusal, meaning you’re in the lab, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to continue on to the next process. Obviously you want to put your best foot forward, and everyone’s having fun. But I went through six to eight rounds of auditions for it, both for Kevin G. and the ensemble. So they had to make sure both of them were the right fit for the person doing the job. Coming up in April, I’ll have been doing Mean Girls for two years.”

Kimberly Dodson (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical): “My experience with Summer, I knew the people on the other side of the table. I did a regional production of The Bronx Tale, and it’s the same production company that did Summer, and mine was much shorter I think because of that. They invited me in to dance, so I did a dance audition and sang after, but they played us all. And it was like a month until we heard anything after that, so it was like, okay, Summer’s off the table, I’m going to go and live my life.

Then when you’re busy, they call you in, so it was really like four intense days of them bringing me in for Summer, and for other things they were working on. So it was like, I had an audition, a lab, another workshop, and it was all like they were all flooding in the people they could at the same time. They said, ‘Kim, can you sing your disco song that you sang two days ago?’ So maybe two days later, they were like, ‘Kim, you’re going to La Jolla for Donna Summer.’”

Khadija Tariyan (King Kong): “Mine’s a bit of a blur, but I think it was two or three times that I auditioned. First I heard about this audition through a friend in a group text, and I thought: ‘well, why not me?’ So I just went in and walked into this audition and I auditioned as a puppeteer first for Kong because that’s part of my background, I was in a show called FuerzaBruta before.

First we took a yoga class, we ran around, we gave a lot of high fives. They wanted to see how we would react to things thrown at us. Then we did a lot of strength testing, carrying people, tumbling, I did somersaults off the mat. I went in with this ‘why not me?’ attitude and sense of play and ‘let’s try it and just put your best foot forward.’ And that’s ultimately what they were looking for. They were looking for someone who didn’t necessarily have that skillset yet, but how do they continue to stay in the game and play? Because working with Kong is unlike anything anybody has ever done before, there’s no way to prepare for that.”

Jack Sippel (The Prom): “Mine was very quick. So with The Prom, I auditioned over a year ago, and they had already had a company because they already had an out of town trial in Atlanta and previous labs. So they were looking for very specificand very limited people. So we walked in one day, we danced the combination, we sang our song, I think I was in the room for maybe 30 minutes that day. Left, got the callback for the following week, and I think we were in the room for maybe 10 minutes. We reviewed [the choreography] once and they were like, okay, let’s do it. There was no, let’s refresh and learn it again. You just do it, I sang my song, and left. And I got the job that night.”

Tiana Okoye (The Cher Show): “I’m from Los Angelesoriginally, and the team came out to LA to audition. I think I had two days of auditions and that was it. First was a dance call, and the only person I knew was Bernie Telseywho was in the room. I didn’t know what to expect, so I went in with zero expectations and to have fun and cheer my friends on.

So we danced, I got asked to stay and sing, and they had the day of callbacks where we danced again and sang again. And the following week, I booked the job, and that was just for the out of town tryout.  But I think that was guaranteed the Broadway spot as well. They already had the lab so they already had a secure cast, there were just a few tracks they were looking for, so I happened to fit one of those tracks.”

“Pinch Me Now to Make Sure”

Saboo: “There are so many moments. The Tony Awards, performing on SNL, the Today Show, the Thanksgiving parade. Sitting at a bar and having wine with Tina [Fey], and talking to her, and she’s like mom. We’d just hug her and hold her. It’s stupid cool. It never stops, it’s just one highlight and the next. And I’m stupid grateful for all of it.”

Dodson: “When I saw I Aida and The Lion King when I was six, I thought Heather Headley was the only black woman on Broadway, I thought that was it. And I thought, maybe she will age out one day and I will maybe be her. And then I saw the one black girl in the ensemble, and I thought, I could do that. I could be the one black girl in the ensemble. So for me to have my first role in this show where it’s all of us together, talking about hairand life right now, was so meaningful.”

Tariyan: “We had 900 children [in the audience] that are homeless and they provided lunch for them. They were so excited for this show, and when Kong came out, if you’ve seen the King Kong entrance, they were screaming their little faces off. It was incredible. We were all so energized because of them. They were with us every step of the way, and just to have children in the audience that are so excited to be with you, we were so thankful to have them. I’ve never been more moved or thankful to have certain people in the audience.”

Sippel: “When we were in the rehearsal of one of our final runs– and this is coming from the standpoint of being someone on the younger end of being on Broadway – walking into the room where all the chairs were set up because you’re doing your little presentation before you move to tech. And seeing all the smaller chairs and five taller chairs in the back that said: Casey Nicholaw (Director), Casey Hushion (Assoc. Director), John MacInnis (Assoc. Choreographer), Jack Sippel, Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Vocal Arrangements). And then just sitting there watching, looking side to side and feeling like – wow, these are the people who make it happen.”

Okoye: “Cher! Oh my god, opening night you guys! So we had a rehearsal the day of opening that we were all so mad about. We dida singthrough of ‘Turn Back Time.’ Cher wasn’t there yet, but we were like, hopefully this is going to happen. Hopefully Cher is going to come on stage at the end of the show as Stephanie (J. Block) is thanking all these people who have made this happen. And it happened and she walked right past me—and she’s been to rehearsal several times, seen the show, came to Chicago for out of town, and came a few times during tech and things like that. But to perform with her on stage was just incredible.”

“Proud of Your Boy” (And Girl!)

Saboo: “I didn’t do theatre at all growing up. I started my junior of high school and my parents were so not about it. It was just because of lack of knowledge. And then I went to college for it, and they were iffy. A mushy, cool moment for me was when my mom—we would go to Broadway shows when I was here at NYU, and my mom said to me, it’s crazy to see you on the other side of the fence, and she was talking about the stage door fence. And I remember I gave her a hug and I went backstage and I remember I just started crying. For me, that’s my mushiest, coolest moment of this whole thing, my mom being ‘you’re on the other side.’”

Dodson: “I feel like if any of you are parents to a child that wants to do this, just know that whatever energy you give to that child to be able to do this work is meaningful. I’ve had two busloads of family come to see Donna Summer, and just the fact that my family was able to come and see something they really enjoyed and really had fun seeing. My grandparents are in their 80s and they were the ones that drove me to dance class every day, so for them to be able to see me on Broadway means way more than I anticipated, just because it’s a win for them; way more than me. When people give time and energy and money into a child, and you hope that kid gets to the place they want to go, seeing that experience through other peoples’ eyes has made it so meaningful.”

Okoye: “One big highlight was having my parents there opening night. I wouldn’t have anyone else there with me. There was no question of who would get the ticket; it was my parents. Like Kim said, they’re the ones that made it happen, and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

For more unique tidbits and mementos from our conversation with the fresh faced quintet, listen to our recent podcast #139 Broadway Debuts (feat.  Kimberly Dodson, Tiana Okoye, Nikhil Saboo, Jack Sippel and Khadija Tariyan).