How did it all start?
I actually grew up in my mom’s dance studio. I started dancing when I was five. She had two boys--she didn’t have a Shirley Temple or Baby June. Because it was a family business, she put both of us into it. And she didn’t push us. I think she wanted to see, “Let’s put them in it and just let them go as long as they want to go.” My brother lasted two weeks. I stayed for fifteen years. I really enjoyed it. I hesitate telling people that I came from my mom’s dance studio because they’re like, “Oh, he has a stage mom. She pushed him,” and all that stuff. But it was solely up to us. I really found my comfort in studio.
So she brought me to the studio, and I didn’t have dance shoes or dance clothes or anything like that. She just went to the back closet, and there was a tap class going on. She just said, “Put on these shoes and jump into it and see if you like it.” And they were a pair of girl’s black patent leather shoes with a pink bow--they were used. I don’t think she wanted to make the investment if we weren’t going to stick to it. So she gave me a pair of used shoes and they could not have been more girly. I put them on and I don’t remember anything else. Because that’s young. Five is young.
Yes. I don’t remember anything from when I was five years old.
Exactly. I don’t really remember much from that time, but I stayed.
What happened was I started winning dance competitions all over the place. My parents saw that I might be able to do this. I am from Ithaca, just four hours away upstate. School for me wasn’t really a comfortable place. I was made fun of because I danced.
The internet was just coming out when we were all getting it at our houses, and I would find Broadway Dance Center website or Steps website. I was maybe 14 or 15, and I asked my parents if I could go to the city and take class. I think they were comfortable enough in how much I loved it to put me on a bus and let me go for the day to go to New York and take class. I started coming to New York on my own. It was a four hour one-way bus ride so I’d leave in the middle of the night and get to New York like 6 am. I’d spend the day here--I mean what parents send their 14 year old to New York on their own? I don’t really know but they must have believed in me enough and felt like I was mature enough to handle it.
So I started coming to New York on my own on the bus and taking classes, started making new friends from classes. It got to the point where my life was so here [in New York] instead of up there [in Ithaca] that I decided to graduate high school early. I doubled up on all my classes and I moved to New York when I was 17.
How many times a week did you come to New York back in high school?
Here’s the deal with my parents. They were okay with letting me take the bus to come down to take class as long as I paid for it myself. I remember going through the neighborhood knocking on people’s doors asking them if they needed their leaves raked to make my five dollars here, five dollars there. I started going down infrequently, and then it got to the point where I was going down twice a week. We would try to go on weekends because I didn’t have school. But if I really wanted to go down--I mean high school was so bad for me--if I really wanted to go down on a weekday, they were okay with it. It was very unconventional. When everyone else was in math class and science class, I was traipsing around 42nd street with my tap shoes and my bag, which was maturing because the people I went to school with didn’t get those opportunities. I was able to see real life and go back, and it made the bullying and all of that stuff a lot easier. Because I was like, “This is so small in the whole scheme.”
That’s amazing that you were able to gain that perspective at such an young age.
Exactly. It was magical because my bus would get in at 6 in the morning, and it would pull in at 42nd street so I’d get off the bus. I usually had couple hours to kill until my class started and if I found an audition to go to. And at that hour of the morning, Time Square was completely empty. I’d wake up in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, get on this bus, travel for four hours, get off and I’d always get a coffee and sit in Time Square. I had the whole place to myself for like an hour and a half. When you’re not from here, you only ever see Time Square in the movies or on TV shows where there’s lots of stuff going on. You know, New Year’s Eve, there’s a huge party going on. I think that helped me handle New York and realize that it’s not something unobtainable. Because when I’d get off the bus, I have that incredibly famous place all to myself. It was kind of like, “Oh it’s a real city.” People live there and no one’s awake yet. The lights aren’t on. The billboards are dark. It made New York more of a real place as opposed to a magical place. I remember one morning sitting there and I counted two cars and six people. That was it. And me from the middle of nowhere. I think that helped me find the courage to move here and take it by storm.
What did you do right after high school?
I went into school. My family doesn’t come from--we don’t have much money. I knew that if I wanted to move here, I’d have to do it through a school, so I could borrow that financial aid to get me here. I don’t really know if I wanted to go to school for musical theatre, but I knew it was the only way I’d be able to move to New York on my own.
I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It was Oklahoma! and Bob Fosse and Luigi all day, 9-5, and I was in heaven. I think going to school in New York was important because even though there are other schools that I think are great for musical theatre, I think finding a school in New York is important because we would learn about somebody in class and then we would go to Starbucks on our break and wait in line behind them. We’d wait in the line behind the actor/actress getting their coffee and then we’re able to see shows. I don’t know how I would’ve moved here if I didn’t go to school here. It was just kind of a safe way to do it.
How was living in New York after college?
I knew if I was going to stay in New York in college, I was going to have to do it myself. I worked really hard in school, which is something that seems like an obvious thing for you to do. But going to school in New York, you see a lot of young people who have never been here move here, and they get caught up in the bars and the nightlife and the excitement. And they put their training on the backburner. And then graduation day rolls around, and they haven’t gotten themselves good enough to stay and have to move home. I didn’t have the money to go out and to party. When I was going to school here, I had to go home, sit in my dorm, and work on my training. The school asked me to come speak to their students to give them good advice and stuff. I always say, “Work hard. Try to forget that New York City is outside the walls of this school.” Because if you work hard and focus, graduation day is going to roll around and they’re all going to have to move home and you’re going to be able to stay for the rest of your life because you made yourself good enough to work.
With that being said, I actually auditioned for the national tour of Cats while I was still in school and I got it. So the rehearsals worked up perfectly where I graduated on Sunday and started rehearsals on Monday. That kind of sounds like I hit the jackpot and I got lucky, but I really didn’t. It was years and years and years of work. You know, not wasting away my time in the city. And 8 years later, I am still here. I was just telling my boyfriend the other day that it’s so weird to walk down the streets and have memories of people on certain corners and certain bars to know that they’re not here anymore. They’ve moved home, found a new career, and started a new life.
Have you witnessed a lot of that among your peers?
I’d say in eight years since I’ve been here, there are maybe five or six that are still here. I don’t think that people realize how much work it takes, and that’s not speaking about show business. That’s just life in general. So expensive. It’s so tough. If it rains here, it doesn’t just mean it rains. It means tomorrow you’re going to wake up and stand on a corner, and a cab is going to drive by, and you’re going to get soaked in mystery puddle juice. You have to learn to love that just as much as you love the show business. With the rejection that comes with show business, and with the difficulty of surviving just as a human being in New York, the two work in tandem to shut you down and make you go elsewhere. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who said it was easy. And that’s even people who aren’t in show business. I think if you can learn to love that, that’s the secret. Learn to love the sidewalk as much as you love the studio.
What happened after Cats?
I did Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and I started realizing that I wanted to choreograph. I think I had done something kinda small and a lot of important people kinda freaked out about it. They said, “maybe you should consider a career in choreographing whenever you are ready to make the transition.” So I stopped dancing. Growing up from my mom’s studio and having to drive home with my dance teacher, I learned the business of it. Because my mom is my dance teacher...I would take my class and I would go hang out and I’d have to hang out at the studio for three or four hours and watch her teach and watch her choreograph. I was just exposed to that side of it a little bit younger than other people. So I was comfortable with choreographing.
I started getting some small work in the city as a choreographer. The money was better. I was more fulfilled. My whole life changed when I decided to do that. I just didn’t really know how to break into that. So I wrote--I’m just gonna write five letters to choreographers I look up to--Jerry Mitchell, Rob Marshall, Casey Nicholaw, Tommy Tune, and Susan Stroman. Just ask them if they would talk to me. “I am a dancer, I want to choreograph. If you have a moment, could you please write back to me.” Immediately, I heard back from Jerry Mitchell and Tommy Tune. They said, “Sure, come over, let’s chat. Have a coffee and get to know each other.”
Jerry gave me the advice to get some dancers together and film it. If you’re going to walk around New York saying you’re choreographer, you have to have something to show people. To say, “This is the number I did.” So I left his apartment, and on the elevator on the way down, I looked at my bank account to see how much money I had. I had just enough money to rent a studio for four hours. So I called some dancers that I knew because Jerry said, “If you choreograph a number and you film it, send it back to me. I’ll talk to you about it. Give you some notes. Give you some advice, and we could move forward from that.” So I headed to the studio, got the dancers, put something together, and sent it back to him. And then he started working with me there.
And then Tommy Tune wrote back to me, who was an idol of mine. I think if there’s one choreographer I wanted to hear back from, it was him. Same thing. “Come over, tomorrow 2 o’clock, and chat.” With Tommy, I really found a mentor and someone I looked up to. Not that Jerry’s advice wasn’t for me. Once I met Tommy, the relationship that began was a good one. Tommy said, “If you want to be a choreographer, you have to be a choreographer. You can’t have an audition for your show and then the next day, go into audition for a show, and be dancing with people that you cut the day before. They are going to be like, ‘What are you doing here? I thought you were a choreographer.’” So I had to make a conscious decision...and really commit to this transition. That was a huge change of my life, because all that I knew was performing and I had to stop all of that prematurely. I think maybe I could have worked as a dancer longer. But I made the decision to become a choreographer.
I started getting more work. Benefit concerts--we had Tony winners and celebrities. From there I started getting phone calls to do other things. Luckily, I never had to look back. It was kind of weird because I paid my dues and when it was time for the payoff and to ride the wave, I decided to stop that and pay my dues again to do something else. It’s taken three or four years to start getting that other work, and it’s been coming in and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a strange thing when you choreograph a show. I just did a benefit concert that I worked so hard on and opening night rolled around, everyone was putting on their fancy clothes, doing their hair, and I hadn’t shaved in five days. I was wearing sweatpants that I had worn for two days. I wanted to change for opening night, but I never got around to it because I was in charge. To be in the lobby and not have anyone know that you had anything to do with the show. Little do they know you kind of orchestrated the whole thing. And to see the actors take their bows and get applause and you’re standing in the back, ready for a nap. All of that stuff is totally new for me. But I find my joy--the same feeling I used to get when I was on stage taking my bow, I now get when I am standing in the back behind the sound booth watching my actors and my dancers take their bow. There’s still the excitement and there’s still the adrenaline rush. It’s just from a different perspective now. I couldn’t be happier. I love what I do now.
While you were building up your choreography career in the beginning, was there ever a moment you regretted making that change?
No, but I think it’s because I took such heavy risks to make it happen. To be more detailed, I got off tour with Cats, wrote all those letters, talked to all those Tony winners, started doing my videos, getting dancers together and choreographing things, but I was still kind of performing. So I got a new National tour--I got Beauty and the Beast and I went out on the road and while I was in tech, I started getting phone calls for meetings I had three months before. I actually put my notice in to Beauty and the Beast on the opening night. So they hemmed all my costumes, spent time rehearsing me, and unfortunately, it took until I was out there, ready to open, for me to realize that I wanted to choreograph. I said, “I am so sorry. I know you just worked really hard to put me into the show, but I have to go back to New York.” When you know you made a decision that big at one point in your life, you never really regret it. Because it wasn’t like I was just bored and I started choreographing. I made a conscious decision on opening night to leave a job that three-hundred people would have killed for.
The only thing I miss is that my parents don’t really understand what I do now. They still wish I was working on cruise ships because they would be able to come for free. They don’t understand that I just choreographed a benefit concert, and on the opening night, I sent them the list of all the celebrities in the show, and they said, “Have you met any of them yet?” And I thought, “Met any of them? I have been in charge of this whole evening!” So those are the only times I miss performing. Because people who don’t really understand the business don’t really see there’s payoff in other positions. They just see who’s in costume, and they think that’s all there is to it. I don’t regret it. I am also very lucky to say that because I am so lucky for the work that has come my way. I think if I had made this decision and I never got any work, I’d be telling myself, “What are you doing and why aren’t you dancing on stage?” But I’ve been so blessed to have stuff coming in. I am almost busier now than I was performing.
As performers, you audition for roles and get cast based on your looks and performance. How does it work for choreographers?
When I made the transition, I had an agent that I worked so hard for. I told him that I want to be a choreographer, and he flat out said, “I don’t know how to do that. I represent dancers.” So I had to find a new agent that represented directors and choreographers and work with them. What’s funny is that I used to have to wake up in the morning, put on my dance clothes, and get ready. But now the first step is always interview. I had to take couple courses on how to have a conversation, public speaking, and all that, because I no longer had my pirouettes or my hand stands to get me the job. I had to sit across from somebody at a desk and have a conversation with them.
It’s also finding work for yourself. I had a hard time finding work this summer on a musical at a regional theatre, so my agent said you need to go out and find some work. Create it yourself. Find a producer, find an artistic director and all that stuff. I can’t say much about it, but I found a movie that aired on TV in the 90’s and had a huge star in it--it was a musical that had a score by a Broadway composer, and nothing ever happened to it. So I called the writer, and asked him if he ever worked on a stage adaptation and found out that he had. It didn’t go anywhere, so now we’re in talks to mount it again as a show. You have to get creative and sometimes make work happen for yourself.
The other thing with directing and choreographing is I am starting to understand that there’s people who work on shows and there are positions on shows I didn’t even know existed. I am talking with investors and angel investors now, and I am dealing with stage managers, assistant stage managers, lighting designers, lighting designer associates, set designers. I used to just show up at 9 o’clock for rehearsals and do whatever the hell they told me to do. And then we put on costumes and somehow there’s an audience. Now that I am doing what I am doing, I actually have a lot of apologies to make, because I am starting to understand what it was that everyone did. I remember being in tech for Cats and the orchestra was filled with people I had never seen before and never saw again, sitting behind computers, working on soundboards. Now that I am in charge of all of that--in charge of orchestrating it and making sure that everything lines up--I am starting to understand exactly how much work other people put into shows that the performers never even see. That’s been a real eye-opening experience. Learning the business of show business. I used to know the show, now I am learning the business. It’s just different.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I don’t know. That’s what keeps me getting out of bed every morning. If I knew what was going to happen to me in six months or if I knew where I was going to be in five years, I’d have no motivation to get out of bed. I am a firm believer that we all have downtime. I really try to make an effort to make something out of nothing. If I knew what I was gonna be in five or ten years or even next week, I don’t think I’d have any vivacity, drive, or fire to get out of bed everyday and try to make something happen. I thrive off of not knowing. Kind of reminds me of Goosebumps books I used to read as a kid--choose your own ending ones where you read a page, you get to the bottom and you can make two decisions, and that’s going to determine the fate of the rest of the story. Those books were always easier for me to read than books that had a planned out ending. I enjoy not knowing if tomorrow I am going to get a phone call that’s going to send me to Asia for six months on Tuesday, or if I am going to be out of work in New York for another seven months. It’s exciting to not know. I don’t know where I see myself. That’s part of what gets me out of bed everyday.
Anything that you’d like to share with the world?
Just keep going. In the eight years I’ve been here, there have been so many points where I could’ve thrown my hands up and said, “It’s been fun, I think I’m going to stop.” I’ve been very lucky. I read my own bio and amazed at some of the things I’ve been lucky enough to do. What’s amazing is to read my bio and to see places where I knew I was getting frustrated and was ready to give up. And then you read the next credit and think, “Oh my gosh, if you would’ve given into that, that never would have happened.” How amazing to be able to look back at it and see all the times you could’ve stopped and go back to an easier life. Live somewhere cheaper. Go into a business where there’s not so much rejection. I think if you can find a way to keep going when it’s dark and when it’s tough, you’ll be amazed at all this stuff you don’t even know is coming your way.