Each October, BLEEP gathers a new set of Broadway performers to talk about making art on stage, the future of the artform and the things you don’t see when the curtain goes up. This year, we’ve assembled four artists—Christiani Pitts from A Bronx Tale, Tanner Ray Wilson from Cats, and Juwan Crawley & Don Darryl Rivera from Aladdin—each of whom are in the midst of their Broadway debuts, to talk about the road that led them to Broadway, how they dealt with the pressures of auditioning and what’s surprised them most about their experience so far.
Let’s go back to the night of your actual Broadway debut. What was it like to step onto the stage and into the dream you’ve had for so long?
Christiani Pitts: I was literally shaking in my shoes because I was so nervous and excited. It was everything you’ve ever wanted to do in your life and in that moment, it’s happening. I honestly don’t remember much about the first cross, but once I came up on the other side of the stage, I was sobbing. I did it. It happened.
Tanner Ray Wilson: It was pretty overwhelming. Not only is the set so huge and it extends out into the audience, but to walk onto a Broadway stage knowing that’s your view for the next year…it’s everything.
Don Darryl Rivera: On our opening night, we actually started 40 minutes late, which I guess is normal on a Broadway opening night, but I’d revved up my energy until places were called. Then we were holding for 40 minutes, which totally threw me off. But honestly, I’ve never experienced an audience like that in my life. It was electricity and fire. I mean, there was a ten minute standing ovation after “Friend Like Me.” I don’t think I’ll ever experience that again and it’s a wonderful memory.
Juwan Crawley: I got the call at 3:15 and I was right down the hall here [at Ripley Grier Studios] about to rent a room to run the show. I got that call, threw my sushi out, put up a message on Facebook that I was on and ran to the theater. My heart was racing. When I was getting into costume, our dresser told me, “You know this. Take a breath, center yourself, and go have fun.” The show starts with just Genie so when the curtains opened, 1700 people yelled at me in the happiest way…and I immediately farted. It was so bad but it happened, I farted. After that, I couldn’t take myself so seriously. I told myself, “Let’s just have fun at this point.” When the song ended, my heart was racing so much, I thought no one clapped because all I could hear was my heart pounding. But they did applaud and I was lucky to have that be my debut.
The Cats rehearsal process for me was very quick. I was the first new member of the company so I had about 10 days of rehearsal before I went on. I cover seven tracks. Now they give new members a month of rehearsal but ultimately, I preferred it the way it happened for me. Get me on the stage and lets figure it out from there. As a swing, I describe the show as doing seven different obstacle courses at any given time. You know the tracks, you’ve practiced it, but you have to keep your eye out for what’s going on around you.
To be a part of the legacy of Cats didn’t really hit me until we had a rehearsal where Sir Trevor Nunn, our director, came in and talked to us about the conception of the show. He talked about the journey it’s had to this moment and about why the revival was so important. To anyone else, that might seem like boring history, but to all of us, it was incredible. Everyone knows Cats and that’s pretty cool that I’m a part of that.
Can you remember when you first fell in love with performing?
Juwan: My grandmother is a gospel singer and when I was very young, she said I should be in voice lessons. She’s had a wonderful career in her own right but she thought I could push through even more. So she put me in voice lessons and at my high school, I sang “Feeling Good.” When I finished, the audience was silent and then it exploded with applause. That’s when my mom turned into a stage mom. [laughs] Next thing I know, I’m at auditions at 6 a.m. before going to class. It grew from there.
Christiani: It was in church for sure. I would sing in the church choir and because I was one of the smallest people in the choir, people would throw love at me. Singing there is all for a greater good at the end of the day too, so being in front of the church and in the choir just felt like that’s where I belonged. I went home and did shows for my family and one thing led to another.
DDR: It happened when I saw my sister singing and dancing for the first time. I was four or five and she was singing and playing the piano. I wanted to be like her. She and I actually sang, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary and that was the moment I knew I wanted to keep singing and dancing.
Tanner: I was always artistic and creative and different but up until I was around nine years old, I played sports. I wasn’t good at them but I enjoyed the social aspects. I was doing gymnastics and my parents knew I was good at that. We saw an ad for a show called The Nutcracker: All Jazzed Up which was basically remixed music and sequins and jazz shoes. I said, “I want to do that!” So I did that show and started dancing. I fell in love with it instantly, started singing shortly after that, and ended up in New York when I was 20 to start pounding the pavement.
When I went on officially as Jane in A Bronx Tale, I was a mess. I was nervous, not because of the role because I’d been understudying it for eight months, but because of the pressure of feeling as if people looked at me like, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” That was totally me in my head, no one treated me like that at all, and after I came out of the doors and sang the first song with Bobby, I cried and thanked God. This is all I’ve ever prayed for and to have it happen eight months after making my debut, I was so emotional.
My favorite part of the show is actually the end. Everyone comes back on stage—everyone who had tension is there in that one moment—and looks out at the audience to sorta pass the baton to them. We get to break the wall, invite them in and say, ‘We resolved our issues and now it’s your turn.’ It’s a really cool moment.
Well let’s talk about that aspect of this career. Before you wound up on Broadway, you had to have spent time pounding the pavement and going to audition after audition. What was your tactic for staying above water when the constant grind became hard to handle?
Tanner: The truth is, you don’t keep yourself from being overwhelmed or discouraged. The important thing to remember while you’re in that space between moving to New York and making your Broadway debut is that you’re setting yourself up to continue learning for the rest of your life. As a goal-oriented person, it was tough for me to learn that once you achieve a goal, that’s not the end. You have to keep going and learning. It’s important to remember you have to trust yourself, work hard, and eventually, it will lead you to where you want to be.
DDR: On the west coast, in Seattle specifically, the majority of actors don’t have agents, so we learn to garner relationships with casting directors at every theater in Seattle. What’s amazing about that is you get to know them and there’s not someone interpreting things for you. I’m lucky in that I started networking in Seattle with the Seattle Children’s Theatre and those actors and directors brought me along to the other shows they were working on. Out of college, I was a tiny seed and everyone helped me grow.
Christiani: I’m a firm believer that anything that’s great will also be difficult to obtain. If it were easy, how could you possibly appreciate how great it feels once you reach it. Anytime it got horrible—when I got fired from my serving job and I had auditions to get to with no money to print sheet music with—I was reminded that if it’s hard now, it only means something greater is coming. I cried and I felt it, because you have to feel those tough moments, but I pulled myself together because I knew when my blessings do come, I will never take them for granted.
Juwan: I feel so bad. You shouldn’t ask me this question because I didn’t have one of those stories. I was very fortunate in that I got an agent out of my college showcase and I actually missed my last day of college to audition for Spamilton. After that, I worked at Walmart. I found out I was in Spamilton on my fourth day at Walmart so I was very happy to quit. For the first run of the show, I was commuting from Connecticut because I just didn’t think that it would actually take off. At the time we thought was going to be an 18 show, non-Equity thing. We didn’t know it would have three companies, award nominations and a cast album. Truth be told, I auditioned for the tour of Aladdin many times and for whatever reason, I wasn’t hitting at that point. I was in callbacks for another show and Casey Nicholaw asked me why he hadn’t seen me for the Genie, which led me to where I am today.
I had trouble being a minority actor. People in casting wouldn’t see me as I saw myself. But there were some who took chances on me and because of that, I played roles I never thought I would play. One character is Joshua Primm in Lyle the Crocodile, from the book series. He’s a blonde kid in the books but they cast an Asian actor, myself, and no one blinked an eye. It didn’t matter to a single kid in the audience.
Being a new dad and seeing how my daughter sees the world, I think there’s a lesson to learn from kids. Not having that filter as a child, you accept everyone for who they are. Kids don’t see colors. This is America. Everyone looks different. Everyone is a different shape. Everyone is a different color. Everyone comes from a different place. What’s really beautiful, I see that on stage in Aladdin and I look out and see that in the audience as well. It’s a literal mirror. I love that.
You’ve been in plenty of shows before. What’s something that’s made this specific show experience unique besides it being your Broadway debut? What’s surprised you?
DDR: In all the shows I’ve done, we’ve become a little family but it’s fleeting because you separate and go do shows elsewhere. With Aladdin, my entire family is in Seattle, so moving out here, I had no one to connect with. Having my cast become my family is a godsend. They offer me advice with my kid, they with take me and pick me up from doctor’s appointments – they will do anything and everything for me. That was unexpected. I knew I’d make friends but the true connections I’ve made is a really beautiful thing.
Christiani: One thing is that it’s the same thing we’ve been doing our whole lives. You get to Broadway and you assume everything is going to be different, but it’s not. It’s the same theater community you worked with at the theaters where you made your own costumes and sets. It’s that same people but now it’s how we pay our bills. Also, the relationships we have with our stagehands is amazing and like nothing I’ve ever experienced. They’re like family to us.
Tanner: The weirdest thing to me is recognizing myself more as a cat than as a human. In every show, you form a family you feel like you never leave the theatre, but there are times I truly look in the mirror and think, Why aren’t you a cat right now? Where’s your nose? Where are your stripes?
Juwan: I have to say, in college, Broadway seemed so distant and far away. I don’t mean this in the arrogant “I always knew I’d end up on Broadway” sort of way, but that is what I was working toward. I never assumed I wouldn’t get there. What I didn’t know then was that the company of Aladdin, from head-to-toe, is the most genuinely welcoming, nice, and generous good group of people. The amount of support I get not just in terms of theater but in terms of my own personal art as well is so wonderful. I expected people to be really judgmental of me because I was 22-years-old coming into the company. No one was like that. Also, because of where my voice hits, my show is different and everyone was so supportive and excited and proud. I’m new to this level of work and the most important, shockingly good, part are those people I get to work with.
I’m halfway through my first full length album and it’s honestly a lot of work I didn’t expect. I’m a composer and lyricist but the majority of my time is spent at the piano putting music onto the page for my own songs.
I can’t write unless I’m experiencing something in life, so right now I’m writing a lot of happy songs and songs that are about matters of the heart. Not just romantic love, but the reality of being a gay black Christian. I grew up Pentecostal and I’ve learned that my being gay is not a good or bad thing, it’s just a part of who I am. Living that truth authentically and showing that love to people, you start to see people realize that by being discriminatory in any sense, you’re going against the very essence of being a Christian. It’s about love, and I’m writing about it.
Interview by Ryan Brinson
Photography by Christopher Boudewyns
Photo assistance by Lindsay Katt