When I was fourteen I fell in love, and fell hard. I was sitting with my parents and my sister in the orchestra of the National Theater in downtown D.C. when a slow, slinky trumpet sounded from the stage. The curtain rose and a muscle-y male dancer appeared, seeming to swim upward through a pooled spotlight. By the time the overture began and the mesh and fishnet clad ensemble of Chicago had poured themselves out onto the stage, my seven years of dance training seemed foolish and somehow futile. I got a sudden, stabbing pain in my temples and understood what it meant to want something so badly it hurt. From that moment on, I never had to question who I was or wanted to be: I was a dancer, and I wanted to be in a Broadway show.
By the time I moved to New York, Chicago had been running on Broadway for nearly a decade, and the conventional wisdom among the chorus boys and chorines was that unless you were over forty and exuded a general underworld smarminess, it was pointless to even audition for the show. Still, at the time, I was going to any audition posted on the Actor’s Equity website, and even though my puppy love for Chicago now seemed about as likely to be consummated as my childhood crush on Paula Abdul, when a Chicago call came up, I tried to look older and smarmier, and went to the audition.
I wore black sweatpants and a red, tight-fitting T-shirt that had once been part of my younger brother’s Little League uniform. Packed into a small dance studio alongside forty other guys, I learned the Fosse-ish choreography from the associate choreographer and the dance captain, then danced in a group of three, then was cut before I could sing my sixteen bars of music.
I was auditioning for Broadway shows and regional theater gigs four or five times a week at that point, but each job I didn’t get seemed to fuel a nagging fear that I had chosen the wrong profession. I should be starring in a TV series, I thought, though I never actually sought on-camera classes or auditions; I should be writing the next great American play, a voice (that sounded a lot like my mother) kept repeating in my head, though whenever I sat down at my computer, I’d give up after typing “Act I,” close my laptop, and head to the gym instead. All I knew how to be was a dancer, and trying to figure out how to be something else seemed like altering the prominent schnoz on my face; that is, it would be possible, but painful, and could potentially render me unrecognizable to my family, my friends, and, most of all, to myself.
So I kept on going to chorus calls. Attending a male dancer audition in New York was more or less indistinguishable from going to a gay bar in New York, except that at an audition the lights were on and it was ten in the morning. The boys at Splash and Barracuda at night were the same boys I saw at the audition studios during the day. At a bar, however, the objectives those boys were aggressively pursuing were vodka sodas or blowjobs, while at these auditions the objective was, invariably, to book a Broadway show.
If the audition that day was for Hairspray, we would all be ready to dance the pony and the mashed potato, all fully believing we were perfect to play clean-cut teenagers from Baltimore. If the audition was for Wicked, we’d all adopt bad attitudes and a scowl, each sure that we’d be a better flying monkey than the next guy. No matter what we were auditioning for, we would all try to look hardworking but not over-eager, devastatingly handsome but effortlessly so, seasoned but not past our prime.
If I wasn’t asked to sing after the hour of learning the dance combination, I’d try to convince myself it didn’t matter. I’d go to the gym or to lunch with friends, discussing how Broadway was really not what it used to be, how all the new shows were crappy, how we didn’t want to be in just any Broadway show, we wanted to be in something great. But we knew even as we were saying it that we’d take whatever we could get.
At some point, I became ever so slightly panicked. I was only 24, but I knew that a dancer’s best years were almost behind me—this was not hyperbole, just fact—and I was becoming increasingly aware that New York was a city for either the very rich or the very young, and I seemed to be tumbling further away from both those qualities without much grace, and at a breakneck speed.
While I was dancing sixteen shows a week under fifty-five pounds of foam and fur as a Russian Bear in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, my best friend, Ryan, booked his first Broadway show. Ryan was a tall, athletic charmer I had grown up dancing with in Maryland. We had spent years performing together in a youth ensemble where our costumes always included sequins and our repertoire infallibly concluded with a patriotic medley of songs by George M. Cohan. I was two years older than Ryan, and, in high school, I had always been the better dancer, and therefore had always been the one he had looked up to. But when Ryan booked Movin’ Out on Broadway, there was suddenly a glitch in our dynamic. I was supposed to book the Broadway show first. I had been in New York a full year, and Ryan was still a junior in college. I bought a copy of The Secret and started frantically highlighting key passages.
“Well,” my mother said over the phone from Maryland. “You could be in Movin’ Out.”
“I got cut from the audition,” I reminded her. I had also just been cut from my second round of Chicago auditions, though this time, I’d prepped for the audition by buying an outfit: tight black stretch jeans and a short-sleeve button-down shirt that I left mostly unbuttoned. I didn’t shave for a week in hopes of looking older and smarmier, but mostly, I ended up just looking unwashed, and, again, didn’t get the job.
“Well,” my mother said. I could just hear her shaking her head and pursing her lips. “So? Are you jealous of Ryan or what?”
I gave her the answer I had been repeating to myself after reading an article in Oprah magazine about putting your blinders on and everyone having their own path and how to live your best life and not someone else’s and how to have your “aha!” moment when one door closes because someone will invariably open a window. I tried to believe what I was telling my mother, but Oprah’s weight had climbed to 250 pounds again, and I was less inclined to trust her advice when she was fat.
I went to see Ryan on his opening night, yelled with real joy and pride at his curtain call, and when Movin’ Out closed six months later, I agreed with Ryan when he thought he should stay in New York instead of finishing school. There is a popular showbiz myth that once you booked your first Broadway show, the second couldn’t be far behind. You had gotten into the club, and in the club you’d stay. But in the months after Movin’ Out closed, Ryan found there was a chance that the myth might in fact be just a myth. He went back to school, and, a year later, returned to the city with a renewed idealism I envied.
“Hey, hey, listen, listen,” Ryan said to me over the phone one afternoon soon after his return to New York. “I have an appointment for Chicago tomorrow, what should I wear?”
I told him to wear something tight and black, hung up the phone, and called my agent to find out why I didn’t have an appointment myself. I was so sure of my entitlement to the career of my choice that it didn’t dawn on me to feel sheepish for being annoyed with my agent for not getting me seen for a show I’d been rejected from twice already. My agent did some finagling, and I showed up the next day at a midtown rehearsal studio for the Chicago audition, wearing the same black stretch jeans and button down shirt I’d worn before, though this time, I buttoned only one button, not two.
I found Ryan in the hallway of the audition studio—dressed in shiny black jazz pants and a black tank top—and together we pretended to stretch our hamstrings while, really, we scoped out the competition.
“We’re the only ones here without mic tape on our freaking necks,” Ryan observed, referring to the sticky residue left by the tape that holds the wire of a body microphone in place.
Ryan and I danced the opening “All That Jazz” combination from the show, we both sang sixteen bars of music, both read sides of dialogue. When I finished my sides, the creative team smiled at me politely from behind their table and thanked me for coming. Ryan and I went to lunch at the Tick Tock Diner on 34th Street and 8th Avenue, both exhausted.
“You can tell when you didn’t get it,” I said. “And I didn’t get it.”
“I just,” Ryan sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and dropped his head into his hands. “I just can’t. You know?”
I still wanted to believe the myth, so I thought about smacking Ryan and reminding him that he’d already been on Broadway; he was in the club, and it was only a matter of time before he got another show. But I knew that being out of work as an actor was like being out of love. Just as a breakup could convince me that no one would ever love me again, most actors were convinced that they’d never work again, and every job was their last. We were all sure we’d have to, at some point, return to our hometowns and teach dance at the studio where we were trained. We were sure we’d be happier, by God, so much happier, because we would eventually forget what it meant to want something so badly it made our teeth hurt. We’d be happy teaching dance classes, and maybe we’d find some nice lawyer or doctor to marry, we’d move into a clean, new-construction condo near our parents’ house, and we’d never have to go to another dance call where people flaunted their Broadway credits by refraining from washing the backs of their necks.
When I got back to my apartment in Queens after lunch with Ryan, I opened my laptop, sat down on my bed, and started combing the Equity website for what other auditions I could go on that week. When my phone lit up with my agent’s incoming number, my stomach lurched. My agent liked for me to call or email after an audition to tell him how it had gone, and I dreaded telling him that, despite my demands to be seen for Chicago, I’d blown it once again.
Before I could stammer out a string of excuses for why I hadn’t booked the job, my agent told me that the creative team of Chicago wanted me. I was to start rehearsals on Monday. It was Friday. I calmly told my agent I’d call him back for details later, hung up the phone, and started screaming and running through my apartment. None of my three roommates were home, so I was left to bounce off the furniture and squeal, then throw myself on the floor, reach for my phone, and call my mother. She screamed, then we screamed together, then she began to cry.
“Oh, honey,” she said through sniffles. “I’m so proud of you. Oh! This is the best feeling.”
I told Ryan that I got the show when I saw him the next day. He was excited, jumped up and down and squeezed me, and I didn’t think to wonder how he felt about the fact that I’d gotten a job we’d both been up for. Ryan would be bummed for about two weeks, then book Xanadu, his second Broadway show. Then, when Xanadu closed, he would be bummed again for a few months, then book the hit revival of Hair. Ryan would then become a favorite of the prolific Broadway choreographer, Rob Ashford, get cast in his fourth and fifth Broadway shows, Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, then decide to retire from dancing at age 26, apply to the graduate acting programs at Yale, Julliard, and NYU, and start working toward proving true a second showbiz myth: the myth of the chorus boy who became a movie star.
On the night of my first performance in Chicago, I put on my costume, a mesh sleeveless shirt and pinstriped pants. The dressing room I shared with three other ensemble men on the sixth floor of the Ambassador Theater was a cramped, triangular space that had the comforting scent of mold and face powder I associated with all my summers spent at theater camps in Maryland. The row of small, light-bulb-lined mirrors in the dressing room meant that I could only see myself in fragments: a clean-shaven chin, shiny black hair that spiked up. I realized I looked a lot like the dancers I’d wanted so badly to be when I was fourteen.
Nausea pooled in my stomach and throat as the stage manager’s call for the top of Act I came through the intercom. I took one last look at my face in the mirror and descended the six flights to the stage level. Cast members patted my back and told me to break a leg as they stretched their hamstrings and taped microphone wires to their necks. I secured my mic with a piece of tape and imagined with satisfaction the mark it would leave on my own neck by the end of the night.
I knew my family was sitting out in the audience somewhere, the four of them brimming with excitement and sympathy stage fright. Standing in the wings, I began to wonder what had made me think I belonged there. Dancing was the thing I had started doing because I wasn’t good at anything else, and the idea of collecting Broadway credits that would amount to a career had become the identity I’d aligned myself with for over a decade. I had always assumed that after I made my Broadway debut, jobs would simply present themselves to me, and all I’d have to do would be to choose which ones to take. But I suddenly realized there was a possibility that, despite all my years of training and my inflated sense of entitlement, there might be a fundamental difference in ability between me and those dancers who, like Ryan, could bounce from show to show to show. I wanted to collect Broadway credits, but I had no way of knowing if I’d ever acquire more than one.
Years would pass. I would show up at Chicago day after day and find that even a dream job could become just a job; the need to dance and the hunger to be better would slowly dissipate until, one day, I’d wake up and find that in their place was an unfamiliar, gnawing complacency. Auditions that had once led to callbacks would become just auditions, and eventually, my agent would stop calling with appointments altogether. I’d apply to graduate schools, citing my disillusionment with my chosen profession, saying that I didn’t want to be just another chorus boy who made a career out of flexing his biceps and doing what he was told. But the truth would be that collecting Broadway credits didn’t seem to be an option and the identity I had held on to so tightly for so long had slipped away, along with the safety I’d felt in not having to reassess who I was or wanted to be.
But at that moment, waiting in the wings to make my first entrance on Broadway, a slow, slinky trumpet solo sounded from the stage. The conductor yelled, “A-five six seven eight” and launched the Chicago orchestra into the overture. I looked through the wings at the amber lit stage. I didn’t have time to wonder how I’d fill all the hours and days and years to come now that I had no dream to work toward. I heard the orchestra play my cue. I inhaled, bent my knees, and leapt toward the stage.