Long before I knew his name and long before I began spending six days a week every week for four years in the wings and on the stage of the Ambassador Theater with him, I wondered how different my life would be if I had been born Jason Patrick Sands. There would be the obvious physical differences: I would be six-foot-two and built like a linebacker instead of five-foot-eight-ish and a little gangly. I’d have thick waves of blond hair that fell easily over kind, crinkling blue eyes instead of my Brillo pad-coarse black mop that only grew out and up. My singing voice would be smooth and effortless, my dancing would be athletic and masculine; my speech would be punctuated by a Louisiana twang that surfaced only to drive a point home, then receded again behind carefully modulated vowels.
I had always assumed that if I had been Jason Patrick Sands—or at least been someone who looked like him—things would have turned out differently for me. I would have bounced from Broadway show to Broadway show, I would have covered leading roles, I would have eventually developed into a bona fide leading man. I was sure that if I had been born Jason Patrick Sands, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now, wondering where I’m going and who I’m supposed to be.
I didn’t come to New York thinking I would roll over and die if I didn’t see Jason Patrick Sands in lights twelve stories high. You know? It was never that for me. I was just a boy from Baton Rouge who wanted to prove to his parents and his grandparents and everyone I left behind in that place that I was going to be something. I wasn’t going to be a boy from Baton Rouge anymore. I was going to become a man. Though I didn’t just want to be a man. I wanted to be fucking Superman. But, you know what? Careful what you wish for, boo, ‘cause once you become Superman, you better believe there’s no going back to living happily as Clark Kent.
During my senior year at the University of Michigan, an audition for the movie version of The Producers was being held in New York. The film was seeking male dancers, 5’10” and up, with strong ballet and tap technique. I bought a pair of thick-soled jazz sneakers, changed the height on my resume from 5’8” to 5’10”, and booked a flight from Detroit to LaGuardia.
When I arrived at the City Center rehearsal studio on 56th Street the following week, I was wearing a pair of tight, bell-bottomed jazz pants and a fitted black tank top. I wrote my name on the list of Equity members waiting to be seen and, after an hour or so of waiting, I was herded into the studio with thirty-five or forty other guys. I pushed my way to the front of the room to be near the mirror and the very tall, very dapper man teaching the combination and making preliminary cuts before the director and choreographer, Susan Stroman, came in for callbacks.
When it was time to perform the combination in groups of three, I stood near the ballet barre along the wall, waiting my turn to dance. For the first time that morning, I began taking notice of the other dancers in the room. I was hoping to pick up a gesture, a flourish, take note of which sections of choreography were consistently flubbed, which steps seemed to get muddied when they should have been accented. But instead, all I could focus on was the fact that dancer after dancer had deeply striated shoulders; they all had thick, mounded biceps; every one of them had popping, shelf-like pectorals; and each curve and indentation was invariably accentuated by a rich, golden tan. I glanced at my own image in the floor to ceiling wall of mirrors. My skin was pale and chapped from the Michigan winter; my biceps appeared to droop cartoonishly; my chest was more or less concave; and my thick-soled jazz shoes really didn’t do much to perpetuate the illusion that I was the slightest bit taller than 5’8”.
When it was my turn to dance the combination in a group of three, I had nearly forgotten I was still at the audition. I had been trying to figure out how to stealthily grab my dance bag, run down the four flights of stairs, get out the stage door of City Center, get on a plane back to Michigan, and switch my major from musical theater to poli-sci before graduation in May.
But I didn’t run. I walked to the center of the room and killed those combinations: my taps were clear and articulate, my arms were strong and placed, I pressed from the ground for my double tour, rotated once, twice in the air, and landed in a clean, solid fifth position. When the combination was over, I looked to the associate choreographer with a broad grin as if I was twelve years old again, back in my first ballet class, seeking the teacher’s approval. But the associate wasn’t looking at me. He was nodding and smiling at the blond, bronzed, six-foot-two specimen who had danced directly to my left.
You think I grew up going to tap and ballet classes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana? Please. But, honey, I was doing just about everything else. I was on a national travelling jump rope team. I was a magician for hire. I was a competitive equestrian. And the closest I came to training was being in the high school drama club. But dance class? No, never.
A girl from my hometown had gone to Cincinnati Conservatory and made a career for herself on Broadway. She told me that if I wanted to be an actor, I had to go to CCM. So, without telling my folks, I bought myself a plane ticket to Cincinnati, auditioned for that school, got in, and went. I spent those four years busting my ass to catch up with the other kids. They had all been training—I mean training—since they were in diapers, and there I was with my double-dutch and my magic tricks.
I had no clue what it meant to be an actor. I just knew that I felt things deeply, maybe more so than the people I grew up around, and being an actor meant getting to speak someone else’s words to express those feelings. If I had grown up in San Francisco or something, I wouldn’t have ended up an actor. I think ninety percent of the gay men who move to New York to perform do it because they feel as though the only group of people they can belong to are show folk. Most of those guys, if the world were a different kind of place, would have just stayed home and done something, anything, else, because they would be allowed to be who they are. I mean, I didn’t even think the word gay until I went to college. Being gay had nothing to do with why I wanted to leave home. I had to leave because I hoped like hell that there was a place where I actually belonged, and, baby, I knew it wasn’t Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After the casting director walked to the center of the room, thanked us all for coming, and called about fifteen names—none of which were mine—I silently skulked back out to the holding room with the rest of the discards. Eighty or ninety guys were there waiting, stretching and chatting and assessing the amount of sweat on our bodies to gauge how difficult the dance combination was going to be.
I changed out of my black jazz pants and tank top and headed uptown to where I was staying at a friend’s empty apartment. Walking toward Columbus Circle to catch the C train, I was regretting my decision to come to New York. Not only had I failed to get a callback for the film, but the annual Michigan flu, which I’d had the previous week and thought I had kicked, reasserted itself into my system the moment I was cut from the audition. By the time I pushed through the old-fashioned grated elevator and keyed into my friend’s apartment, I was profoundly invested in my increasing self-pity and the cough that was growing into a great, hacking throttle. As I walked through the wide, windowed living room, a coughing fit caused me to nearly knock over several porcelain Judaica tchotchkes. I closed myself into the bathroom and turned on the hot water in the shower, hoping the steam would loosen the obstruction in my throat. But while I waited for the steam to build, the phlegm in my throat felt as though it were inflating and taking hold. Wheezing sounds began coming out of me and I noticed I was both soaked in sweat and freezing at the same time. I threw open the bathroom door and began walking through every room of that classic-six apartment, waving my arms and pointing to my throat as if there was someone there whose attention I was attempting to get. I started ramming my stomach into the back of the sofa and the edge of the kitchen counter as I had seen characters do in movies, but there wasn’t a chicken bone or a hunk of steak lodged in my throat; this was a part of me, something in me that had expanded and swollen of its own accord and seemed to have no intention of budging from my wind pipe.
My flailing arms became less wild, my path through the apartment became narrower, and I eventually found myself walking the circumference of the living room rug. I knew that soon I’d pass out from lack of oxygen. I would be found, days later, on the floor of that Upper West Side apartment. Everyone from the Michigan Musical Theater department would come to my funeral and sing a weepy rendition of “Seasons of Love.” My classmates would all be certain I’d have booked the Producers movie if only I’d lived; no one would ever know that despite my years of training and wishing and angsting, I was fated to be nothing more than the short, scrawny Jewish boy who couldn’t get a callback. No matter how articulate my tap sounds or clean my double tour, I would never be noticed next to the toned, tanned idols who belonged, more than I ever could, on the stages and screens where I ached to be.
I had flown into the city as often as I could during college, staying on friends’ couches and trying to learn New York. On one trip, I auditioned for Stroman’s revival of Oklahoma!, and boo, you know I booked that shit. But the agent who sent me in didn’t tell me I had gotten it. He thought I should finish school. But it worked out. When I graduated, Stroman remembered me and called me in for Contact. I went to that audition: it was just Stroman’s assistant, Stro herself, and me in a rehearsal room at Lincoln Center. Me, terrified, in my little jewel-toned button down shirt and my khaki pants and my blond hair and my hick-town accent. Stro took me through, I swear, every single combination in that show. At the end of the day, she told me she didn’t think I was exactly right for Contact, but she needed an immediate replacement for The Producers. She told me to show up the following day for the audition. So the next day, there I was, auditioning with all those boys I had heard of or seen in shows or listened to on cast albums, and all I could think was, what the hell am I doing here? Stroman is gonna stop this audition and send me packing back to Baton Rouge. She’s gonna be like, who does this nobody from nowhere think he is? But boo, you know I ended up booking that shit, too.
So that was that: I was in the biggest hit Broadway had seen in decades, and I was just living my life. They made me dance captain, I was going out on the town with Matthew Broderick and all these celebs, I was sleeping with these leading men whose cast albums I had listened to on repeat when I was in college. Just living. Then my jump roping skills came in handy and I booked Legally Blonde. Then a friend taught me the opening combo from A Chorus Line and I booked that from my dressing room at The Palace, as they say.
Then, at some point, I started to get pissed. I wasn’t nobody from nowhere anymore. I had credits. But no one was looking at me as anything other than a chorus boy. And of course all I wanted, I think all I ever wanted, was to be seen as and treated like a man. I was being noticed, but I felt like I was being noticed for the wrong reasons. So I looked around for what I could do to make myself stand out, and I thought, if I want people to see me as a man, I better start looking like a man. So I did a round of steroids. Just injected that shit one day, worked out like crazy, and bam, I’m Superman. Then I wanted to get bigger, so I did a second round of steroids. I got huge. People had no choice but to notice me then.
Things started to happen. I had momentum, I felt like I was going somewhere, though I was never quite sure where.
But then you realize, you know, you can’t do steroids forever. You realize you’re not Superman. And you have to look at why you got into this business in the first place. I became an actor because I had things to say and I couldn’t say them without someone else’s words. I wanted to get across what it was that I had going on. And what I had going on had nothing to do with this body I was killing myself over, so what was I doing it for?
But now, here I am. I’ve been doing Chicago for four years. I’ve been ripped and fat and lean and fat again and ripped again. I’ll probably never look the way I looked when I had my shit going on. And baby, when I had it going on, I had it going on. I don’t have to wish people saw me as a man anymore; I am a man, and I fucking look like one. Part of me thinks I should have just jumped off the GW Bridge when I was in The Producers because that’s when it seemed like it would all go on like that forever. But, you know, nothing lasts forever. Things change. Everyday, I think about moving home to Louisiana to teach or going to get a Masters degree or something. But then I think, you know what? There hasn’t been a day in the past twelve years that I haven’t been on a Broadway contract. Not one single day. So when I walk down the street I can be proud of what I’ve done. I can say, you know what? Fuck you. What the fuck have you done? You look at me like, hey, you’re still stuck in the ensemble. But listen: who the fuck do you think you are? I’m Jason Patrick Sands. Who the fuck are you?
Lying on the floor of that Upper West Side apartment, my eyes were watering, but my throat had opened enough to allow air to begin filtering back in. I had the sense that I had been given a second chance. I rolled onto my back and stared at the ornate, curved molding on the ceiling. I would go back to Ann Arbor that night. I’d tell everyone in the department that I had gotten a callback for the Producers movie. I would stop at the GNC on my way into Ann Arbor from Detroit and pick up canisters of creatine and weight gainer pills. I still had a few months left before graduation. I still had time to blow my muscles up. It wasn’t too late to make myself striated and bronzed and, in some way that was real and quantifiable, turn myself into someone to be noticed.