There I was, a fresh-faced graduate from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, standing in a tuxedo on the stage of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, singing my first professional gig with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I might have been the youngest guy to sign a contract with the BSO—however short it was—and I was on my way to being a classical concert singer. An art-song recitalist. I’m making up these titles, but that’s what I was gonna do. Once I started rehearsals, however, I quickly realized that my short contract was fortuitously long enough.
We were missing a tenor. “Gary’s on his way! Gary is fabulous,” everybody said. But Gary was late. So was his car. And his shoes. We could hear and smell Gary’s car scraping and sputtering into the parking lot from inside the rehearsal hall. Through the windows he looked like a handsome, thirty-something Bob Cratchet in ancient Jack Purcell’s. And it was January cold. Gary will never know how much he meant to me. He and every other Gary in the room spoke of placing second and occasionally first in competitions yielding them enough money to pay for more competitions. With some of the most beautiful singers I’d ever had the privilege to work with, endless coachings and semesters on unfinished masters programs loomed in the air during rehearsal breaks. Completely shut down by all the foreshadowing this conjured, I dissociated and thought, Didn’t I see a poster for a theme park audition back at school?
Yes, I did. A shiny “Opryland Auditions!” poster was taped sideways to the wall between practice rooms where young pianists were sorting out Haydn and Mozart. That poster looked auspicious against the toiled faces of my BSO colleagues. So, on Valentine’s Day, after a tearful good-bye to my childhood home, after eleven hours of driving I found myself spending the night on the shoulder of Route 81 in the worst snowstorm the Southeast had ever seen. In the smallest car you’ve ever seen. A U-Haul bin was strapped to the top of my tiny auto, and it was stuffed full of everything I deemed important enough to travel with. Rattling in the back seat was a set of K-Mart dishes my mom bought me for my soon-to-be premier bachelor pad in Opryland’s home of Nashville, Tennessee.
But honestly, Nashville? I knew enough not to work at just any theme park, and Opryland boasted an entirety live musical experience—nothing prerecorded. Plus, I’d done my research and the park really wasn’t about country music. They offered me a typical revue style show that chronicled the American Songbook, and I got to sing every cool song in the show with killer arrangements and a twelve-piece orchestra of studio musicians. The park was their day job. At night they were gigging with country music’s greatest. As an added bonus, Opryland had a booking and talent agency, so in addition to the grind of twenty-three outdoor shows a week, they kept me engaged in all the live events (industrials) and commercial studio gigs that I was right for. I even stayed and worked as an actor/singer after the park closed for the season. It was so worth the snowy strap-on U-Haul.
Opryland asked me back the following year but at that point I’d sung with Amy Grant, met Sandi Patty and knew what a Tennessee valley summer had in store, so it was a no brainer to graciously say thank you and advance on to my next adventure. Cruise ships! I felt like I’d struck gold again.
The Cadillac of cruise-ship entertainment was Jean Ann Ryan Productions set on the largest passenger ship in the world, the SS Norway. I happily mugged through a Vegas-style revue bare chested, singing at the top of my range, and making my own bleached blonde hair stand on end. However, for three shows a week the cast was committed to creating quality theatre in a full production of Barnum starring Harvey Evans. Let the musical theatre history lesson begin and google Harvey. Barnum required a tight rope walk and lots of circus tricks on a ship in the middle of the ocean. In this show I came to understand the concept of the right role for the right actor. Tom Thumb was perfect for me, and it was a sweet little feature tailored around my talents. “Right role for the right actor” was one of the most important lessons of my career.
Sailing the Caribbean on board the Norway, I met staggering headliners like Joe Williams, Buddy Rich, and Cab Calloway. I’d end up working on Broadway with other recognizable talent that performed on the ship, and this is where I began to laser focus on the performers that interested me. I’d study them, often subconsciously, and they became my teachers. College had done its job and left me a critical thinker, so I took what I liked and left the rest.
There was one more dreamy job in store for me that would rehearse in NYC for six weeks. A production company that I’d worked for in Nashville was hiring twelve musical theatre actors to do five musical reviews and four book musicals. In one, I was Dauntless in Once Upon A Mattress supervised by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers and mother to Adam Guettel. She was a guest speaker on the ship and we’d become very friendly in the years that followed. We got most of these shows rehearsed on land, then board the SS Rotterdam to sail around the world in 108 days. This world cruise still stands as the highlight of my life.
This job began to set the stage for my move to NYC. My castmates had Broadway credits, apartments, and city lives, and they took me backstage after Broadway shows, pushed me on stage at piano bars, and kept an eye on me in the wee hours of New York’s nightlife. It was like a taste test, and I was absolutely ready—but not one second sooner!
I aborted my post-college plan and followed my instincts: going to NYC straight away wasn’t right for me. After disembarking the Rotterdam, I contacted everyone I knew that lived in Manhattan, got an apartment (because then you could afford to live there), found a roommate and a temp job, then went to auditions pronto. In that order. I was shepherded by angels to the “right” gym, unairconditioned less-than-hygienic rehearsal studio’s, cheap eats, and even cheaper alcohol. Think Neil Simon or Woody Allen movies. Despite the cheap booze, within a few months I was offered my AEA and AGMA cards and booked a major role in the workshop of what would be my first (wildly unsuccessful) Broadway show.
I traded on my skills as a trained musician, singer, and experienced performer. But I flew by the seat of my pants as an actor. And it worked well enough. After booking another not-so-successful Broadway show, I took the most important action in my career and found the right acting class. It changed everything. I now began to book roles in regional theatre and expanded my community with my contemporaries. Taking apart a scene began to be as easy as breaking down a song.
There are so many American cities that are rich with professional regional theatre and other performing opportunities. If you want to make a living as an actor, NYC has to be the end game but ask yourself: Is it the right place right away? For personal reasons, it may be, and that’s completely valid. That’s an important thing to understand about yourself and your goals. I’ve watched scared young actors hide out in their survival jobs, avoiding auditions because they’re just not ready yet. Or, something else occured and they changed their mind.
The first time I saw the Manhattan skyline from the inside of a very crowded Vega on the fetid New Jersey Turnpike, I knew NYC was in my future. At fifteen, in the 70’s, I was completely fearless walking the streets alone. A waspy, mini Mr. Magoo in bell bottoms near missing danger as I scooted back and forth from TKTS to see my next Broadway show. Somehow, I knew the Big Apple would always be there waiting for the next taker. Take your time.