For most of us, the path from Charleston to New York is a quick, convenient jaunt on a JetBlue flight. However, if your ultimate destination involves a spot in the Broadway theater world, that journey requires a considerable amount more.
Many who now work on Broadway have cut their creative teeth right here in Charleston, before making it there as actors, composers, critics and more. Sure, it takes massive talent, but given the competition, that’s hardly enough to pay the rent. It also requires grit, discipline, persistence and planning. And, yes, a little bit of luck comes in handy, too.
After graduating from the College of Charleston in the 1980s, theater major Scott Wakefield beat it up to New York City, confident that greatness awaited. After all, he had been the toast of the Footlight Players after moving to Charleston as a teenager, championed by the legendary Emmett Robinson, the famously demanding Dorothy D’Anna and a relative newcomer, Julian Wiles.
“That’s where I got the bug to act so badly,” he said.
His confidence was further shored when he enrolled in Manhattan's Circle in the Square acting school, brandishing a much longer acting resume than most of his fellow hopefuls. Plus, he came with musical chops, able to play numerous instruments.
“I was pretty cocky,” recalled Wakefield.
And while he may have had to work harder than he expected to get into the actor’s union, Wakefield’s talent was eventually recognized. He's got a long list of credits to prove it, including Broadway shows like “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues” and “Hands on a Hardbody,” and other credits from Off Broadway, television and film as well as a singing-songwriting career.
Though plenty of hustle and hand-wringing accompanies the search for every next role, he says his fellow actor friends don’t buy it.
“They say, 'Hey, you’re the only one we know that makes a living at this,'” he said, adding he also gets a good amount of work around the country.
Lately, his skills as a musician are buoying his acting pursuits. He was recently in “The Hello Girls,” a World War I-era music in which all 10 characters play instruments.
As Gen. John Pershing, he played the part along with an upright bass. This Monday, they will reunite to sing select songs in a live-streamed performance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The popularity of these types of shows requiring musical prowess gives him a competitive edge. “And it’s something that feeds into my main interests, so it’s always fun to do.”
While his chosen vocation is not the easiest, Wakefield is appreciative of its eclectic nature. “When I look back, I think that I’ve really done a lot of things that most people wouldn’t have a chance to do.”
Knowing the score
Since first arriving in New York City in the 1960s, composer Mel Marvin has logged 30 musicals, 47 plays, three films and two operas, with more still in the pipeline, including “The Perfect 36," a suffragette musical, and "Truth and Reconciliation," an opera for one person.
Among his Broadway credits are "Tintypes" and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" The latter work has turned out to be his cash cow, performed regularly in New York, as well as throughout the country and abroad.
And it all began in the Dock Street Theatre. Marvin, who grew up near Walterboro, moved to town to attend the College of Charleston, and was living in one of the apartments on the top floor of the theater.
It was there that the pre-med student met Emmett and Pat Robinson, and before long he was working with Pat on a musical for the Footlight Players called “Jubilee.”
That's when it dawned on him that he could make a living as a composer of musical theater. He headed up to New York to Columbia University to pursue a graduate degree in comparative literature with a concentration on theater.
“I ate it up,” Marvin said of his early days in the city. “I felt like I was where I belong and I have been here ever since.”
That being said, Marvin’s ties to South Carolina have remained strong. For years, he and his family spent each summer at a family place on the Combahee River.
In 1976, he returned to Charleston to partner with Wiles on “Song for a New Land,” a musical celebration of the bicentennial that was particularly significant to his artistic development.
Even with all those Broadway bona fides, he advises that making it there should not necessarily be the goal for aspiring composers. He encourages them to seek out the many other venues in New York and regionally that foster exceptional work, and to retain their authenticity, an attribute he learned to value in the South.
While actor Asa Somers was fielding questions on his life and career, he was literally on Broadway. A stand-by actor for the role of Larry Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Somers was costumed and at the ready to be called up at any moment.
“I’ve performed the role 120 times,” he said. A member of the original cast, Somers now has the longest tenure in the wildly acclaimed musical, which movingly grapples with the topic of teen suicide.
He has also logged hundreds of performances on Broadway in shows including “Next to Normal” as well as “Grey Gardens.” Off Broadway he starred as Hedwig in the original production of the cult hit, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
“I’m attracted to alternative musicals,” he said.
As for his current job, Somers said it's the best job he's ever had, explaining that it fulfills his key requirements, among them financial stability and a love for the project.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be in something so good and so important.”
Somers first discovered theater while growing up on Sullivan’s Island. Wiles once again makes an appearance here, as he had enlisted Somers' younger brother in a production of his youth theater company.
“The light came on for me,” he said.
Being with "Dear Evan Hansen" for more than three years has allowed the family man a reprieve from the relentless scrum for work. And his downtime on the show provides the perfect opportunity to pursue his many other creative interests working on his own musicals. Past work includes "Duck Commander Musical," which ran in Las Vegas.
In from the critic
Since she first saw “Cats” on Broadway at the age of 7, critic and theater journalist Carey Purcell has been besotted by Broadway. Now, she is quite literally in an enviable position, with plenty of press seats to Broadway’s biggest shows.
While attending Wando High School, Purcell merged her passion for journalism and theater in her role as features co-editor at the school paper, “The Tribal Tribune," learning the ropes from her mentor, Tamela Watkins.
In New York, she has worked on staff writing features at Playbill, the go-to show magazine, and has written for top-notch publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Most recently, Purcell penned a book involving deep commitment to feminism. “From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater” is set for publication Dec. 15.
North Charleston Performing Arts Center was the linchpin to these loves. During her senior year, PAC presented touring productions of “Rent,” “Cabaret,” “Les Miserables” and “My Fair Lady.”
Determined to see as many as possible, she masterminded a plot. Tearing out show ads from The Post and Courier, she surreptitiously left them around the house as a graduation present hint. Her family got the hint.
To what does she owe her success? When she moved to New York after college, she reached out to top theater journalists asking if she could meet them for coffee. The initiative worked.
There also was someone who had her back. “My mother’s always been very supportive.” With such a significant Charleston voice on the national stage, we should all thank Mom for that.
The newest of these arrivals, Manny Houston moved to town this past July after gaining his Actors' Equity card at Walt Disney World, where he was part of the new parade production, “Move it! Shake it! Mouskedance It!” After six months, however, he literally couldn’t take the heat.
“I was not really fond of working in 107-degree weather outside for three shows a day,” he said, adding that it did teach him how to keep his energy up for huge crowds.
The Greenville native and 2015 College of Charleston graduate got his first encouragement in New York when he made final callbacks for a little show known as “Hamilton.”
He was then picked for a particularly plum spot for a newbie. He’s part of the cast of “Forbidden Broadway,” the renowned Off Broadway production that regularly pokes fun at the latest shows, and that draws all theater lovers, those currently working in Broadway shows and legends like Stephen Sondheim.
“I’m the newest person in the entire cast,” he said of his well-credentialed colleagues. “When I first started working with them, I about had a mental breakdown.”
He nabbed the role with an impersonation of Billy Porter, which went over so well that it's in the show, which is now in previews. “It’s stressful fun.”
“Have a plan,” he suggests to would-be Broadway stars. An experienced pianist, he is set up with wedding gig work to keep him afloat during acting dry spells.
They would all surely add that you may want to pack a lot of talent, tenacity and little luck in that suitcase, too.