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By Lauren Kay
Undoubtedly, a musical theater dancer’s ultimate dream is to perform on Broadway. Gigs in regional theaters, on tours, and off-Broadway are common along the way, but most aspiring triple threats want to spend their time on the Great White Way. Shows with creative choreographers, astronomical production values, visibility, and prestige are just some of the reasons dancers want to make it in midtown Manhattan.
But as the recession took its toll last year, Broadway suffered a serious slowdown. In January 2009 alone, nine Broadway musicals closed, including longstanding hits like Hairspray. Anticipated productions like Brigadoon never even made it off the ground. Less musicals on the boards means less NYC jobs for dancers, and even Broadway veterans have found themselves unemployed in their home state.
Now, though, Broadway is slowly starting to rebound. Many dancers are working on national tours of musicals, moving back and forth between New York and non–New York gigs. At press time, 24 Actors’ Equity (the union for Broadway productions) companies were on tour, accompanied by a gaggle of jobs for dancers.
Though to some, going from Broadway to a tour may seem like a step backward, most Broadway veterans simply consider work work. For sure, the recession has reinforced this shift, as performers used to getting continual work in NYC look elsewhere for income.
Troy Edward Bowles, from Broadway’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Pirate Queen, is now the dance captain on the national tour of Mary Poppins. “With less jobs available on Broadway,” he says, “people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to go back out on tour are taking jobs on the road—of course only with full production contracts, which is the same pay as Broadway.”
However, with economic benefits and lead roles up for the taking, going back on the road is becoming more than a saving grace for some performers—it’s a fulfilling gig.
Why Go on Tour?
Grady McLeod Bowman, who has performed in Broadway’s South Pacific, The Pirate Queen, and Billy Elliot, is going on tour with South Pacific for a month this spring. He says that artistic sastisfaction, not the recession, can be the factor that prompts Broadway dancers to accept tour contracts. After a long run in Billy Elliot, Bowman says he wanted to be involved in the creative process of building a new show once again. So he joined Wonderland in the early stages in Tampa and traveled with the show to Houston. “When you get to a certain point in your career, you want to choose which roles and shows you are doing. Sometimes those jobs are on Broadway, sometimes they’re not.”
Shannon Lewis, a Broadway diva known for her work in Fosse (also Curtains, Sweet Charity, and others), agrees. “I’m in this business for life, not two years,” she says. “I’ve had my Broadway experience and I know I will again. My top priority is to grow, learn, and do amazing triple-threat roles.”
Lewis’ recent stint as Sheila in the national tour of A Chorus Line reflects both the economy and her artistic requirements. When Brigadoon was cancelled two weeks before rehearsals were to begin, she called her agent and started again at square one. When the part of Sheila became available on the road, she was thrilled to land the coveted role for six months.
Bowles was in the same situation vis-à-vis Brigadoon. When he was left high and dry, the chance to be the dance captain on the Mary Poppins tour was offered. “I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity,” he says. “I could either sit around in New York hoping that work would come along, or I could jump on this exciting position.”
For all three dancers, though, the number one reason to take a tour is simple: money. “Financially, a tour is top notch,” Bowles says, noting that on a full-production Actors’ Equity contract, performers earn the same salary they would on Broadway. On top of this amount, each performer enjoys a per diem. If you can be frugal with your per diem, you may come out ahead.
Benefits and Challenges
Lewis, Bowman, and Bowles also agree that once on the road, touring provides its own benefits. Travelling to new places is high on their list, as is returning to favorite locations. “I’ve been to Chicago four times in different capacities, and I have favorite restaurants and stores there now,” Lewis says. “It’s a paid chance to explore.”
She adds that in some cities outside New York, the recession has had an interesting effect on show business. “Now, many people who might have travelled to New York can’t afford to anymore,” Lewis says. “But we are taking the shows to them and they are packing the theaters in their own cities! Even more than before, houses are filled with enthusiastic, grateful audiences. People are waiting at the stage door, which rarely used to happen outside of New York.”
Bowles adds, “In New York, you get one big opening night. But on tour, you get that feeling in every new city! In some towns, this is the community’s first interaction with Broadway and you’re bringing that to them.”
Though touring provides serious benefits, downsides are unavoidable. “When you go on tour,” says Bowman, “you leave the audition scene and you’re kind of forgotten by casting directors and even your agent until you return. You have to start over when you get back.”
Bowles says that along with leaving the networking and auditions in New York (though he does note that some agents will work hard to keep tour dancers in the loop), participating in additional artistic endeavors is nearly impossible. “In New York, you can have an artistic life outside of your show, like doing readings and other projects,” he says. “On tour, the show is your life both practically and creatively.” But he also says that enjoying the tight-knit nature of a tour’s cast can waylay the negative effects. However, he warns that dancers should take care to spend time away from the close group, too, to avoid cabin fever.
For Lewis and Bowman, situations like immediately heading into the theater after exhausting travel are huge challenges. Lewis adds that “living in hotels can be impersonal and lonely.” Bowles agrees. “It’s easy to feel a little lost and a sense of homelessness,” he says. “But again, the cast can be your comfort in that. I also travel with my dog!” Bowles says that when the cast stays in a city for a longer stretch, using the opportunity to make friends and explore the area is a good antidote to loneliness as well.
Exercise and diet top the list for all three in terms of tour challenges. To combat the scarcity of fitness options, Lewis suggests practicing yoga, which can be done even in a hotel room. She also keeps notes about the gyms and classes in each city for future use.
Eating on the run or at restaurants is a common occurrence on the road. For a healthier diet, Lewis advises dancers to bring a few key kitchen appliances along for the tour and to buy groceries to stock in hotel mini-fridges. Making your own meals will not only save you money, but also ensure that you can keep track of what ingredients are used.
Regardless, all three dancers say a rewarding role in an inspiring show is worth the challenges. Whether on Broadway or on the road, performing and working on your art is the ultimate experience and should be a dancer’s main focus anyway, says Lewis. “I would encourage any dancer, Broadway experience or not, to go on tour,” Bowles adds. “You learn about working with others, and keeping a show fresh. Touring is a huge part of the theater world—just like Broadway.”
Essentials for Touring
• Keep items you’ll need for the show or bodily comfort—like your foam roller, massage tool, and makeup kit—with you in carry-on luggage. Bags get lost often.
• Consider taking along vitamin supplements like a multi-vitamin, glucosamine-chondroitin for joints, and fish oil. “Do as much as you can to stay healthy on the road,” says Troy Edward Bowles, dance captain on the tour of Mary Poppins.
• Seek out dance and non-dance fitness options in each city to stay in shape, and take advantage of extra services like massage and physical therapy if available. Don’t leave your stretching and warm-up regimens at home: You’ll need to maintain them yourself on the road, with or without guidance.
• Beware of personal dramas in the tight-knit circle of cast and crew. Walk away when the issue doesn’t involve you, and always maintain your professionalism. You’re there to do your job.
Lauren Kay, a former contributing editor at Dance Spirit, is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Photo of Shannon Lewis by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lewis.