With his debonair charm and fluent feet, Tony Yazbeck seems built for ebullient men like Gabey in On the Town, who earned him a 2015 Tony nomination. But he's riding high at the moment dancing nervous breakdowns. First, there was his fierce, knife-edged tapping in Prince of Broadway, which just won him a Chita Rivera Award. (Full disclosure: I'm a juror.) Now he's giving a tour-de-force performance as a restless womanizer in The Beast in the Jungle, having its world premiere at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre through June 24. Both were choreographed for him by Susan Stroman.
Based on a 1903 novella by Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle includes "nothing that is a step just to do a step," Yazbeck says. "I've never understood that kind of choreography…I get excited about making someone feel something deeply." And he values his "mutual admiration" relationship with Stroman because they're both "strong believers in complete collaboration. She knows what I do, and she knows if she's giving me a step, I'm going to put my own stamp on it."
Contrasting Lives Onstage and Off
Seven times a week, dancing opposite former American Ballet Theatre star Irina Dvorovenko, Yazbeck portrays the fleeting joys and wrenching angst of John Marcher. As he surveys his empty life, the choreography ranges from lyrical to tormented. When Marcher's story ends, Yazbeck returns to his own very full life, in a house shared with dancer/choreographer Katie Huff and their 16-month-old son, Leonard.
He calls Marcher "a tough character to try to swallow sometimes," but the tale resonates. "To be able to confront this kind of story every night really puts things in perspective—the choices I made in life that I'm so glad I made. The commitment to my marriage, the commitment to my son, and to know that I'm sticking with this—it makes me relieved and thankful."
Keeping It Together
Juggling a two-career marriage, a baby and seven performances a week isn't easy. "As soon as the show's done, I put my legs into an ice bucket. Then I get in the car and come home, and I just want to pass out. But there's stuff to do."
The morning we spoke, with Huff in Connecticut as associate choreographer on Oliver! at Goodspeed Musicals, Yazbeck had been busy since Leonard's 6:30 wake-up call. "There's joy," he says, "but at the same time you sort of wish your body could be a little more together. But that's just the life we lead as dancers."
His Better-Body Hacks (Including PT at Starbucks)
Still, he says, he feels stronger at 39 than he did during the grueling, year-long run of On the Town. "When you have injuries"—he had a herniated disc throughout Prince of Broadway—"you learn what real health is about," he notes. "There are so many things I didn't think about." Besides watching his vitamins and minerals and hydration—"I know a lot about electrolytes now"—he carries physical therapy tools everywhere, "so even if I'm in a Starbucks, I can go to the bathroom stall and use them, just to make sure that I'm standing up okay." His arsenal includes a lacrosse ball, a muscle roller and a Chinese medicine tool for his neck. He's particular about standing up: "We shouldn't bend over to look at our phones so much," he says. "It just kills our posture and our necks. As dancers, how do we turn like that?"
Finding a Work–Life Balance
Although he brings the dancer's body home with him, the work stays at the theater. Even his show posters and memorabilia are tucked away in his home studio, not on display in the house. "It's the one way I stay sane," he says. Focusing on family makes him a better artist, he adds. "You can go to work every day with a clean palette, ready to create." He even left his Manhattan apartment behind and moved to a Hudson River town because, he says, he was "getting tired of living where I was working."
A Helluva Town
But he has yet to stray from his stage-centered, New York-based existence. "I was always curious about L.A.," he says, "but I never went. There's something about New York City." His first glimpse came as an 11-year-old auditioning for Gypsy with Tyne Daly. Even before he got that job, he recalls, "I just knew this was where I was supposed to be." But, he adds, if someone makes him or Huff an irresistible offer, they'll move. "In this business, nothing stays the same. Nothing."