#TBT: My Broadway Debut

Rockwood Music Hall is my jam… It's an incredible venue in NYC that has a passionate staff, amazing sound, and an attentive, music-loving crowd. The venue has three different stages (1, 2, and 3). I've been playing shows at Rockwood for over 5 years now, and I love playing each of the different rooms for different reasons… but Stage 1 holds a special place in my heart. And now, I'd love to share the tale of how a young boy went from playing children's birthday parties to being a big Broadway star (star is a bit of a stretch for an understudy… but let me have my moment in the sun).

Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2

Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2

Rockwood originally only had 1 stage, but in 2010, they opened up the bigger stage 2. It has a mezzanine, better for full band shows, and it's redder. When stage 2 opened, I was immediately all like, "yo, I wanna rock that bitch." So I emailed my contact there, and inquired about a stage 2 show. I'm not exactly sure what the response was, but basically, I hadn't proven yet that I could draw enough people to warrant a stage 2 show. So obviously, I booked another show at stage 1 and promoted it like an animal.

The promotion worked. When the night of the show finally came, it was sold out with a line of people trying to get in. (Just to clarify, it's a small space… I'm not Beyonce). The show went great, and I was sure that this would secure me a spot playing in Stage 2, which it did. BUT three days laaaaater, something crazy happened. I was driving back from a solo gig upstate, when my manager at the time called and told me that a casting agent had contacted him and asked if I would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway show called "Million Dollar Quartet". I had never heard of this show, and Broadway only existed to me when my parents would come to town and drag me up there to see Jersey Boys. Somehow, some way, a casting agent was at my packed Rockwood show, and now I had an audition to be on Broadway. (For the record… this NEVER happens).

An audition for a Broadway Musical? This was an outrageous request for someone who only did one play in high school and can't hold a note longer than 3 seconds. But this is why it happened… "Million Dollar Quartet" is a show based off the true story of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins jamming at Sun Records one night in 1956. The actors on stage portraying these rock icons have to actually play the instruments, and it was getting a little bit hard for the casting agency to keep finding Broadway caliber actors who also happened to play guitar or piano like a pro. So, rather than teaching a bunch of actors to sort of play guitar, they took the route of teaching guitar players how to sort of act. That's where I come in.

I could do a whole post about the audition process, but basically, I learned a monologue and a few of the tunes, and after three stressful auditions and a few very painful days of waiting, I got the call. It was one of the most exciting phone calls of my life. At the time, I was making money by playing music at kids' birthday parties and "mommy and me" classes with my piano player Adam Podd (that's how we met). We even had our own kids' band called "Mr. Dan and the Hamburger Man" (another post, for another day). Anyway. The kids' music was getting kind of old, so when I got the offer, I immediately quit my job and called home. "Hey Mom… I got the part."

picture from one of the many promo events we played

picture from one of the many promo events we played

Once I signed on, they give me tickets to check out the show so I could get a feel for it. I took Adam Podd with me, and both of us just sat in the audience smiling and laughing like idiots. It felt like we were getting away with something… like we had somehow tricked some big-shot Broadway producer into thinking that we were capable of being on Broadway (it kind of still feels like that when I look back on the whole experience). There's this one climactic moment in Million Dollar Quartet where Carl Perkins (the role I would go on to understudy for a few years) grabs a blue sequined jacket that is lowered from the ceiling, thrashes guitar solos for 10 minutes or so, and then stands on top of the upright bass like a majestic bedazzled-Slash…I remember watching this moment with Adam and thinking, "what the fuck have I gotten myself into?"

The first month or so was sort of like boot camp: first you get a funny haircut, then hours and hours and hours of rehearsal. I had an acting coach, a music coach, and a movement coach. "What's a movement coach," you ask? Oh, just someone who teaches you how to stand and walk and sit in ways that are completely unnatural to you. The other new cast members and I would run scenes to an empty, cold Nederlander Theatre. When the scenes were done, I'd walk to the edge of the stage where my coaches were lined up with yellow legal-pads to tell me everything I was doing wrong.

It wasn't sadistic or anything. In fact, these people were insanely talented, loving, and supportive. But even so, there were a few days where I actually wanted to break down and cry. As my own band leader, I was not used to this sort of schedule or criticism. I still hear the coaches in my head when I'm playing my shows today, and I'm thankful for the positive effect they've had on my performance. Us singer-songwriters naturally want to perform inward…the songs are introspective, so we tend to lean towards a timid stage presence... the Broadway version of a 50's rock star however is more physically commanding… they "lead with their PP" (or so some of my coaches would say).

Debuting on Broadway was terrifying. Between the lights, the ridiculous costume, being miked up, the audience, and every single thing you do/say/play being completely scripted, it was a blur. I sort of blacked out. But everyone in the cast and crew was CRAZY supportive (I can't stress this enough… there is a camaraderie in the theatre world I wish existed everywhere else). My dear friend and cast-mate Victoria Matlock even made me broken leg and guitar cookies. Break a leg cookies?! I mean COME ON! 

cookies.jpg

I only invited a few close friends to watch my first "deer in headlights" Broadway Show. I have this great photograph of me with Adam Podd (piano) and Matt Scholl (drummer from 2004-2010) on the set after the show. They have always been two of my biggest supporters, and it felt like a win for all of us that this had actually went down. I love this picture.

yup...me, my mom, and the jacket. 

yup...me, my mom, and the jacket. 

I could obviously go on forever talking about Million Dollar Quartet and what an incredible experience it was. The talented people I met and the music I learned so much about had an enormous effect on my song-writing, and my life #realtalk. But rather than that, I'm just going to end this rant with my favorite story from the whole experience. There was, no doubt, a lot of luck involved for me to get that part, but I remember my mother had a different view on that. When I first got the job and my mom told one of her friends about how it had happened (the casting agent at the Rockwood gig), the woman responded "how lucky!!!". People would tell me that all the time, and although I agreed, it sort of cheapened it for me. But when that woman said "how lucky!" to my mother, she responded back "he's not lucky, he worked his ass off to get that gig." Shucks mom… you always know what to say!

Dan Mills2 Comments