BWW Interviews: WHEN I COME TO DIE's Michael Balderrama
Michael Balderrama has danced beside some of the biggest names in the music industry--Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan, to name a few. He came to New York in 1999 to star in Saturday Night Fever, and has since taken on roles in many other Broadway musicals, including Movin' Out, Urban Cowboy, Hot Feet, and most recently, In The Heights, for which he won the 2007 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. Next up, Balderrama will join the cast of the new LCT3 show When I Come To Die, where he will play prison guard Cooper. Previews begin January 31st, with opening night set for February 10th.
Where are you from?
I was born in Rockford, Illinois, but raised in San Antonio, Texas from the age of one through fourteen. I went back to Rockford for high school.
When did dancing become a big part of your life?
I was the kid who was constantly dancing at weddings and quinceañeras (I'm 100% Mexican). I didn't start training until high school. It was right before college that I was training and doing competitions. I went to the Forest Hills Dance Academy in Rockford. It helped, and I received scholarships for college.
Did you ever think you would be dancing on Broadway?
That was the last thing I thought. Dancing is my first love. I was never given a lot of information about New York and Broadway. It was never an option as a profession. My path took me to Los Angeles, dancing for Michael Jackson, doing music videos, and award shows. My first gig was the Academy Awards. My intro to New York was moving here in 1999 to do Saturday Night Fever on Broadway. I got the audition while I was living in Las Vegas, dancing and doing choreography for recording artist Kristine W.
How is it going from In The Heights to When I Come To Die?
In The Heights helped transition me to acting, the story telling. When I was doing In The Heights, I was offered Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the revival of Guys and Dolls, so I spoke with Thomas Kail. At the time, I was moving up behind the scenes with In The Heights. I went from Dance Captain to Dance Supervisor. I was also working on the national tour. I told Thomas that I wanted to do other things besides dance and he got me involved. I got my last promotion to Resident Supervisor for Broadway and the tour, which I am still working on. The tour runs through April. Thomas then came to me about When I Come To Die. We are in tech now.
This is your second time working with Thomas Kail. What appeals to you about his style?
Thomas doesn't sit down and say, ‘I need you to do this.' His process is about discovering what the story is, what the character needs to be and the journey the character goes on. At In The Heights, he always told us, this is your show. It doesn't belong to me. I was allowed to drive it for a while, but now it is yours. He is there to help you figure it out. It's like talking with a therapist.
What can you tell us about When I Come To Die?
It's so intensely focused on what truly living your life means. We are blessed to have the world at our fingertips. In this play, you are getting ready to have your life taken away from you. You are on death row. The creative team finds a way to show people you can still live life and how to value your life. No matter your situation, you can still live, experience and appreciate life.
And your character, Cooper, is a prison guard? This is a different role for you.
Absolutely. He was originally an offstage voice that was responding. Thomas had this idea to bring him onstage and incorporate him into the show. So, he called me. His vision was for the audience to see what it is like to be in this prison. Thomas wanted Cooper to have a presence on stage.
What's life like after this play?
I am in the midst of writing a piece of work with Daniel Watts. Marcos Santana and Rickey Tripp will be doing the choreography. Hopefully, we will have a presentation in April. I will be choreographing four shows at Starlight Theatre in Rockford. I get to work with the director and pretty much co-direct with him. Then, I am off to Korea to choreograph Guys and Dolls. I also started a production company called Silver Towers Productions with my business partner, Marcus Paul James. He is an incredible singer and songwriter. He has an album coming out in March, called Meant To Be. His first single, Love Letter, has been released and is on iTunes.