GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Daniel J. Watts
What does Watts have to say about the closing, which shocked many as After Midnight had just won the Tony Award for best choreography? "I got to do this on Broadway! I've been waiting on this show most of my career."
After Midnight, a re-creation of Harlem's Cotton Club revues of the 1920s, was the rare 21st-century Broadway musical with lots of tap--Watts' favorite type of dancing. His biggest opportunity to tap on Broadway previously was as a seagull during the number "Positoovity" in The Little Mermaid. "This was my dream show," he reiterates about After Midnight. "This was the show I've wanted to do ever since I wanted to start performing."
And even though it ran just eight months, After Midnight was also one of Watts' longest tenures on Broadway. He's been mostly in hit shows, but hasn't stayed for most of their runs. Last fall he left the original company of Motown: The Musical after half a year to do Midnight, and he was in his first original cast, 2008's The Little Mermaid, for about the same amount of time. He also tallied six or so months in his Broadway debut, The Color Purple, first as a vacation swing and then as a replacement in the regular ensemble. In the Heights wrapped up its three-year run some six months after Watts joined the cast in 2010. He's put in the most time on Broadway in Memphis, the 2010 Tony winner for Best Musical. Watts was in the cast from opening night in October 2009 until the Tonys the following June and returned to the show for a few months in early 2011 (he'd also done its pre-Broadway productions at La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre).
Watts was groomed for limited runs by his extensive regional-theater experience. In the first two years following his graduation from Elon University in 2004, Watts performed in no fewer than eight regional shows, including three at Heritage Theatre Festival of Charlottesville, Va. (Ragtime, Five Guys Named Moe, South Pacific), two at Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y. (The Wiz and Hello, Dolly!), and an original musical called Pompeii at Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in his native North Carolina. He worked in regional houses every summer during college and performed locally at Theatre Charlotte, Union County Players, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre and Charlotte Children's Theatre while growing up in Indian Trail, N.C.
"I'd never really adapted to longevity, being a regional-theater kid," Watts says. "I had to wrap my head around the idea of doing a show for more than four months. I still am shocked at how even after doing things 300 times you can find fresh moments."
You can also find fresh insights no matter how many shows you've done. Each of Watts' seven Broadway credits--which include 2012's short-lived Ghost--left him with a distinct memory. He remembers the Color Purple company as "so welcoming" to him as a newbie, and notes, "It was the beginning of a learning curve." From The Little Mermaid, "I learned a lot about the corporate side," he says. "I don't want to call it a machine...they're not at all like the theme parks, but there's definitely a certain Disney aesthetic that must be upheld." As for Memphis: "Just fun. It was fun and it was family." Watts began dating castmate Vivian Nixon during the run, and they're still together (though she's been touring in Brothers of the Knight, a new musical created by her mother, Debbie Allen, that's based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale 12 Dancing Princesses).
Continuing with his reflections on his Broadway experiences, Watts says, "In the Heights I consider 'school.' I was constantly learning. 'Cause I was a swing, I was always learning new tracks. I had to learn how to salsa. So many people were speaking Spanish around me, so I got a Spanish verb workbook." With Ghost, "I learned that Broadway is not forever," he says, adding, "I think it was a little ahead of its time as far as the technology. I don't know if the theater community was ready for all of that at the moment." And of the still-running Motown, Watts says, "I learned a lot about branding and following your dreams. You can brand yourself, if you can get people to believe in you and buy into you the way you do--which is the story of Berry Gordy. He had this idea and he branded it."
Watts himself has a brand, WattsWords Productions, a company he formed to stage his own work. He's been writing--poetry, prose, miscellaneous ideas--since he was a teenager, and has put some of the pieces on stage in a show called The Jam, which features spoken word and a band. Watts has produced The Jam and done other spoken-word performances at such venues as the Canal Room, Lincoln Center's Clark Studio Theater and the Helen Mills Theater in Chelsea and is planning the next WattsWords show for later this summer. He performed a spoken-word piece in front of a humming chorus in the flashmob staged Tuesday in Times Square as the Broadway community's response to the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died July 17 when NYPD officers used a chokehold on him.
With those productions and his work on Broadway and regionally, Watts has been a prolific performer from the get-go. He had three regional gigs lined up when he moved to New York City in early 2006, so he just crashed at a friend's in Brooklyn for the six weeks before he left town to do Jelly's Last Jam at the Alliance in Atlanta. Watts settled in NYC that September, and by the end of the month had booked his first New York-based job, The Color Purple on Broadway. "I was super-shocked," Watts says of his quick success. "I had [been prepared for] not making it to Broadway until my late 30s. just doing the regional thing, maybe a national tour."
He did briefly go out on tour with The Color Purple in 2009, and between Broadway roles he's worked out of town in, among other productions, the Lena Horne bio-musical Stormy Weather (starring Leslie Uggams) at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre and the 2011 world premiere of Aladdin in Seattle. Aladdin debuted on Broadway this season and was up against After Midnight for choreography and Best Musical at the Tonys. Coincidentally Watts was also involved in another of this year's new musicals before it reached Broadway: He did a workshop of Rocky a few years ago. He appeared in After Midnight's pre-Broadway incarnation, too--when it was known as Cotton Club Parade and produced for seven performances at City Center in 2011 and 2012. (He also performed at City Center in its summer 2009 production of The Wiz.)
As the tap duo with Phillip Attmore, Watts led off After Midnight with "Happy as the Day Is Long" and joined with Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards on "Get Yourself a New Broom." "The first one is more athletic, but I had more fun in 'New Broom' because we could improvise on the staircase," says Watts, who also danced in the full-chorus numbers. "I'm so glad the Tonys got it right," Watts says of Warren Carlyle's awards for choreography (he was also cited by the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle). "He put in so much work and his heart and soul into this, and it was our pleasure to see him win. Warren pushes you to a limit that you think you can't do, but you do. He is very demanding, but it's all out of love and it's all out of respect. He doesn't ask any more of you than he gives himself. He's there at 8 o'clock in the morning for a 10 o'clock rehearsal, and is the last one to leave."
For Watts, tap dancing on Broadway in After Midnight was the culmination of a dream that began when he watched Savion Glover on Sesame Street and Sammy Davis Jr. in the all-star TV-movie of Alice in Wonderland as a little boy. His mother rejected his first pleas, around age 7, to take tap lessons because she doubted he was committed to practicing and figured he was just in it for fun. She relented when he needed to learn to tap for his role as farmboy in a community theater production of Gypsy at age 13. "I started taking tap, and that kind of took over," he says, though he also participated in such sports as wrestling, soccer and basketball in school. At Elon University, Watts trained with Gene Medler, founder and director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble.
Nonetheless, Watts says, "I actually consider myself an actor first." His major at Elon was not musical theater but music theater--"an acting-based program," he explains. "We studied Boleslavsky, Stanislavski, Meisner." Watts has been seeking more nonmusical acting roles and recently filmed an episode of Boardwalk Empire. He was cast in an episode of The Knick, Steven Soderbergh's new series on Cinemax, but couldn't do it because of a scheduling conflict. He's also had parts in two independent films: the as-yet-unreleased Underground Railroad story Carry Me Home (previously titled Something Whispered), starring Cuba Gooding Jr., and the comedy Breakup at a Wedding, which was the opening feature at Williamsburg's Indie Screen cinema last August and is now available online.
His next stage credit may be Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's new musical, which is slated for a January/February run at the Public Theater. Watts was in the much-ballyhooed workshop of Hamilton this spring.
Photos of Daniel, from top: left, tapping in After Midnight with Phillip Attmore; performing "I've Got the World on a String" in After Midnight, with Taeler Eylse Cyrus (left); in his headshot; front left, with Ashanti as Dorothy and the company of City Center's The Wiz; left, with Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards and Phillip Attmore in After Midnight. [first After Midnight photo: The New York Times; other After Midnight photos: Matthew Murphy]