GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Mike Cannon, Back on the 'Chorus Line'
In the 2006-08 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, Mike Cannon understudied five different roles and performed them all at one time or another. He took over the role of Al—who auditions alongside his new bride, Kristine—for the last three months of the run. Now he’s Al again in Paper Mill Playhouse’s acclaimed production of Chorus Line, playing this month at the Millburn, N.J., theater.
“My wife and I used to audition together, so I’ve been Al,” says Cannon, who just celebrated his ninth anniversary with wife Amy, whom he met as his scene partner in his first acting class at Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts. Yet, while Cannon has the most experience on stage as Al, he identifies just as much with other Chorus Line characters. “That’s the thing about all these roles—there’s something about each character that you’ve either experienced or felt,” he says. “As far as my life right now, I’m as close to Don as you can get: I’ve got a wife and two kids, and I’m looking to pay the bills, and I’d love to get into directing. That’s exactly what he says in the scene at the end. But I can identify or sympathize with every single character on that line. I’ve been Mark, who was 21 and brand-new to New York. I’ve been Mike—my sisters danced.”
Don, Mike and Mark were three of the parts Cannon covered on Broadway, along with Al and, yes, Richie. He’d played Mark in college, in a Point Park Chorus Line directed by Mitzi Hamilton, who also directed the Paper Mill production. Cannon’s future wife, Amy, was in that college show with him, as were such future Broadway performers as Megan Sikora, Christina Sivrich (Grease, The Wedding Singer), Nili Bassman (Chicago, Curtains) and Bobby Pestka (Bombay Dreams). The Point Park cast got a visit from Marvin Hamlisch, who composed Chorus Line’s score. Cannon would meet Hamlisch again years later during the Broadway revival, and he attended Hamlisch’s funeral this summer. “From hearing people talk, you walked out of there thinking, ‘Man, I gotta be a better person!’” Cannon says.
The Paper Mill production is dedicated to Hamlisch, whose death in August shocked the music and theater worlds. On opening night Oct. 7, more than 50 alumni of Broadway and national-tour companies of A Chorus Line—led by Kelly Bishop and Priscilla Lopez—performed an encore of “One” in honor of Hamlisch. Among those participating were Denise Pence and Steve Boockvor, who were the inspiration for Kristine and Al. Cannon and his Kristine, Amanda Rose, spent some time with them. “It was really cool to see them interacting with each other and to see a little bit of their personalities,” he says. “It’s exactly what we had envisioned.”
Even before the Hamlisch tribute, emotions were running extremely high on Paper Mill’s opening night. There was sustained applause and cheering when the lights went down for the show to begin. Another ovation greeted the cast as they did those iconic first steps. And then again as the opening number drew to its iconic close with everyone lined up holding their headshot. “When we came forward and put our headshots in front of our faces and people were just screaming,” Cannon relates, “I had to say [to myself], ‘All right, calm down. Don’t get overwhelmed. You have to perform this show.’ For a second it wasn’t Al standing up there, I was out of character in my mind and trying to calm Mike Cannon down.”
A Chorus Line is Cannon’s second appearance on the Paper Mill stage this year: In March, he performed there in Damn Yankees. In between the two Paper Mill shows, he was back on Broadway in Ghost. Cannon was in the opening-night cast of Ghost but had joined the company during previews after someone was injured. He got the part in Paper Mill’s Chorus Line before Ghost announced its closing, and he and his agent were still mulling his options—quit Ghost, take a leave of absence, etc.—when Ghost’s closing notice was posted, forestalling any decision. “I guess the universe figured it out for us,” he remarks.
For much of last year, Cannon was on Broadway in The Addams Family. In both that show and Ghost he was a swing, and he’d made his Broadway debut as a swing in 2005’s All Shook Up. He did have a regular role in the 2009-10 Broadway revival of West Side Story, playing Snowboy and understudying both Tony and Riff for the entire run. Cannon got to go on in both roles, and remembers thinking to himself during the curtain call of his first performance as Tony, “How the hell did I get here? I just played Tony on Broadway!”
None of Cannon’s five Broadway credits, however, was an unqualified successes. Ghost, Addams Family and All Shook Up all got predominantly negative reviews, and even the two highly anticipated revivals of classics that he did had shorter runs than expected. “Both A Chorus Line and West Side Story, when they opened the talk was ‘We’ll be here for at least five years,’” recalls Cannon. “Our first year you couldn’t get tickets, and then the second year there was just this gigantic dropoff.” Both closed in their 22nd month. Those were still longer runs than any of the new shows had. Yet, says Cannon, “every show I’ve done, the actors, musicians, everybody in the theater is always giving 100 percent, and when you get a review that isn’t so great, you’re just thinking, ‘Why???’ We feel like it’s working. Like, Ghost, we were all so shocked [at the critics’ reaction]. The audience just went crazy—you could feel their energy every single night, people jumped to their feet at the end of the show.”
Anyone who works in theater has to learn to take such disappointments in stride, and Cannon is helped along in that regard by his children, 4-year-old Cooper and 2-year-old Camryn. “Theater cannot be your entire life—it’ll drive you crazy,” he says. “When I have a bad audition, I walk in the door and it’s over. I don’t think about it anymore ’cause I have my kids.
“It’s given me more of a balance in my life,” Cannon says of fatherhood. “As a young performer, you’re living and breathing theater and auditions; every single day that’s all you can think about, that’s all you can talk about, that’s all your life revolves around. I feel like to be a healthy person, you really have to have a good balance. Theater is part of my life, it isn’t my whole life.”
Because of his children, A Chorus Line has special meaning to Cannon beyond his performing history with it. “A Chorus Line is why I have children,” he says. “It was the first show I had that ran long enough that Amy and I felt stable enough to have kids.” His son was born toward the end of the Broadway revival’s run, and his daughter was born during West Side Story. They’re still too young to sit through a whole show that daddy’s in, though Cooper did watch some of Damn Yankees and learned songs from it (that Cannon wore a baseball uniform in it did pique the child’s interest).
Cannon takes care of his kids during the day while his wife’s at work; she comes home around 6:30, and Cannon’s out the door to his job a few minutes later. Amy Cannon works at RWS and Associates, a Times Square-based company that produces entertainment for theme parks, corporate events and other venues nationwide. Mike Cannon has directed and choreographed some shows produced by RWS, which was founded by his childhood friend Ryan Stana.
He and Stana met as teenage dance students at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Academy. Born in Pittsburgh, Cannon grew up in the nearby town of Verona with little exposure to theater. His sisters, Diana and Kristen, took dance classes when they were little, but he didn’t even pay much attention during their recitals. It wasn’t until he was in high school and Stana’s mother took the two boys on a trip to New York City that Cannon saw his first professional musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on Way to the Forum and Sunset Boulevard).
Cannon had started attending the CLO Academy when he was 16 and had gotten his first taste of performing in his high school’s Bye Bye Birdie—which he went out for after seeing how many friends his sister Diana had made when she was in Oliver the year before. He originally wanted to take tap, but someone at the CLO school suggested jazz instead. Cannon laughs remembering his obliviousness: “I said, ‘Jazz? Well, I do play trumpet. Do you need me to bring it?’ I had no idea jazz was a style of dance. I said, ‘What do I wear?’ and they said, ‘Wear black tights and a white shirt and a dance belt.’ I thought a dance belt was a belt for holding your pants up.”
Once in class, he enjoyed the athleticism of jazz dance. Cannon did a ton of sports growing up—baseball, football, basketball, hockey, wrestling, golf, tennis, skiing. “I come from an athletic background, and the class was a lot of jumping and really athletic stuff, so I liked it,” he said. A year later he began ballet—in a class full of preadolescent girls more talented than he was at the time.
Cannon was planning to major in communications at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University until his teacher at CLO, Buddy Thompson, urged him to audition for the musical theater program. At Point Park, Cannon chose to train with the dance department to better improve his technique. “I could have been a pretty good dancer in the theater-dance classes, but I ended up being the worst dancer in the dance-major classes,” he says. “But those guys really pushed me.”
Following his freshman year, Cannon was in the 1997 production of The Who’s Tommy at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, but he worked mostly at theme parks in the summers during college, including Hersheypark in his home state. Late in his senior year, he got a part on the Grease national tour, so he finished up his schoolwork about a month early. Amy was in Grease with him—he was Doody, she understudied Frenchy—and after that tour they both became entertainers on the Disney Wonder cruise ship.
Then they were ready to move to New York. But 9/11 had just happened, and the city was in a lull. So they returned to Pittsburgh and came to NYC for a week to audition. Cannon booked the Mamma Mia tour, and stayed on it for a year and nine months. His first show in New York was off-Broadway’s Bare in the spring of 2004. It was supposed to transfer to a larger theater for a commercial run, but plans fell through. “I waited all summer for that job,” says Cannon, “so I had to scramble to pay the bills.” (Bare, which has lived on in regional productions and an original cast album, is set to finally get its off-Broadway run later this year, but Cannon’s now too old for the high-school-set musical.)
To get by after Bare, Cannon sold souvenir merchandise in Broadway theaters. When the Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up opened at the Palace in March ’05, he was working the lobby concession, but by the end of its six-month run he was part of the cast. Being a swing in All Shook Up and later shows, where he had to learn all the ensemble parts, turned out to be good preparation for dance captaining, which he does for Paper Mill’s Chorus Line. “Definitely, swinging has helped me to have the mindset you need to be a dance captain, because you really have to be able to see the entire show, you can’t just focus on your one part,” says Cannon, who was assistant dance captain for The Addams Family.
A dance-heavy show like Chorus Line does not necessarily make the dance captain’s job harder. Cannon compares it to Ghost, which did not have a lot of dance. In Chorus Line, he notes, “everyone’s pretty much doing the same choreography at the same time...maybe in opposition or in a different part of the stage, but there’s definite formations that you can get locked into your brain to make it easier. In Ghost, everybody’s doing something different, and we had travelators—which are basically treadmills on stage—running in opposite directions while you’re dancing, so you had to walk over the top of them to get to your next position. That was just insane.
“The one hard part [with Chorus Line],” he adds, “is you have 17 principals doing a two-hour show, hardly ever leaving the stage.” And Cannon knows he’ll never forget being on that stage the night of Oct. 7, paying tribute to Marvin Hamlisch with some of Chorus Line’s originators and bringing back the beloved show for New York-area audiences. “I said to one of the guys backstage, ‘What we’re doing tonight, this is like homecoming for a football player.’ Everybody is coming back, and they’re just gonna love to see the ‘uniforms,’ to see the ‘game’ being played,” he says. “People just love to see it performed up on stage again.”
Photos of Mike, from top: in Paper Mill’s A Chorus Line with Amanda Rose as Al and Kristine; backstage at The Addams Family with star Brooke Shields; with his children, Cooper and Camryn; far right, during “The Jet Song” in West Side Story with (from left) Sam Rogers, Kyle Coffman, Eric Hatch, Joshua Buscher and Curtis Holbrook; fourth from right, in Damn Yankees at Paper Mill, with Nancy Anderson and other “ballplayers”; third from left, playing Mike in A Chorus Line on Broadway, with (from left) Brad Anderson, Mara Davi, Yuka Takara, Michael Paternostro and Charlotte d’Amboise. [Damn Yankees photo by Ken Jacques; family photo by Amy Cannon Photography]