BWW Interviews: The Leading Men of NYMF - Jarrod Spector, Daniel Quadrino, Brandon Timmons & Mel Johnson Jr.
The New York Music Theater Festival can easily be considered a harbor for the freshest talents in musical theater. Over a period of several weeks, an astonishing number of musical productions are presented on vest pocket stages throughout New York City. As is often the case with harbors, there is a confluence of talent feeding into it. Not only is this talent from all over the nation, but it ranges from the youngest to the most experienced and they all converge on the city for this event.
A sampling of shows being presented this summer boasts leading men from Florida, Philadelphia, Long Island and Queens and they range from virtual newcomers to actors who are truly seasoned. These men were happy to converse about their hometowns, their careers and the shows that they are or will be appearing in for NYMF.
Philadelphia native Jarrod Spector normally stars as Frankie Valli in the long-running JERSEY BOYS. Taking a short leave from that show, he will be seen in a leading role in the NYMF musical FLAMBE DREAMS in which he plays a young man determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a maitre d’, even though the elder man lost his life in a tragic accident while preparing bananas foster tableside. “It’s a crazy plot but I love it!” he says.
Spector began performing at a very early age, taking singing lessons at the tender age of two and a half. His mother noticed that he was memorizing songs on the radio when he was two and she taught him a few ditties like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” which he performed for his father. His parents then found a singing teacher for him. “By the time I was three I was performing on a local TV show called ‘The Al Alberts Show’ I did that once a week for about three or four years. My first theater piece didn’t come around until the first National Tour of LES MISERABLES in Philadelphia and I was cast as Gavroche. I played LES MIS in Philly, Chicago and then again in Philly. Eventually I did the role on Broadway.”
“People often ask,” says the actor, “whether I was pushed into this. The answer is ‘Of course, yes. You can’t do it of your own volition if you’re a minor. However, I had a real proclivity for performing. My parents and siblings have always been wonderful and supportive.”
Spector eventually outgrew the role of Gavroche and he did a show at the Walnut Street Theatre called TWIST. “It was a multi-racial take on Oliver Twist,” Spector explains. There were some recordings, a failed TV pilot and lots of auditioning. “At that point I felt I was done and I told my parents I didn’t want to do this anymore. I wanted to play basketball and sleep with my girlfriend. I wanted to be a ‘normal kid’. That’s what I wanted to do. So I worked really hard and went to Princeton. Eventually I realized that this just wasn’t in my soul. I mean, what good would a degree be if I wasn’t going to use it in my chosen profession?” A short stint with the Princeton Triangle Club brought Spector back into the realm of musical comedy and re-enforced his feelings about how much he missed the creative forces of performing.
Ultimately this resulted in Spector moving to New York, taking courses at NYU and meeting Robert Bella who encouraged him to explore the Atlantic Theater Company where he just might learn the basics of acting. It was there that Spector learned how to break down a scene and figuring out what your character needs to get and how to get what was needed from scene partners. He did that for two and a half years.
He also did quite a bit of auditioning and one of the projects he went out for was JERSEY BOYS. He didn’t make the original company but a year later he was called to do the national tour of the show. He was eventually asked to come into the Broadway company—where he’s been pretty much ever since.
The offer to do FLAMBE DREAMS came at a time when Spector was planning to take a hiatus from JERSEY BOYS to do a project that fell through. Although he wasn’t part of the original workshop for FGLAMBE DREAMS, Spector is extremely enthusiastic about the piece. “When I read the script I was laughing out loud and knew I had to do it. The cast couldn’t be better and they’re all the greatest clowns. I mean what cast could be better when it includes J. Elaine Marcos, Jillian Lewis, Kevin B. McGlynn and Catherine Cox? That’s two time Tony Award nominee Catherine Cox!” Spector also has high praise for the book and lyrics by Matthew Hardy and for the music of Randy Klein. The actor feels that this is a show that definitely “has legs” and will probably find great success in one of New York’s smaller houses.
One of the youngest leading men of the current NYMF season is Daniel Quadrino, who appears in the musical TROUBLE, THE MUSICAL which is described as a raw and uncensored look at eight teenagers and all the turmoil, sex, joy, heartbreak and trouble that young love brings. It features a contemporary rock score by Ella Grace, front woman of the hit UK band Hitchcock Blonde, and a book by The Marilyn Monroe Show’s Michael Alvarez, who also directs the production. Quadrino’s previous Broadway credit was the Roundabout Theater’s production of BY BYE BIRDIE, in which he was featured in the ensemble and understudied the role of Hugo Peabody. He was cast in the show while still a student at East Rockaway High School on Long Island—about 50 miles east of New York City.
Quadrino now studies at Pace University and still has the youth and enthusiasm of a teenager. He had been involved in his school’s musical productions and auditioned for BIRDIE on a lark. “They kept calling me back and I thought that was a good sign. I couldn’t believe it when I was cast after my final audition! I look back on the whole show as being an incredible experience.” Of course, not everyone who saw the show would agree with the young actor’s assessment of it. This particular BIRDIE was reviled by many and heated discussions about its merits—or lack of merits—heated up Broadway message boards for quite some time. “I know,” Quadrino sighs. “We had a great time after the opening night performance and I slept late the next day. When I woke up I asked my brother for the newspapers because I wanted to read the reviews and he said, “No, don’t bother. Just go back to sleep.’ I should have taken his advice!”
Where did the show go wrong? “Honestly, I don’t know. Looking back on it, I guess it was a lack of communication. I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but I sense that was the core of the problem. Still, I think it was an amazing experience for me and I made some great friends in that cast. I still see many of them on a regular basis. You know John Stamos is now in THE BEST MAN and I can’t wait to see him in it. He really was great to work with and I have nothing but praise for the him.”
As part of the cast, Quadrino witnessed the gargantuan crowds at the stage door after every performance. “It was unreal! Of course, we all knew they were there to see ‘Uncle Jesse’ but they were lined up five deep behind the barricades and wanted everyone’s autograph. I was only in the ensemble but people wanted me to sign their Playbills. Maybe they thought they’d be worth more on Ebay if they were signed by the entire cast.”
Quadrino was called several times to go on as Hugo and was well prepared. “We’d had plenty of understudy rehearsals, but still his adrenalin was pumping when he made phone calls to his family and urging them to get to the theater because he was going on as the wholesome and charming Hugo Peabody.
“Wholesome and charming” are not adjectives that will be applied to Daniel Quadrino’s performance in TROUBLE, THE MUSICAL which was called “Intense, shocking and profoundly moving” when it premiered in London. The show calls for Quadrino and the rest of the cast to appear in the buff. This is about as far from BIRDIE’s Sweet Apple, Ohio as he could get. Actually, Quadrino had to audition in the nude. “It was a little uncomfortable at first, but I came to terms with it.” Of course things will be a tad different when there’s a paying audience watching his every move on stage. TROUBLE THE MUSICAL also features Sara Kapner, Justin Stein, Matthew J. Riordan, Davi Santos. Wesley Tunison, Katie Mack and Abbe Tanenbaum.
In addition to being a singer, Quadrino is a songwriter and looks forward to doing his first complete album in the near future.
Currently a Bostonian, but a native of Gulf Creek, Florida, Brandon Timmons leads the cast in the NYMF production of LE CABARET GRIMM. Described as a “punk cabaret fairy tale sans fairies,” the musical tells the story of a young girl thrust into a dark wood to save her enchanted prince. It’s a project that Timmons enjoys being part of.
Timmons got into theater at a very young age; his mother was his theater teacher in high school. “My mother would always have shows and I was usually in the ensemble as a little kid,” Timmons recalls. “When I got into high school I started taking dance classes, along with voice and acting lessons outside of school. I think it was important to get a different perspective away from my mother.” He eventually gravitated toward something called The Broadway Theater Project when he was about sixteen. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to pursue theater as a career.”
Through one of his friends, Timmons learned about the Boston Conservatory where he went on to appear in their acclaimed production of CURTAINS. “The Conservatory helped me realize I couldn’t do anything else but perform.” He went on to do summer stock in New Hampshire but is presently enjoying his first summer in Boston. “It’s great. This town is very much alive in the summer months!” Adding to his enjoyment of Beantown is the fact that he had just purchased an air conditioner for his apartment there.
Conversing by phone while in the midst of rehearsals for LE CABARET GRIMM, Timmons explains that they’re still “fleshing out the show. We’re not totally done with the staging quite yet.” At the time of the interview, Timmons and the rest of the cast had been rehearsing in space marked out to approximate what they would have in New York but they hadn’t been to their Big Apple venue. “This is exciting for me because it will be my first appearance in New York.” He likes the show because “every song is totally different Cassandra Marsh who’s done the written the music, has given a different ‘feel’ for every song and Jason Slavik’s book and lyrics are right on the money, I like to say it’s a very smart piece of theater.”
Directed by Slavik, LE CABARET GRIMM also features the talents of Hally Selmon, Ashley Lanyon, Davie Kain, Jenna Schoen, Bart Mather, Meryn Beckett and Alessandra Vaganek.
Probably the most experienced member of the quartet featured in this article is Mel Johnson Jr, an actor who boasts a lengthy resume and a stint in the long-running LION KING on Broadway. The native New Yorker, Johnson was reared in Queens, and attended the famed High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan. He followed that by attending Hofstra University on Long Island. His career has included children’s theater, regional theater, Off Broadway, Broadway, film and television.
“When I got out of college I immediately wanted to get into the Equity,” Johnson recalls, “at that time if you were not ‘union’ you could audition for children’s companies along with everybody in the world. This one was called Poetry Now. It was a company of actors who went around doing poetry in a theatrical setting for school kids. They were great shows. I wound up getting my first television show—“The Patchwork Family”—as a result of Poetry Now.” He did, however, begin to wonder if he’d ever work for adult audiences.
At the suggestion of another actor, Johnson tried regional theater and began working at the Hartford Stage and other groups. He was on the road for some time and took a critical look at what black actors were doing in New York and realized they were singing and dancing. “I never ‘sang for my supper’. I was just doing stage then but I knew I could sing. I came in and did an Off Broadway show called LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. And then ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY came up and I auditioned for it. I got in and it was a spectacular experience to work with Hal Prince. It led me to believe that they would all be like that one,” he said with a sly laugh. He left the show to do EUBIE! Where he worked with Gregory and Maurice Hines—performers he became very close to.
Johnson followed EUBIE! up with the much anticipated Kander and Ebb musical THE RINK. “I LOVED that show,” Johnson exclaims. “That was when Broadway was still cooking with all those great shows It was a pleasure to work with Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli and I became good friends with Jason Alexander who was also in the show,” Johnson explains that the show as intended to be an Off Broadway show with just Chita Rivera. “When we all auditioned for it, that’s what it was. Then Liza found out about it—and she’s very close with Chita—and wanted to do the show. When Liza came into it, the whole show changed into a big, huge production that it was never set up to be.” Johnson’s other theater credits include the musical TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA in Central Park, BIG DEAL, and JELLY’s LAST JAM. Attending a performance of THE LION KING because two of his friends were in the cast, Johnson sat in the audience with his arms folded and an “I’m from Missouri so show me” attitude. “From the very opening, when the animals came down the aisle, my jaw dropped and the tears popped out of my eyes. It was so moving! I said to myself, ‘You’ve gotta do this at some point’. At the time Disney was being penny wise and pound foolish and everybody was being injured at the New Amsterdam where Samuel Wright had to undergo knee surgery. They didn’t like any of his understudies and they called me as a result of an audition I had done in LA. I wound up coming into New York and doing the show for about three months while Sam recuperated.”
Johnson was also part of Stephen Sondheim’s ROAD SHOW at The Public Theater. “It is what it is,” Johnson says of the vehicle, “but I got to work with Sondheim, which was great and we had a great time at the Public. Of course, we had a chance to record it.”
“I never had a chance to do a NYMF show,” Johnson muses, “and my agent called to tell me about STUCK. After reading the script, I thought it was fun and I agreed to do it. I’ve always loved doing new projects. This one was special though. You see, being a New Yorker, I love the subway and I love the idea of this homeless guy who speaks Shakespeare and the songs are just flat-out wonderful. These things have to come together very quickly and the creative team is doing a fine job of getting everyone to meld. We have some very talented people in the cast and director Michael Berry is being wonderful in the way he’s dealing with all of us.“ Johnson’s greatest praise goes to the musical director, Joshua Stephen Kartes, who’s been right there with the cast and staying on top of the demands which seem to change very quickly when a show is being put together with a short rehearsal period.
Getting back to the metaphor of the harbor: Any harbor will feature a variety of vessels docked in it. Some are small, some are huge. The same is true with NYMF shows. There is a wide variety of talent that converges in New York to partake in over 300 performances that are given in a span of three weeks. To learn more about these shows or to purchase tickets, go to: www.nymf.org