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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: André Ward of 'Xanadu'

He may not have been visited by a roller-skating, Australian-accented muse from Mount Olympus, but André Ward definitely feels there has been some divine guidance in his career.

"My whole life has been about God and the universe working for me, and being in the right place at the right time," says Ward, now playing a variety of roles in Xanadu, the musical that is invariably called "the surprise critical hit of the season"—since its source material was a cheesy Olivia Newton-John movie—and that was one of the few shows to elude the Broadway stagehands' three-week strike.

"Everything happens for a reason," Ward continues. "Everything has led me to where I am today." He comes up with a quick, and very convincing, example: A couple of years ago he participated in the preproduction readings of The Wedding Singer, but was gravely disappointed when he wasn't selected for the Broadway cast. While Wedding Singer was running on Broadway, Ward got another job: the Leading Player in Pippin, which was first produced at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, then went on a national tour for three months. It was his first lead role in professional theater. "If I had gotten Wedding Singer, I wouldn't have gotten Pippin," he reflects. "I wasn't supposed to do that show, because if I had, I wouldn't have gotten to do the role of a lifetime."

Another sign that some greater power may be arranging his career: That first starring role came at the same theater where he'd earned his Equity card a decade earlier. Pippin was Ward's first time back at Goodspeed since he got his card doing Finian's Rainbow there in 1997; both shows were directed by Gabriel Barre.

Or how's this for a "sign"? Early this year, Ward was invited to a roller-skating party at the Roxy. It was his first time on skates since childhood, and he had no idea at the time that a show he was up for had roller skating in its choreography. A week later, at an audition for Xanadu, he was asked—without advance notice—to roller skate. Had it not been for that party, he would have had to win the job with a skill he hadn't practiced in about fifteen years.

Discussing something that occurred even earlier in his life, Ward again alludes to a cosmic alignment. He attended Weber State University, a school located in Ogden, Utah—far from the showbiz hubs of New York and L.A.—and without the reputation of arts powerhouses like NYU, Carnegie Mellon and all those other colleges that turn up in many Playbill biographies. "There's sort of a yin and a yang," Ward says. "So many of my friends went to huge schools and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. I got out of school owing so little money; I paid off my loans with the first national tour that I went on. But some of those programs also have people [on faculty] who are writing shows and producing shows. A lot of my friends came out of school and they had agents and they knew what pictures to take and what résumés to go with and they knew all these casting directors."

He wasn't well-connected like that coming from Ogden, but—here's that divine influence again—in Utah he did befriend one Russell Gregory when they were performing together in summer stock. On Gregory's recommendation, the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., hired Ward for The Will Rogers Follies without an audition right after he graduated from college. That got him close enough to New York to start auditioning, and he was cast in a tour of Crazy for You that played the U.S. and Europe for over a year. So, thanks to a person he met in Utah, Ward's career was under way. And, oh yeah, Gregory is now his agent.

Xanadu is Ward's third Broadway show. He made his Broadway debut in the original cast of Saturday Night Fever in 1999 and more recently spent about two years in the ensemble of The Producers, both in New York and on tour. He's also been seen in New York in The Apple Tree at City Center Encores! and done plenty of regional work, including Jelly's Last Jam at Atlanta's ALLIANCE THEATRE (he played Buddy Bolden and understudied Billy Porter as Chimney Man), Swing! at Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, Elegies at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires and Jesus Christ Superstar at Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio. He's done a national tour of Dreamgirls; appeared in the Chicago production of Ragtime, starring LaChanze and Hinton Battle; and was in the tour of Cinderella, with Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother.

Then there are all the "woulda-coulda-shouldas," as Ward calls them. Dreamgirls was one—it was promoted throughout its seven-month 1997-98 tour as a pre-Broadway revival, but the New York production never happened. Two other musicals by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger that Ward later did regionally were also supposed to have a life in New York but didn't. One was Kept, an updating of Camille set in Studio 54 (with Christiane Noll in the lead), which world-premiered at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., in spring 2002. Another was Lucky Duck (a.k.a. Everything's Ducky), based on The Ugly Duckling but involving a supermodel character, which was directed by John Rando at southern California's Old Globe in the summer of 2004.

Having run the derailed-on-the-way-to-Broadway course a number times over the years, Ward now gently cautions overly excited newbies. "I always say to younger people that I meet, if they're doing a show that's on tour and if there's a rumor that it's going to come to Broadway, 'I've done a million woulda-coulda-shouldas.'"

Of course, many of Ward's endeavors have come to fruition. "A couple of years ago I was trying to break out of dancing all the time and trying to do more roles and knocking on those doors and saying 'Hey, I can do some more things. See me!' You can get frustrated," he says. It was an uphill battle even when he auditioned for Pippin in front of familiar faces. "A lot of the people at Goodspeed hadn't seen me since I was in my early 20s. They're used to me being a dancer."

But he succeeded in nabbing the Leading Player role (made famous on Broadway by Ben Vereen)—and reviews for it like "satisfyingly devilish" from the New York Times and "a fantastic voice and presence" here on BroadwayWorld. He followed it up by not only getting another non-chorus role but breaking out of musicals altogether. Ward was cast in God's Ear, a new play by Jenny Schwartz produced by New Georges off-off-Broadway last spring (and now headed for an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard). He had to turn it down to do Xanadu, but winning a nonmusical role was a coup in itself.

And whether it's accurate to describe his Xanadu work as ensemble is debatable. There are only 10 people in the whole cast, and he's listed in the program by his various roles—which include the Greek god Hermes, the mythological creature Centaur and a disco-era club singer. He understudies Mary Testa (yes, you read that right) and has played the lead role of Sonny. When James Carpinello, the original Sonny, was injured during previews in mid-June, Ward went on for him on an hour and a half's notice and stayed in the role for a few days. Cheyenne Jackson was brought in to replace Carpinello (who had to drop out of the show), but Ward played Sonny again when Jackson took a brief hiatus during the summer.

Of Xanadu, Ward effuses: "I've never had more fun doing a show in my life. I feel so lucky to be a part of the cast, and I've learned so much from everyone. I make my entrance in the show with Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, and I do pretend that the applause that happens is for me. To be with them and to learn from what they do is like a blessing to me. And Kerry Butler, I can honestly say, is one of the nicest, sweetest, most graceful-under-pressure people I've ever had the pleasure of working with. It's a joy to perform this show every night. Sometimes I have to pinch myself."

Thinking again about how his career has unfolded, Ward says, "My life—knock on wood—has really been quite spectacular." While he now prefers to describe himself and the forces in his life as spiritual, religion played a big part in his life for many years. His maternal grandfather, whom he lived with growing up (Ward's mother was 17 when he was born), was a Pentecostal minister, and Ward regularly attended Pentecostal church and—like many others in his family—sang gospel. He went to Catholic schools from pre-K on, to better prep for college. And his Utah university was, not surprisingly, predominantly Mormon.

Being one of the few non-Mormons at Weber State wasn't the only thing he had to get used to in college. There was only one other black student in the theater department. "When I first got to school, everybody thought I was there either to play football or run track," says Ward, who was born and raised in Las Vegas.

But, he adds, "I was used to being the odd man out." His high school class of 200 had no more than 10 black students. "Growing up, I went to schools where I didn't see diversity, but in Las Vegas itself there is diversity," Ward says about the culture shock he experienced when he lived in Utah. "I wasn't used to walking down the streets and not seeing any diversity. And going to a place like Utah, where the sidewalks roll up at 9 p.m., I wasn't used to things closing. It was really bizarre, coming from a place that was [open] 24 hours a day, where my friends in high school would call me at midnight and say 'we're going to go bowling and then go for 99-cent breakfast...'"

Today, such shows as Mamma Mia!, The Producers and Spamalot are running in Vegas. But when Ward was growing up, there was no Broadway fare—just lounge acts and nudie revues—so his exposure to theater was limited (he and his friends once sneaked into a topless show at the Stardust, only to discover the choreographer of their school musicals in the chorus). Ward didn't begin studying dance until he was in his teens, when the head of the dance department at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas saw him as Richie in a local youth production of A Chorus Line and invited him to take classes at the college, with university students, on scholarship.

Ward attended Nevada's annual state thespian conference with his high school Drama Department, where he was awarded a full tuition scholarship to Weber based on an audition. He majored in musical theater but did more plays than musicals at college, including many classical roles like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Angelo in Measure for Measure. As a youth, he also played the son in August Wilson's Fences.

Now, as an adult with years of musical experience behind him, he's been picking up some nonmusical parts in movies and television. He filmed the pilot episode of Lipstick Jungle, a hot-career-gals-in-New-York series starring Brooke Shields that NBC is supposed to begin airing next year. He appeared in a 2005 episode of CBS' Without a Trace as an African mercenary who shoots Eric Close, is crushed by a car and riddled with bullets, then has Anthony LaPaglia stomp on his crotch to extract a confession as he lay dying on the street—all within the first five minutes (after which he's pronounced dead).

He's also filmed a featured role in the independent film Wherever You Are, portraying the quadriplegic son of Joe Morton, and had a bit part in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. He'd been hired to play one of four nonspeaking pickpockets, but on the set Stone upgraded his role to a hustler panhandling a tourist and instructed him to make up some lines (which Stone referred to on set as "André's thing"). "I look like a pimp from Baretta," Ward says of his scene in the movie, which takes place in the Port Authority Bus Terminal the morning of September 11, 2001. But his small part is noticeable for another reason: Ward is the last suspicious character that Port Authority police officer Will Jimeno (played by Michael Peña) eyes before his attention is diverted by a jumbo jet flying ominously low and loud over Manhattan.

In October, Ward costarred in a three-day story arc on the ABC soap One Life to Live. He played Clarence, a blond-wigged, sequin-gowned performer in a Georgia drag club who helps hide Marcie (Hairspray's Kathy Brier) after she "steals" her adopted son from his criminal biological father. Part of Clarence's decoy from the cops? Gussying up Marcie as a drag queen and putting her in his act lip-synching "One Night Only."

Working in film and TV, Ward has had to learn to "shrink" his performing. Screen actors don't have to speak or move so they're heard and seen in the rear balcony—which is contrary to Ward's natural inclinations. "I'm innately very theatrical and bigger than life," he explains. "Pulling everything in, it's been a lot about that for me, because I'm a really 'big' performer. [In] TV and film, if you say it really honestly and say it with your eyes, then you're going to be all right."

Ward was picked for the One Life to Live role after an executive producer, who knew Kerry Butler from when she was on the soap, came to see Xanadu. It's yet another instance of his being in the right place, right time. As for what he has yet to accomplish, well, many who know Ward have been waiting a while for him to create his own one-man show.

"People have been after me to do it for years and I've sort of shied away from it, just being nervous," he says. Henry Krieger has even offered to write music for it. "The older I get, the more I know it's something I should do," says Ward, who has auditioned for sketch comedy.

Krieger and other colleagues have encouraged Ward because he often regales them backstage with impressions, storytelling and Julia Sugarbaker monologues from Designing Women. During one performance of Pippin, the set malfunctioned and Ward was sent out to spontaneously entertain the audience for about half an hour while it was fixed. "It sort of let me know: I can just be me [on stage]," he says. So that may be the next place the universe leads him.

Photos of André, from top: outside the Helen Hayes Theatre this fall; as Pippin's Leading Player; with Kerry Butler (left) and Jackie Hoffman in Xanadu; with Kyra Da Costa during the 1997 run of Finian's Rainbow at Goodspeed; in his Broadway debut, Saturday Night Fever. [Pippin photo by Diane Sobolewski; Xanadu photo by Paul Kolnik]

Updates on some previous Gypsies of the Month:

  • Nikki Renee Daniels is costarring as wife Della in the new bio-musical Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Vince Pesce is choreographer of White Christmas, now playing at Ohio's Carousel Dinner Theatre, and of next summer's international tour of Cinderella starring Lea Salonga. He also choreographed the October production of Guys and Dolls, with Sarah Uriarte Berry and Burke Moses, at American Musical Theatre of San Jose.
  • T. Oliver Reid has joined the Broadway company of Mary Poppins.
  • Renée Klapmeyer, now known as Renée Feder, is in the ensemble of Young Frankenstein and Sutton Foster's understudy.
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