Justin Greer: From Curtain to Classroom
Justin Greer is currently a swing (for nine roles!) and the Dance Captain for Broadway's The Producers. Having made his Broadway debut in Annie, Get Your Gun, he has also appeared in Seussical and Urban Cowboy. He earned himself a BATCC nomination for his starring role in Bat Boy at TheatreWorks and appeared in the recent Actor's Fund Benefit Concert of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
While his passions have always been in opera and theatre, he has been finding a niche in arts education! He is now lending his talents to several New York programs and organizations, including Camp Broadway! I gave him a call in his office one afternoon to learn a little more about his ambitious transition from the curtain to the classroom...
Eugene: Hi Justin! Thanks for taking a moment to talk to BroadwayWorld.
Justin: Thanks for giving me a moment!
Eugene: You're currently the Dance Captain for Broadway's The Producers. Many theatre fans like to pretend we know what that means [laughs] but in actuality, what do the duties of a Dance Captain include?
Justin: There's sort of a three-fold duties. First, it's my job to maintain the integrity of the choreography. In a long-running show, we want to make sure that the show that people see on Performance 2,420 is the same as Performance 1. It's my job to make sure the actors remain true to the parameters that Susan Stroman initially set forth. Part two is that I'm involved in the casting of the show, so I assist the resident choreographer and the resident director in the casting of the show. And the third part is that I have to teach new people coming into the show their job. I know everybody's part. Dependent on who comes in, I teach them what they're going to do. That's why it's really great about being the Dance Captain; it's a chance to mix the education stuff that I do with the performance stuff that I do. I really love it.
Eugene: Definitely! And you said you know everyone's part ?
Justin: Yep, even the girls!
Eugene: [laughs] So if there was some twist of fate and you thrown on stage in the role of Hold-Me, Touch-Me, could you do it?
Justin: I could do it, yes. [laughs] I don't know if I'd fit in the costumes!
Eugene: And you're also the swing for Leo Bloom and Carmen Ghia
Justin: And the seven ensemble men. It's pretty much anyone that the shape of which I remotely resemble.
Eugene: You ever gone on as Leo?
Justin: Oh yeah! Lots of times.
Eugene: Is it fun?
Justin: It's so great. It's a total dream come true. This is my fifth Broadway show and this is my first time in a Broadway show to play a principle. And to have it be that principle role in that show it's been a wonderful ride one that I'm sorry to see ending.
Eugene: Yeah, I was going to ask Are you sticking with the show for its final bow?
Justin: Yes, I will. I most likely won't be on stage for the final bow. Or I'm hoping, maybe, they can throw the swings on stage stick me in a tuxedo and put me on the side. It would be nice to do the final bow with the company, because it's been such a wonderful experience.
Eugene: Congratulations! Apart from random theatre fans here and there and your students from past and present, you're a relative unknown in the Broadway theatre scene. So tell me a little more about who you are, where you got started, and where you see yourself in the scheme of things.
Justin: That's a great question because I'm one of those more anonymous members of a pretty public business; where a lot of importance is put on notoriety and recognition. And I actually never really aspired to that. My goal was just to do good work and ultimately, at the end of the day, I sing and dance for money and people clap for me.
Eugene: Which is definitely admirable!
Justin: It's amazing! [laughs] And for me, I've been a very proud member of the supporting community! [laughs] It's partially how I hope I'm making myself different from everybody else, is with this education component of my job. Not only do I teach for Camp Broadway but I teach for pretty much every theatre arts organization in the city. That's where I'm hoping that I parlay that limited recognition as a supporting Broadway person into really effect people. Because a lot of the kids that we focus on it's not as important that I have the starring credits as much as it is that I've been a Broadway person. I'm hoping that by example I can turn kids on to a world that hopefully they already love.
Eugene: You're leading me right up to my next question, which is excellent! I've done some research on you and I'm noticing an impressive trend on your resume. I see a steady progression from the stage to the classroom. Not only are you working towards your Master's Degree in Education, but you're an instructor for various theatre organizations like City Center, Bravo TV, and Arts Horizons. So what sparked your interest in arts education?
Justin: Both of my parents are teachers, so I have it in my blood. But really, when I was in Seussical: The Musical and we had just posted notice. So we knew that the show was closing. And up on the board was this notice from Camp Broadway and it said [they were] looking for Broadway professionals who are interested in teaching. I'd never really done it but it sounded interested and I wanted to see what it was about. I went in and talked to them about my background and my interests. But most of it is about being a clear communicator. If you can clearly communicate what you already know, then you're a teacher. Even though I didn't necessarily have a lot of experience at that time, I was able to say it clearly enough that I could do it. That's what started me on my path. Literally, right when I got started I thought: "Oh wow! This is great. It's just like acting. The audiences are smaller and the stage is less well lit!" But it's theatre onto itself. The more I did it, the more I've pursued it. So here I am, not necessarily at the end of my career but here's yet another show that's closing, you know? I'm not getting any younger and I don't want to find myself 40 years-old wondering where the next job is going to come from. I don't want to be at auditions with kids half my age competing for the same job. I have been kind of laying the ground-work to take a step away from the performance aspect for several years now, and I think I'm almost ready to see what it's like. This job at Camp Broadway has become a perfect way for me to be a Broadway professional to have one foot in the Broadway world, absolutely, and one foot in the educational world I'm hoping it will be a nice marriage.
Eugene: Your position with Camp Broadway now is
Justin: The Director of Professional Development. Essentially I teach teachers how to teach.
Eugene: For those of us watching at home, what is Camp Broadway?
Justin: Okay! Camp Broadway is an arts education company that focuses on audience building. We are a program for theatre-loving kids. Programs are not necessarily talent-based. We try to give kids as much exposure to this unique world and spark their interest in being really well-informed and appreciative audience members. As such, it's a one-week camp over the summer. We're in 16 cities plus two weeks here in New York. From Day 1 the kids get their script and start working on mini-versions of recent Broadway shows. And at the end of the week they perform their production. All of our master teachers are Broadway professionals they have been in a Broadway show at some point in their career. We hold our teachers to a very high bar. They also have to be good teachers. I'm also in charge of a program on-board the Royal Caribbean cruise line as part of their youth program aboard the ships. There is a theatre component that we've created with Camp Broadway that I am implementing.
Justin: Yeah, it's actually really cool. At the end of the cruise, the kids on-board get a chance to learn a number from the on-board show. The entertainment staff on the ship teach the kids their production and then they perform that little number during the Farewell Show on the last night of the cruise For me, the challenge is the youth staff on-board the ship who work with the kids, they're not theatre people. As the Director of Professional Development [laughs] it's my job to make sure they know how to teach theatre (which is a tricky thing if you have very little exposure to it). We're developing this really easy-to-implement program. We start training on Monday. I'm actually really excited to get down to the nitty-gritty. How do you grab them and make them want to come back?
Eugene: That sounds like fun. Good luck on Monday!
Justin: Yeah! [laughs] It's like the thrill of theatre mixed with the fun of travel. Camp Broadway does a lot of in-school initiatives. We have a lyric-writing program; we go into public schools for free and we offer these programs. We work with the Broadway community in developing Stage Notes, which is like study guides. So a group a kids who are going to see Legally Blonde for example, they'll get study guides to learn about the world of the show and the content before they go, so that it gives them a little more of an "in" to the world they're a little bit more interested when they're sitting in those seats.
Eugene: You're also co-creator of Movable Arts what is this? How did it get started?
Justin: Moveable Arts is a company that is for aspiring theatre professionals. That is a talent-based program. Essentially my partner Adam Pelty and I want to create an environment where my future colleagues who have graduated from their BFA programs in music theatre, who want to come to New York and really do it, this is a program of learning the business of "the business" the business of self-marketing yourself. The reality of the show business is now getting your face in front of the right people, and once you get your face in front of those people, you have to really deliver with a really effective audition! We see it as training the next generation of "us" for a fee all of those secrets we wish we knew when we moved to the city. Again, all of our teachers are generally in Broadway shows. It's pretty impressive and we're really proud of it.
Eugene: You should be! You mentioned your colleagues with BFAs; you earned your BFA at Carnegie Melon in vocal performance, operatic singing. Do you listen to opera casually?
Justin: I love it! I love it! When I decided to go full-time with music theatre because you really can't do both careers I tried when I first moved to the city and you just can't. When I decided to go into music theatre rather than opera I resigned myself to being a "well-informed connoisseur." I set aside all aspirations for opera singing, but I love it so much. In fact I'm going to Turandot at The Met on Monday.
Eugene: Aside from having great taste in opera, what else do you listen to on your iPod?
Justin: I don't put my opera in my iPod because I have a Nano (there's only so much space), so I save my opera for the CD collection. Okay now I'm going to have to admit something to you secretly, I love pop music. There might be a little bit of Kelly Clarkson on there.
Eugene: That's fine! [laughs] Mine too! All right, New Yorkers might recognize you as an Aggie in the Actor's Fund Benefit Concert of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Was this your first collaboration with the Actor's Fund?
Justin: No, the previous one I did with them was On the 20th Century. Seth Rudetsky who is the music director of all those special events I've worked with him in doing the Broadway Cares Easter Bonnet opening number for a couple of years. He would play in the orchestra pit, so I watched him do that. I worked with him in On the 20th Century which I had a ball doing. When they were deciding to do Best Little Whorehouse as soon as he asked me I said: "Absolutely!" It's actually a really fun show and secretly well I won't tell you that but don't all of us secretly want to play those hookers?
Eugene: [laughs] What was it like working with that cast and creative team?
Justin: Oh, it's such a labor of love. When I did City Center Encores! Babes and Arms Kathleen Marshall was the director and the choreographer, she said: "You're like doing Summer Stock with the A-Team." That stuck with me. It can be applied to a lot of these special events. Like the Actor's Fund? It is so fast! You just have to throw it together, you get to rehearse one thing and the next time you even get to look at it is one week later right before you open. Literally, it's up to the talent of the people who are donating their services to make the piece shine. It's such a wonderful feeling of community and you get to play with people you haven't seen in forever! I really enjoy doing those projects a lot.
Eugene: Yeah it looked like a lot of fun.
Justin: And work! [laughs] And we had Jennifer Hudson there, who was a blast!
Eugene: I believe it! Throw it all in a blender and see what comes out in a few weeks! It's amazing. You also starred in the Northern California premiere of Bat Boy at TheatreWorks. You got yourself a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award nomination. So what was it like?
Justin: It was unbelievable from the beginning to the end. The combination of the talent, with the creative team, the piece itself. It was just a really wonderful mix. I was so honored to be on stage with such talented people from the San Francisco area. They were so good, so wonderful. It was such a smart show. The role was incredibly challenging to me, and very very rewarding. And I had to shave my head! [laughs] And the fact that it was really well-received. It's a lot easier to do my job knowing that I was in a hit. And it remains one of the highlights of my professional career.
Eugene: Wow, good for you! I'm calling from San Francisco, so if you want to keep those compliments coming [laughs] You're AFDA trained in hand-to-hand combat and you had a role as J.D. Letterlaw in Urban Cowboy and
Justin: Oh yes! [laughs]
Eugene: And you were the Fight Captain. What did this entail and what did you just laugh about?
Justin: Because I knew you were going to ask about Urban Cowboy which was just a terrible show. I mean, we were paid to be smoking, drinking cowboys and trashy trashy trashy people! It was so much fun. The audience didn't have very much fun [laughs] but we had a great time. And as Fight Captain I was in charge of making sure the fights were safe and realistic. And here's a little piece of theatre lore It was our first technical rehearsal, so there was no audience. It was a really long day and we were running the opening number where there is a huge bar-room brawl. And as the Fight Captain, I had a lot of fights and pretty much got the shit kicked out of me. When you run fights, you run them three times in increasing levels of speed. We were running it the first time which is supposed to be really slow. The girl that I was fighting with was swinging with such force that she actually connected!
Justin: Admittedly, I had approached from a weird angle. It takes two to tango. She broke her hand on my face. I actually got very very lucky. I have a two-inch scar in the middle of my face from the blunt-contusion. It was very scary. And the irony was that I was the Fight Captain. But I was back the next day. I got 40 stitches and plastic surgery and I was back the next day with a black-eye (which made me look really tough).
Eugene: That just makes me stand by my belief I always say theatre actors are tougher than football players.
Eugene: Now it's probably not as rough-and-tough as a cowboy, but in Seussical you were a Feline Assistant? What's that mean?
Justin: Well the Cat in the Hat at one point had four little shadows of himself. The number was called "A Day for the Cat in the Hat." In theory we were supposed to be little vestiges of him throughout the show, but that changed as the production progressed. I was essentially the Cat's assistant, but we were in every number too, as ensemble.
Eugene: And going back to the very beginning, you made your Broadway debut sharing the stage with Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. What went through your head the first time you stepped in front of your first Broadway audience?
Justin: Oh my god, it was amazing. Well, first of all, I was nervous as hell! The show was already running when I joined the cast. I had done the show in the space with other people around me in some of my costumes But for the first performance, I had never heard the orchestra, I was never part of the talent, I had never seen the lights on the stage, never seen the moving scenery. So there was a lot of new information to process while you're making your Broadway debut! I had to keep my "thinking cap" on until the very end, when we were taking our bow, then I burst into tears. It was incredible and Bernadette was so lovely.
Justin: Actually, the first Broadway production I ever saw was The Goodbye Girl at the Marquis Theatre starring Bernadette Peters. I sat in the front row of the mezzanine and bawled my eyes out. And then ten years later I'm making my Broadway debut with Bernadette Peters on the Marquis Theatre stage. Everything came full circle.
Eugene: That's incredible. How about that! And you've played cowboys three times now?
Justin: Let's see Urban Cowboy, I was Will Parker in Oklahoma!, plus Whorehouse, and Annie Get Your Gun! So four times! I guess I'm pretty good at the cowboy thing!
Eugene: Congratulations with taking a step into the next part of your life in arts education. It sounds very rewarding. And congratulations with The Producers and the whole experience you've had with them until the finale.
Justin: You've been terrific. I really appreciate you taking the time to look into one of the lesser-known guys. We make our career doing this.
Eugene: You all tend to have the best stories it's what we like to read. Thanks a lot, Justin.
Justin: Thank you so much, Eugene. Bye!
Headshot (2006), by Gene Silvers
Leo Bloom in The Producers (2006), courtesy Justin Greer
Camp Broadway in Buffalo (2002), courtesy Justin Greer
Bat Boy (with Molly Bell) at TheatreWorks (2003), by David Allen
Annie Get Your Gun (2000), courtesy Justin Greer
Justin Greer (2006), by Ben Strothman