BWW Interview: Of Purpose, Kindness, and Miracles: Michael William Nigro Brings Jim Hawkins to Life
"I would love to play an iconic adventure hero role, and this is a herculean moment for me that is incredibly gratifying. It is a beautiful story." Michael William Nigro is talking about playing the young hero of TREASURE ISLAND, Jim Hawkins, in the new musical version by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark, which begins a run of its East Coast premiere at Maine State Music Theatre on June 26th. The twenty-year-old Nigro, who returns to the show after having made his debut in the Fulton Theatre's world premiere in September 2018, says that not only is TREASURE ISLAND a coming of age story for Jim Hawkins, but that he, himself, has "experienced moments of huge personal growth. The experience of the show has informed me so much in this last year. And now [returning to reprise the role], I get an opportunity to connect my own coming of age experience to the character - to bring what is so real to me into the role."
Nigro's journey from the New Jersey suburb of Cranford to New York and regional stages, as well as to television and film, began, he recalls, at age three. "My Mom took me to see LES MISERABLES at the local high school. An actor named Jonathan Schwartz caught me attention. I was enamored of his work, and I followed his career as I grew up. He was the first person in the theatre whom I looked up to; I wanted to be like him. Fast forward to when I was fourteen and about to perform in THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, I received a message from him as he was rehearsing ALADDIN on Broadway," he smiles, noting the serendipitous way lives intertwine in the theatre.
As a youth, Nigro played sports and initially hung out with an athletic crowd. But he continued his interest in theatre, and when he was twelve, his grandmother took him to see NEWSIES with Jeremy Jordan on Broadway. He came away from that performance resolving, "I want to be in that show; I want to play that role, and I want to do what Jeremy Jordan does." He enrolled in the Paper Mill Playhouse's summer theatre conservatory where he studied for three successive summers. "It was my first really intensive theatre training." Nigro notes that not only did he learn theatre craft, but he also "learned the culture as well as the basics. I found a home with those people. I felt a kinship, and I realized that [being with this theatre crowd] didn't make me lose any admiration for the other part of my life in sports." Nigro admits he was often the brunt of name calling, but he would counter with "Look, I do sports AND I do theatre, and you are going to have to deal with that." And after a while, he found acceptance and respect for his choices. "Younger kids would tell me they looked up to me, and when he I applied to Princeton and did an alumni interview, the interviewer told me that he used me as an example to his own sons to let them know they can do everything."
Nigro has served as an example to his younger brothers as well. "Both Brain (18) and Daniel (14) love acting, dancing, and singing. Brian is trying to make a career of it, while for Daniel, it is an interest. Brian and I wrote a screenplay for a sitcom, and we would love to develop it and get it produced. It's called THE NIGRO BROTHERS, and it stars the two of us as young men living in Hoboken, New Jersey, sometime in the near future."
With training from the Paper Mill program under his belt, Nigro booked his first major gig at thirteen, the national tour of the RADIO CITY CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR. Then at fourteen, he auditioned for NBC's THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, which starred Carrie Underwood, and he was cast as Friedrich. Since that time he has worked on stage in New York and made his regional debut last year at the Fulton. He garnered huge critical acclaim for his portrayal of Jim Hawkins and his career moved to the next level. "It was huge pressure," he recalls. "The Fulton TREASURE ISLAND was my regional debut, my first time living away from home on my own, and I loved it! I knew what I had signed up for, and I was so grateful for the opportunity. I was determined to do it!"
And that he did - spectacularly! On stage in every scene and tasked with some of the show's most demanding vocal moments, Jim Hawkins requires not only energy and virtuosity, but also amazing athleticism and stamina. Critics hailed his performance as "incandescent.....delivering one show stopping moment after the next.... and conveying the vulnerability, innocence, and ultimate courage and resolve of the character."
Nigro recounts how for the world premiere, co-directed by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark, they "were working all the kinks out of the show and finding all the real moments." And now that he has returned to the role after ten months, working with a second director, Mark Martino, he feels he has an opportunity to find new nuances, building on the initial characterization. "I am working to make Jim even more layered and dynamic than I thought before. He is a real person who tries to act and think rationally; he is a survivalist; he is compassionate."
Working with a different Long John Silver here in Maine has also brought some new perspectives. "I knew Aaron [Ramey} because he had played my father in a workshop reading, and I was excited to be working with him again. The rehearsal process is so truncated here, and it is impressive how he has adapted so well. He is doing an incredible job! I look up to him and to all the guys I am working with. They have all taken me under their wings."
Nigro also waxes eloquent about the co-creators of TREASURE ISLAND. "I consider myself lucky to work with Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark. They are among the kindest people in the business, and I have learned so much from them. [In TREASURE ISLAND] they have taken a beautiful adventure story and made it poetic in every way. They have found the way to highlight the best parts of the book. They have just kept working on the score, the book and lyrics, made changes and cuts, and it gets better and better. They understand that in musical theatre communication is critical, and Marc and Curt are the great communicators."
So what is the most lasting message that the Robin and Clark version of TREASURE ISLAND does communicate? Nigro believes it has to do with the motif of miracles, which returns in the closing scene in a beautiful pair of interchanged ballads - "Miracles" and "Someday." "The most powerful lyrics for me are 'Someday I'll know why I am here.' I love the fact that there are lyrics built into the show that assure me that we always have a purpose. There is always something for us to do, someone for us to make happy, a service to perform, a kindness to share. Because what Jim truly shows at the end is kindness and forgiveness. The miracle of life motif is beautiful, but the miracle of forgiveness is also incredibly touching."
MIchael William Nigro utters these last words softly with obvious emotion, savoring the uplifting experience that playing Jim Hawkins gives him. That he considers the opportunity a gift is clear. But one wonders if he fully realizes that his portrayal is also a gift to the audience?
It is perhaps yet one more shared miracle in a musical that offers so many!
Photos courtesy MSMT & the Fulton Theatre
TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE runs at MSMT's Pickard Theater from June 26-July 13, 2019 www.msmt.org 207-725-8769