BWW Interview: Tyler Dema of A BRONX TALE On Tour
Tyler Dema plays Crazy Mario and is in the ensemble of the US tour of A BRONX TALE, coming to DPAC November 5-10. A Bronx Tale is set in the Bronx in the 1960s and is based on the writer Chazz Palminteri's true life story. With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, this musical is sure to appeal to everyone. A New York native, Tyler graduated from Elon University in North Carolina this year. This is Tyler's national tour debut.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
I grew up in New York. I was actually born in the Bronx and grew up in Long Island, so New York City was always like my backyard. I grew up seeing Broadway shows practically every weekend. My aunt who lived in the city would always surprise me with a different show every few weeks.
Every time I saw one, I fell more and more in love with the idea of doing it. It wasn't until later in middle school and high school that I realized that I could do it with my life and not just as a hobby. I was never a sports kid, but I always knew that theatre was a great way to express myself. Telling stories is what makes my heart happy and fuels my fire.
What was your experience in the Elon BFA program like?
Elon was such a nurturing environment for me. There were times when I struggled with not being cast in certain shows that I would have loved to be in or not getting roles that I wanted, but I always found a way to develop my skills and my training. That never stopped one moment that I was at Elon.
They really prepared me, especially for real life auditioning and not just auditioning for academic productions. They taught me how to always stay grounded and be present in the moment and I think that's something that made for my successful audition and booking this job. The first moment you become unfocused or out of it, that can really throw you for a loop.
My training at Elon was, for me, very beneficial because I was able to make my own path. I knew I wanted to focus on dance training, so I loaded my schedules every semester with lots of dance classes. I also had such an incredible voice teacher. All those things prepared me for real life and especially booking something so soon after I graduated. Clearly, they're doing something well over there because it was a recipe for success right after I left.
How long after graduating did you know you had this role?
I graduated on a Friday in May. I drove back up to New York on that Sunday. I had my audition Tuesday that following week, my callback Wednesday, and that Friday my agent called me to tell me I had booked this job. So exactly a week after I got my diploma from Elon, I found out that I booked this tour.
How did Elon prepare you for being in a show like A Bronx Tale?
They really taught me how to do it all. When you see the show, you'll see how my track specifically in the show does everything. I play a few different people in the show. In the opening number, we come right out of the gate dancing our butts off. Then, the four doo-wop guys throughout the whole show are singing these tight-knit four-part barbershop quartet harmonies. If one of us is off, it really throws the whole vibe off. So not only getting by and knowing how to sing but actually being able to hold harmony and really focus on those intricate parts is definitely something Elon taught me. I do have a small role in the show and I also understudy the lead so all of the acting training also has to come in. The fact that Elon was able to give me all of those tools to be that, as they say, triple threat is something that I needed for the show or I wouldn't have been able to book it.
What's it like being on national tour for the first time?
It's crazy. This is something I always dreamt of doing. I always said after school I wanted to book a tour and save some money before making the big move and getting a place in the city. I was never actually mentally prepared for how it would be.
The good thing about our tour route is that we do have a lot of sit-downs We don't have a lot of one-nighters where we have to go to a city, do a show, pack up the next day, and leave. For example, we're in Durham for a whole week.
Tour life itself can be kind of tricky. I'm so lucky I have a cast that gets along so well and a close group of friends that do everything together. It's exciting because you get to see so many cities around the country that you've never seen before. I always knew that traveling is something that I wanted to do. And then on top of that, getting to do a show is a win-win. Seeing how that show translates to different audiences and different cities is really special.
Being on tour gives you the opportunity to really put your stamina to the test and see how you can keep up with yourself, maintaining a healthy lifestyle while also being able to do your job but practicing self-care as well, and knowing how to separate work-time from play-time. But I'm so grateful and lucky that I'm with the people I'm with and with the show that I'm with that I love so much and it's been really rewarding and really easy so far. I've adapted to tour life surprisingly well.
What's it like having an Elon classmate, Breia Kelley, in the show with you?
Crazy! She actually booked it about a week or two before the rehearsals started. She had a late process; I think they were looking for last minute replacements. Of course, Breia and I were in the same class at Elon but we also signed with the same agency and then booked the same tour. It's all really surreal.
To go into the process with someone I've worked with closely over the past four years, it was very comforting but also shocking to see how differently (in a good way!) we work outside of an academic setting. It's been really great being able to support each other through that. We're both understudies for the two lead roles, so we're in understudy rehearsals together too. It didn't hit me that I was going on tour with a classmate until we left and I was like, "Wait, Breia, we're doing this together!"
So let's talk about A Bronx Tale. Can you tell us more on what it's about?
A Bronx Tale is a coming of age story. It's based on the true life events of actor Chazz Palminteri. He starred in the film and he wrote the book for the musical. The story follows a young man in 1960s New York, obviously in the Bronx, who is torn between the father he loves and the mob boss he would love to be. The show starts out with him as a 9-year-old boy and his first interactions with said mob boss and follows him until he's 18 years old. Like I said, it was a real life story that became a play that inspired the movie that finally became the musical that we'll be bringing to DPAC. It's a story about father-son relationships, young love, and family. It's a show for everyone because everyone can find something to connect to.
What's it like to do a show that's so firmly rooted in New York on the road?
That is something that I thought about when I found out it was going on its first leg of the tour, back when I was in school. When I saw it on Broadway, I saw how audiences reacted to references of being in New York. It of course translated very well on Broadway, just a couple of boroughs over from the Bronx.
I was curious to see, when our tour went out, what that would be like and I realized that there are Italians all over the country, whether they're in New York or they're not. Italians definitely relate to all those little jokes and Italian family motifs that everyone knows. Everyone knows how Italian grandmas and Italian dads act. That all rings through no matter where you are. In the show we have two ensembles: the Italian ensemble, and the Webster kids, the black ensemble. They, of course, go through different experiences in the show that everyone all over the country can relate to. While it takes place in the Bronx and has those New York roots, there are so many other elements within the show that everyone can relate to. I found that no matter what, every theatre we've been at, every audience reacts to the show fairly similarly because all of that stays constant.
You mentioned that there was a 1993 movie made based on the same play that the musical is based on that starred Robert De Niro. Have you seen it?
Oh yes. As I said, I was born in the Bronx and my dad lived there his entire life. So A Bronx Tale was his favorite movie while I was growing up. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen it. My brother is actually more obsessed with it than I am. The big quote from the movie is "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent." That has been my brother's phone background since he started acting and his Facebook bio forever. I've seen it a bunch, growing up on it. But when my dad and my brother found out I booked it, it was a bigger deal for them because they love it so much and this story means so much to them.
Tell us a bit about your role.
At first, you would consider me in the ensemble, but I'm a doo-wop guy. We have four doo-wops who act as a Greek chorus and narrate the show and take you through the show as these general unnamed doo-wop guys.
Once we get to the point in the show where Calogero is a young man, we're introduced as three of his friends. There's Crazy Mario, Sally Slick, and Handsome Nick. Those were the real names of Chazz's friends in his real life. I play Crazy Mario and Chazz told me in rehearsals that Crazy Mario was the youngest of his friend group and actually the leader. We act as a little unit, the three of us and Calogero.
The three of us also have some secret costumes and secret little roles that we play throughout the show. We try to disguise us using some Broadway magic. Then we return at the end of the show as dpo-wops. It's kind of a full-circle moment. And I understudy Calogero, the lead, as well.
Can you talk to us a bit about Sergio Trujillo's choreography?
As I said, we have two different ensembles in the show: the Italian ensemble and the black ensemble. Sergio Trujillo, the original choreographer of the show who recently won the Tony Award for AIN'T TOO PROUD, did such a great job of distinguishing the two ensembles through their movements. Even when it's such a minute detail like how the girls have their hands on their hips, like the black girls have their hand sideways, while the Italian girls have theirs upward or something like that. That's all seen throughout the choreography.
They say that this show is WEST SIDE STORY meets JERSEY BOYS. I think that rings true for so many elements in the show, but it's definitely true for choreography. While we're these four doo-wop guys, we do lots of step-touch and snapping. We do the doo-wop walk, which is kind of that Jersey Boys thing and very smooth. Then you have the elements of West Side Story, where the choreography is very grounded. It's very gritty, angsty movements. Whereas the Webster kids open the second act with this fierce step number. It really juxtaposes each of their styles and how each character would interact. The choreography is definitely a huge element of the storytelling.
How has doing the show been so far?
It's been great. We just officially opened about a week and a half ago. We teched in Elmira, New York. We had our official opening in Connecticut where family and friends came because it's so close to the city. It's been very exciting to do it for new audiences. I just did a long run of a show over the summer and sometimes you can't help but feel stagnant. But being on a tour, you're playing in a new city every week. It brings another whole energy to the show, to the audience, and the performers because everyone's reacting differently to different lines. To go through that journey with the show has been really fun.
Why do you think people should come and see A Bronx Tale?
Because it is a show for everyone. I really do stand by that. There are some shows that really aren't for everyone. I don't love this term, but people always joke that A Bronx Tale is a show that girls can bring their boyfriends to because it has lots of characters they can relate to as well. The show is so fun and it has so much heart. People who know the movie well can expect to see all those same themes and all that same atmosphere that is in the movie. It really does translate to the stage, but it also brings the story into a different light because, with it being a musical, there is an element of fun added to it.
You really do go through this emotional journey throughout the show. You go through all these highs and lows with these characters. The way the show ends is just so heartfelt and emotional and brings you around from having this incredible opening number where everyone is having fun and then you get this a dramatic story in between only to come back and have this great choral sound coming from the performers at the end and everyone in the audience is feeling all the emotions that we are onstage and it's so 'feel good' at the end. After the bows, we do a little encore at the end and no one can help but clap and dance along with us because it's just so fun. You get everything with this show and I think that's really special. Everyone should come see it because it's so great and it's so fun and, I'll say it again, it's for everyone.
Any advice for young actors?
Train, train, train. I wish I started taking dance classes when I was 5. I wish I started taking voice lessons when I was in elementary or middle school. Training is what's going to get you far in lots of things, but it's also important to be focused and present and love what you do. Never let a day go by that you're not enjoying yourself. The second that joy is gone, that's going to burn out the fire. That's where you will lose your spark. Definitely, train and really get all the skills you need in your toolbox and then do the thing, have no fear. Set goals for yourself and work hard to achieve them. I promise, dreams come true. I'm living proof of that.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus