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8 of Broadway’s Most Unlikely Success Stories

Category Broadway

|by Amy Sapp |


Not everyone on Broadway dreamed of ending up there. These actors and actresses took very unconventional paths to the big stage, starting out as bankers, gymnasts and even mechanics

For the majority of performers, the natural progression toward Broadway includes training at theatrical conservatories and focusing all of their energy on auditions and voice lessons. The following eight actors, however, prove that you do not need a traditional background to make it on the Great White Way. These stars started out as aspiring gymnasts, bankers, executives and doctors before Broadway came calling. Who knows – maybe their stories will inspire you to take a chance of your own.

Norm Lewis in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Norm Lewis in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Alfie Boe
While it may be annoying to you when your coworkers sing to pass the time at the office, it was a life-changing habit for Alfie Boe. He began his professional career as an apprentice for a mechanic and would often sing operetta numbers while working. A coworker who happened to have a connection with the music business encouraged Boe to audition for an upcoming British opera company. This switch from mechanical work to the theater sparked a long career on stage for Boe. He has appeared in English National Opera and Broadway productions, from La Bohème to Kismet. He also gained international notice while belting out “Bring Him Home” at the 25th Anniversary production of Les Miserables at the O2 in London. It’s fitting, then, that Boe is taking over the starring role of Jean Valjean in the current Broadway revival of Les Miserables on September 1, 2015.

Daveed Diggs
Growing up as a son of an African American father and Jewish mother, Diggs has said that he always felt out of place. In fourth grade, however, poetry saved him from these feelings of alienation. Rapping soon became the perfect creative outlet, leading Diggs to study at Brown University in order to perfect both his artistic skills and performing abilities. He struggled after graduation, though, and at his lowest point Diggs found himself couch surfing or riding the New York City subways all night, homeless. Diggs never gave up, though, and performed in a slew of rap groups, including one with writer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. That’s the same Lin-Manuel Miranda who won a Tony for In the Heights and whose show Hamilton is now the hottest ticket on Broadway. Manuel cast Diggs in the Off-Broadway run of Hamilton, and he is now making his Broadway debut rapping alongside Miranda to raucous applause as both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis, who grew up in Florida, set his sights on a career in advertising and proved successful, landing a job in the advertising department of the Orlando Sentinel. He was a talented singer, but it never occurred to him to try to make a living doing anything but advertising. All of that changed when he won a singing contest. That single event led to a gig singing on a cruise line, and, from there, a supervisor encouraged him to take a leap of faith. “My supervisor said, ‘You don’t want to be 85 years old saying could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. So go for it and see what happens,'” Lewis told us. His Broadway career is nothing short of enviable. He has 11 credits to his name, including a Tony nominated performance in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. In 2014, Lewis broke barriers by becoming the first African American actor to portray the lead character in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.

Geneva Carr
It’s a safe bet to assume that Geneva Carr is the only current Broadway actor with an MBA in Finance. After earning that degree at the Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Paris, Carr worked with a French bank for several years before relocating to NYC. She had no interest in becoming a performer of any type until she was deeply affected by the play Lady on a Highwire. Carr soon enrolled in acting classes, nabbed her Equity card through a one-night only performance, landed television commercials and, eventually, joined the Off-Broadway cast of Hand to God in 2011. As the show transitioned to Broadway, so did Carr’s fortune. She earned a Tony nomination for her debut — no easy feat.

Adam Pascal
Adam Pascal never intended to pursue acting as a fulltime career. “It was really sort of being in the right place at the right time,” says Pascal of how he transitioned from singing on stages in a rock band to performing eight shows a week on a Broadway stage. Pascal took a chance on his career when he broke away from his band to audition for a little-known rock musical called Rent. What skill did Pascal keep from his days in the rock band? His voice, which he says “was born out of 80s heavy metal,” combined with the influences of Elton John, Steve Perry, Billy Joel and Freddie Mercury. “When I started on Broadway, nobody sang like me,” he says. “I think it brought sort of a uniqueness to the world of theater that people really hadn’t heard before.” Those rocker vocal cords definitely helped keep up his stamina for a full-time Broadway gig. “I built up these muscles that were incredibly beneficial to me in the world of theater,” say Pascal. After Rent, Pascal brought his sound to Chicago, Cabaret, Aida and Memphis. He is now focusing on his movie career, starring in the upcoming dark, horror musical film entitled, Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, the second installment of The Devil’s Carnival series directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.

Elena Ricardo
It would seem that Elena Ricardo was born for Broadway, since her parents met while performing on the Great White Way. Even with those genetics, Ricardo had her sights set on a very different type of performance. She spent 10 years training as a gymnast for the Junior Olympics. “From as far back as I remember, I was a competitor,” says Ricardo. “Everything I did had to be a race or a contest, and I had to be the best at it.” When Ricardo decided to leave gymnastics behind when she turned 16, she uncovered a latent love of theater. Ricardo’s drive, gymnastics skills and musical theater pedigree came together for her first big role as part of the regional company of Bring It On: The Musical in 2011. “I would have never guessed that my gymnastics skills would come in handy,” she says. While she did not join the Broadway cast of Bring it On, Ricardo made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of Mamma Mia! and is now starring as Sophie Sheridan until the show ends on September 12.

Christopher J. Hanke
This Southern Arkansas native took a big U-turn to get to Broadway. After attending Baylor University, a private Christian college in Texas, Hanke successfully applied for medical school — that was not his dream. He turned down admission in order to pursue a career in theater instead. Hanke has performed in New York in multiple Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including Cry-BabyRent and In My Life. He was most recently on the Great White Way in the 2011 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Hanke just wrapped up a gig crooning onstage as Corny Collins in the musical Hairspray at St. Louis’ Muny Theatre in May 2015.

Stephanie D’Abruzzo
“Mine has definitely been an unorthodox career in every way,” says Stephanie D’Abruzzo. While pursuing a degree in Radio/Television/Film from Northwestern University, D’Abruzzo performed in student films and improv troupes. Through this, she discovered a love of puppetry and ran with it. “In order to teach myself television puppetry, I wrote and produced my own television project,” she says. After graduating, she focused on her work as a television puppeteer. (She has performed on an impressive 21 seasons of Sesame Street and counting). Then came Avenue Q. D’Abruzzo’s years of experience as a puppeteer on screen and off gave her the skills to help develop the show through reading and workshops, and she made her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning show in 2003. Like Geneva Carr, she was nominated for a Tony, proving there are many ways to achieve Broadway success. “There is certainly no ‘if you do x, then y will happen’ type of guaranteed formula to any of it,” D’Abruzzo says. “Every experience we have offstage informs us onstage, even if they are not seemingly related. You never know what’s going to contribute to your work.”

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