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Grace McLean, Steven Boyer and Nicholas Christopher talk about returning to the Broadway theatres where they debuted
They say you can't go home again, but three Broadway performers are doing just that this spring. For their current gigs in Bad Cinderella, Kimberly Akimbo and Sweeney Todd respectively, Grace McLean, Steven Boyer and Nicholas Christopher are back in the theatres where they made their Broadway debuts. Although several years have gone by since those professional milestones, the memories embedded in the venues remain vivid, inspiring the actors to reflect on the evolution of their careers and craft. Each described returning to these theatres the same way: "like coming home."
For Christopher, who plays Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, his homecoming at the Lunt-Fontanne has been bittersweet. He made his Broadway debut at the theatre in 2013 portraying one of the Four Tops in Motown the Musical but describes it as challenging. "I was able to lean on my castmates and form a really good bond with them," he explains. "But—and I really hate to say this—it wasn't exactly the most positive theatre experience that I've ever had."
Still, it was a defining moment for Christopher, and he shares a recollection about a Motown colleague, Eric LaJuan Summers, who died of cancer in 2019, that puts the difficulties in perspective. As two of the Four Tops, they opened the show together. Christopher recalls that the night of the first preview, "Eric looked over at me and said, 'Remember this moment. You're a Broadway actor forever now.' I remember looking down at my feet in those patent leather shoes, and I took a snapshot in my mind. On the first day of tech [for Sweeney Todd], I walked up on the stage to that exact spot. I looked down at my feet and I took another snapshot."
In the decade since his Broadway debut, Christopher has gotten married, become a father and come into his own as an artist. Now Sweeney Todd has helped him reclaim the Lunt-Fontanne. "I'm able to change the narrative on this space now," he says. "I don't feel lost in the shuffle or like a little kid. I'm heard and respected as an actor." What's more, he gets to share this progression with his big brother, Jonathan Christopher, who's making his Broadway debut in Sweeney Todd's ensemble. "I feel like he's leading me through the space in a new way," he says.
Kimberly Akimbo is actually Steven Boyer's third show at the Booth Theatre. So, even though he plays a dysfunctional dad in the bittersweet musical comedy, he's serving as a kind of father figure for the many young cast members making their Broadway debuts in the production. "I was 22 when I did I'm Not Rappaport at the Booth [in 2002]," he says. "It was my first job out of school. I thought, oh, I landed a Broadway job. Everybody says this is so hard but look how easy it is! Then it was almost 15 years before I was back on Broadway."
Of course, Boyer's next Broadway show at the Booth, the outrageous 2015 satire Hand to God, turned out to be a game changer. While he recalls enduring "broken fingers and sweating my face off" playing a teenager whose hand puppet claims to be Satan, his uproarious performance earned him raves, recognition and a Tony nomination.
While Boyer considered warning his younger castmates about the trials and tribulations of the industry, he decided to focus on the "good juju" that he and his fellow "Boothians" are bringing to the space. His Kimberly Akimbo costar, Victoria Clark, also booked her first Broadway gig at the Booth as an understudy in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George (though she never went on). So, the newcomers in the cast can't help but be optimistic. "When I think of a Broadway house, when I picture one in my mind, it's the Booth," Boyer says. "I arrived late on the day that we were going to get the tour of the space, but I didn't need one. I ran right up to my dressing room. Everything just felt so familiar."
Grace McLean, who plays the loopy Queen in Bad Cinderella, is also enjoying being back in her old dressing room—it's the same one she used for her Broadway debut in 2016 in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre. This time, she gets it to herself. During The Great Comet, she shared it with Amber Gray, and the duo developed a post-performance ritual. "Amber and I went through a phase of drinking Fernet-Branca like old men after the show," she says. "I poured myself a little drop last night and thought of her."
The first time McLean walked into the Imperial for Bad Cinderella, she recalls being hit with "a flood of memories so visceral that I didn't know existed until I returned to the space." She also reflects on the "residue" left behind by actors who leave their autographs on the undersides of dressing tables. She laments that she can't find her Great Comet signature but plans to scrawl her name again for Bad Cinderella.
She also finds comfort in the theatre's spirits. During The Great Comet, McLean made a habit of warming up in the house left mezzanine bathroom, and she says she always felt "a palpable sort of sensation." One day, after her warm-ups, she got distracted and tripped, nearly falling down the stairs. "I felt something push me back up," she says. "I did not catch myself."
The next day, she returned for her same preshow ritual and all the toilets kept spontaneously flushing and she was met with that familiar sensation. "It felt like cats rubbing up against me," she says. "Just like this energy that was like, 'Hello, we're here.'" Upon returning seven years later for Bad Cinderella, she made a point to say hello. "I was back up in that bathroom yesterday, and I felt this buzzing electricity," she says. "It's very nice to see them again. I owe my life to the Imperial Theatre ghosts."
All three interviewees agree that actors must honor the history of the theatres they work in. "I really do believe that the energy of past shows and people in these places exists," says Christopher. Now they're drawing on the energy they left at these theatres years ago as they once again make these houses their homes—at least temporarily.
Top image: Steven Boyer, Nicholas Christopher and Grace McLean.