Not long after rising to fame as one of the stars of Disney’s High School Musical, Corbin Bleu went with his dad to see In the Heights on Broadway and he leaned over to him early on and said, “If I was to do a Broadway show, it would have to be something like this.”
“My mind was just blown,” Bleu says. “It was something like I had never seen.”
At the time, Bleu was being offered the roles one might expect for someone beloved by tweens and teens around the world, but he was looking for something with a little more edge. That’s why when the call came in for him to play In the Heights’ Usnavi in 2010, he immediately said yes.
“I feel like In the Heights was the perfect show for my Broadway debut,” Bleu says. “When it was first announced I would be playing the role, there was a lot of opposition. First, they wondered why this Disney kid was playing a lead role in a Broadway production. Second, why I was playing a Dominican character, when I myself am Jamaican and Italian so I don’t have any Latino descent. But it ended up being received really well, and it was a very proud moment for me.”
Growing up a fan of big movie musicals, Bleu was quickly enamored with Broadway. It wasn’t long before he was back on the stage in Godspell, playing Jesus in 2012.
But around 2016 something interesting happened. Bleu was cast as Ted Hanover in the old-school Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical at Studio 54. He followed that up playing Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain at St. Louis’ famed Muny in 2018, and then Billy Crocker in Anything Goes at Arena Stage in D.C.
“The past several years I have just really loved performing in these classic, Golden Age musicals,” he says. “These just felt like a great fit to me and apparently, others have seen that too, and I have continued to get asked to do these types of projects.”
While it might seem odd that the cool, basketball playing, hip-hop-loving Chad from the famed Disney franchise was playing these roles, when taking a deeper dive into Bleu’s background, the performer’s skills and sensibility actually make him a perfect fit for these nostalgia musicals.
“I grew up dancing first, then acting and music came a little bit later in life,” he says. “I’ve always had a little more trepidation with singing and part of that was vocally, I wasn’t sure where my voice fit. Whenever I sing this style of music, my voice seems to lend to it for some reason, so I found a comfort there. Stylistically, I feel the sound of the music of this era fits my voice and my personality.”
As a child, Bleu was mesmerized by the films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and admits he wishes we still lived in a time where those big MGM contracts were still around because he would love to be able to jump from musical film to musical film in that era.
He is a big fan of the romantic music, the beautiful scenery, the melodic storytelling and the suspension of disbelief that is allowed in these types of musicals.
“If you go to see a contemporary musical, sometimes you see it with a contemporary eye and certain jokes and certain elements of romance, you don’t quite believe,” he says. “But when you’re watching in this light and this era, you fall into a bubble and just suspend belief and enjoy everything about it.”
For Bleu, one of the draws of working at Arena Stage is its history and the important role it’s played in the theatre world.
“Plus, the fact that Molly Smith was directing this piece, it was hard to say no,” Bleu says. “We’re doing this in the round, so that’s interesting. Anything Goes is a great production to do this way because it’s madcap and I like to say similar to a Scooby-Doo episode because people are walking in and out of doors constantly and there’s disguises everywhere. There’s a lot of juggle and being in the round gives you eyes in every direction.”
Another draw was that Parker Esse, the show’s choreographer, leaned into the actor’s dance expertise.
“Billy Crocker doesn’t usually dance that much and he’s not even in the big tap number, but Parker built it in so I am involved and tapping in it,” he says. “Tap has always been my favorite to perform and I’m excited that I am getting the chance to do that in this.”
Bleu brings a new audience to some of these classic shows, as well. Many of the youngsters who grew up watching him in the trio of High School Musical films are now in their 20s, and have come out to see him in his new vehicles, even if they are not familiar with this type of musical.
“I think these younger generations going to a show that they might not be interested in otherwise is really a wonderful thing,” he says. “There’s so much history and beauty in these classic musicals. When they go to see it, if it is the case that they are coming to see me, I really hope they are walking away with so much more.”
Still, he laughs when he meets people after the show, having finished two and half hours of giving his all (“my heart and soul, blood, sweat and tears”) on the stage and the first thing they say to him is, “I loved you as Chad!”
“It cracks me up sometimes, but I can’t complain,” he says. “It’s definitely a namesake and something that has led me to where I am today.”
After Anything Goes, Bleu will have about a week off before heading into rehearsals on January 1 for Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, another classic that returns the actor to Studio 54, where this whole wave of Golden Age musicals began.
“I’m really looking forward to working with [director] Scott Ellis and [choreographer] Warren Carlyle and being back at Studio 54 again,” he says. “It’s a killer cast and of course, I’m really looking forward to playing that part [Lucentio/Bill Calhoun]. That role has always been more of a dancer’s role and the main number is a big tap number, which is where I live. I’m itching to get started on that.”
And while he carves a strong path in musicals of this time period, Bleu does hope to once again do a contemporary piece on the stage.
“I am enjoying the softer, more romantic vibe I am doing now, but I also feel I can do a contemporary rap, too,” he says. “In the Heights was probably my favorite project that I ever worked on in my entire career and I’d love to do something along those lines again. Also, it would be nice to do some straight plays, and I’m enjoying the prospect of diving into Shakespeare now with Kiss Me, Kate. I know what I can do and I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I just want to experience all that I can.”
Kiss Me, Kate plays Broadway’s Studio 54 (254 W 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues) in a limited engagement run with performances from February 14, 2019, an opening night scheduled for March 14, 2019, and a closing scheduled for June 2, 2019. Click here for tickets and information.