For a long-running Tony winner like The Book of Mormon, which now has four productions running around the world, the door constantly opens to welcome new members to the Mormon family. It’s not unusual for producers to cast one actor from a particular mounting in a different incarnation of that show, moving actors like chess pieces between Broadway, national tours and the West End. But what are the odds one show employs four performers in four separate productions—who have all graduated from the same high school—in the same calendar year? Such is the case for K.J. Hippensteel, Jevares Myrick, Billy Harrigan Tighe and Ryan Breslin, who each “served a Mormon mission” in 2014, with Hippensteel, Tighe and Myrick still performing in a version of the show. All four actors graduated Pebblebrook High School’s magnet program: Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts (CCCEPA) in Mableton, GA.
“When I heard I was cast, I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap! Three of my other buddies from high school are in the same show!’” exclaims Myrick, class of 2003 who currently serves as a swing and assistant dance captain on the show’s second national tour.
“I’ve always known that these guys were perfectly right for the show, but you never dream that you’d be working on the same thing as friends who you’ve known more than half of your life!” says Hippensteel, class of 2002 currently playing Elder Price in London’s West End.
Tighe, also class of 2003 (who currently plays Elder Price on the first national tour), Hippensteel, and Myrick all attended the magnet program at the same time with Breslin following behind in the class of 2007. To say the trio was close in high school would be an understatement.
“We [were so inseparable it felt like we] lived together for three years,” says Hippensteel. “We would go to school in the morning, and at night we would rehearse for the next show or performance. We were together every weekday from 7:30 AM to 10 PM.”
Myrick recalls sharing several dance and vocal classes with Hippensteel and Tighe, as well as singing alongside the two in the Pebblebrook Men’s Quartet.
Their connection to Mormon’s creators dates back to high school, as well. “When K.J. and I first became friends, the first time I spent the night at his house, we stayed up late and watched BASEketball [the 1998 film starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone],” says Tighe. “I still find it amusing that our friendship began by bonding over a love of Parker and Stone.”
Breslin and Myrick were also huge fans of Parker and Stone’s South Park, which drew them to the show; their roles match their senses of humor to a tee. All four were goofballs in high school—which made them each a fit for the irreverant production. Yet, they each bring their individuality to their parts—Hippensteel his leadership, Tighe his warmth, Myrick his calm and Breslin his quirkiness. They joke that they were required to be clean-cut as part of school policy, “so we’ve always looked a little Mormon,” says Hippensteel.
Breslin is a few years younger than the other three, but that’s not to say their paths didn’t cross before Mormon. “When Pebblebrook students graduate, they often return to their old stomping grounds to give back to the students [that come] after them,” Breslin explains. “So, Billy and Jevares actually taught my classes a lot when I was in school. They would choreograph, teach, arrange music… you name it.”
Breslin later met up with Hippensteel when he joined the Broadway company of Mormon from June to November of 2014. (Hippensteel had been with the show since November 2012). “It’s always nice to have a familiar face in your company to make transitions easier,” Breslin says. Hippensteel also overlapped with Myrick when Myrick joined the Broadway cast in December 2014 before shipping off on the second national tour in January 2015.
“It was kind of surreal,” says Hippensteel, of performing on Broadway with Myrick. “[Watching him] I had these flashbacks from when we were in high school together, and [in class] wearing spandex silver pants. It’s pretty amazing.”
Of course, none of their success would be possible without the help and guidance of Mr. Frank Timmerman. As director of performing arts at CCCEPA, he taught all of these men—and immediately recognized the potential in each of them.
“You can tell right away when kids come into the program if they’ve ‘got it,’” says Timmerman. “And all four of these guys ‘had it,’ and it was not something any of them had really had experience [with] until they got to high school,” he says. “But once they got into the performing arts magnet program, they realized it was their niche.”
Though Timmerman saw the natural fit, the boys remember the challenge of their curriculum. “I was forced to work hard,” says Hippensteel. “We didn’t have a choice at Pebblebrook. It was a way of life.” “I was surrounded by a unique group of highly talented students,” says Tighe. “That level of competition forced us all to work constantly to stay in competition with each other.” Their education set each of them on a path towards success in professional performance.
“I didn’t understand how special my situation was,” says Hippensteel. “I thought it was something available all over the country. When I describe my experiences in high school to my peers in the business, they are always blown away.” “Attending a high school with an intense arts based curriculum allowed us time to focus on learning new skills and developing the basics for the toolbox we use today,” says Tighe. Timmerman says the guys all showed strength in acting and singing, but dancing was new territory.
“Having any sort of dance background, especially as a guy, in this business is ridiculously valuable,” says Hippensteel. “I simply wouldn’t be here, in this show, [or] in any show if it weren’t for Pebblebrook High School.”
It’s safe to say that, for the foursome, their growth and confidence in the classroom has translated into their professional lives—and they thank Timmerman (or, as they call him, “Mr. T”). “Whenever I’m onstage I’m always using his wisdom in regards to singing and performing,” says Myrick. “But his advice spanned beyond the stage, as well. He gave us advice on how to sustain a career in the arts.”
“Frank Timmerman instilled in us a discipline to constantly strive for improvement,” says Tighe. “I learned from him that being an artist or performer is never something you’re done working for. There’s always a facet of your skill set that can be honed or delved into for further growth.” Perhaps it’s that teaching that renders these boys such a match for Elder Price, who learns a similar lesson on his journey.
Tighe, in the unique position of sharing a role with Hippensteel, says the two share a special bond as part of an “Elder Price support group,” as he calls it. “We occasionally share insights or stories from what’s happened [during a show], or we discuss ways to overcome the physical/vocal demands of the show.” Tighe agrees, “It’s nice to have a friend who not only understands the ins and outs of the show, but who I also have a history with that has existed from when we were 13.”
“It’s really not a stretch for [Billy] to do the role of Elder Price,” Timmerman says. “[Price] is exactly the kind of kid he was… wide-eyed, [full of] big dreams, [and] nice as can possibly be… the kind of kid you want all the other kids to be around and emulate.” But not all of them were shoo-ins in Timmerman’s mind. “I never would’ve thought on that first day meeting [K.J.] that he would ever be somebody doing a lead role in the West End,” says Timmerman. Hippensteel was a shy kid who started voice lessons with Timmerman. The teacher couldn’t believe the young talent wasn’t in performing arts school and promptly had him audition for the program. “For me, to watch that progression to have seen how he’s developed [from the very beginning] is just great.”
And the skills of these graduates extend beyond the spotlight. “Jevares is incredibly talented,” he says. “[In addition to being an actor], he’s also a very gifted composer. He even still does some arrangements for us for shows that we do at the high school.” He adds that Myrick is currently working on a new hip-hop musical, iLLA, which is based, in part, on his experiences at Pebblebrook and premiered at last summer’s New York Musical Theatre Festival.
The actors were able to test creative waters while at CCCEPA, and Tighe emphasizes to current Pebblebrook students, and all aspiring performers “high school and college are the best times to embarrass yourself over and over, working to improve [yourself],” adds Tighe. “Work hard to grow at what you’re good at, but also, take a long, hard look at where you need improvement, and work on that [too].”
“What’s neat for our current kids,” adds Timmerman, “is that they get to see all these graduates out there doing what they dreamed of doing. They begin to realize that they came from the same county, the same high school. So, [they think,] ‘We can go on and do that, too.’”
Indeed, they can, if history is any indication, as the success of Pebblebrook alums extends beyond just The Book of Mormon. Cary Tedder, late of Dames at Sea, was also a Pebblebrook grad (he even invited Mr. T as his opening night guest), as was Cody Williams, most recently of On the Town, and Sarah Jane Everman, who will open in her latest Broadway show, Bright Star, later this month.
In fact, come April, when Tuck Everlasting opens at the Broadhurst Theatre, it’ll mark the 54th show on Broadway to include a Pebblebrook alum. While that number may seem overwhelmingly large to some, Tighe, isn’t surprised. “I think it all comes down to the fact that there are so many talented alums from Pebblebrook in NYC.”
“As a teacher, [it’s] the greatest thing to see these kids go on and make lives that they can get up wanting to go do every day,” says Timmerman. “And to get to sit out in the audience and watch them shine on stage…. it’s just the best reward I could ever ask for.”
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more information, including additional writing samples, he encourages you to visit MattSmithTheatre.com.