Christopher Jackson calls himself a "small-town boy who found himself in the city, trying to scratch out a place for himself." This is not unlike his character, Benny, in In the Heights, who is the outsider trying to find his niche in upper Manhattan's Washington Heights. The small-town Jackson hails from is Cairo, IL, where he notes fewer people live than can be found wandering on 42nd Street in a given five-minute period. Like Benny, Jackson grew up without a father around, but his music teacher mother got him singing and a schoolteacher helped push him towards acting. He is married, with a three-year-old son, and was happy to speak about moving with The Heights from Off-Broadway to The Big Show.
Question: How are things as Broadway looms?
Christopher Jackson: I'm staying busy. A little bit of rehearsal [laughs]. It's going really, really well. We're all very, very excited. It felt like a long way off, between the Off-Broadway run and this, so I'm quite thrilled.
Q: What was that layoff like, a time of uncertainty, or did you know you'd be coming back to the show?
Jackson: We knew. When we closed the production, it was sort of up in the air as to what theatre we'd be going to. There needed to be some work on the show. Everybody was putting their heads together to figure out what the timing for everything was going to be. But we knew it was going to be sometime around this time, so for the last three-and-a-half months, we've known where we were going, so it's been six months of a lot of anticipation and work.
Q: What types of changes were made?
Jackson: Our book writer [Quiara Alegria Hudes] was able to go back with the benefit of having such a long run at 37 Arts, he was able to watch it a lot. And, [songwriter/performer] Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to watch it, and everybody really used the time to see what worked, what didn't work and to keep everything that did and adjust everything that could be better. We already knew the show worked, but it was a case of enhancing everything. The story line — we [now] dig a little deeper, get a little bit more about the relationships between each character. Lin and Quiara have done a beautiful job, so you get a better idea of who these people are and what they want and how they go about trying to get it.
Q: Most importantly, did you get some more lines?
Jackson: [Laughs.] I wouldn't say it's a volume thing. I think it's just a matter of allowing me to go further with the character. Q: Take me back a little to how you got involved with the project and what your memory is of first hearing about it.
Jackson: I got a call from a very good friend of mine in November of 2002, and she had met Lin and Tommy [Kail, the director] and had done the very first New York City reading of In the Heights. They needed someone to come in. They were auditioning for Benny, and [my friend] thought I'd be perfect for it, so in December of '02, I met Tommy and Lin and Bill Sherman, the co-arranger and orchestrator, and we sat around the piano, and Lin played a song, and I picked it up from there. We did a reading in January of '03, and I've been a part of it ever since. I worked and collaborated with Lin and Tommy and Bill on several other projects. We went to Scotland and later played the Comedy Festival in Aspen, did a lot of things in the years in and around the Heights project. So Heights has informed a lot of the stuff that I've done since '03.
Q: Do you come from a hip-hop background, interest-wise?
Jackson: I think hip-hop is our generation's rock and roll, and it's relevant to our times, and it is what I grew up listening to. I grew up in the church, listening to hip-hop and singing gospel and R&B and country music from the South — whatever I happened to be listening to at the time. I have a real passion for a lot of different stuff.
Q: Have you been singing from a young age?
Jackson: I've been singing in public since I was three.
Q: What inspired you to act for the stage?
Jackson: I was grabbed out of nowhere by my high school drama teacher, from my very small high school in southern Illinois, and she said, "You know what, you should try this." So I joined the speech team and recognized that I had a passion for it. I've always loved to perform, and I wanted to try it. Right out of high school, I came to New York, and I attended American Musical and Dramatic Academy and studied musical theatre there for two years and just kind of jumped into it. I got an Off-Broadway show about two months after I graduated, and I was cast in the original company of The Lion King, moved on to play Simba there for several years, and I've done some regional things, but I love being on stage. I love the audience. I love the culture that is found on Broadway. It's a great family to be a part of. I love collaborative types of art. Theatre is the ultimate collaboration.
Q: Simba had to be a more physically demanding role than Benny, no?
Jackson: Yeah, much more. The nature of the shows is completely different, obviously. With Simba, you're playing the part of an animal, and you take on animal-type movement. Garth Fagan's choreography was very imaginative. [The role] had me swinging on vines and jumping around a very challenging set. I ended up having three knee surgeries from my time in The Lion King. Very physically demanding. Whereas things in In the Heights happen at street level, telling a story about real life. There are fewer acrobatics involved with Benny.
Q: What inspires you most about In the Heights on a personal level?
Jackson: It tells the story about regular people trying to do extraordinary things — like scratch out a living in a city that is not kind to people at large. It's a very hard city and a hard world, difficult times that we find ourselves in. The story of In the Heights is something that everyone relates to and can draw from. The themes that are depicted are ones that everyone, at some point, no matter what your economic status is or your family situation, it's a picture that everyone can see themselves in. From a theatrical standpoint, it's not a musicalized version of some film that we already know or have seen, it's an original piece of theatre, and it's told in a way that is accessible to kids from Iowa or folks that live on Fifth Avenue here in New York. It really tells the story in a way that is creative and fun and fresh and a way that I've never seen a story told. Ultimately, I think that's what good theatre accomplishes. You're able to tell a story that the people sitting there can see themselves in, and it isn't necessarily rooted in some sort of escapism, but more or less celebrating life as it's being lived on a daily basis. I think that that's where the power is. There's so much heart to this project that you can't help but feel good about taking that money and buying a ticket and sitting down in that theatre for two-and-a-half hours. It gives you something. You can actually walk away with something more than just the time spent.
Q: The whole ensemble won a Drama Desk Award. How exciting was that?
Jackson: Yeah, we were given a special award for Best Ensemble, which couldn't have been more fitting. It was absolutely fantastic to be able to stand onstage with everyone and know that we all contributed. We all were being recognized for what was a tremendous group effort. Eight shows a week for seven months. It was such an honor.
Q: It really seems to be a group of people working together for a cause, in a way. Is that the feeling of doing this show?
Jackson: Absolutely. I don't think it is lost on anyone that there aren't that many shows that feature brown faces, black faces on a stage in a large-scale commercial production. It's not lost upon us that we are both blazing trails and following those that have gone before us. Any time you put that many people on a stage telling a story such as the one we're telling, you stand a great chance of being able to change someone's perception of what life on a particular block is, or life for a particular people is about. It's a tremendous responsibility, and it is a privilege to be able to step on stage every night and tell it every single night. It's something that I tell the company. We circle up before every show, and something we're constantly reminding each other of is, "Somebody's mind is going to be changed tonight." Whether it is one person or a thousand people, it feels like a calling every time we step out on stage. Lin and Quiara and Tommy have given us such a beautiful show to do, to be able to speak to a lot of issues that are difficult to deal with on a daily basis.
Q: Have you imagined ahead to opening night, what it's going to be like?
Jackson: Not really. It's one day at a time right now. So many things are in flux and changing. We're still learning so many things. This whole process, the most difficult part about it is that we're working with a familiar piece, and at the same time, choreography and tracks that we had before are completely different, at different speeds, times and rhythms. So we are trying to re-familiarize ourselves with what we did and at the same time trying to throw it away and learn it from scratch, so you gotta wear several different hats at the same time. We had our first run-through of the first act, and afterwards we were all like, "Ah okay. This is the show." It's just been pieces here and pieces there as we're working on individual numbers. Opening night still seems a little out there in the distance. Once we get open for previews, then we'll be thinking about that.
Q: Seems like everything is coming together for you.
Jackson: It really does. I've been very blessed and very fortunate to have the opportunities that I've had. It makes it easy to get up and go to work every day. I'm really excited for what the future's going to bring and excited to get people to come see the show. It's going to be a fun time!
[In the Heights will begin previews on Feb. 14 and open March 9 at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th Street. Tickets range from $21.50 to $111.50, and can be purchased through www.Ticketmaster.com.]
Chad Doreck is still in Altar Boyz. He wants everyone to know that because internet rumors had his contract not being renewed. Not true, he says emphatically. He is happily part of the show, and happily enjoying his post-"You're the One That I Want" life on the East Coast. One bit of West Coast life the Orange County native is bringing east is his love for funk music. He will be performing a solo show at The Cutting Room on Feb. 21 with a full complement of horns and "The Chadillacs." We talked with him about Boyz, funk music and some of the funky oddities on his résumé.
Question: So you are still doing Altar Boyz, correct?
Chad Doreck: Still doing Altar Boyz! I'm getting great joy out of it. I would love to stamp that [rumor] out because I am having a great time, and I'll be sticking around for at least a little while longer. It was reported that my contract didn't get renewed, but I don't have a contract to renew in the first place. I love going to work every night, I love working with the guys and sending out that positive message every night.
Q: We talked to your co-star Ryan Strand last month about how unique the comedy of Boyz is to play.
Doreck: It's a balancing act. As an actor, you are aware that some things are supposed to be funny, but sometimes the comedy is written into the dialogue, and sometimes it's up to the actor. You have to walk the fine line of knowing you have to make it happen, but not playing for that. It's really interesting. Rex Harrison played in My Fair Lady all over the world, and I read something about how he would just minutely change things every night until he knew the best way to get the joke [across]. I do that, too, because sometimes things are not as funny if I say them when I'm standing up as when I'm sitting down, and I have to learn what those are.
Q: Tell us about your funk show at the Cutting Room.
Doreck: I am really excited. It's my first time playing my music outside of L.A., and I've got some fantastic players, incredible backup singers and session players who are going to be hitting the stage with me; it's going to be a great time. Interestingly, there is a big funk scene in New York, coming out of Brooklyn and Staten Island, and I am really hoping to be considered part of their world when I start playing here. The backup girls are the Chadillacs, a nickname I came up for them one day during one of my shows. It just came out of my mouth! I wanted to put together a new set [of my own music] with some fun covers. We are turning the Busta Rhymes song, "Got Y'All in Check" from a rap into an R&B song. It's going to be fun.
Q: Looking back, where do you mentally file "Grease: You're the One That I Want"?
Doreck: Well, at the time, and even now, it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done. Just the nerves of it and the amount of work they had us do and the pressure it put on my family — it was unreal — and at the same time, probably the biggest blessing I ever received. The people I met out of it have encouraged and inspired me, and I learned lessons in patience and forgiveness. I'm so happy I did it, and I know that some people have their qualms about a using a TV show to find a cast, but it's great for the actors, because a lot of us came off that show and right into jobs!
Q: With the talk of Legally Blonde using a similar casting method, what advice would you give girls auditioning?
Doreck: A mistake I made was that I was very concerned with how the editors and the producers and writers would portray me with the footage they shot. Naturally, I am outgoing and a leader, but I hid that to a certain extent, and I feel that had I gone into the situation with more abandon and just been myself, it would have been a more pleasurable experience. Q: Let's talk about some of the wild credits you have. When you were working on the music video for "Weird Science," did you know Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman would become the king of movie music?
Doreck: No, I think I was five or six [laughs]. I had a major crush on Kelly LeBrock though! I remember it very very vividly. [That job] actually inspired me to this day. My aunt was one of the pioneering music video people of the eighties, so she called me, and I fell in love with being on the set and begged my parents to let me go on auditions, and that's how I got started. Honestly, I still sort of feel a connection to Danny Elfman. I feel like he got me started. He doesn't know it, but he did.
Q: You had a run as the voice of Crackle from Rice Krispies fame? Any free cereal out of that?
Doreck: I was the voice for a while, through the early 2000s, but they have a propensity to recast those voices. Not a bite! Everyone assumes that it's a perk, but I've done somewhere in the ballpark of 200-300 commercials, and I've never gotten one free thing out of it ever. Once I was the spokesperson for a German chocolate company, and I got one single box of chocolates. This was on-camera work, too! Just one little box — it had five bars in it.
Q: How about your work in the musical classic "Jackass Number Two"?
Doreck: I know it sort of seems small, but being on the set of that was sort of fulfilling a lifelong dream. Though I love theatre, and I love the liveliness of it, I am a movie freak. I watch old movies all day and night, and all my favorite actors are old actors. During filming, we were on the biggest soundstage at Paramount, where so many of those old traditional musicals had been shot and filmed, and with the girls in the big costumes, it was like being on the set of a Busby Berkeley movie. One of the reasons I started acting in the first place was because of those movies, but no one is making that kind of stuff anymore.
Q:Lastly, "Texas Chainsaw Musical"?
Doreck: [Laughs.] Of all the things to pick off my résumé. You know, living in L.A., short films are part of your life, because if you're not doing one, then one of your friends is. I directed one called "Tupac is Dead," and that's on YouTube still getting a lot of hits. But anyway, a friend was doing "Chainsaw" to enter into an MTV contest, and he needed dancers and a choreographer, and I ended up being one of the finalists out of thousands. We were all dancing with our arms chopped off and with chainsaws and stuff. It was hilarious!
[Tickets for Altar Boyz, which plays New World Stages, are available at www.telecharge.com or at (212) 239-6200. For more information visit www.altarboyz.com or call (877) ABOYZ-411.]
HITHER AND YON
Congrats to recent Fantasticks and "Leading Men" alum, Doug Ullman Jr. for snagging the role of Hero in Forum at Florida Repertory Theatre. Stephen Mo Hanan will be Pseudolus . . . . Check out Beverly and Kirby Ward as part of the Broadway at Birdland series on March 3. Kirby was the original Bobby Child in the West End premiere of Crazy for You . . . . The Zipper Factory features Jason St. Little as Tits Fisher with "Kittens Kiss A Cabaret Voltaire," which promises to be utter insanity on Feb. 28 . . . . Thanks to Bill Keller and students in his journalism class at the University of Alabama who were kind enough to have me speak briefly about my work for Playbill.com. Appreciation for theatre knows no bounds!
Tom Nondorf can be reached at email@example.com.