Before signing on to star as Dames at Sea's tap-happy sailor Dick, Cary Tedder was enlisted for the ensemble of the Japanese-American drama Allegiance (a project he had to withdraw from in order to take the principal contract at Dames).
"I did a reading of Allegiance four years ago, and then I did the workshop of Dames at Sea a year-and-a-half ago, so these were seeds that had been planted sometime back," says 28-year-old Tedder, who's been working on Broadway since he finished his freshman year of college at the University of Michigan. "In my experience, if someone tells you you're going to Broadway, you're not. Unless you're standing on the stage with the footlights blaring and the audience there, you're not going to Broadway, so you just have to be very careful."
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So, Tedder put in the work — auditioning and workshopping — until everything came together for two shows at the same time.
"A number of the shows that I booked have been [because] they need someone last minute," he explains. "They have a huge call, and then they go, 'You! We want you. You start rehearsal in two weeks.' And then there's the other approach, which I think is a lot more fulfilling artistically, which is to approach it from the groundwork — to do either a reading or a workshop. To see it through and just sit in the chairs — see what the material offers."
This summer, after getting the call that he was headed back to Broadway in Allegiance, "I got a call not two weeks later from my agent, saying, 'Dames at Sea got a theatre.' I thought, 'Oh, no!' or rather, 'Oh, yes!' Obviously, you want to pick a show that you think will have the longest-running life or help be a vehicle for what you do, and I think that obviously you would want to pick a principal contract over a chorus contract."
But, before starring on Broadway, Tedder frequently found himself in shows that were short-lived. He made his debut in The Times They Are A-Changin' and went onto dance in musicals such as Big Fish and Honeymoon in Vegas (two projects that, despite their anticipation to bow on Broadway, didn't find footing at the box office). Dames at Sea marks his first starring role on the Great White Way and, also, his first big Broadway challenge — tap dancing.
"When they first called me in [to audition for Dames at Sea], it was two days before the opening of Big Fish," he says. "My agents called me and said, 'Binder [Casting] wants you to come in and audition for the Dames at Sea workshop,' and I was like, 'Can I please mount this new Broadway show, please?!' It's amazing that once you get the job, they still want you to audition for other jobs, and they said, 'It's…a tap show.' I said, 'That's absurd. I'm not a nearly versed-enough tapper to be in a [director-choreographer] Randy Skinner show.' I just said no flat out. They said okay.
"Big Fish opened. Not two days later, they called me and said, 'Binder really wants you to come in for this!' I said, 'Harrumph! Fine. Let's do this.' I walked in there, and Randy watched me dance, and he said, 'You.' I said, 'Me? What, are you serious?' I think his [thought] was, 'We could teach you tap sounds. We can't teach you how to dance with joy. That's something that you have to come in with.'
"Dance has such an interesting place in theatre because you don't think of many leads as being dancers, and there's that old cliché [that] leading men don't dance. But, I argue that the best leading men dance. In my book, dance should not be relegated to the background — to circle around the singing star while they stand there and belt a high note. Dance is the height of human expression. It's a direct form of communication, and when people see somebody dancing with joy, it's contagious. Or, likewise, [when] somebody sees another person dancing in sorrow and bereavement that translates without words — without symbols.
"Of course, too, I think part of the reason dance sometimes gets shuffled to the background is because it requires the most dedication and time and effort and injury, and you can only do it for so long. We all struggle. All pain hurts the same, but when dancers work immediately, they may not work for long, so my whole goal has been [to] get the foot in the door, and then with each job, take a step forward or take a step upward, but it can't be a step downward or backward. You have to take only jobs that will allow you to move forward because I know when I'm in my 40s, 50s and 60s, I'm probably still not going to be dancing like I'm dancing in Dames at Sea while I'm 28. It's very important to set groundwork so that eventually, people can say, 'Oh, we know what this guy can do' or 'We know what this guy used to do.' Long after Gene Kelly's dancing days, they still knew him as a great dancer, but [Dames at Sea is], like I said, a dream come true."
How does Tedder keep the dream alive, especially after moving from one brief Broadway endeavor (The Times They Are A-Changin', 28 performances; Big Fish, 98 performances) to the other (Honeymoon in Vegas, 93 performances)?
"I think I learned this in Big Fish — protect your heart. You can invest so much in the show, but never invest your whole heart," he says. "With Big Fish, a lot of us in that cast felt devastating blow after devastating blow… Cast members were getting sick, breaking their ankles, one of our dressers died, one of the girls in our cast had to have her gallbladder removed. People were dropping like flies, and it was a show that had so much 'dream' and 'magic' in it, it was just surrounded by darkness, death and negativity. It was actually very, very heartbreaking to experience. I think that was a big lesson to me in like: Protect your heart."
He adds, "I think sometimes, when people are too willing to give away too much of themselves, others come along and break it and sh*t on it. And, as we all learn, living in New York, there are plenty of people who are more than willing to do that to you."