The Secrets to Broadway Bodies: How Performers Stay Trim, Toned and Tight

Special Features   The Secrets to Broadway Bodies: How Performers Stay Trim, Toned and Tight Broadway stars, chorus troopers, medical specialists and a theatre ninja from Mark Fisher Fitness (where Broadway goes to get "snatched"), share secrets from behind the scenes — and at the gym — to stay healthy and flexible onstage and off.
Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.
Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Matthew Murphy

Who doesn't want a Broadway body? Actors on Broadway, like athletes, face particularly taxing physical demands, thanks in part to their eight-show work week and the repetitive movements they're tasked with executing each performance in their respective shows. As a result many are extremely fit, especially if their roles require a chiseled look or are built around their level of physical agility. Several performers, as well as physical therapists, and a Mark Fisher trainer, recently spoke with Playbill.com about their fitness routines, the unique challenges of their respective shows, and whether or not a Broadway body is necessary to find your way in the profession.

For Ramin Karimloo, currently playing Jean Valjean in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables, fitness is built into the role he plays eight times a week. Karimloo took inspiration from Hugh Jackman in the film version when preparing for his current run in the show. "I liked how he was getting in shape for the part," he says, "and how strong he was getting, because strength conditioning is conducive to Jean Valjean. That's all Valjean had: hard labor. He managed to not let his body deteriorate. That's what I love about Valjean is he let his body become his sword as well as his mind. So however he did back then, he thought, 'I'm going to get stronger, because when I come out I'm going to take revenge on the world.'"

Ramin Karimloo hits the gym with actor Alec Varcas
Ramin Karimloo hits the gym with actor Alec Varcas Photo by Instagram

Karimloo embarked on a six-month exercise regimen to prepare for the role, inspired by his wife, a fitness professional who introduced him to the Insanity workout, a home fitness program and nutrition plan that helped him achieve his Valjean body. He recalled his reaction after the first day's workout. "At the end of that 25 minutes, I was a pool of sweat on the floor. She [Karimloo's wife] had to pick me up and literally put me in the shower." Though he embarked on a tour with his band shortly after beginning Insanity, he experienced fast results and decided to continue even while on the road. Of the noticeable changes in his body that he began to observe, he noted, "For me, recognition of progress is fuel."

Katie Webber, currently performing in Honeymoon in Vegas, maintains a heightened awareness of her fitness routine and diet as a result of the show's revealing costumes. When Webber has down time during the show, she'll build exercise into her backstage routine. "If I have a 15-minute break or a 10-minute break," she says, "I have some weights in the dressing room and I'll do some five-pound weights with my arms, or if I have a minute I'll do some sit-ups or squats. I'm the girl that's so annoyingly stage right, waiting for my entrance, doing leg-lifts." Webber goes to the gym, but she prefers 20-minute bursts of running on the treadmill to a more intense weight-based workout. "The idea of working out in a gym is so not attractive to me," she says, "so I love to be able to just get it in where I can fit it in."

Paul Canaan, an Angel in Broadway's Kinky Boots and one of the show's assistant dance captains, works out at the gym five times a week and takes over the physical therapy room backstage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre before each show to spend some time doing yoga and stretching. His exercise routine has developed over the course of several stints on Broadway. "I have a pretty set yoga, stretching, resistance band thing," he says, "that I trust gets my whole body warm and ready, which I didn't have when I was younger in New York — I was just kind of winging it... A body is an imperfect thing, and you've got to be ready for anything. You have to eat right, drink a lot of water, exercise, especially in a Jerry Mitchell show. He'll kill you."

Canaan's fellow Angel Joey Taranto agrees. "Eight shows a week is not for a wuss," he says. "You have to stay physically and mentally on top of your game in order to perform and perform at a Broadway caliber... A Broadway show is so demanding in itself that you have to do everything you can to meet the demands."

Katie Webber backstage
Katie Webber backstage Photo by Instagram

Though Taranto says that the pressure he feels to look the part comes more from within than from the production team, Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak has felt pressure in the past. "I like to look good in my clothes, in a bikini and in life," she says, "I learned at a young age the hard way. I was once put on weight warning in a show. Yes, they can do that."

Rak has since gone on to be known as one of the fittest among her peers on Broadway and has performed many times as part of Broadway Bares, an annual celebration of Broadway bodies that also serves as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Of her time in Broadway Bares, Rak says, "At the time when I started Bares, you had to be in a Broadway show, so once I got in a show, and that show was Fosse, I signed up. It took a year and some coaxing to get Jerry Mitchell to agree for me to play Wonder Woman. I had done a Wonder Woman number when I was six years old, so I gave him the photo and said, 'This must happen.'"

Angels Canaan and Taranto have experienced physical setbacks during their time in Kinky Boots. Canaan broke one of his toes executing a dance move at director Jerry Mitchell's house, ultimately missing two months of performances and utilizing the show's physical therapists during his recovery. Taranto broke a foot a mere two days after the show's opening when his heel caught on the edge of a runway that's part of the show's set, missing 11 weeks of performances. When performers are out of commission, they often count on physical therapists, some of the unsung heroes of the Broadway community, to help them make a safe and speedy recovery. While Rak was performing in Oklahoma!, she had a hip tear that required surgery and a year in and out of a physical therapist's office. "I did everything she said and more," Rak says. "I went into the next show three months after therapy, but it took one year for me to be able to do all of my acrobatic tricks. Therapy is the only way to remain on Broadway for me."

Rachelle Rak
Rachelle Rak

The job of a physical therapist isn't limited to rehabbing injuries though. Physical therapists, who are often employed by a show's producers, place the majority of their focus on exercises and techniques to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place.

Sean Gallagher, a founder and director of Performing Arts Physical Therapy, the specialty practice that provides services for Kinky Boots as well as a number of other Broadway productions, understands the importance of his work for the theatre community. "Physical therapists who work with performers," he says, "understand the body and the injuries and the mechanism of injuries that are specific to this population of people." He emphasizes that anatomy, biomechanics, ergonomics and physiology all come into play.

He and his colleague Amanda Ting make sure to analyze the needs of an individual production early on in the run. "With every show," Ting says, "I look at what the performers are doing with respect to choreography and staging, the presence of a raked stage or automation, how the costumes and footwear may be affecting their posture and overall movement, if they lift or carry props, and the overall endurance it takes for each particular track." Ting says the most common issues faced by Broadway performers include "ankle sprains…Achilles tendinitis, patellofemoral pain, knee meniscal injuries, hamstring strains, hip labral tears, low back pain and rotator cuff tendinitis."

Chris Koerner, a physical therapist at Neurosport Physical Therapy, which works with John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch in addition to a number of other shows, describes what actors do as being akin to those in athletic professions. "A lot of our time, at least when we're first introducing ourselves to a new client, is actually convincing them that they are professional athletes, especially some of these high-level performers in terms of dance and movement, and they need to maintain their bodies as such."

The Angels spend time in the Dominican Republic with Jerry Mitchell
The Angels spend time in the Dominican Republic with Jerry Mitchell

For Rak, her time in Starlight Express was the embodiment of this actor-athlete comparison. The show, she says, "demanded me not only to be a dancer but to become an athlete. The entire show was done on roller skates, and so I was taken completely out of my comfort zone and off my feet and into skates." For the Angels in Kinky Boots, as well as Hedwig's stars, heels present a similar challenge. In providing physical therapy for Hedwig, Natalie Kinghorn, who is a director of Neurosports along with Koerner, has found "the one thing that's consistently been there — you know, you're talking about males playing a female role — so they're in heels and they're jumping, so there's consistently been, not serious injuries, but cumulative trauma to knees and ankles. They're jumping, and then in the meantime you have to stabilize yourself above that so you can sing the mess out of the show for an hour-and-a-half."

The challenges in working with a specific cast are often informed by the physical circumstances of their workplace. Ting says, "I currently work with the cast and crew of Matilda the Musical, which is performed on a raked stage. As part of physical therapy for the show, we provide an injury prevention lecture to address the difficulties encountered with performing on a rake and exercises to help alleviate its effects. In the lecture, we teach alignment exercises to be performed on the stage before the show to acclimate the body to the rake and then after the show on an even surface to realign the posture."

Aside from working backstage with physical therapists, time at the gym is key for the performers we surveyed. Geoff Hemingway, a former performer and a trainer at Mark Fisher Fitness in midtown (his wife is Broadway actress Rose Hemingway), praises his gym's unique approach to fitness.

Mark Fisher, which takes up several storefronts on 39th Street, has thus far maintained a small but loyal clientele. The gym's facilities, which are painted in neon colors, reflect that colorful approach to fitness. Their mascot is a unicorn, and those who work out there are called ninjas. "You come here and people know your name," Hemingway says, "It's very much 'Cheers.'" Along the way, Mark Fisher Fitness has been touted as one of the go-to gyms for Broadway performers. (Patina Miller very publicly developed her Pippin arms thanks to Mark Fisher's trainers.)

Patina Miller in <i>Pippin</i>
Patina Miller in Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus

Of the gym's Broadway clients, Hemingway says, "I think that the performer side of them really embraces what we have to offer. It's kind of off-kilter, a little loosey-goosey with the scary, yell-y sports discipline part of it. Some other gyms, you'll get guys who just scream at you, and we scream at you but the things we say at you are funny, like we scream musical theatre references at you."

Hemingway has found that his theatrical ninjas each come in with their own unique set of needs. "Whether it's 'I have to be shirtless in this show and I want to be ripped,' or we have a lot of people who come in and they're like, 'Hey man, I'm about to go off and do 42nd Street, and every time I do three time-steps in a row I'm out of breath; I need to get better conditioning.' That's a big part of what we do, because so many shows, especially if you're in the ensemble and you're dancing a ton, the physical conditioning is ridiculous, so we help condition them and get their air flow and help them so they know how to breathe when they're under stress, when they're in that fight-or-flight situation." Hemingway says knowing your type is an important component of developing a fitness routine. "By the time they get to us," he says, "people know their roles in that community — they know what they're going in for. They know if they're leading man, leading woman, ingénue, or character guy, and they just want to come in and feel great."

Terence Archie and Andy Karl in <i>Rocky</i>
Terence Archie and Andy Karl in Rocky Photo by Matthew Murphy

Occasionally, though, the gym pulls in ninjas who want to move from one type to another. He recalls one particularly memorable client. "When she started," Hemingway says, "she was like, 'I just played Tracy Turnblad in this regional production of Hairspray. That was my dream role, and now I've done it and I don't want to be fat anymore.'" Since coming in to Mark Fisher, she's shed about 50 pounds and is now being seen for ingénue roles. Despite the effects that a physical transformation can have for a performer, Hemingway still maintains that confidence is key above all else. He says, "I think a lot of people get wrapped up in that stigma of a Broadway body. I see a lot of people coming in and they're like, 'Man, if I can just get fit I'll work all the time,' and that's not true. The fitness doesn't breed work. I think the confidence from exploring something new or learning that you can do something, that you have the skills in you, that all it takes is just a little bit of time to learn the skills, I think that's what breeds work."

Karimloo, for his part, agrees. He says that, for him, "it's about being happy, because you can be in the best shape possible, but if you walk into an audition and you're not confident in yourself and you're not prepared and you're not happy — or for whatever reason you're not in your zone, on your A-game — well, it doesn't matter. It's like having a beautiful car with no engine. You've got to take care of the engine first, and I think all shapes and sizes should be celebrated."

Canaan says, "There's a place for everybody, especially in [Kinky Boots]. In the big finale of our show, there's every shape and color on that stage – there's humongous guys in boots and little tiny drag queens and young girls and older women." Kinky Boots is just one of many shows that require different types to make up their diverse casts. Ultimately, Hemingway says, "it's that inner confidence — knowing that you feel good, that you feel your best."

Karimloo in <i>Les Miz</i>
Karimloo in Les Miz Photo by Matthew Murphy
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