When The Will Rogers Follies premiered on Broadway in April of 1991, Jerry Mitchell didn't expect to be standing center stage again, especially not in a tiny loincloth with a G-string up the back, a Native American headdress atop his head and bells on his ankles.
Jeff Calhoun, who today is the Tony-nominated director-choreographer of Broadway's Newsies, was assisting Tommy Tune on his latest Broadway musical at the time, The Will Rogers Follies. He and Mitchell had become friends during the shooting of the movie adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Calhoun was in search of a very specific type of male dancer to join the cast of The Will Rogers Follies.
"Look, I need someone who can do an Indian dance, and you've gotta sing in this quartet, but you gotta be in great shape," Mitchell recalled Calhoun saying. "I remember when he asked me if I was interested, I pulled up my shirt and said, 'Look at me! I'm just out of a relationship. I'm in the best shape of my life. This is my revenge. Get me on stage!'"
Months later Mitchell was back in the spotlight, showcased as "Indian of The Dawn" in The Will Rogers Follies. "Ring those bells baby," Mitchell laughed referencing Tune's choreography for the sequence. "And I did. I rang those bells to the tune of Valentino sending me a diamond and sapphire cross backstage. I was the modern-day Ziegfeld Girl."
But the eight-show-a-week grind and all the attention, not to mention the diamonds and sapphires, were enough to keep Mitchell distracted from what was going on within the Broadway community and the gay population in New York City.
After leaving the cast of On Your Toes in the mid-1980s, chorus-kid Mitchell was ready to retire from the line. He had four Broadway shows and a movie musical under his belt and followed his time in the chorus as an assistant to legendary director-choreographer Michael Bennett.
It was Bennett and co-choreographer Bob Avian who first saw Mitchell at an audition for A Chorus Line during college and gave him a job in the first national tour of the musical on the spot. He joined the tour two weeks later, immediately following his sophomore year of college.
But by the time The Will Rogers Follies opened in 1991, Bennett had been gone for four years, losing his battle to AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987.
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