As we gathered in the dance studios at Ripley Grier Studios in midtown Manhattan, it's clear that the bond between former Top 20 "So You Think You Can Dance" contestants Ariana DeBose (Season 6), Neil Haskell (Season 3), Evan Kasprzak (Season 5) and Jess LeProtto (Season 8) is something unique. Although each of them competed on a different season of the show, the quad of Broadway performers are all tied together by their experiences on the show, especially the show’s grueling audition process, "Vegas Week." "You literally see people collapsing!" Haskell exclaimed. But the four of them made it to the Top 20 on the show and now are making it on Broadway with a whopping 15 Broadway credits amongst them.
We sat down with DeBose, Haskell, Kasprzak and LeProtto to get the low down on their dancing influences, "Vegas Week" and who gets free ice cream for the rest of their life. 5, 6, 7, 8…
What are you currently working on?
Jess LeProtto: I just finished a month run at The Old Globe for a new musical production of In Your Arms, directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli.
Evan Kasprzak: I just got back from doing a short stint on the Newsies [North American] tour. I'm currently working on a "BC Beat" piece with Andy Blankenbuehler, and I will be in a pretty exciting film by the Coen Brothers entitled "Hail, Cesar!" that's releasing this winter.
Neil Haskell: I'm currently in Hamilton, an American Musical.
Ariana DeBose: And, I'm currently in Hamilton, an American Musical. I am "The Bullet." And, I make a little cameo in a little VH1 pilot called "The Breaks" that comes out on Jan. 4.
What is one surprising fact about you?
AD: I feel like I'm so straightforward there are no surprises, but I get free ice cream for the rest of my life…
NH: Oh my God!
How do you get free ice cream?
AD: I won a dance contest when I was 18, so I have a [does air quotes] "lifetime supply" of ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery. [Everybody is really excited. And jealous.]
JL: Are you kidding me?
NH: That's awesome! I want that!
AD: So, some people might call that "surprising." Yeah, it was like a whole thing. I came to New York and danced at Madam Tussauds, and Fergie judged [the competition]. It was so weird but fun because you're dancing in front of wax people.
How does that work? Do you have a card?
AD: Well, it's like a series of their gift cards, so I just never run out.
EK: They just keep sending you gift cards?
AD: Sort of. Yeah, it's crazy. It's fun. When I first won, I ate a lot of ice cream. [Everybody laughs.]
Alright, Neil, you're up. What is one surprising fact?
NH: Can we come back to me? I got distracted by her free ice cream story.
Do you have a hidden talent or anything?
AD: Can you burp your ABC's?
NH: Yeah, that's not hidden though. [Everybody laughs.]
Okay, we'll come back to you. Evan?
EK: Usually I use that I was on "So You Think You Can Dance," so that one is not going to fly. [Everybody laughs.] Surprising fact? I built my own car.
That's incredible! Jess?
JL: I go to school. I'm a part-time student at Pace University studying Musical Theatre.
That's great! Neil, back to you…
NH: I think everybody is always surprised that I'm a twin.
JL & EK [simultaneously]: I didn't know that.
NH: Well, there's the surprise!
There you go, we're all surprised!
AD: Is it fraternal or identical?
AD: Wow, that's amazing.
Growing up, who inspired you to dance?
AD: Ann Reinking. I saw that "Annie" movie, and I was all about it! [Does a dance move.] "We Got Annie!"
NH: Tiger Martina.
EK: Gene Kelly.
JL: There's a ton. It's a long list…
EK: Yeah, because you go through different people [who] inspire a whole inspirational phase and you at different ages.
JL: Yeah, it's like Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, Michael Jackson…
EK: Michael Jackson, that's a good one.
JL: …James Brown, Elvis…
AD: Yes! Elvis!
JL: There are a lot of figures that are definitely a big impact.
AD: I feel so unintelligent now that you said 500 of them, but I thought this was rapid fire! [Everybody laughs.]
JL: I don't know! It's kind of hard to narrow it down to one person, and then you can talk about people today like Andy [Blankenbuehler] and Chris [Gattelli]. There are a lot of great people out there that are still making an impact.
EK: It's like all of the old, classic greats, too, like Bob Fosse…
AD: Michael Bennett, Donna [McKechnie]…
EK: Yeah, Jerome Robbins, all of them.
JL: It's a lot of great people.
What was your favorite dance that you did on "So You Think You Can Dance"?
EK: I can tell you my least favorite. [Everybody laughs.]
AD: I'll be frank, I spent such a short time on the show, I like all of them.
[All the boys echo, "Good answer" down the line.]
NH: Good answer. No whammy.
AD: And I enjoyed the audition combos at Vegas week, they were all good, too.
NH: I enjoyed the dance I did with Melanie Moore; I think it was Season 10.
JL: No, Season 8! That was my season.
EK: Because you got to go back as an "All Star."
NH: That's true. I played shortstop in spandex.
EK: I really enjoyed working with Napoleon and Tabitha because they did a bunch of group numbers our season, but I think my favorite single number is the Top 3 guys trio that Sonya Tayeh did. It was cool and it was really freakin' hard.
JL:There are a couple. One of them that stands out is the one that we did for the finale. It was me, Nick Young and Matt Flint, who was the UK Champion at the time and came on for the finale in America. We did a tap trio to "Can't Buy Me Love," and we choreographed it ourselves, too.
Do you have a favorite costume from the show?
EK: I have a least favorite.
AD: I got to wear a nighty on national TV. [Everybody laughs.] In Tyce [Diorio]'s piece. It was great. It was like really cute. I mean, I was terrified of showing my butt to the world.
NH: I feel like I ended up wearing a lot of just pants. [Everybody laughs.] So I didn't get to choose what cool shirt to wear because they'd be like, "Never mind, we're taking your shirt off," and I'd be like, "You should've told me that a few days ago."
AD: I'm seeing a theme with no clothes.
EK: Hmmm. Favorite costumes? I didn't really think about that stuff.
NH: I liked your suit and tie ones, like when you're all done up and you do your little Broadway solos.
EK: [Laughs.] So, my solo costumes.
NH: Yeah, your solo costumes, those are cool.
EK: Thanks, man.
NH: No problem.
JL: I was about to say that you [Neil] having no shirt regularly was me being in a suit all the time.
NH: That's true.
JL: But the one that I liked was [when] Tyce Diorio did a circus piece, and he had me be the Master of Ceremonies so I had a nice tail jacket and stuff.
What's your favorite dance you've gotten to do on Broadway?
EK: "King of New York" [from Newsies] was my favorite.
AD: Two stick out for me: "Cross the Line" in Bring It On and "Right Track" in Pippin when I was on for Leading Player because it was all those classic Fosse steps.
NH: I think there was a song called "Masters Of War" in The Times They Are a-Changin', and it was so athletic, and I loved that one.
JL: I'd say "King of New York," too. And then it's kind of a flashback for me, but when I was a vacation swing in The Boy From Oz, "When I Get My Name in Lights." I had to do a cartwheel on the piano. I went on one time and got to do it.
What was a harder audition? SYTYCD or Broadway?
Everyone simultaneously: "SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE!"
AD: I mean, that Vegas week makes these cattle calls a freakin' breeze.
EK: Yeah, Vegas week…
NH: You literally see people collapsing.
JL: And, it's not everyday that you have cameras in your faces…
NH: …while you're collapsing. And they're like, "Are you ok?" "No, I'm not! Go away." [Laughs.]
JL: I accidentally got kicked in the eye. It was a very minor injury and I just had an ice pack on me, and I had a camera, a cameraman and a producer right in front of me.
EK: They want to catch everything.
JL: Yeah, they want to catch every glimpse of the whole audition process, so they will do it, and if they want to find a way to put it on TV, they will.
AD: Crying, too. I was always crying. [Everybody laughs.]
JL: It's intense.
EK: That's all right, they play that clip of me and my brother before Top 20, the two of us crying; that's like their favorite clip to play.
NH: Oh God. Did they do that thing where they split you guys up and it was one or the other for the last [spot on the show]?
NH: Oh God!
AD: That's so awful!
Looking back, how did being on SYTYCD prep you for Broadway?
AD: It gave me the best audition training possible.
JL: Oh yeah!
AD: Point blank. Period. I mean, to me the experience on the show doesn't compare to eight shows a week, but at least the audition process, I'm like, "I can pretty much handle anything now."
NH: I'd say the picking up of choreo. Like if somebody needs you to jump into a show last minute. We only had two days on the show to learn the choreography for a three-minute dance, and you normally learned it in one day and just rehearsed it the next day.
EK: Yeah, you have like five hours total.
NH: Yeah, so I think the ability and the confidence to be able to pick up the choreography quickly and perform it three days later is one of the better things I got.
EK: Yeah, like they both said, the audition process. You're picking up choreography so fast on the show, and that's important for auditions. Also, the endurance, both mental and physical. Doing eight shows a week is exhausting and doing SYTYCD was the most stressful and exhausting thing I've ever done.
JL: Stamina, that's for sure. Also, communication skills when it comes to being in the rehearsal studio. And, respect and appreciation, both self-respect and respect for the material and for the other dancers. And, just being in the moment and staying present and not second-guessing. You're there for a reason and you just need to trust what you have and just bring it to the floor because if you're second-guessing it, then that's going to show.
You got to work with all these amazing choreographers on the show. Who is someone you haven't worked with yet that you would love to work with one day?
AD: Currently, I'm dying to work with Chris Gattelli. I have yet to have that honor, so that's a personal goal.
NH: I'd like to work with Jerry Mitchell, because he's directing and choreographing and doing everything, so he has his hands in the whole time and everything he does is a gem in itself.
EK: I'd love to do a show with Andy Blankenbuehler.
JL: Andy Blankenbuehler. I think Mia Michaels as well. Just to kind of understand how she works and how she pulls stuff out of her actors and her dancers. I haven't experienced that. I've heard many stories, and [everyone] definitely takes something out of her direction, so I'm very curious [as] to how that would be if I was in her hands.
(Yvette Kojic is a performer, producer, director, daytime TV enthusiast and the groups director at Broadway Workshop. Follow her on Twitter at @yvettekojic.)