When the curtain rose on November 18 for Honeymoon in Vegas on Broadway, headliner Rob McClure became the second former Montclair State student to currently be performing on the Great White Way. Just down the street, alumnus Joshua Dela Cruz has a role in the Broadway hit Aladdin. The two are among a number of former Montclair Staters performing in shows all across the country.
In October, McClure began rehearsals for Honeymoon in Vegas, the new musical that promises “What Happens in Vegas...comes to Broadway.” McClure, who received a 2013 Tony nomination for his critically acclaimed performance in the title role of Chaplin, is one of many talented Red Hawks who credit the University with planting the seeds of their success.
“My studies at Montclair State definitely helped develop and shape the skills I now use in my career,” says McClure. His advice to those who wish to follow in his footsteps is simple: “Use your education to figure out who you are and who you are not. Stop trying to be the performers you admire. You don’t want to be a second-rate Idina Menzel. You want to be a first-rate you!”
According to Montclair State Musical Theatre Professor Clay James, the success of any program ultimately reflects the first-rate talents of the students it attracts. “This is especially true of the Musical Theatre program,” he says. “Dedicated support from the administration, faculty and surrounding community; diversity in programming; as well as outstanding facilities like the Kasser Theater have allowed Musical Theatre at Montclair State to soar along an unparalleled trajectory.”
The career of Joshua Dela Cruz ’11 has taken off with the Broadway hit Aladdin. He’s been a member of the show’s ensemble cast from the start – from out-of-town trial run to Broadway opening. “I play various townspeople and servants throughout, but for most of the show I’m a palace guard who chases Aladdin. I fall down, get tripped or hit – being a guard in a fictional city is tough,” he jokes. “I also understudy Aladdin, so some days I don’t get tripped, or fall or get hit, which is fun, too.” So is performing in “High Adventure,” a big, swashbuckling number that he reports is a blast to do every night.
In his first role after graduating from Montclair State, Dela Cruz played Lun Tha, across from Lou Diamond Phillips and Rachel Bay Jones in The King and I. “It was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve had,” he recalls. He followed that with roles in Here Lies Love and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.
Dela Cruz reports his Broadway debut in Aladdin was more magical than he ever imagined, despite an unexpected setback. “I tore my meniscus and had surgery during the out-of-town trial. But with the support of the cast and crew, I was back in the show two days after opening night and a day before my birthday,” he says.
The young actor owes much of his success to Montclair State’s Musical Theatre program. “I can confidently say that it gave me the tools I needed to come to New York to audition, work and continue to hone my skills as a performer. It’s a gift to be able to study theater at a college level, let alone pursue it as a career,” he says. For Dela Cruz, the biggest challenges arise between shows. “It’s when you’re not working that you really have to know yourself. Cultivate interests outside of theater. They not only enrich your life, but ultimately will enrich your work on the stage.”
Dancing for Life
Evan Ruggiero’s story touched millions when he appeared on the Season 12 opening episode of American Idol in 2013. The Musical Theatre major had lost his right leg to osteosarcoma during his sophomore year. “Idol was a great experience, but I can’t credit it with any of my current success,” he says. “When it comes to this career, putting in the work and hours of perfecting your craft will get you farther than being on a reality television show.”
Ruggiero says a tap-dancing performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show put him on his current career path. Inspired by his experience on Ellen, he subsequently crafted his own show. “Now in my performances, I play various instruments, as well as sing and tap to original music,” he explains.
Montclair State also played a starring role in training him as a performer. “I was able to focus on my craft and build upon that each year through classes and by being a part of 10 musical productions,” he recalls. “Montclair State will always be home for me.”
For Ruggiero, musical theater was the “super-food” that helped him lick cancer. “I used to get chemo during the day and then I’d perform in Sweet Charity at night. I made sure I didn’t miss one show,” he says. “Clay James took a chance on me during that time. I’ll never know why, but he did. And he gave me a pep talk that assured me I can do this.”
Since graduating in December 2013, Ruggiero has been busy. He performed in Panic! The Musical in Manhattan and in his own solo show debut at 54 Below in the city. “For the next three months, I’ll be performing, speaking and teaching master classes in Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Brazil.”
Ruggiero clearly loves what he does, which is perhaps the biggest secret of his success. “Do this because it makes you happy, because it makes people smile and because it’s genuine,” he advises would-be performers.
Red Hawk Sister – and Brother – Act
For Tara Tagliaferro ’10, the University has provided a tremendous support system.
She and fellow alumna Wonu Ogunfowora ’14 are ensemble cast members in Sister Act, which launched a national tour in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 14 and which will be traveling to the State Theatre in New Brunswick for performances on December 12 and 13, and to the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown from January 31 to February 1, 2015. Nicholas Rodriguez ’14 is cast as Pablo in the same production.
“It’s amazing to have the same roots as other performers in Sister Act – we had an instant connection,” says Tagliaferro. “It makes me proud of the talent and good people Montclair State is putting out in the world! Both Wonu and Nic are magic to watch!”
Ogunfowora, who plays Tina, a nun, and who is also the understudy for Deloris, the lead character, attributes her success to the University. “I do believe my studies at Montclair State helped me land the role,” she says. “I learned a lot during the four years I spent in the program that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Dreams of a White Christmas
Amanda Phillips, who earned a BFA degree in Musical Theatre in 2011, also began rehearsals for a national tour in October. She is in the ensemble cast of White Christmas, which will be touring six cities between November 4, 2014 and January 4, 2015.
Phillips, who has had steady work performing around the country in productions of such classic musicals as Grease, West Side Story, Spamalot and Legally Blonde, forged lasting friendships as a student at Montclair State. “We were just a bunch of oddballs who loved musical theatre and each other,” she recalls. She advises aspiring performers to always look inward. “No one owes you anything. You have to be open to all the possibilities out there, whether it’s performing, directing, or writing. There’s always something around the corner – and it’s never what you expect.”
One Singular Sensation
Sharrod Williams graduated in 2012 with a double major in Dance and Communication Studies. “I’ve been fortunate to have gotten the best of two worlds by performing with various professional dance companies and in musicals since graduation,” he says. His credits include playing Richie Walters in the 2012-2013 national tour of A Chorus Line, where he performed alongside fellow Red Hawks Bonnie Kelly ’11 and Joseph Rosario ’13.
Williams first played Richie Walters in Montclair State’s 2011 performance of the musical. “Clay James offering me the chance to play Richie was an eye-opening, life-changing experience,” he recalls. “It was the first time I found I could combine my previous vocal training, dance training, and add acting to tell a story. I remember feeling like a complete artist and being completely bitten by the musical theatre bug.”
He just completed the 2nd International Tour of Bring It On: The Musical, where he played La Cienega, a transgender student. Also in the cast, was fellow Red Hawk Nadia Vynnytsky ’11, who played Campbell. “Performing alongside Nadia was a dream come true. She is a super star with a talent that is seasoned and consistent. I’m so grateful to have become close friends off stage during the tour,” Williams says.
Williams intends to enjoy a long-lasting career as a performer. “Being an artist goes beyond the classroom,” he explains. “Some of the best lessons and techniques I’ve learned have been on the job. You never ever stop learning.” Equally important is maintaining a focus. “Whatever is meant to be, will be,” he says. “So I’ll enjoy the ride.”
Feeling the Love
Jelani Remy has been playing the role of Simba in various productions of The Lion King since 2009, including a performance attended by First Lady Michelle Obama. “It was completely humbling and inspiring to meet her,” he says. “That day was probably one of the best in my life and career.”
Like so many of his fellow performers, Remy gives kudos to Clay James for helping him launch his career. “The experiences, challenges and lessons he – and other members of the faculty – gave me provided incredible preparation for the reality and demands of the business.”
For those who share his dream to succeed on stage, his advice is simple. “Be fearless and never forget why we do what we do. And lay off the Red Hawk Diner!”
Forging a Path to Success
“Always stay true to who you are and make sure you have other things in life that inspire you. There is no right way to do this and everyone’s path is different,” advises Adam Bashian ’11, who is currently a swing performer on the national tour of Phantom of the Opera, where he often performs several different roles in any given week.
Bashian’s path has led him to performances in plays and musicals, as well as television and radio spots. “I starred as Sky in Guys and Dolls at the Broward Stagedoor Theater in Florida, and I’ve performed at City Center in Manhattan in On Your Toes and in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeoman of the Guard,” he says. Bashian has appeared in the Netflix hit House of Cards, as well as in a Ford commercial.
He is especially excited to have a first refusal right for a role he has developed in In Transit, an a capella musical, that is slated to hit Broadway sometime in the future.
None of this would have been possible without his training at Montclair State. “It provided me with a safe and supportive training space to figure out who I was as a performer and a person,” he explains. “I especially owe a lot of my success to my voice teacher Stephen Oosting and, of course, Clay James. Both of them inspired me and extracted things from me that I would never have discovered on my own.”
While Bashian tries not to make long – term goals, he hopes to continue doing theater with talented people. “For now,” he says, “I am exactly where I want to be.”