Multitalented musical-theater performers are often called "triple-threats" because they can "do it all": act, sing and dance. A lucky few might even develop a few additional talents in hopes of increasing their marketability, such as those actors featured in "Starlight Express" and "Xanadu" (roller-skating), "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (stage fighting/fencing), and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" (aerial acrobatics/high-pain thresholds).
Rarer still are those who continually absorb truly relevant stage skills like mutant superheroes – X-Men with Equity cards.
Noah Racey, who stars as Bobby Child in the 2012 Music Circus season-ending production of "Crazy For You," has been so blessed. A musician, dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, director and songwriter, Racey could be called a "septuple threat" – a term he admits sounds silly, but is wholly accurate nonetheless.
Recently, the Seattle, Wash.-native sat down to discuss his history with "Crazy for You," his love of collaboration and his hatred of the "T" word.
Sacramento Press (SM): What performance skill did you first explore?
Racey: I was a drummer when I was a kid. When I was 3, my dad bought me a little snare drum and that was the end of it. That just ruined the whole house. I just banged for hours. And then I started playing hand drums growing up, got into drum circles and congas and just began playing with a group of people. Then I discovered theater in high school and that led to tap dancing. We did "Oklahoma!" and we had this little step-shuffle step-shuffle step-step-cowboy step thing, and I understood it like "that." (snaps) Because it was about rhythm, and it was this new thing of dance I was playing with, and so it made perfect sense. And it just progressed from there. We did "42nd Street" the next year in high school, and I learned my time steps, and it set me off on that track.
SM: Where did you go to high school?
Racey: Roosevelt High School in Seattle – the same school that Chad Kimball, who plays the lead in "Memphis" went to. He’s just an amazing rock star Broadway performer. This guy who runs the program in Seattle – Ruben Van Kempen – is amazing. He’s a genius – I hate that word "genius" – blah – but he’s amazing. When I was in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (on Broadway), he had four kids in Tony- nominated shows that year, including myself and Chad. Ruben’s an amazing human being. He woke me up. How I started all of this was drumming, then I found out I could act and I was in acting class in high school. And then I found out I could hold a tune, etc. But when I went to college, Ruben said, "Remember, the actor gets the job."
SM: How did you add "choreographer" to your résumé?
Racey: It was the collaborative nature of musical theater. I was working with choreographers who wanted (the feedback) of the dancers, and I found I liked the process of taking an idea and refining it – and that’s what I did with Rob Ashford with "Thoroughly Modern Millie." I was the associate choreographer for that. And it’s just kind of having a big mouth, you know? It’s not just taking a step and changing it, but augmenting what somebody creates and saying, "Here’s how it can fit on my body in a certain kind of way."
I also did it with Tommy Tune when we were doing "Easter Parade" – that was a workshop with Tommy Tune and Sandy Duncan. I was a young hoofer/tap dancer and there’s nothing hoofers like better than the 10–minute break every hour-and-a-half because we go into a corner and start jamming and start tapping.
Tommy started watching us and, after a while, said, "Come over here, kid," and asked, "What was that you just did?" I did a step, and he said, "Double that up, make a 16-count break out of it," and I did it. Tommy said, "Great! Let’s put that in," and Tommy started using me as a "stepsmith." You know. I just choreographed a show for Tommy Tune – he and I have been friends ever since, 10 years now. I helped him with his one-man show, and I choreographed his "Turn of the Century" starring Jeff Daniels and Rachel York at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
It was a process of just playing with what I love, which is movement, and working with choreographers who would turn and see something that was happening in a room – and these are the best choreographers that I know of – and say (he snaps), "What is that, what’s happening there?"
That (made me think), "Hey, I have something. I know what I’m doing. I have good ideas." Tommy was really helpful in that. Rob Ashford making me associate choreographer on "Millie" (I created the tap steps in "Millie"). He structured them, and put them in and showed me how he wanted the number to progress, and we created some Tony Award-winning choreography. That was kind of my track as to how I slowly morphed into a choreographer.
SM: Did the support provided by Tune and other choreographers, as well as Ashford’s Tony win, give you the confidence you needed to pursue choreography as yet another career goal?
Racey: Totally, it was a massive, massive chuck on the chin – a "Hey, good for you man." Just being on Broadway and working with the dancers and watching them do my stuff was huge – that was a huge step for me. On opening night of "Millie," standing in the wings with tears in my eyes watching the girls do "Forget About the Boy" which was something Rob and I created together. Things like that, it was like, "Holy mackerel! You can’t beat that." For Rob to win the Tony was a huge hit for me. It was a really, really wonderful, wonderful experience.
I always liked creating steps. Even though it’s hard work, I just love playing with steps, and playing with rhythms and ideas and body shapes. I have a company – The New York Song & Dance Co. – that I do a lot of different choreography with. We have a full-length show that’s happening in Florida this next season called "Noah Racey’s Pulse" that’s going to be happening, and it’s all my work. I’m in it, too. Jeff Calhoun’s directing it. It’s going to be a big revue of song and dance, so look out.
SM: It sounds like you’re not interested in settling on a single career path.
Racey: I was so spot-on to be the performer. I had such an – "arrogance" is the wrong way to put it – but confidence about saying, "I’m Noah Racey, the performer, and if you want me, you want me." I’m a song-and-dance man – there aren’t a lot of us who do it. It’s a new way of presenting myself, but people have tiny, little memories, and tiny, little minds in New York City. I don’t blame them. There are just too many people coming through the city. You can’t expect everyone to go, "Oh, that’s Noah who likes macramé, and can sing" – nobody can remember all the stuff you can do. It’s part of the reason I’m doing this show … I’m still performing, I’m starring in this show in Sarasota, I have a company and I direct and choreograph, and I’m going to do it all until they say, "You stop doing that."
SM: Do you see yourself eventually transitioning into a full-time director/choreographer?
Racey: I’m playing with it all right now. I don’t use the "T" word. Transition is a scary word. I like "augmentation." If you put it in people’s heads that you’re transitioning, it means you’re leaving something, and I’m not going to leave it. I’m going to Joe Mantello my way through all of this. I don’t want to stop and I don’t have to, I guess.
To me, Jimmy ("Crazy for You" director Brennan) is the quintessential triple threat. If you are a true triple threat, you learn about your craft, you can’t help it. And especially if you’re a triple threat who hangs out and makes a big name for himself as Jimmy did, you cannot not learn. You cannot but realize what your craft is, and how to get better at it, and how it goes wrong and how it’s misused, and that leads directly to directing and choreographing and being like, "Uh, uh – no wait, wait, don’t do that because nobody will see it and it needs to go this way. You end up just knowing about why things work on stage and why a script has to flow a certain way and why characters have to have arcs. If you’re not aware of that as an actor, you’re really limited.
Not everybody wants to direct or choreograph, but Tommy Tune really ruined it for me. Watching him, he messed the whole game up for me. Of course he’s Tommy Tune, and I will never be that, but watching him do "Easter Parade," and watching him stand in the middle of a room and watching this entire room move around and ask him questions and check with him about what how did he feel this was going … it made me think, "I don’t know if I want that kind of career," and then I thought to myself, "Yes, I think I do. I would like to star and definitely want to be a part of a creative process. Not to lord over it, because the best decisions are made when you give them to smarter people than you – but to be in the middle of that kind of creative energy.
I don’t know how else to continue this love of performing and like what we do now. You speak up if you see something the director’s doing and you’re like, "You know what, how about this, check this out," and the best idea should always win because the show wins that way. That’s a long-winded answer to your question. Yes, I see myself directing more and writing and continuing to choreograph, although the choreography’s hard. To be a true stepsmith and to really come up with the meat of what you’re doing, you’ve got to have the legs and the energy. You start to pass it off to younger dancers to create and do the actual legwork to some extent. I think that’s where the real brilliant choreographers show themselves is when they start to get out of the trench – the blood and guts of really moving on the floor – and they start to have that relationship of seeing how the concept is moving and flowing and watching my buddies like Josh Bergasse of "Smash" and Greg Graham and young choreographers who are growing and learning about that dynamic.
I’m not pulling out of it, but I’m exercising all these different hats, learning when to put on what hat.
SM: Is it hard to leave directorial control behind and simply be a performer like you are in the Music Circus production of "Crazy for You"?
Racey: My job here – my true hat – is to perform and take care of Bobby. I’m in amazing, impeccable hands with (director) Jimmy Brennan. I saw Jimmy perform Bobby on Broadway in 1995, right before I did the national tour of "Crazy for You," and I basically copied Jimmy … you know, I took what he had done, what I remembered of it, played with what I could do, and created my own show. He’s my hero.
And I love "Crazy for You." I spent more than a year in the national tour. I learned about performing while doing that show, I learned about being on the road. There are few better shows. It is truly one of the best shows. It is so well put together, and there are so many hits in a row, the comedy is impeccably put together for American vaudeville.
It’s the fun, song-and-dance equivalent of "West Side Story." I love it – you can’t go wrong with Gershwin.
I met Jimmy that night in 1995 on Broadway backstage with Karen Ziemba backstage. I was this spit-and-polish little kid, and one of the people with me said, "This is the guy playing Bobby on tour," and James turned to me and said, "I’m so sorry," because it’s just brutal – so physically demanding. You have to eat, you have to eat and eat to keep weight on because you just burn and sweat out. I ate whatever I wanted, but in the pictures of me on the road I’m bone thin. I’m just this wiry, little muscle.
Jimmy was just so gracious – it’s just so Jimmy when you get to know him. It’s just him, he’s so, so wonderfully generous and positive. He’s just so, so warm.
Since then, I’ve seen him socially, and he came by to a show ("It Shoulda Been You") I had choreographed last season at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse that’s coming to Broadway next season, and he sat backstage with me for about a half hour and told me what he thought.
Those are the heroes in the business the ones who take the time to see people do what they’re doing and give of themselves.
For "Crazy for You" ticket information, call (916) 557-1999, or go online at tickets.com.