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Peas in a Broadway Pod: Tony-Nominated College Friends

June 15, 2018

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NYU is routinely ranked as one of the most well-represented schools on Broadway, and this month more than 30 alumni from seven schools were nominated for Tony Awards. Among the nominees (and winners!) were Alex Gibson (TSOA ’14), Jelani Alladin (TSOA ’14), and Ari Stachel (TSOA ’13), three college friends who are all currently appearing in Tony-nominated Best Musicals. The three Tisch graduates met while studying in the inaugural class of Tisch’s prestigious New Studio on Broadway as undergraduates in the acting program.

Jelani plays the role of Kristoff in Frozen; Alex is appearing in Spongebob Squarepants as a swing and understudy for Squidward Q. Tentacles; Ari is cast as Haled in the 2018 Tony Award winning Best Musical The Band’s Visit, a role for which he also won a 2018 Tony Award for in the Best Featured Actor in a Musical category. As Broadway’s biggest event of the year has all eyes on the Great White Way, Jelanie and Alex gave us their take on studying at NYU and how they made their dreams come true.

Did you enter college with the goal of making it to a Broadway stage?  

Jelani Alladin

Jelani Alladin (TSOA ’14). Photo by Karen Santos.

Jelani Alladin (JA): I entered college with the simple goal of being a working actor. I had no clue where I would end up; whether it be Broadway, or a TV series, or a feature film, they were and are all on my bucket list. I believed NYU would provide the training necessary to have a career as an actor, not just one stint or mega job, but a life-long career.

Alex Gibson (AG): Back when I was in school I didn't feel like I had the audacity to say that I wanted to be on Broadway. That seemed far too lofty and unattainable of a goal. I did hope that I would be able to make a living by performing.

Why did you choose NYU?

JA: When I heard NYU was starting a new in house program in acting and musical theatre, I knew in my gut I had to be a part of that. To be a pioneer under the leadership of industry giants such as Kent Gash, Michael McElroy, Byron Easley and Kenneth Noel Mitchell was a dream come true. And if that wasn’t a big enough sell, to be in the center of the universe where everything artistic was/is booming, I had to come home to NYC. There was no other choice.

AG: When I was choosing between colleges, I was still unsure of how central I wanted theater performance to be in my education. NYU really appealed to me in that it housed a rigorous and comprehensive BFA program within a great academic university. Once I started class at the New Studio I was like Oh duh, this is definitely all I want to do.

Alex Gibson

Alex Gibson (TSOA ’14)

And what path since NYU led you to your current roles in Tony-nominated shows?

Jelani Alladin

Photo by Deen Van Meer

JA: Since graduating at NYU the connections and friendships I made there, have led me to many work experiences. My first job was working in an extended ensemble of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory, thanks to NYU. Following that, I worked with Kent Gash on two productions of Tarell McCraney’s Choir Boy. I never take for granted the lifelong connections I have made with my professors and peers at NYU.

AG: The day after graduation I went to Minnesota to do a production at the Guthrie Theater which, in addition to being a truly magical experience, got me my Equity card. I worked some more regionally and toured briefly in Japan before deciding I needed to come back to New York to give it a go to get work—and also live in the same apartment for more than a month. I spent a long stretch of time going to basically every audition I could get seen for and going to the Hamilton lottery every day before I got cast in my Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I was with Great Comet until it closed and then a few weeks later began rehearsals for Spongebob Squarepants.

Did any professor or mentor at NYU influence your decision to go for your dreams?

JA: I could write an entire novel on Kent Gash and how much knowledge he has breathed into my life and DNA as an actor. But I’ll spare you in short by saying there was nothing more empowering than having a leader that believes in you. His dreams for me were/are bigger than I ever imagined for myself. He pushed me past my limits; making sure I understood that everything I ever needed is already inside me. I also have to give a shout out to most of the faculty of NSB that are African American; you have no idea how game-changing that was for me in understanding my dreams can become a reality.  

AG: The faculty of the New Studio is and was a magical alien force of superheroes who absolutely changed my life completely. It truly was a group of teachers who were mentors. They encouraged me to go for my dreams, yes, but more importantly how to access the frequencies of my heart that resonated with the world around me. I grew leaps and bounds as a human being while I was in their classes and I still feel myself reckoning with and learning from the teachings they gave me years ago.  

Alex Gibson

What was your favorite class at NYU? Did it impact your career?

JA: My favorite class was acting. What was special about my training is that I got four years of varied acting training with teachers such as Michelle Shay (where I learned about chakras and energy performance); Daniel Spector and Rocco Sisto for Shakespeare (where I fell in love with the English language); Kenneth Noel Mitchell for Chekov (learning precision and detail); and finally, Frank Wood and Mel Shapiro (learning about contemporary plays and modern techniques). I soaked in every second like a dry sponge. I’m still that way as I learn more about acting every day. But the fundamentals of my work in every project I do, including Frozen, come from these classes.

AG: It's incredibly hard to single out one, but my junior year of school I was part of a physical acting intensive led by Orlando Pabotoy. It was the kind of deep investigation into a world that I really craved and allowed me to get out of my head in a way that I hadn't really allowed myself to do in life, much less in acting class. I still find myself referencing specific exercises from that class when approaching new skill-sets (Spongebob recently had me revisiting some stilt work) and when remembering to open myself to the full possibilities of the work.

You’ve achieved great acclaim very early on in your career. Any idea on what you’d like to conquer next?

JA: I am so beyond grateful for everything that has come into my life so far, but this is just the beginning. I want to keep uncovering and exposing deeper truths about the African American male in everything I do. I want to do a TV series, I want to make movies, I want to do a Broadway play, and more. There are many more stages to conquer and stories to be told in what I hope is a lifelong career; bring it on!

AG: There's so much within the realm of theater and performance and I believe Eartha Kitt said it best when she said, "The tombstone will be my diploma." I'm really fascinated by the world of voice-over and animation. I love improv and would very much like to get back into that world. I wrote a lot of short plays and musicals during school and would love to revisit that. But honestly, I just want to work enough weeks to continue to have health insurance.

What would be your dream role to play?  

Jelani Alladin

Photo by Andrew Eccles.

JA: People always ask if I have a dream role and I always say no, I have dream collaborators, other artists such as Shonda Rhimes, Jordan Peele, Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, George C. Wolfe, Denzel Washington, Suzan Lori Parks, to name a few, that I aspire to work with. I just want to keep telling stories that provoke audiences to reckon with the human experience; the best way to do that is to align myself with the writers and directors that have the same goal. That would be a dream come true.

AG: I've played the Sergeant of Police in Pirates of Penzance a couple of times and honestly that's a role I could just do again and again and be very, very happy. I also would kill to get to do Jordan in Significant Other somewhere soon. Plus who doesn't want to do Angels in America at some point in their career? I think that probably my dream role hasn't been written yet. It would be a really fun challenge to take on a bio-musical (maybe Tommy Tune?). There is so much happening in the world and so much art that needs to be made to speak to our world right now; I really hope that I get to be a part of that wave of contemporary theater.

Do you have any advice for students and other recent graduates who dream of working on Broadway?

JA: The most valuable thing I have learned is that you only get one first impression, and honestly that’s your only impression. You must take it upon yourself to put in the work so that when you step into that audition room or work session you are free to play, discover, and share; leaving that room with your head a little higher knowing you were proud of whatever came out of you. Take the dare, make bold choices, allow your imagination to be free, and always trust you are more than enough.

AG: Have an honest assessment of your skill-set and do the things you need to do to improve the skills that need improving. Get smart about your financials if you're not already. That determines so much of your freedom to take certain jobs and the time you have available from survival jobs. Most importantly, remember that your vision of yourself as an artist should not eclipse yourself as a citizen of the world. You need to be aware and curious about what is happening around you—the world depends on it, and so does your art.  

Alex Gibson