Dancer lives his dream in ’Billy Elliot’
In Billy Elliot: the Musical, there’s a dream ballet where young Billy joins his older self for a "pas de deux." Midway through their duet, Billy goes airborne - a metaphor for the joy he feels when he dances.
The same can be said for Christopher Howard, an out member of the national company of the multi-Tony winning musical at Boston’s Opera House through August 19, 2012. Howard, who is in the ensemble and understudies the role of Older Billy, is living his dream - dancing in a hugely successful Broadway musical and getting to see the country at the same time.
Unlike Billy, though, Howard didn’t embrace dancing at an early age. The 26- year-old didn’t decide to pursue a career in dance until he was in college - a late bloomer by any stretch of the imagination in a highly competitive field. His talent, though, proved strong enough to get invited to attend the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in New York City, where he studied after college.
Getting cast in "Billy Elliot" happened almost by chance. He heard the producers were casting for the national company and he decided to try for it, despite it being for a role in an Equity musical. At that point, Howard was not a member of the acting union. Again, though, his talent impressed the casting team and he got a call back, then another one, and then another one. And even then, he still didn’t get the job immediately.
Today he’s part of the company, performing in the ensemble and going on as Older Billy some nine times. EDGE spoke to the personable Howard about being a dancer, the process of getting cast and if being out has been an issue in his career.
EDGE: Are you living your dream right now?
Christopher Howard: Absolutely. This is something that I was never sure that I could attain, so getting this show fulfills a dream. I’ve joined Actors Equity, so now I’m considered a professional in my field. And I am working with incredible people that have credits with Broadway and West End shows. I’m working with these amazing people in this incredible show and seeing places that I have never seen before. And getting paid for it. So it is absolutely a dream.
EDGE: Like Billy, did you start dancing when you were a boy?
Christopher Howard: No, actually. It is interesting how I got into ballet. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18. I was attending the University of Buffalo, where I got my undergraduate degree. I was in the musical theater program. I really fell in love with dancing and became a dance major. Then I got offered to attend the Joffrey Ballet School in NYC and stayed there for two years while I was working doing other performing jobs. So I actually didn’t start like most ballet dancers at a very young age. I fell into it by chance because I had a knack for it. I had to work very hard to catch up with people that had been dancing for most of their lives. It afforded me such opportunities, such as this job. I never would have gotten this job without the ballet training that I had.
Parallels with Billy?
EDGE: Do you see any parallels with your career and what Billy goes through in the musical?
Christopher Howard: I do, actually. It’s different because I didn’t start when I was younger, but I always wanted a career in the arts. I started as a singer. I had my own version of Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher in the musical. My mentor pushed me to strive to what she believed I could do. What’s different is that while Billy has to struggle in the show with the family and the economic conditions around him, I had a family that was very supportive. They had every confidence in me. I didn’t have that hurdle to get over; but there is always that self-doubt, and peer pressure - other students that said I wasn’t very good - that I had to overcome. I had to realize that stuff didn’t matter. Overcoming those hurdles, just as Billy had to overcome hurdles, makes our experiences similar; they weren’t exactly the same, but I saw parallels.
EDGE: Were you familiar with the film?
Christopher Howard: I definitely saw the movie a long, long time ago. But didn’t remember much about it. I only remember it was about a boy who wanted to grow up and be a dancer. And even when I auditioned, I had yet to see the show. All I knew about it was it was about miners and had tap dancing in it. I went to the audition on a whim. And here I am.
Dealing with rejection
EDGE: How did you get cast?
Christopher Howard: When I went to the audition, it was an Equity dance call. I wasn’t a member of Equity at the time, so the Equity dancers went first. I waited and waited, then I was seen. I had to do a small dance combination. Then they asked me and three other boys to stay and sing. I stayed and sang. That’s when the callback process started. I was asked back for a dance call that lasted almost four hours. I had to do a full-length ballet class for the understudy of the Older Billy role. I was called back again to sing and read from the script for the director of the show. Then had to go back later that evening to sing for the musical director, so the process seemed endless.
I finished all of this on a Friday night and I knew the tour started rehearsals the following Monday morning. I figured if I was going to be hired I would know by Saturday - I would have to; but by Monday morning, I hadn’t gotten a phone call, so I thought, I didn’t get the job, but will find another one. About a week later, I got a call from a casting director that told me that they were going to offer me the job. The reason why they waited was because the dancer I was going to replace wasn’t sure if he was doing the tour. It turned out he only was going to do part of the tour, so they offered me the job for when he left. So after all of that, I got the job.
EDGE: Is this process emotionally challenging?
Christopher Howard: The hardest thing is that there is so much rejection. Every time you go to an audition or a callback, you submit yourself for rejection. Even with this one, I thought I didn’t get the job and was disappointed. You’re always disappointed. But you have to learn to say, ’I didn’t get this one. I’ll get another one.’ You can learn from the experience. Say, ’OK. What did I not do so well? Was my singing not good enough? Was my tap dancing not good enough? How can I make better?’ You can hear ’no’ twenty-five, thirty, fifty times before you hear ’yes.’ It’s also not always about how talented you are as a person. It could be as simple as I’m a blonde and they want someone with dark hair. Or I’m 5’11" and they’re looking for someone 5’7". Or a producer may be a bad mood the day you go to the audition. It can be so many things, so you can’t let it bother you. You just need to move on.
EDGE: Has being out ever been an issue?
Christopher Howard: Not at all. What’s funny is that I’ve been told a few times, that when I am onstage in whatever show I am doing that they would never have guessed I was gay, which is flattering. And I think, that’s the point. That’s my job. If they see me on the street and think I’m gay, that’s fine. But if I am on the stage, it’s my job to be whoever I have to be on stage. So when people say to me, ’wow. You’re really masculine. I never thought you were gay,’ I just laugh and say, ’It’s just my job.’
EDGE: Was coming out difficult for you?
Christopher Howard: I came out in 8th or 9th grade. The only tough part is that my mother and my stepfather didn’t take it very well at first. But after they calmed down and took some time to understand it, and realized it didn’t change me as a person at all, then were okay with it. They’re definitely okay with it now. And I’ve never had a problem with my friends or in my career. But in high school when I came out as being gay, I did have some problems. I was pushed against my lockers a few times and called the ’f’ word. It never bothered me that much because I knew I was a better person than that and didn’t give in to these obnoxious high school guys. Other than that, it has never stood in my way at all.
Staying in touch
EDGE: And touring - has that been difficult?
Christopher Howard: Not at all. I love moving around like this. It’s great going to these different cities and seeing places I’ve never seen. What’s difficult is staying in contact with your friends and family. Of course there’s Facebook and Twitter, or you can text them to say you’re thinking about them. That’s tough. Like I called my mom yesterday and she said, ’where are you? I don’t know where you are?’ That’s funny. But I think it is more difficult if you’re married or in a relationship and are separated, it can be hard. I don’t have a boyfriend right now - that’s something I don’t have to deal with because it makes that aspect of touring easier. We’ve made such good friends on this tour - the cast and company - we’re like a big family with each other, so that makes up for not seeing your other friends back home.
EDGE: As the understudy to the Older Billy, how do you stay on top of a role you don’t do on a regular basis?
Christopher Howard: Well, when we put in a new Billy (we have four right now) and have a ’put in’ rehearsal, and myself and the gentleman that plays the older Billy regularly rehearse the part with the new boy. And then we have ’flying’ rehearsals - a long rehearsal with all the Billys so they know exactly how to do it.
And I try to stay on top of it by taking ballet classes when I can. Then every once in a while, I can grab a rehearsal chair and practice so I can remember exactly what I am doing. But then there are the moments when I’m told Max (actor Maximilien A. Baud) is out and you have to go on, and I panic a bit. My immediate response is something like, ’I haven’t done it in six weeks.’ But then I realize, that’s my job. So at first there may be a moment of panic, but I have to be really calm about it. I know it. I know all the choreography. I’ve done it before. Then I have to do a safety check to make sure I am in synch with the boy I am doing the performance with that night so that when we go on, it will be spot on. But there is, of course, that moment of panic when I am told.
EDGE: On your Facebook page, you say you’re uncomfortable around men. Is that true?
Christopher Howard: (Laughing) Yes. I don’t know what it is. It’s interesting. Not so much as I use to be. The older I get, I feel I’m growing out of it. But sometimes if I am, say, at a bank and there’s a female teller and a male teller, I gravitate to the female teller. There’s something intimidating about being around a group of guys. Of course, I have to do that every day, so it’s not a big deal; but I don’t know why I feel that way.
EDGE: You started as a singer and now you’re a dancer - do you want to do more with your vocal talents?
Christopher Howard: Well, we all have to sing in the show, but this is mostly a dancing show. What’s happened is that people either forgot I can sing or don’t even know I can sing, even though I grew up a singer. So they’re surprised when where at a party or a cabaret event and I sing. People think of me as the kid who can dance really well. But singing? I would love to showcase that as well. Even in my last job, Larry in ’A Chorus Line’ in Tokyo - was a great role, but he doesn’t sing at all.
EDGE: Have you been to Boston before?
Christopher Howard: I have, but just in passing. So I’m excited that I can be there a whole month and explore the city.
"Billy Elliot" runs through August 19, 2012 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the "Billy Elliot" website.