As the temporary shutdown of Broadway and theatres around the world continues, Playbill is reaching out to some of our favorite artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.
The series continues with Tony Honoree Michael McElroy, the founder of Broadway Inspirational Voices, recipient of the 2019 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre. The professional choir of Broadway artists, united to change lives through music and service, was founded by McElroy in 1994; its current mission consists of providing hope to inspire and transform youth in need through music and the arts. As an actor, McElroy received a 2004 Tony nomination for his performance as Jim in the revival of Big River; his other Broadway credits include Sunday in the Park With George, Next to Normal, The Wild Party, Rent, The Who's Tommy, and The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club, and he provided vocal arrangements for Disaster! and Street Corner Symphony. Off-Broadway McElroy has been seen in Some Men, Thunder Knocking on the Door, Blue, Violet, Disappearing Act, and The Tragedy of Richard III.
What is your typical day like now?
I’m usually up by 7 AM. Coffee is first then I start working. I love lists, so I make a list the night before and take great pleasure in crossing things off. I love going to the gym and really miss it, so I’ve created a workout routine for every other day. That’s hard, but I’m always happy once it’s done. I watch the news for an hour. And then I have to let it go. I want to know what’s going on, but it's hard on the spirit.
I wear two hats at NYU Tisch Drama. I’m a professor teaching vocal performance and also Director of Diversity Initiatives. Part of my work is activating Affinity Groups and Student Organizations to create spaces to celebrate unique lived experiences as well as how we come together as a community. During this painful and turbulent time, I have been connecting daily with the groups as they work to activate student populations even over the summer to get involved, educate oneself, support, advocate, and ultimately heal.
Every two weeks I have master class meetings with vocal performance teachers from around the world to talk and support each other through teaching techniques on the Zoom platform. I’ve learned a lot from my fellow teaching artists. I have a lot of meetings for my choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices. We are utilizing this time to restructure and strengthen our ways of working and communicating.
I write but I have to stop everything by 5 to make dinner and watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or cable shows. If it's still early I’ll work on writing until midnight then go to bed.
What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
Netflix: Hollywood, Unorthodox, Becoming (documentary of Michelle Obama), BlackAF
Hulu: Hillary (Hillary Clinton documentary), Little Fires Everywhere, and Motherland
Amazon Prime: The Hunters and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
HGTV and Food Channel
I’m teaching a master class on Zoom this summer with musical theatre students at University of Melbourne/Victoria College of the Arts on the Negro spiritual to Contemporary Gospel to its influence on the Broadway musical stage. I’ve been reading books on slavery and the history of African American music. Not the lightest reading but excited to bring my culture and heritage through art to a group of students who know very little about it.
Our focus has been on African American musical art forms. We’ve explored Negro spirituals, gospel, and eventually how these African American art forms have influenced musical theatre. In my research preparing for this class I have submerged myself in the musical forms created by the stripping of identity and humanity from a group of people and transformed into a response that ultimately restored identity and worth. And in the middle of that comes the pandemic and the loss of life in our country that has magnified how far we have not come. It’s been emotional, empowering, painful, and inspiring.
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation?
I have many challenges with social media and technology, but it’s the only way we can connect right now. You have to reach out. I’ve made cast reunion, college reunion, and friends Zoom meetings. It’s essential to look at someone and be in some type of conversation. Just that little connection can make the difference. We forget that we have people that care about us, but we have to reach out as well. Stay connected. And only watch a little news a day. Too much takes you down. When the weather is nice, put on a mask and just take a walk.
How are you keeping your creative juices flowing?
Virtual videos. I’ve made virtual music videos for an organization called Broadway On Call that sends musical messages to nurses and doctors who are musical theatre fans. My choir Broadway Inspirational Voices has done virtual videos for Outreach programs that we partner with and we’re in plans for more. I’ve done a lot of Zoom interviews and conversations, including a recent talk with National YoungArts Foundation about using how to look to your artistic process during this uncertain time.
Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
I’m writing a lot of new music for a show I’m creating. The show takes African American musical genres and specifically the African American experience and collides with European texts.
I [also took] part in Broadway Black’s Antonyo Award Celebration and Playbill Pride Spectacular, an evening of musical performances and memories, hosted by Michael Urie. The concert was a benefit for Broadway Cares.
I am honored to be a founding member of Black Theatre United. A new coalition founded to influence widespread reform and combat systemic racism within the theatre industry and throughout the nation, BTU will harness the power of its collective voice to bring about change. Founding members include Lisa Dawn Cave, Darius de Haas, Brandon Victor Dixon, Carin Ford, Capathia Jenkins, LaChanze, Adriane Lenox, Kenny Leon, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, Michael McElroy, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wendell Pierce, Billy Porter, Phylicia Rashad, Allyson Tucker, Tamara Tunie, Lillias White, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Schele Williams, and Vanessa Williams.
In this moment we need allies. Everyone must do the work. Be honest, strengthen your empathy, don’t shy away from discomfort. It’s going to take some soul-searching and action to change our country.