Lovers of all things nerdy descended on New York City last weekend for New York ComicCon, and Playbill was there for all of you beautiful theatre nerds. Our first-ever ComicCon panel, The Big Broadway Nerd Panel, explored the intersection between Broadway and nerd culture with a panel made up of Broadway’s nerdiest performers: Hamilton (and Barney & Friends) alum Justice Moore, Aladdin Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart, Rent and If/Then star Anthony Rapp, and Hamilton and Ain’t Too Proud star Nik Walker.
Hosted by Playbill Creative Director Bryan Campione, this standing room-only panel covered everything from favorite comic books to dream Broadway Marvel adaptations to The West Wing “book clubs,” beginning with digging into the panelists’ early fandom experiences.
“I wasn’t really looking at Broadway, really,” shared Moore. “I didn’t think there was space for my movement style. I’m more of a contemporary hip-hop dancer, and Broadway, from what I understood, was a little more like… [does Fosse-style jazz hands]. Going to the [Hamilton] audition was a dream because it is exactly what I love to do. The way that show is choreographed and the movement style is right up my alley. Broadway sort of found me and made me fall in love by presenting itself to me.”
Iglehart found his love of both Broadway and nerd culture growing up in California.
“The first show I ever saw on stage was The Wiz. Ted Ross was in it. I lost my mind. I saw the movie, and I thought it was great too, and I said, ‘oh, that’s what I want to do.’ But at the same time, reruns of the Adam West-Burt Ward Batman [series] were on, so of course I wanted to be Batman and the Lion. How do you mix those things together? Somehow through God’s blessing I was able to mix nerddom and Broadway together, and here we are.”
For Rapp, early memories of being a nerd centered around his time touring the country—a young Rapp played Louis Leonowens in an early ‘80s national tour of The King and I starring Yul Brynner.
“I was on tour when I was like 10. Every city the first thing I did was find the local comic book store. I had my little crates of comics that I was travelling around the country with. I’m in the process of moving and just went through them and found things from the late ‘70s, early ‘80s of the weirdest things you’ve probably never heard of. Do you remember Ambush Bug? I have all the Ambush Bug comics, and they’re in the plastic!”
“Where I was, all the brothers was into hip-hop,” added Iglehart. “I was into hip-hop too, but I had to hide the fact that I also liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had to hide the fact that I had LL Cool J and Oklahoma! right next to it.”
Walker, who counts Jurassic Park, superheroes in general, and theme parks as his particular areas of interest, had similar experiences growing up Black in Boston.
“Growing up in Boston, it’s very white, so I’m already a token. I was not Black enough for the Black kids but I was too Black for the white kids, so where do I go? I had these stories, and they saved me in so many ways.”
“Going on tour [with Hamilton] with my friends—that was my first real circle," added Moore, "I found that a couple of years ago with this group of dudes and a group of people of color. A Black family of nerds is so rare to find.".
Being a panel of performers, many had experience performing—and cosplaying—their nerdy loves as well.
“When I was a kid in elementary school, I talked a lot and had a lot of energy,” remembered Iglehart. “Now you would call it ADHD, but there was no medicine back then. Back then, the medicine was, ‘SIT DOWN!’ So my teacher, if I could sit my butt down the whole class, she would give me 10 minutes and I could get up and do all my Looney Toons cartoons. I would get up and do a scene between Bugs and Daffy and talk to myself. I would do all of ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ and I would do all of ‘The Rabbit of Seville,’ and she would let me do them. If she gave me that time for my five-minute, 10-minute stand-up routine, I would sit down for all of class.”
“I was obsessed with a young actor named Josh Hartnett who played Zeke in The Faculty,” shared Walker, “and he wore a very simple black t-shirt and white long-sleeved shirt and grey cargo pants with boots. So that movie comes out in 1998. When I meet my wife in 2009, I’m still wearing these things, to the point where on our first date, she was like, ‘Are you trying to be Zeke from The Faculty?’ And I was like, ‘I’m gonna marry you. You’re great.’”
Walker also shared that he has “beef” with Iglehart.
“My nerddom? Loki. All day. That show is incredible. I was doing the Tonys, and Tom Hiddleston was sitting [on the front row]. The only thing I wanted was to take a picture with this man.”
Apparently Iglehart was sitting nearby and got to meet Hiddleston, but instead of setting up a meet-and-greet for Walker, he just took his own picture with the Loki star.
“James texts me a picture after we perform, and it just says, ‘Hey man. Loki’s so nice.”
For Iglehart, Broadway ended up being an avenue that brought his nerdy loves to his professional sphere as well.
“[Comic book writer] Dan Slott came to see Hamilton, and we started talking, and he was like, ‘Would you like to write comics?’ I was like, ‘I would love to write comics.’ Next thing I know, I’m in a meeting with the folks at Marvel and got to write Spider-Man, and got to write Rocket & Groot, and got to work with Doctor Voodoo.”
Iglehart also got to live out a nerdy dream becoming a voice actor for cartoons, voicing Lance Strongbow in Tangled: The Series for Disney along with characters on other animated series.
“It’s one of the most fun things to do, just play make believe for a living. Especially in voice over world, you’re in there with just a microphone and a script and you’re just making the world. You can’t even see it yet—they’re drawing it while you’re doing it. It’s like being a kid again, just making crap up, and it is gorgeous. I think if more adults made stuff up for a hot second, you wouldn’t be so bogged down by all this craziness of the real world. Give yourself a moment to just live and play. Have a recess before you go back to real life. It’ll make you feel a bit better.”
“That’s what nerddom is. We have very big hearts, and we love these things,” added Walker.
Apparently, backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre can be a very nerdy place, at least when Hamilton is loaded in.
“There’s that guy Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote our show,” shared Walker. “Me and him and Sasha Hutchings, we are all diehard fans of a little show called The West Wing. We all knew that we were big fans of it, but over the pandemic we were texting and then all of a sudden we were having a book club. We would meet every week. We would watch two episodes and every Sunday we would discuss them—and it’s still happening!”
The panel then took a hard right turn to talk about a very important topic for all millennial tv watchers: Barney & Friends. Moore played Holly on the series before becoming The Bullet in Hamilton as an adult, sharing with the ComicCon audience the cardinal rule of being on Barney:
“[The actor playing Barney] can’t see through ‘his’ eyes. They see through the mouth, so with his range of vision, you have to move your whole body to see. So the rule is if Barney is running, you go—run, or you will get hurt. One day there’s a scene and we’re skipping to the swings, and Barney is running and I’m skipping. I feel him hit the back of my shoe, and I stop, thinking we’ll have to cut. The crew started screaming ‘GO! RUN!’”
“Someone needs to find a clip of Barney chasing children and replace the music with Jurassic Park,” added Iglehart.
Then it was game time! Campione asked the panel to pitch a Broadway show based on a favorite nerdy comic book or movie. While the panelists got a few minutes to think up their answers, the ComicCon audience was asked some nerdy Broadway trivia questions. Much to everyone’s surprise, the first audience trivia question ended up being correctly answered by true nerd royalty: Peter Allen David, noted for his 12-year stint writing The Incredible Hulk, along with Aquaman, Young Justice, Supergirl, Spider-Man, and more. Taking the stage, David shared some his Broadway nerdiness with the audience.
“For the record, my first Broadway show was Fiddler on the Roof. The original cast was no longer in it, but two of the daughters were played by actresses no one had ever heard of at the time. One of them was Adrienne Barbeau [who would go on to create Rizzo in the original Broadway cast of Grease before making a string of cult favorite science fiction and horror films including The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow, and Swamp Thing], and Tzeitel was played by an actress who had just three lines of bio in the Playbill—her name was Bette Midler.”
After a round of trivia, the panelists were ready with their pitches. Rapp presented first.
“It’s a musical called Secret Identities, and it follows the personal lives of superheroes when they’re not in costume. I see the three leads as being Cheyenne Jackson, Audra McDonald, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Cheyenne Jackson’s character would be a superhero that’s not out publicly, but he’s gay, so that’s one of the storylines. And Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald would be a married couple that no one knows is married.”
Walker made his pitch painting a picture for the ComicCon audience.
“I want you to picture a darkened stage. I want you to picture music by Duncan Sheik. I want you to picture Raúl Esparza playing The Joker. I want you to picture my enemy James Monroe Iglehart as either Batman or Commissioner Gordon, I don’t care which—depending on whether he introduced me to Tom Hiddleston or not. I want you to picture a musical that’s somewhere at the nexus of Sweeney Todd, Spring Awakening, and Nine. The world’s greatest detective gets a phone call that he has to go down to a certain asylum and try to negotiate a hostage situation, so he goes down there and what he finds is the inmates of the asylum, but really what he finds is his own trauma. My musical would be called A Serious House on Serious Earth. Arkham Asylum, the greatest comic ever.”
Moore’s pitch returned to her childhood roots.
“A Winter Soldier musical. Barney the Dinosaur is the Winter Soldier, and the whole time Rocket Raccoon is trying to get his arm. Rocket Racoon is Nik Walker.”
Walker’s response? “Yes. We have to make this happen.”
Moore continued, “Thanos randomly appears throughout the musical, and the characters are constantly getting Barney and Thanos confused, so naturally they have to duel. Barney wins using his musical arm. The title is Purple Army.”
Iglehart looked to Walker’s favorite for his musical.
“I am pitching Loki The Musical: Music For All Time. Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Starring as Loki, Jonathan Groff. Mobius is Christian Borle. Hunter B-15 is Aneesa Folds from Freestyle Love Supreme, and Ravonna is Adrienne Warren and Kang the Conquerer is none other than Nik Walker. But the story is not the full story that you follow on Disney+. It’s Loki about to be on what he thinks is his death bed and he is looking back on his life, going through the adventures from the films and the comics. It’s called Music For All Time because it’ll have rock, country, hip-hop—every kind of music you can possibly have, and Loki has to go through all these different personalities. And you’ll have all these different Broadway actors making special appearances because Loki can be anybody. So any day it could be Anthony, it could be me, it could be all of us just doing things. And each time you never know what special guest it’ll be that week. You just have to buy a ticket and see who’s gonna show up. Who will Loki change into. And at the end you realize this whole time that Loki has actually been in Asgard asleep, about to decide whether to go down to earth to take the Tesseract.”
The audience voted on their favorite pitch by applauding. Rapp and Iglehart’s were identified as the finalists, but the Aladdin Tony winner’s pitch won the day. If you ask us, producers should be working on all of these ideas immediately.
You can watch The Big Broadway Nerd Panel in full on demand by purchasing digital access to NY ComicCon 2021. Find out how here.