Casey Nicholaw lives life with a smile.
The Tony winning director-choreographer responsible for The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls, Aladdin, Some Like It Hot, and more has built a reputation over the years for affable artistry. Starting as a dancer on the road in the first national tour of 42nd Street, Nicholaw maintained a collaborative attitude in his shift to the creative side of the table, contrasting with director-choreographers of yore who often ruled with an iron fist.
His approach was hard learned. From the moment Nicholaw entered the professional dance world, he was bombarded with negative leadership. His first performance in 42nd Street was borderline traumatic. “The director came up to me, and he said, ‘I just want you to know that you were the fattest chorus boy on that stage, and you better tighten your stomach muscles or something because you're doing a disservice to the show.’ Nicholaw says, shuddering. “I was absolutely devastated. It was humiliating.”
In the video above, watch Nicholaw share how he worked his way up from maligned chorus dancer to one of the most in demand director-choreographers on Broadway.
Thankfully, the support of his fellow company members and his own innate self-esteem helped him through it. Nicholaw remained with the tour through to the end of 1988 before entering a fallow period, working the bar mitzvah entertainer circuit to make ends meet. Had it not been for the kindness of a stranger five years later, Nicholaw would have missed out on making his Broadway debut in Crazy For You.
“I had no money,” Nicholaw recalls. “I was totally poor. I was going to Chicago to make $250 for the weekend. I got there, and I wanted to check my answering machine, because people were just getting answering machines, and I wanted to see if it worked from that far away in Chicago.” It did, and what he found was simultaneously exciting and horrifying: He had booked a final audition for the Broadway production of Crazy For You, but he had to come in immediately. “I went to the airport, and it was $410, which was a lot of money I didn’t have.”
As Nicholaw desperately tried to cobble together enough money on his credit cards to book a one-way flight home, the woman at the check-in desk performed a miracle. “She acted like she swiped it. She did not swipe it, and she said it worked. I auditioned the next morning, and then two hours later got the job and I started rehearsals. That's how I got Crazy For You, because of this angel of a woman.”
After a decade of dancing across the Broadway boards, Nicholaw stepped into the role of choreographer for the original production of Spamalot, guided by director Mike Nichols. When the time came for Nicholaw to take the reins of his first big musical comedy as a director-choreographer, The Drowsy Chaperone, he knew it would take a village to pull off. From top to bottom, the process was a family affair. “I wanted to surround myself with everyone I knew,” Nicholaw recalls. “Pretty much everyone in the show was someone I was in a dressing room with, or I had done a show with. I just wanted to be surrounded with people that I knew had my back, and that I could play with and create with.”
That sense of play remains ever visible in Nicholaw’s work, from the endearingly nerdy “Man Up” sequence in The Book of Mormon, to the raucous “Friend Like Me” musical number in Aladdin. After nearly 20 years of consistent work as a choreographer on Broadway, it was the heartfelt Some Like It Hot that netted Nicholaw his first Tony for Best Choreography, after six previous nominations in the category (Nicholaw had previously won Best Direction of a Musical for The Book of Mormon).
“I can't even tell you… it meant the world to me,” Nicholaw states of that win, emotions bubbling up to the surface. “I started as a dancer. Being able to tell stories through dance is my favorite thing to do. That's where I live. That's the thing that makes me so happy. I was overlooked so many times, and now, I really feel like I can finally relax ” Nicholaw laughs. “That's my life in the theatre! And hopefully there will be much more.”
My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.