Here’s “The Bottom Line”, Corey Cott is “Something to Believe In.” Since his days at Carnegie Mellon University, Corey has been impressing the Broadway community with his insane amount of talent, booking his first Broadway show a year before graduating. He currently is amazing theater buffs and “Fansies” alike “Carrying the Banner” eight times a week playing Jack Kelly in Newsies.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
CC: I had the opportunity to do a teen community production of Les Miserables in 8th grade. I was one of the youngest kids in the cast, and I was completely swept up by it all. Witnessing all of these incredibly talented high school actors including me in their cast and in their story was extremely inspiring. Even though I was just a small role I felt like I was accomplishing something huge. Not to mention the show itself is so astoundingly beautiful. It will always have a huge place in my heart. Like a first love!
Did anyone or anything in particular inspire you to pursue a life in the theater?
Oh man. I could write a book about all of the people, shows, films, actors, and books that inspired me and still inspire today. That production of Les Miserables at age 14 was a gigantic stepping-stone. Actors like Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Robin Williams. The first show I ever saw on Broadway was Wicked. Norbert Leo Butz was a huge part of my early high school years. Cast Recordings like Big River, RENT, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Urinetown all had a big impact as well.
How did your training at Carnegie Mellon help set you up for a successful career?
It’s hard to put this answer into a few simple sentences. CMU essentially taught me how to find the humility and humanity within the work. Of course we broke down the various techniques of acting, explored all the different styles of Greeks, Restoration Comedy, and Shakespeare, analyzed scripts, and learned musical theatre history – all things most conservatories will do, and CMU definitely executes on a level above most. However, the program at CMU is able to manifest all of these things with an artistry and downright human quality that I don’t see many other places. I give credit to the faculty. The group of teachers CMU has assembled is outrageous. The experience, camaraderie, humility, and talent they all exert is contagious among the students. They provide an incredibly safe yet challenging atmosphere where growing as an actor is essentially your only choice.
What was your favorite show you were in, in college?
I was lucky enough to do a Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a Williams (Suddenly, Last Summer), and TWO Sondheim’s (Assassins and Sweeney Todd) throughout my time at school. All of these were wonderful experiences for various reasons. I have to say Sweeney Todd was my favorite production. It was one of those experiences where everything came together seamlessly. The direction, casting, writing (of course), and design worked together like a machine. Our class consisted of nine actors, and there are nine principal roles in the show. I played Tobias, which was a dream role of mine. All around, an incredible experience.
You got the job of Jack Kelly’s understudy and started with the show only a few weeks after graduating. How did it feel coming into NYC and a business with a job and affirmation that you made the right career choice?
The best way to describe the situation was that everything came together like a jigsaw puzzle, and fit perfectly. It was a huge affirmation. In school you can study your craft to a tea, but you will never know what the business is like until you are literally in the trenches of NYC. It felt extremely low pressure and quite exciting. I knew for a year I would have a job. Patrick Wilson spoke at our graduation ceremony last year, and one thing he said was, “You have ONE year to make a name for yourself before the next crop of kids comes and does the same thing. So make the most of it.”
What preparation did you do to play Jack once you got the role?
I had two weeks of rehearsal before I made my debut. Things moved pretty quickly. I found any articles I could about child labor in the 1800s. I love using images as a way to access the world of a play, so I found hundreds of images of various children working throughout the 18th and 19th century. Coincidentally, a lot of the prep I did for Tobias was fairly synonymous with Jack. Children were treated like slaves. Sub-human. I found images of children beaten in the streets. Children gambling and smoking at age 5. The list goes on and on. I also searched for images from other films and plays that inspire me. Jack is the leader of a gang so I watched gang movies. I have a huge collage of pictures hanging in my dressing room from films like The Sandlot, Gangs of New York, and Hook. [Director] Jeff Calhoun compared Jack Kelly to Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, so I watched those again. I feel like I am continually doing research. Another thing I learned at CMU is that the work is never done. It’s always evolving like a living organism. That’s my favorite part of Jack. Growing with him.
How did the experience of understudying Jack Kelly help you once you took over full time?
It helped me immensely. Being a standby was incredible because I was able to do the show a few times a week, and then the rest of the time I got to watch and learn from Jeremy playing the role. I got to watch him play Jack for a full month before I took over full time. Watching him, along with doing the show a few times a week whenever he was out (filming Smash), allowed me to gradually gain the stamina for performing Jack eight times a week.
It would be an understatement if I said that Newsies has passionate fans. The “Fanises” are insane (in the best way)! How does all of their love and support help the overall product of the show?
They are the best! Actually though, the best. I truly believe we have the best fans on Broadway. A lot of people even think they ARE the reason we are on Broadway. The show had such a huge demand once its successful run at Papermill closed, Disney decided to try it out on Broadway, and it worked. This is my first Broadway experience, and I know I am very spoiled when it comes to the fans. Our stagedoor is still pretty crazy every single night. Fans bake us things. They make us cards, posters, bracelets. They even bring toys for my puppy! My dressing room door is shamelessly covered with drawings of my face that people have sent me. Some are more interpretive representations of my face than others, but they are well done nonetheless. Social networking gave the show the worldwide press that can be hard to get these days. I am outrageously grateful for our fans. Thank you for buying tickets and letting us have jobs.
You’ve been playing Jack for almost a year now. How do you keep it fresh?
For the first couple months I was able to keep it fresh simply from the high of achieving one of my biggest dreams. I would get to the theater, warm up, and allow the giddiness of performing in a Broadway show inspire my performance. After 300 shows that can start to wear off a little, so I began to search for other routes. The audience is always fresh so I can always depend on that aspect of each show to shift and morph. The audience is a character in the story, and they have to be treated that way. I always try to listen to them and discover how we can be in sync. An audience of 500 middle school students on a Wednesday matinee in the middle of February is going to differ greatly from a Saturday night in the middle of July. Technique is monumental when it comes to keeping things fresh. I watch a lot of TV/Film, so I will let the actors I am watching that week inspire the performance. I pretend Kevin Spacey or Marlon Brando is in the audience, and let that move me. There are so many ways to keep things fresh and I feel like my approach is continuously shifting.
Do you have a pre-show routine? If so, what is it?
I try to get to the theater an hour before the show, and just take in the energy of the theater. Connect with my cast, crew, dressers, and management. See how everyone’s day is going, turn on some music, and just sit for a little bit. Once half hour hits, I will get into costume and head down to the stage to stretch and roll out my muscles for 5-10 minutes. Then I head up to my dressing room to warm up vocally. I do a combination of vocal exercises from CMU paired with ones I have learned with my voice teacher here in NYC. At our five-minute call, there is a group of us that heads down to the alley outside the stage door where we have a “prayer circle.” We all hold hands, breathe with each other, and one of us will pray for that show that night. It’s a really powerful way to check in with each other before we venture out onto the stage for two and a half hours.
Newsies is all about fighting for what you believe in. Has there ever been a role that you had to really fight for? How can people who want to be on Broadway use that lesson in their everyday lives?
To be honest, I truly feel like I fight for every role I go out for. There are thousands and thousands of actors doing exactly what I am doing. As an artist, I don’t think there is any middle ground in fighting for what you want. If you truly want it, and believe you were put on this Earth to tell stories, then you will do exactly that to survive. It almost becomes a necessity – like eating, drinking, or sleeping. Every audition I go out for I try to make succinct, smart choices pertaining to the text and be completely off book as possible. There is that famous story about William H. Macy who got his sides for Fargo ten hours before his audition. He stayed up all night preparing, went to the audition, and now he is William H. Macy. You have to be you. That’s what so special about actors – preparedness aside – you are the vehicle. Your mind, body, spirit, and choices are exactly what people witness in the audition room. That can be incredibly hard to trust, but extremely powerful when trusted.
Your Newsies predecessor, Jeremy Jordan, left the show to focus on his TV work in Smash. Do you have any interest in working on the big or small screen?
Without a doubt. Actually that is where a lot of my future aspirations reside. Theater will always be my first love, and what made me want to be an actor in the first place. Film/TV, however, was the primary medium that introduced me to storytelling. I would love to do it all. The actors/directors I admire most are those who can seamlessly transition between the two. People like Michael Shannon, Jason Butler Harner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Mendes, Mike Nichols. I would love to be lucky enough to transition between the mediums as much as possible.
If you had the opportunity to be “miscast” in any role what would you want it to be?
There might be a better answer for this, but there are two roles that I remember, after watching their respective shows, I said to myself, “If only I could play that role…”
1) Seaweed in Hairspray
2) Troy Maxson in Fences
If it came down to a female, probably a domineering, powerful woman like Medea or Lady Macbeth….or Mama Rose.
What advice do you have for aspiring Broadway performers?
Just be you. Trust that you have the ability, the looks, and the talent. Work as hard as you can at your craft. Don’t ever get complacent and think you have learned all you can. There is never enough growth or knowledge. Most importantly, don’t take anything too seriously. My most successful auditions and performances are the ones where I let go of control and just had a good time. After all, it’s only life. ♦