When a local talent makes it to the Big White Way – and is about to open in the new revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter” and Equus) – you can’t help but smile and applaud his efforts. I was introduced to the many talents of Ryan Watkinson when I first saw him perform in Musical Theater Center’s production of Les Miserables. Since then, I have followed his NYC career and have also become a fan of his siblings Julia and Sean who have performed in many Act Two productions. His Mom, Carmelita, is a photographer. It’s an amazing story of a young man being trained at Musical Theater Center who moves to NYC to fulfill his dream of being on a Broadway Stage. Here’s Ryan’ personal ‘How to Succeed.’
Joel: Tell us about How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Ryan: It’s about this young man named J. Pierrepont Finch, who is being played by Daniel Radcliffe, and he has this book called “How to Succeed in Business”, and it basically outlines throughout the book how he can just keep on growing going from being a window washer to the end – where he becomes the Chairman of the Board. It’s all ‘tongue-in-cheek’ because there is one point where he become a Junior Executive and he opens the book and he says, “If you read this book carefully, then you should now be a Junior Executive”. It’s hilarious and fun. The Chairman of the company – J.B. Biggley – is played by John Larroquette and Daniel basically has to use his tricks so he can continue moving up. Then there is Biggley’s nephew – Bud Frump – played by Christopher Hanke – who is always trying to get ahead as well, and he’s basically the villain. He’s always trying to stop Finch at whatever he does. And through all this, there is a love story between Finch and Rosemary – played by Rose Hemingway – to tie it all together.
It’s really an old-fashioned musical.
Absolutely! The show was revived in 1995 with Matthew Broderick playing Pierrepont, and the show actually won the Pulitzer Prize.
Yes, in 1961 is when it won the Tony and the Pulitzer. It’s one of the few musicals to ever win the Pulitzer.
I didn’t even know that until I started doing it. When I heard that I said, “Wow! That’s amazing! That’s very rare”.
Tell us about your character Mr. Matthews.
He is mostly a dancer in the show. There are a lot of dance sequences. Rob Ashford – the director and choreographer – is known for his incredible choreography. He is just unreal! I did Promises, Promises with him, and I can honestly say that I have never seen his choreography any better than what he has done for How to Succeed… It’s new and exciting in a completely new style that no one has seen on Broadway. That’s really what it revolves around.
All the ensemble men have small features and small roles and Mr. Matthews is a kind of nervous ‘on the edge of a nervous breakdown guy the entire time. He has some quirky characteristics – all the people in the ensemble have characters and names – they need to work as a company and it’s not just to fill space. We all have to go in-depth and try to figure out who we are and why we need to be here. That’s such a breath of fresh air, other than a lot of shows where, “OK, you just go and stand over there”.
It sounds like a real ensemble piece.
Oh absolutely! I think for the male ensemble especially throughout the First Act we have a maximum of a 10 minute break. We are onstage the entire time.
How did you get the part?
During Promises, Promises, Rob, who directed and choreographed the show, invited the cast to audition.
He knew all of you, so he took a lot of you with him to this show.
Yes. He took six of us with him: Megan Sikora, Sarah O’Gleby, Matt Wall, Marty Lawson, Cameron Adams, and me. It was a long audition process. There were four or five callbacks, and each one was about three hours. It was dancing non-stop, with definitely the most talented people in New York. His auditions are amazing to be at because you are surrounded by incredible people; you just know that no matter what happens you are doing the right thing if you are there.
After a while – as every show does – there’s a lot of waiting and finagling that the show has to go through in order to finally cast it. In December, we found out that we were going to do it in January. It was nice because Promises, Promises was closing on January 2nd, we had a nice two week break before we went into rehearsals.
How long after you auditioned did you get hired?
About two months for the whole process to go up.
How many dancers are in this production?
Rob makes every single person dance. There are ten ensemble men, five ensemble girls. Many of the guys who are featured dancers I have worked with before,which is really nice because we all knew each other. We all dance so differently which is amazing! And we all seem to click in a way that I never thought we would.
What really stands out about it is all of Rob Ashford’s partnering. Just beautiful partnering and it tells the story and it’s just not there for the sake of it. It helps us act the piece because we can say, “I understand what is going on here”. There is a number called “Coffee Break” and it turns into a tango and then almost a Ninja fight with a girl over getting the coffee, where she doesn’t touch the ground for three counts of eight. It’s hilarious and makes perfect sense, and it’s so pleasing to watch.
Is that the most difficult song to dance in this show or is there something else?
No. It’s “Brotherhood of Man”. That’s our ‘eleven-o’clock’ number. That’s the one that Daniel leads us in, and he’s dancing up a storm.
Can Daniel dance?
Can he sing?
He has a beautiful voice. If you’ve seen “Harry Potter” and you think you know what Daniel is all about – or Equus – you will be so completely wowed because he is so much more. He is singing along and dancing right side of me and he is just doing amazing stuff. He’s down for anything. There are places in the show where we are lifting him in the air and most people would say, “Let’s take a break and let’s pause, and let’s regroup” but Daniel says, “Let’s do that again!” So we’re doing it fifteen and sixteen times in a row and he’s just loving it.
He’s probably used to all those takes when he filmed all the “Harry Potter” films.
Joel: Let’s talk about your training and growing up in Maryland.
I grew up in Rockville and studied at Musical Theater Center (“MTC”), under Artistic Director Diane Hamilton who I adore. MTC took me in when I was extremely untalented in every possible way. I was young and had no idea what I was doing but I knew that I liked it. Diane taught me everything I needed to know about dance along with Helen Hayes (another of one of his teachers) and MTC’s voice and acting teachers I was in a group called Singular Sensations where I learned everything I needed to know. It’s basically a professional company in a non-professional environment. Being surrounded by all that talent makes you work hard, and they are also your best friends. So with having everything I needed in one place, I was there every day after school and loving every moment of it. I then went to Penn State University and went through their BFA Theatre Musical Program.
What was your favorite role at MTC?
Definitely playing Marius in Les Miserables.
You were quite wonderful in that role.
That was a lot of fun.
And then your brother Sean did it at ACT TWO.
He did the exact same role. We actually talked a lot throughout the entire process. Sean would call and ask me some questions and would say, “What the hell… What do I do with this? And I would tell him, “I had the same problem”. That was such a fun thing to go through the same role that we both did, and really talk about it. And Sean would say, “Well I am doing it this way”, which was a better choice. And I would say, “Nice choice. I wish someone would have told me that when I was doing it”.
Let’s talk about your Mom, Carmelita, who is your biggest fan who keeps schlepping to New York to watch you perform.
She never stops and she is just incredible for doing it. She’s has never missed an opening and she’s never missed a closing and will just drop everything to support all of us. Her and my Dad both. I am very lucky to actually have parents that support me because I know a lot of friends whose parents have not come to a single opening of theirs, or don’t really know what’s going on. I have never had to deal with that, and I am very grateful for both and I will never forget about it.
Let’s talk about your other talented siblings.
When Sean started training, I was up here. I was like, “Oh Sean No! This business is so hard and the last thing I want you do is to decide you want to do this – and then somehow you might not be good enough”. Of course I understand his love for it – we all have it – all my brothers and sisters. Cory has gone on to do advertising, and Julia is going to start working for a casting agency. She finally realized she wanted to do something in theatre but she didn’t know exactly what it was. She’s always had a keen eye for talent.
And she’s got the personality for it.
Oh please! I went home and saw a show that Sean did in his ensemble dance company: Renegade Dance Company, and I said, “Oh my God! He is really, really good!” He is way better than I was at his age. If Sean really wants to do this and trains well, he easily could make money off of doing this. So since then – he has been working his little butt off going to class and dancing non-stop, and he’s really going for it.
Dancing in a Broadway musical must take a toll on your body. What is your daily exercise routine?
Especially with Rob Ashford’s choreography, it’s very physical, it’s very acrobatic, so it takes a toll. Your body is going to hurt after each show – no matter how you do the number, no matter if you are taking it easy or going full-out. What I do is allow myself to go home and sit in a bath with some Epsom salts and make sure that I am not exerting myself before and after. Before the show I’ll go to the gym for a bit, and of course warm up before at least for a half-hour. You have to get your body warmed up. You can’t shock your body when you start. I have found this to work great.
Have you been injured during a show?
I had a lower back injury during Promises, Promises, where I was out for about two weeks. It was so miserable being out of your job because you want to be there and you feel fine but you can’t get out of bed. I hadn’t had an injury like that in my career yet. Then I took extra care of my back. I got acupuncture which was a God-send because it just saved me, and a lot of physical therapy. Now I am back better and stronger than ever. How to Succeed… is a more physical show and I’m able to take it without any injuries.
Talk about the first time you walked onto a Broadway stage to perform.
It was auditioning for Movin’ Out. I was working at Walnut Street Theatre [in Philadelphia] at the time in a regional production of West Side Story and Movin’ Out was having auditions – and I always loved it – and I said, “I am going to be in that show one day”. They had auditions and I went and they went great, and when I got called back for the final callback I said, “This is amazing!”
It was actually on the stage of the show (the Richard Rodgers Theatre) and what was even crazier about it – it was right before the Wednesday matinee. It’s me and two other guys on the stage doing three of the numbers, while the entire cast of Movin’ Out was there warming up and watching us – seeing who was going to be the next person in their cast. It was so daunting and I was so intimidated – but it made me step it up a little more because I had an audience and people were rooting us on. When we started doing the hardest number they all started clapping. Just to be sweating and trying to wipe ourselves off – after doing all of that on a Broadway stage – it was unbelievable. And making my Broadway debut about a month later was just perfect!
And that was in 2006?
Then you went into Xanadu, which I loved.
It was so much fun. I played Thalia. I was there for a year and a month. That was the craziest experience. I had to learn so much to do that show. I had to learn all these physical tricks and I had to have a tap solo on a desk that was raised four feet in the air. It was awesome!
Everyone expected the show to flop. In previews everyone was writing the show was worse than the movie. They said it was stupid and would never work.
My friend Andre Ward, who did Xanadu with me, always thought that Xanadu was going be summer stock on Broadway. “It will open in June and close in August”. But everyone loved it. It was hilarious and cute.
And you had Kerry Butler.
That didn’t hurt!
And now she’s in Catch Me If You Can.
We are actually rehearsing in the same space as Catch Me If You Can – the 42nd Street Studio – and it was nice to get to see her. I hear she is incredible in the show. There is so much great buzz for her.
Then you were in Hair for a bit and you were part of the Tribe and understudied the role of Woof.
Yes. I did Hair for about nine months.
Did you ever go on for Woof?
I never actually got to go on for Woof. But instead there was audition after audition and bringing in the producers and the director. The talk was for me to go to London to play Woof. There’s so much that needs to happen for a role to get cast – and it ended up that my deadline for Promises, Promises was close and it didn’t end up happening, which as it turned out was the biggest blessing.
I interviewed veteran actress Joy Franz who has had a 50+ year career on the stage and she told me that you have to be a ‘triple threat’ on Broadway today to get hired because you have to be able to act, sing and dance. Do you agree?
Absolutely! If you can’t act, or sing, or dance you need to stop and concentrate on that one area because no show will hire anyone who can’t act, sing, or dance. It’s the way it is these days. In the ‘old days’, they’d hire a singing chorus, a dancing chorus, but now they want everyone to do everything. So while I’m dancing and barely able to breathe – they expect me to sing and hit ‘high Gs’. And that’s what they expect you to do. As much as you will dance for an audition you will be asked to sing and you will read. They want to see if you can bring acting to it. In the end, it’s better for us because we know we are not there to just do high kicks or triple pirouettes – but because we can do everything, and everyone around us can do everything as well.
Do you think the DC theatre scene has received the respect it deserves by the NYC media and the NYC theatre community?
Recently the NYC media has begun to recognize how talented DC actors are. Before that it used to make me so angry. I think what helped was Signature Theatre winning the Tony – that was a huge step – and now DC theatres are starting to tap into the shows that are not so mainstream, and are starting to develop new musicals – and even weird crazy musicals. That’s what DC had to do. I think there should be more recognition – of course.
I think the transfer and success of Next to Normal from Arena Stage really helped.
Absolutely! What people forget all the time is that DC is able to produce so many shows that go to Broadway. Some may be flops and some may be huge hits – and may win The Pulitzer [Next to Normal received the Pulitzer this year]. So why is NYC not giving the respect to the city where so many of their shows are coming from?
And look how many NYC actors are working here!
I would personally love to come back to DC to work. I love it! The audiences in DC are such fans of theatre, in a way that is so different than NYC. Of course, NYC audiences are wonderful, and they keep coming to the shows and I thank them because they help us keep employed – but there is something about the DC audience. When I came back I looked around to see who was at these shows and I said, “This is amazing!”
This is a town that wants to see amazing theatre and we should give them that.
What advice would you give a young dancer, actor and/or singer who is considering a career in the theatre?
My advice is to train. Never stop training. You can never get too much training. But also you have to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it then stop now because there will be hardships and so many steps backwards and so many rejections. If you don’t really love it and you can’t imagine yourself going home after hearing at three auditions – “No! No! Thank you very much but No!” – and can’t ask yourself, “How do I make myself better?” – I’d say to rethink. But if it’s something you love and can handle – then train as hard as you can and go in with an ‘optimistic eye’ and things will work out. I’ve been very blessed and very lucky. That’s how I went into everything so I can only say what I know. An ‘optimistic eye’ is what a lot of people forget to have. If you are not optimistic about yourself nobody else is going to be.
To watch videos of the cast of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, click here: