Point Park grad swims with 'Big Fish' on Broadway

If you attend "Big Fish," the new musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, you can pick out Jason Lee Garrett as the cowboy in the opening scene. Oh, and the circus performer in the white leotard. And the tumbling cheerleader, and the Boy Scout ...

Such is the life of the Broadway players dubbed "ensemble" in Playbills, where you will see "Point Park" pop up regularly in the credits. It's easy to find examples. Just a few blocks from the Neil Simon Theatre, where "Big Fish" has recently settled in, you'll find Shonica Gooden and Kirsten Tucker in "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella."

When Mr. Garrett arrived in New York in September 2011, after leaving Point Park University with a B.F.A. in acting/musical theater and a dance minor that May, he knew he would run into fellow alums at auditions. He was surprised, however, by the frequency.

"Before I got my first Broadway show, 'Evita,' I was in the audition for the initial call, and they put me with four other dancers, and every single one of us was from Point Park," he recalled. "Of course, it makes sense, because Rob Ashford choreographed it and he's a Point Park alum, but then, all but one of us was at the callback. It shows that he trusts not just the training, but the students. That was really crazy and exciting. We all push each other, make sure we get to auditions, and it's a nice competition. We have a great community."

Two years out of college, Mr. Garrett has worked with some of the top names in the business -- director Michael Grandage and Mr. Ashford on "Evita" and Susan Stroman, who lent her talent to "The Producers" before catching "Big Fish."

Point Park wasn't on Oklahoman Garrett's radar when he attended the National Unified Theatre Auditions in Chicago, where college reps come to watch theater hopefuls try out for B.F.A. programs. It was after he arrived that he penned the university into his schedule.

"I learned a lot about how well-rounded the training is and I was so taken aback by not only the dance reputation but also the theater faculty, and how they are still working. That is something I really loved, because I could see them applying their teachings to their own performances. That's really the main reason I went there," he said by phone from New York, a few hours before a recent weekday performance of "Big Fish."

Among the teachers listed on his resume is a who's who of Pittsburgh actors and directors, among them Robin Walsh, Mary Rawson, Sheila McKenna, Rich Keitel, John Shepard and John Amplas. Before auditioning for the Broadway revival of "Evita," he had been in two productions of the show, at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and Point Park.

A couple of lessons he learned have been of particular use as he swims the crowded waters of New York's audition scene.

"Everyone can dance in this city, everyone is talented. You learn that very quickly. And to come to an audition and to feel like everything I do is justified through intention, because I learned how to do that, I really think it's given me a bit of an advantage," he said. "So that's one thing. And the other is ... rejection. The casting pool is so large at Point Park. Whoever does the best in the audition, that's who gets the job, and that's what it's like in the real world."

He also was drawn to Pittsburgh by the "vast and unique and special theater community," he said. He earned his Equity card during two seasons with Pittsburgh CLO, which also was a plus when he arrived in New York.

In those early days, he made an impression while auditioning for Mr. Ashford's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Mr. Garrett was invited by the director-choreographer to try out for the "Evita' revival and although he didn't get the job initially, he eventually landed on Broadway.

"It felt like a big gap, from May to April, but apparently it's not a big gap at all," he said, laughing.

He was hired as a vacation swing and stayed inhouse most of the time, learning 12 actors' tracks and performing 10 of them. While still in "Evita," he auditioned for "Big Fish," both for the Chicago tryout and Broadway production. Within two weeks, he had the job, with rehearsals starting in February through the Chicago run ending May 5. New York previews began in August, and the show opened Oct. 6.

Being a part of creating a musical from scratch, with Ms. Stroman as his guide, gave him "palpitations," he said.

He started several times to express how fortunate he feels in his current situation on "Big Fish," based on the Daniel Wallace book, with John August adapting his own screenplay of the Tim Burton film.

"Opportunity meets preparation was the key," he said finally. "The first week was scary for me -- all I wanted to do was make her proud. I knew her work, but she's so tactful and kind and courageous, and she allows us so much freedom, those are things I never could have imagined. There are so many things in the show I feel personally responsible for ... she just let me run wild. It's with her guidance and the characters are obviously within certain parameters, but that is something I don't think I'll ever experience again. She really set the show on our own individual expression. I felt like a kid again in a way, playing pretend."

Besides working with "Stro," as Mr. Garrett called her at one point, he also gets some onstage moments with star Norbert Leo Butz, who owns best musical actor Tonys for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Catch Me If You Can."

Mr. Garrett enjoys a moment in each show when the two have a playful interaction. It's during a wedding scene in which Mr. Butz's Edward Bloom plays the confused father of the groom and Mr. Garrett is the groom's friend, attending with his mother. They change the dialogue a bit each time, but the gist remains the same: Bloom accuses the mom of being a cougar.

"I argue with him, 'That's gross. That's my mom. I grew up with your kid.' And he's always, 'No, no, that's not true.' No matter what he says, he's always within the confines of Edward Bloom's persona. It's really exciting to see someone be that successful and not drop character and still be so professional ... exciting and inspiring," Mr. Garrett said.

Working with big Broadway names so soon, the ensemble everyman can't help but wonder at his luck.

"Two years out of school and working with these creative masters? Yes, I feel spoiled. I can't say that enough. But it's also lit a fire under my butt. ... I feel spoiled in a sense that my passion has been cultivated because I've gotten to work so quickly with people of this caliber, who are known as such creative forces in our business. That has really showed me the path I have to follow."

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