Tyler Hanes is drawn to musical theater for the stories. Now, the 20-year-old is writing his story.
The rising junior at Kent State University had met Broadway star Idina Menzel nine other times, but he added a chapter when she invited him on stage for a duet during the encore of her concert at Heinz Hall last month. Mr. Hanes joined Ms. Menzel for "Defying Gravity" from "Wicked," the show that earned her a Tony Award.
"Having me sing 'Defying Gravity' with her was a huge honor," said Mr. Hanes, a Struthers, Ohio, native. "It was literally a tearful moment. I came off stage, and I didn't even realize what happened."
At the Pittsburgh performance, Ms. Menzel introduced Mr. Hanes, saying that she has known him since he was 5 years old.
"He came backstage to meet me, and I gave him a tour. And then he sang for me, 'One Short Day' from 'Wicked' right on the stage," she said. Ms. Menzel was a few years off about when they had met, but she recalled that he just started singing without a prompt.
Mr. Hanes was introduced to Ms. Menzel when his aunt, Cheryl Joyce, sent a letter to the singer/actress describing her nephew as a "huge 'Wizard of Oz' buff," who loves seeing theater and sang "One Short Day" in the Macy's Day Parade. Mr. Hanes didn't know about the letter, which he read for the first time recently, and it stayed a secret until after a "Wicked" show in New York.
Mr. Hanes, who was 10 at the time, wanted to go to the stage door to meet his favorite character -- "the wicked witch, the green one." He did meet "the green one," but he met her backstage, where Ms. Menzel was waiting for him and his family.
These days, Mr. Hanes studies musical theater, hoping to soon move beyond community theater performances to either a lead in a show at Kent State or performing at a regional level. Mr. Hanes evidently made an impression last month at Heinz Hall, where Ms. Menzel's fans surrounded him when he walked out the stage door.
"I wasn't the main event," he said, laughing.
Although Ms. Menzel never knows in advance that Mr. Hanes will be in the audience, she does recognize the cookies that he always brings -- her favorite is the peanut butter and chocolate treat, the "buckeye."
"This is one of the ways she remembers me," he said. "I only go when I am in driving distance." When Mr. Hanes was taken backstage after the Pittsburgh show, Ms. Menzel already had eaten four of the cookies.
"She was just a sweetheart back there, too," he said.
Singing in front of crowds wasn't always easy for him. His mother, Cathy Hanes, had to bribe him with a milkshake to sing "Hard Knock Life" for his first audition at the age of 7.
"As soon as he started to sing, it was like there was no tomorrow," Ms. Hanes said.
That first audition and the show, "The King and I," at the Trumbull New Theatre in Niles, Ohio, remain his most memorable stage experiences. "It really got me addicted to the theater aspect," he said.
So far, the road hasn't been perfect. For Mr. Hanes, the rejections he has received from amusement parks are the most difficult.
"They take their cookie dough and go, 'Oh, that one's not perfect,' " he said.
But, that is the field he is in, Ms. Hanes said. "You have to be in the right place at the right time and be exactly what they're looking for," she said.
Mr. Hanes tells himself that there is always the next one.
Recently, he got his Zumba license and has been teaching Zumba -- combining Latin and international music with a workout -- three to four nights a week. For now, it is a way to make money to be able to travel to auditions, but for the future, it is his backup plan.
While he would love to be on Broadway, Mr. Hanes just wants to be paid to do what he loves -- singing and acting.
"As long as there is an art form involved and money to survive off of, I'm all for it," he said.
This August, he enters his third year at Kent State, competing against the other 25 people in the musical theater program's junior class for a handful of leads in the school's musicals. And Ms. Menzel continues to mentor him.
"She pushes me to do what I do," Mr. Hanes said. "She inspires me."
Ms. Menzel told Mr. Hanes that he is going to go somewhere in life, Ms. Hanes added.
"She's encouraged him to follow his dream."
Claire Aronson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.