Broadway paid a visit to Pilgrim High School last week, or rather Pilgrim 2019 alumni Michael Harmon, a “swinger” in the Broadway MJ the Musical, returned to the stage where it all started.
As a “swing” Harmon must be prepared to step into a role when a cast member can’t be on stage. It could be an accident or illness in mid-show or a prolonged absence. The job requires carefully following the show and not only knowing what comes next but also being able to assume the character of the cast member being replaced.
“I started off not wanting to do it. I just wanted to be on stage,” Harmon told the Pilgrim Players during a break in rehearsals of Rock of Ages to be performed in late November. As a high school student, Harmon said he loved to dance and he didn’t know how he was going to fit into theater. Then in his junior year English and drama teacher Richard Dennigham staged the musical Cinderella and Harmon remembers thinking “I thought I could really do it.”
He wasn’t alone. Jenna Tremblay Reilly, who choreographed Pilgrim musicals for the past nine years, recognized Harmon’s talent, even telling him he could be “a great sing” as a high school student. She reminded him of that and urged him to share his experience in show biz. Harmon didn’t need much prompting.
“This is where you put in the work,” he said to the cast who gathered
under the stage lights. He urged them to assume the characters they are portraying because “if you don’t believe it here, we (the audience) can see it.” To illustrate, he pointed to the wall, saying if that’s meant to be a bus station, “then you have to see it as a station” not a wall.
What Harmon said he learned is, “if you want something you have to go after it…you’re on your own, it’s your personal life.”
By the time he was a senior, Harmon knew he wanted the theater. He went on to attend the AMDA, American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in New York City. The academy touts, “our students are a vital part of the creative community here, and the city itself sets the scene for an innovative learning experience. An AMDA education is more than just studio training; it's a backstage pass to New York City's performing arts scene.”
Harmon didn’t outline the steps that took him to Broadway, but rather how he learned that MJ the Musical was holding tryouts. At the time he had work off Broadway and figured there was nothing to lose in taking a shot.
He was over the top when the offer came. Friends and family instantly learned of the news. It was a time of celebration.
Hard work followed.
He signed up in July and he made his first on stage appearance in mid-August. With eight shows a week, Harmon is either on stage of following the performance so he can fill in when called. Relating his on the road experience prior to Broadway he said, “time zones are not your friend. You feel like you’re life is in a bubble.”
What about movie work or commercials, students inquired.
“People get paid so much for so little work,” he said. He added, they sit around a lot and get to eat lots of good food.
Harmon urged students interested in a career in entertainment to “start the work here. Trust the work that you’re doing…and enjoy it.” He said high school theatre is a place to learn from mistakes as well as to standout.
From questioning if he could be a swing to being “terrified” when swinging his first show, Harmon is focused on his work. One takeaway that resonated was, “it is never boring. You feel like you’re a special piece.”
Although not on stage, Harmon fixated his audience and most surely had some students dreaming of Broadway. And to give him a glimpse of their work, Denningham and Tremblay-Reilly had the cast dance and sing sets from Rock of Ages. Harmon was back in high school and loving it.
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