The hit musical The Bodyguard launched its first North American Tour at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, on November 25, 2016. The tour, which requires 24 cast members, will conclude in Houston, Texas, on August 20, 2017.
Broadway Connection Teaching Artist Willie Dee is currently serving as the male swing for this production. A Sam Houston State University graduate who has toured other shows across the country like Hairspray, A Chorus Line and Anything Goes, he’s now thrilled to be performing and teaching on the road again.
Here, Dance Informa speaks with Dee to learn more about his career, what his role on tour involves and what he aims to teach his students in his Broadway Connection classes.
Willie, can you first share a little about your background in the performing arts?
“I started taking musical theatre seriously in high school. I always loved to dance, and at my high school I could take other studios’ dance classes and use them as my P.E. credit. I went to college and studied musical theatre at Sam Houston State University in Texas, where I studied all styles of dance. That’s really when I began to start pushing myself toward this career.”
When did you have your ‘big break’? What were some of your first professional gigs?
“My ‘big break’ came when I signed with MSA Agency! They believed in me and my vision for myself. I’ve gotten some amazing opportunities working with MSA, and they treat us like family! And as for a specific show, I would actually have to consider The Bodyguard my big break. It has challenged me in every aspect of performing, while allowing me to work on a level and with colleagues I used to only dream about! It’s upped my game and will only help me reach the next level of my career.
I started my performing career at Six Flags Over Texas during shows in their summer and winter seasons. We did five 40-minute shows a day, plus a parade. It was great because it taught me how to build stamina to perform a show over such a long period of time. The best part was I got to work with some of my best friends, and we were getting paid!”
The Bodyguard tours through mid-August. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the production, what is the story about?
“The story is based off the iconic movie starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, but I consider it a thriller with music. Rachel Marron (played by Deborah Cox) is a high-profile celebrity in the peak of her career. She is being harassed by a stalker (Jorge Paniagua) and hires Frank Farmer (played by Judson Mills) to up the security. They have a power struggle, as Rachel doesn’t want her life to change unaware of the danger she is actually facing. The show sticks pretty closely to the plot of the movie but has some fun new twists and turns, including a sensible love triangle with sister Nicki Marron, played by Jasmin Richardson.
The score is all Whitney Houston classics! Deborah and Jasmin sing the house down! Every single night. We are serving you great vocals, high energy dancing and drama!”
The Olivier Award-winning Karen Bruce choreographed the musical. What’s it like performing her movement numerous times a week?
“I really enjoy dancing Karen’s choreography. She is very specific with her movement and how it is executed and the looks she wants. These numbers were drilled into us during rehearsal, and as a swing I became a little overwhelmed with putting it into my body. There are lifts, tosses, drops, slides, acro, tumbling (not my gift) and some incredible partner work. Now that it is in my body, I really do enjoy doing the show.”
What’s your favorite scene?
“My favorite scene in the show is the opener, ‘Queen Of The Night’. It’s so dope! The costume design is sexy and powerful. The choreography is strong and sets the tone. And Deborah serves you up some strong vocals before you can even snuggle into your seat.”
How do you keep the movement ‘fresh’?
“The best part about being a swing is that the show is always fresh to me. If I’m not on, I’m usually watching from the balcony or in the wings. I see new things each time and grow more confident with my show. Each time I go into the show, it feels fresh because I don’t do it every day. I’ve done three different tracks in a week before and have had to switch tracks mid-song. I’ve never felt more present on stage.”
Based on your experience, what does it take to be a successful swing?
“There are three important keys to being a successful swing:
1) Organization. It’s live theatre, and you never know what will happen and when you will be needed. Take clear notes, organize everything, keep your ‘Swing Bible’ close always, and ask all the questions.
2) Patience is my number one prayer. When you learn one part, you work full out on that part and get it into your body fairly quickly. I’ve had to learn seven different parts in the show. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed or stressed out in the swing position. I have to remind myself to breathe, and it all comes together with time. You don’t get the luxury of doing the same part every day, so you just have to do your best until it becomes second nature.
3) Rest. It is our job to step in and save the musical at the drop of a hat, so you must take care of yourself. Mentally, keep yourself centered and physically take care of ‘The Gift’.”
What’s one aspect of this national tour that’s different from when you toured Hairspray, A Chorus Line and Anything Goes?
“This tour is a U.S. Premiere, unlike the others, which are pretty well-known works of musical theatre. It’s exciting to take the show to different cities and see what each new audience connects with. We are presenting a body of work that people are excited about and have high expectations for, and that’s really cool!”
As a Broadway Connection Teaching Artist, how do you seek to inspire young artists?
“I hope to inspire young artists to continue to dream big. When I was in high school, I was going to all kinds of seminars and classes and learning and soaking up all the information those teachers gave. I still remember which teachers inspired me and gave me the strength to get to where I am today. I still have places to go and dreams to accomplish, but I hope I can inspire just by spreading my journey. We can all learn from each other, and I know how precious young minds are. I want to help them comprehend that they can do anything with focus and hard work!”
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with not only young artists but also teachers across the nation who are training students who dream of being on Broadway or in a national tour?
“Keep it real! Check in with what is happening in the industry, music trends, choreography, hot shows. Truly know your craft. Being on Broadway is a dream, but it is also a business, and being informed and prepared when it’s time to knock on that Broadway door can change the game for you. Keep challenging yourself and your craft. You are never too old to learn and continue to grow.”
Lastly, why should everyone come see The Bodyguard on tour?
“The show is a great time for everyone! It’s a story most of us know and love, music that we all connect with, and will have you jumping out of your seat in suspense! The vocals alone are incredible, but this ensemble of incredible talent really work hard together to tell this story! It’s new and exciting and will have you singing ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ for days. Come check us out at www.thebodyguardmusical.com, and find us in a city near you! You can also continue to follow my journey on Team Swing on Instagram/Twitter: @WillieDeee.”
For further information on Broadway Connection, visit www.broadwayconnection.net.
By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
All photos courtesy of Willie Dee.