Overcoming Rejection: Resilience in the Musical Theater World

Overcoming Rejection: Resilience in the Musical Theater World

The Rollercoaster Ride of Rejection

I awaken on a foggy grey Saturday morning in New York City, an early spring day on which I have planned a double-header of Broadway shows. This kind of marathon would normally be an exciting indulgence for any theater nerd, but as I prepare my coffee and stretch out my body, a nervous swell percolates in the pit of my chest. You see, I’ve been working in the theater professionally as an actor, musician, and composer for over 25 years, and I have never attempted a two-show day quite like this one.

I’m furiously whirling a neon green fidget spinner around my calloused, nail-bitten fingers as the C train tunnels from Brooklyn into Manhattan, en route to the midtown theater district. In addition to being the only one on this subway car not looking down at their smartphone, I am a middle-aged man shamelessly fondling a toy made for coping with stress – you do what you gotta do. I lean my body in the opposite direction of the train as it brakes to a stop. The momentary feeling of weightlessness caused by the momentum shift is a brief but therapeutic reprieve for my anxiety.

I toggle forward as the C rolls into 42nd Street, and I think about how today I will be attending previews of two separate theater pieces I had a hand in developing just before the pandemic – both of which opened on Broadway this season, without me. The Play With Music and The Jukebox Musical basically sit on opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, but each had been in development for several years prior to my involvement as a performer. And now, here I am, on the outside looking in, as these shows I poured my heart into continue to thrive without me.

Facing the Music: Confronting Rejection Head-On

The line is around the block for the matinee of The Play With Music, which takes place at the theater next door to one where I worked for three years on my second Broadway production – a Best Musical Tony winner that I helped originate back in the early 2010s. I see several familiar faces from that time still out there, crushing it eight shows a week – backstage, in the house, up in the booth, keeping the commercial theater machine up and running. A check-in with these folks is comforting in light of what I am about to put myself through, a firm reminder that yes, I have played these stages and signed the Playbills, and have deftly dodged tourists on these crowded streets on the weekends to make it back in time for half-hour call to do it all over again, because “It’s Saturday night on Brooaadwaaaaay!”

There is a timeless and infectious feeling I get when I am participating in that system – a freight train I am drawn to hop and to stay on board at any cost. It is tempting to fall into the trap of seeing myself as a failure when I am not along for this ride and gainfully employed, which theoretically would mean I’m a failure more often than not. I learned pretty early on in my adult life that I was not built emotionally to withstand the lack of structure and security, or the constant ego-assault of a career in the performing arts. But I was good at my craft, and I enjoyed the work when it came – which always seemed to happen just as I was about to walk away.

As I head out onto the street, sneaking over to a back alley for some private reflection during intermission, I notice right away that I have a different sort of feeling in my body – a lightness I have not felt in months. It turns out that coming to see this show was actually a good thing. For the past year, since the day I finally received confirmation that yes, The Play With Music was going to be produced, and no, I was not going to be involved, the feeling of rejection had rented a room in my brain and caused a daily ruckus. I could not accept that I had come so close-but-no-cigar to something so great that I was so right for. How the hell could I possibly bounce back from missing this opportunity?

Each phase of the process taunted me – from hearing about those auditions and a whole new cast, to the buzz-worthy Off-Broadway run, the rave reviews, the move to Broadway. My social media feed was making me crazy over this. I would hide Facebook ads and mute Instagram stories from friends, but it kept following me everywhere, even coming up in casual conversations with non-industry folks. I couldn’t get away. Meanwhile, the same thing was happening with The Jukebox Musical, whose most recent workshop I found out about from a former fellow cast member who texted me on the first day of rehearsal, wondering why I wasn’t in the room.

That these two shows were unfolding this way in parallel with one another, all the way to opening on Broadway the same weekend – it felt like a sign. Maybe they were canceling each other out, and I was theoretically breaking even. I mean, even in the best-case scenario, I would have ultimately had to choose between them. But both shows? Two roles I am actually right for? I just couldn’t find a way to sit comfortably in my denial and avoid reality, no matter how hard I tried. So I decided the only course of action to maintain my sanity would be to practice radical acceptance of the situation by literally facing the music and going to experience both productions in one fell swoop.

Perspective and Resilience: Bouncing Back from Rejection

It’s not hard to see how the approach to putting the right cast together for any project is akin to having the right puzzle pieces of a band come together. It’s all about synergy – the different elements interacting and feeding off of one another, and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The Play With Music is literally about a rock band in the studio recording an album; the cast is playing an actual band. And sometimes, even if you’ve got the killer chops or the right look or the flashy gear, your vibe just might not be the right element for the chemistry needed to make the music sound the way the composer intended. It all comes down to what is best for the song.

That seems so obvious when I spell it out, but it wouldn’t register in my brain in this context until I experienced it in the flesh. The chemistry among the cast of The Play With Music is undeniable up on that stage. They make a very good band. And as much as it stung to not be up there myself, I could recognize that the FOMO I was experiencing was more about me missing a great opportunity to be employed as a featured cog in a well-oiled machine, rather than me thinking I should have been a part of this particular cast. I honestly don’t know if I would have fit right. The actor playing the role I had done previously was excellent; I enjoyed their performance very much.

As I head down the street to my old Saturday two-show-day hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, I keep going around the block and climb into a booth at the trusty diner on Ninth Avenue. I feel proud for making it through the matinee clear-headed and for gaining some perspective. I celebrate with a cheeseburger deluxe and a fine pilsner before heading back across Eighth Avenue for the second half of my marathon of rejection.

The Jukebox Musical couldn’t have been more different from The Play With Music. It is built around the songs of a legendary artist who was one of my formative musical influences from the early days of MTV, with an iconic voice and a slew of commercial radio hits. My personal function in The Jukebox Musical was more of a special teams kind of role – I sang and danced a little bit, but mainly I was on hand to induce a few laughs, shred some guitar, and get the hell out of there. And I was good with that. But I can also look back at my process in The Jukebox Musical and recall similar frustrations in response to criticism, just like I had with The Play With Music.

I can attest to one specific display of “throwing toys” in response to some working conditions I couldn’t believe were not union violations. I was proud to use my big mouth to speak up, to be the one from my cast to represent. But I could surely have done so more effectively. I later apologized and repented for my outburst. It was a public display I regretted, and behavior which belies the truth that I do want to effectively solve problems, and I do want to be seen as someone who people want to work with.

The Persistence of a Performer

As I stand on the downtown-bound subway platform en route back home to Brooklyn, it’s almost past midnight, so there are no more express trains. Three consecutive useless E trains roll into the station before a packed C local finally makes its way down the tracks. Everyone is still on their phones, and my neon green fidget spinner is still whirling around in my hands, but perhaps a bit more slowly and steadily now.

I imagine myself trudging through the open desert, parched and sunburnt under the blanket of heat of a vast, inhospitable landscape. Then, suddenly, I receive some assurance that there is a body of water up ahead. This undoubtedly helps motivate me along the rest of my journey. Having an upcoming gig penciled in your calendar well in advance is the key to a sense of structure in the life of a performing artist. Sometimes I fantasize about what I would trade to ensure that there is always a body of water somewhere off in the distance.

But in the end, what really matters is when you’re there at the water – when you’re riding the peak-hour train to get to rehearsal in the morning or back home late at night after a two-show day. You uproot your life and move to another city for several months to get in a room with a group of people you mostly don’t know, who may have a whole different approach to their work or a complete opposite temperament from you, and you’re now tasked with coming together and making a thing that ultimately only exists in a set place for a brief moment in time, and then… poof.

Don’t get me wrong, usually, it all works out for the best, and you have a powerful connection with a new group of artists who remain your “show family” for life, the bond being maintained through an epic text message thread that starts during rehearsal and continues long after the run ends. In some far-off dimension, the show goes on forever in your memory, and the people you made it with stay forever in your heart.

Embracing Rejection and Cultivating Resilience

During the run of that Tony-winning musical I was a part of, I once had a realization in relation to a specific onstage conflict I was having with another cast member. Rather than focusing on my own feelings of frustration, I needed instead to really consider the other person – to think about where they might be at and what they might need – and to practice opposite action by taking steps in attempting to connect with them. It worked. It was effective not only in bridging the conflict but in strengthening our connection onstage and off. The show was better for it, as was my experience working on it.

I still have a way to go in terms of climbing my way out of the deep holes I’ve dug. I still find myself triggered by things that I thought I had gotten over. But if I ever make it back to the Great White Way, or any theater space for that matter, I vow here and now to place my toys gently on the ground, take a deep breath, and think of my show family and what is best for us as a whole. Then I’ll go induce some laughs, shred some guitar, do my job, and get the hell out of there.

The truth is, the musical theater world is a rollercoaster ride of rejection and resilience, and the key to navigating it successfully is to cultivate a mindset of growth, perspective, and community. By embracing the challenges, seeking support from others, and continuously refining your craft, you can not only overcome the rejection you’ll inevitably face, but emerge as a stronger, more resilient performer.

So if you’re feeling the sting of rejection in your musical theater journey, remember that you’re not alone. Reach out to your support system, reflect on the lessons learned, and keep pushing forward. The body of water is out there, waiting for you to quench your thirst and find your place in the grand performance. And who knows – maybe one day, you’ll be the one up on that stage, inspiring the next generation of performers to overcome their own obstacles and write their own stories of resilience.

The Musical Theater Center is dedicated to nurturing the next generation of musical theater artists, providing world-class training, mentorship, and performance opportunities. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting your journey, we’re here to support you every step of the way.

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