Tony Winning Dancer Extraordinaire Returns to Broadway in Allegiance
By: Ellis Nassour
Scott Wise, three-time nominee and 1989 Tony winner as Featured Actor, Musical, two-time Drama Desk nominee, and winner of a coveted Astaire Award, had been absent from Broadway for nine years. He’s back and playing a featured role and in the ensemble of Allegiance. Following a recent Saturday matinee, he instinctively knows what the first question will be: "What took so long?"
"It doesn’t feel that long," he says, sitting in the Longacre’s empty orchestra. "It feels like yesterday. When I mentioned to my wife Elizabeth that I was considering a return, I thought, ‘I know colleagues who’ve been in shows longer.’ After three years in 2000’s Movin’ Out, the Twyla Tharp revue set to Billy Joel tunes],I felt I had to go off and create. The thing about Broadway is the instability.
"That haunting feeling of never knowing where your next job will be drives a lot of very good people out of the business," he continues. "Early on, I was lucky because I had a solid chance of working in the chorus. I wouldn’t turn down a job because it wasn’t a lead. I just wanted to work."
Though he was off the boards, he never lost track of what was happening on Broadway and his close relationships. Sadly, he’s found out many aren’t now dancing. "They’ve moved on to choreographer, directing, TV and movies." He has an old friend, Darren Lee, in the cast that he’d worked with in several shows. Wise noted that more than half the cast are making their debuts.
Wise and Elizabeth Parkinson wed in 2002 after meeting during the Toronto run of Fosse. Scott and Elizabeth were in Movin’ Out, with Parkinson receiving 2003Tony and DD nominations for her song and dance and Wise as Tharp’s assistant director and choreographer. It was their last Broadway shows.
The couple has a son, James, an actor who just turned 11. Wise’s daughter Savannah Margaret from an earlier marriage did stage and TV work and is married to actor/dancer Anthony Holds. They’re both out of "the business" and quite successful as financial managers.
"After Movin’ Out," explains Wise, "I decided it was time to transition and because I couldn’t dance. I felt I was getting up there. I knew there’d be fewer opportunities. I had to go off and do something I could accomplish on the outside, something of my own. It was something like wanting to write a book and finding the time to do.
He says it started out very simply, with just one studio in New Milford, CT. "Now, Elizabeth and I have four studios and 350 students. [Fineline, www.finelinetheatrearts.com]. We have a number of students now in shows."
Wise says the timing was right. He’d established himself . "I’d accomplished all I set out to do – actually more. It was as good a time as any. I never imagined being nominated for a Tony, much less winning one."
But Broadway’s siren call was attempting to lure him back. "I told Elizabeth that I wanted to do another show. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Out of sight, out of mind. Then, talk about fate! Just as we were mulling over how I’d do it, the phone rang. It was Mark Redante, my agent. He said that Stafford Arima, Allegiance’s director, wanted to see me.
Arima, making his Broadway debut after several successes Off Broadway, including the long-running Altar Boys, had known Wise from Fosse. "He was casting the part of the ‘white devil’ Dillon, not a particularly nice chap who was the head of the World War II relocation program, and he told Bernard Telsey of Telsey + Company casting he needed someone for the ensemble who can sing and dance. Someone like Scott Wise. What’s he doing?’ Turns out, I was doing nothing, but dreaming of coming back to Broadway."
It was back to the grindstone. "Coming into rehearsals, I wasn’t hitting all cylinders as far as my body was concerned. They pulled me out of retirement, so to speak, and I was pulling all sorts of things. More than half the cast are making their Broadway debuts. After George Takei , I’m the old guy. I have Dillon and play all the non-Asians. It was a crash course getting myself back up to full steam."
He says Allegiance "is an important show with an important message. Every performance has been packed. We have the Takei fans and Lea Salonga fans. It’s one of the nicest and most congenial casts and creative teams I’ve ever worked. I’m fortunate to return in such circumstances and with such a talented cast. This entire cast’s incredible. When I’m not onstage, I’m in the wings watching, listening."
Working with Arima has been a memorable experience. "Each director has a style, but he’s like nothing I’ve never seen. No matter the circumstances, he’s calm, loving. There’s not been one explosion." Allegiance has undergone numerous changes since its 2012 premier at LaJolla’s Old Globe Theatre, however, says Wise, "there’s never been the type of tension that defeats the creative process.
"Sure," continues Wise, "there’ve been disagreements, but they’re handled so professionally. I’ve never seen it carried to this degree. There’s always a discussion about what’s best for the strength of the piece. It starts at the top and, I’m happy to say, goes all the way down the ladder."
Wise, one of the best-known and well-liked male gypsies in theater, won a featured actor Tony for his show-stopping dancing in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.
Was Robbins the taskmaster so much has been heard and read of? "Oh, yeah! But Mr. Robbins didn’t throw a fit if you got something wrong. He would come down hard if you didn’t work. He was not one to sit back and point. He worked his butt off. Working with Mr. Robbins was a revelatory experience."
The work paid off. To be nominated for a Tony, much more to win one was a rarity for a dancer. "The recognition was great. Everyone should win one. But in some ways it hurt. People expected more of me. It raised me up a notch. You win a Tony because you have a facility as an actor or performer to do something that lets you show off. Me winning was a prize for getting up onstage and doing what I love. Dancing. That’s what I know.
"Afterward," he goes on to say, "I’d go to auditions and they’d whisper, ‘Hummm. He can dance, but he can’t act.’ There was a lot of head scratching and I’m sure they wondered ‘How’d he win a Tony?’ I was the same. I was what I was. I was a good enough singer as long as I’m dancing, but I couldn’t hold my own against the real pros. You give the Tony to an actor. I hadn’t really established myself as an actor.
Wise received a 1999 Tony nomination for Fosse; and 1996 Tony and DD nominations for State Fair.
"Surprise of surprises, after performing for 16 years I finally got to talk in State Fair," says Wise. "And even got the girl (Andrea McArdle)."
That, again, belies the question: Why did it take so long? "Broadway was never my goal," he replies. "My career happened on a dare. I was at the Joffrey Ballet School. In 1980, a couple of guys were going to an open call for A Chorus Line, which I’d just seen. I wasn’t ready to move on. They wanted me to tag along — safety in numbers. I was so broke, I didn’t have money for a subway token. Jeff Amston, who went on to dance on Broadway and teach, paid my fare. To this day he feels he’s responsible for my success!"
Tom Reed, the musical’s dance captain, showed Wise what was required. "’No big deal,’ I told myself. I went out and did it and was totally floored when they asked me to come back. Tom pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to be singing tomorrow.’ I went, ‘Okay.’ He asked, ‘Where’s your headshot?’ I replied, ‘Headshot? I don’t have one.’ He told me, ‘You’ll need a picture and resume.’"
Wise found a piece of paper and wrote, "From Spokane, University of Idaho, Royal Academy of Dance in London, studying at the Joffrey Ballet School, gymnastics a specialty." He borrowed money and went to Times Square and to get headshots in one of those four-for-a-dollar booths. He got the job, joining the cast to play Mike Costa and sing "I Can Do That" for a year.
In the early 80s, he joined Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in the roles of Plato, Rumpus Cat, and Maccavity. He was cast in his first original turn by choreographer Peter Martins of the Royal Danish and NYC Ballets, in Lloyd Webber’s 1985 Song and Dance in the ensemble and as understudy to Christopher d’Amboise.
Nine years later he was hired for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and found himself in the company of not only Broadway gypsies but also ballet stars. "I wasn’t intimidated. I wanted to dance, and that’s what I’d be doing. Jerry and I got along great and developed a lasting friendship."
Wise chose to continue going up for mainly dance shows. "I never had aspirations to act, so I was fine," he observes. He could be relied upon to do knockout work that had audiences on the edge of their seats.
"Unfortunately," he admits, "I relaxed on what came easy instead of working on what didn’t. It was a mistake. I should have worked harder on my singing and acting to break out earlier."
With hundreds of applicants for the part of Pat in State Fair (1996), why did choreographer and co-director Randy Skinner cast Wise? Skinner, choreographer and director of the Dames at Sea revival, says, "Scott read well and was right physically. He loves to dance and it shows. He’s at home onstage.
Having him in the role added dimension. Also, he can carry a solo. With Scott you don’t have to worry. He intrinsically understands a role. In real life, he’s a charmer who goes about what he does with ease. It’s not often you find a performer who can bring that same essence to his stage persona."
In 2001, "there was one of those things that was a brush with greatest." Jerry Zaks selected Wise to be chorographer of the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 30s classic, The Royal Family of Broadway, with William Finn as composer/lyricist and James Lapine doing the book.
It was to have an all-star cast with Elaine Stritch in the coveted role of Fanny Cavendish. Donna Murphy, Brent Barrett, Tovah Feldshuh, Walter Charles, and Dick Latessa were names involved in an industry reading. "We had producers ready to mount the show," states Wise, "and then, for totally unexplained reasons, the rights were pulled. It made no sense. We all sat around crying."
Wise returned to ensemble dance work while assisting choreographers and doing choreography regionally – something he continues to do. And now, when he wonders what the next job will be, Wise has another career to fall back on. In Connecticut.