Just four days after graduation, Musical Theatre major JJ Niemann’s dreams quickly became a reality. Niemann received a call from his agent on the morning of May 24th, learning he landed the role of ‘Swing’ in the Broadway show, “The Book of Mormon.”
“My agent also said [in the phone call], 'You will meet at the theatre at three to start music rehearsals.' It was insane,” Niemann said.
Rehearsals began so quickly that Niemann had to change his entire summer plan to begin his life in New York City.
“My head was spinning because it meant I had to cancel all of my plans. I had planned to fly home the next day, so of course I only had a small suitcase with me of essentials, certainly not enough to live off of in New York,” Niemann said.
After a week of rehearsals, Niemann was given just two days off to go home to pack for his official move to New York. During this break, he also had to cancel contracts with theaters in Missouri and Maine, where he intending on performing in “The Little Mermaid,” “Grease” and “Newsies.”
“I was nervous about canceling these contracts right before I started them, but the theaters were so incredibly understanding and wonderful about it,” Niemann said.
A clear summer dedicated to performing in “The Book of Mormon” was necessary for Niemann’s role. As a ‘swing,’ he covers seven different tracks in the show as every Mormon ensemble boy.
“You have to know where you stand for each scene, all of your lines, featured moments, which vocal lines and solos you have in each song, where you do all of your quick changes, which props to get and where to get them from, all of the choreography, and where you are in every formation in every big dance number — but for seven different people,” Niemann said.
The ability to perform as seven different characters in the show came with help from Elon University music professor Dan Callaway. Callaway trained Niemann vocally for three years during Niemann’s time at Elon.
“I knew JJ would be a consistently working actor no matter where his path took him after Elon,” Callaway said. “He has a tremendous work ethic, and he appreciates the ability to do what he loves. When he began to have the auditions for “The Book of Mormon,” I told him I fully expected him to book a track in that show at some point because his skill set is perfect for it.”
Faculty in the Musical Theatre Department at Elon help students like Niemann exceed beyond the McCrary Theatre.
“Each of us has something different to give each student, and our hope is that our combined work equips each student for what they need to be compassionate, contributing individuals and skilled artists who make their respective spheres of influence better,” Callaway said.
Niemann has performed in six productions at Elon, including the most recent production “Parade” as Frankie Epps.
“Many programs will pigeon hole people to be just a chorus boy or just a leading man, but I got to do it all at school because the program never put limits on me, even if sometimes I put those limits on myself,” Niemann said. “This is why people come to Elon and why we have become one of the top five programs in the country.”
But Niemann may not have landed a Broadway role without the Elon Musical Theatre Casting Director and Agent Masterclass series. Taking place every February and March on campus, this series acts as the senior showcase. Students are given the opportunity to audition for and workshop with New York agents and representatives from every major Broadway and National Tour casting agency.
“They decide as a class whom they would like to invite, and the structure of the series gives them and the industry professionals time to actually get to know one another,” Callaway said. “They are in charge of the material they choose to present and have ready, and it's a terrific opportunity for them to learn from industry players currently involved in the casting process.”
Having complete creative control of this showcase comes at a price.
“Our class actually raised all of the money that it took to bring these industry professionals to North Carolina, house them and host receptions,” Niemann said.
This showcase is how Niemann got his agent and got signed with Carlton, Goddard and Freer Talent (CGF). However, the Masterclass series receives no funding from the university.
“Most schools pay for the students to go up to New York and do their showcases, so I believe our situation should be somewhat similar,” Niemann said. “One of my big goals is to create an alumni foundation for the music theatre program, to be able to provide scholarships for kids in need so that they can attend our program with less of a financial burden.”
The quick turnaround after Niemann's audition and the need to cancel his summer plans proves just how unpredictable his future is going to be.
“Actors have so little control over what goes on in a casting process, it's taking care of all the elements they do have control over that makes a difference. JJ has done that, and he'll continue to do so, I know,” Callaway said.
Niemann will make his Broadway debut as a “Swing” on July 11th. For more information on the show and tickets, visit http://bookofmormonbroadway.com/