Instead of boarding a plane to London with their peers to start their semester abroad, Elon University junior Marina Jansen spent Aug. 29 at a callback for the original Broadway cast of “How to Dance in Ohio.”
When Jansen booked the show as a principal swing, they joined a cohort of Elon students and alumni on Broadway.
“It still doesn't feel real. It's crazy. It's something I've dreamed of literally my whole life,” Jansen said. “I just wake up, and I pinch myself every day. I still have moments where I'm like, ‘Okay, what is going on? Where am I?’ But everyone has been so nice.”
From May 5, 2022 to April 27, 20 actors from Elon performed in a Broadway show. According to Playbill, a national magazine and website for theatergoers, Elon is the 13th most represented college on Broadway in 2023 — a three-place drop from Playbill’s 2022 list of represented colleges and universities.
As Jansen joined Elon’s cohort of Broadway performers, they also became one of four people from Elon to make their Broadway debut in 2023, alongside Steven Telsey ’18 in “Harmony,” Nick Martinez ’15 in “Moulin Rouge” and Hannah Kevitt ’23 in “Back to the Future: The Musical.” All three are in original Broadway casts, something that Telsey said most Broadway actors strive for.
“It's something that I feel like every actor — every Broadway actor — hope that they get to do one day and have the opportunity to do it,” Telsey said. “It's just absolutely dreamlike.”
Telsey, who grew up near New York City, said being on Broadway has always been his career aspiration. After auditioning for musical theater programs across the country, Telsey began attending Elon.
“What’s so special about Elon’s musical theater program is that you don't need to be perfect,” Telsey said. “They want you for who you are, and you don't need to be a finished product when you get there.”
When Telsey initially entered Elon’s music theatre program, he said he didn’t know how to dance. He attended his first dance class at Elon and said the variety of Elon’s performing arts department and liberal arts education had allowed him to grow and develop as a performer. Telsey specifically recalled the opportunity to be the assistant music director in Elon’s production of “Cats” his junior year.
“Elon’s music theater program cultivated a place for me to work on not only the things that I was good at, but the things that I really wasn't good at, and it made me feel comfortable enough to go into dance classes and learn and gain technique and become better,” Telsey said. “Without Elon, I simply would not be in the show today.”
Telsey has been involved with “Harmony” since 2021, where he played one of the principal characters, Lesh, in the Off-Broadway production. “Harmony” started its official Broadway run on Nov. 13, and Telsey continues to play Lesh in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The show follows the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six performers in 1930s Germany who toured worldwide. According to Telsey, the show's first act is the story that would have been written about the group if the events of act two never happened.
Telsey said one of his favorite parts of being in the cast was the opportunity to perform songs from the show at Carnegie Hall a couple of months after the production was announced.
“We got to go to Carnegie Hall and sing some songs from our show,” Telsey said. “To be standing there, the six of us, looking at the same exact view that the Comedian Harmonists in 1933 — it was just absolutely breathtaking.”
While “Harmony” was in previews throughout October, Kevitt celebrated 100 shows of “Back to the Future: The Musical” in the Winter Garden Theatre with JJ Niemann ’17.
Neither Niemann nor Kevitt were available for comment. In a previous interview with Elon News Network, Kevitt said not only did the faculty, staff and students at Elon support her when she announced her role in the ensemble and as an understudy for Jennifer, but so did the network of Elon alums.
“It just kind of feels comforting,” Kevitt said. “Elon’s a big family, and we all have each other's backs.”
Kevitt said she learned she got the role while she was in class her senior year. She moved to New York in May, and “Back to the Future” officially opened on Broadway on Aug. 3.
Less than a month later, Jansen started rehearsals for “How to Dance in Ohio” — officially starting their leave of absence from Elon. Jansen is still on track to graduate with their peers in spring 2025, and said they hope to take online college courses in the spring.
“My professors have been super supportive,” Jansen said. “My class, who is like my family, has probably been the most supportive. They've been super happy for me, even though it's really hard not being with any of them — since half of them are at Elon and half of them are in London.”
Jansen said they applied to audition for “How to Dance in Ohio” in July. They did about three more call-backs online before the final call-back on Aug. 29 in New York. Now, Jansen is in the original Broadway cast of “How to Dance in Ohio” which opens for previews on Nov. 15 in Belasco Theatre.
For Jansen, being in the show is more than being on Broadway or in an original cast. Jansen said one of the most meaningful parts of their experience has been being a part of the show’s autistic representation.
“I remember when I saw that casting call, they had breakdowns for each specific character describing what the character was like,” Jansen said. “I read some of the roles, and I was like, ‘This is me.’ It's crazy how similar I was and how much I related to the characters without even knowing them.”
As a principal swing, Jansen does not have a consistent onstage track in the show. Instead, they rehearse tracks for five of the principal characters, and Jansen said they can be called into a role with anywhere from weeks to hours in advance.
“How to Dance in Ohio” is based on a true story and inspired by the Peabody Award-winning HBO Documentary of the same name. The musical follows a group of seven autistic young adults preparing for their first formal dance. Vivacity Media Group sent a press release to Elon News Network that described the show as “a dedication to authentic autistic representation.”
“How to Dance in Ohio is a heartfelt and poignant new musical about the desire to connect and the courage it takes to put yourself out into the world,” the press release reads.
While this is Jansen’s Broadway debut, they said they have been performing professionally since they were 13. Jansen also said the production process for a professional show is very similar to an Elon main stage show.
“The tech and dress rehearsal and performance schedules — especially if you do a show in J-Term — is very similar to being in any professional show, regardless of if it’s Broadway or not,” Jansen said. “Everyone at Elon works really hard, and everyone on Broadway works really hard, also.”
Grant Gustin, who attended Elon from 2008-10 and is known for his role as Barry Allen in “The Flash,” announced Nov. 3 that he will also be making his Broadway debut in February as a member of the original Broadway cast for “Water for Elephants.” Gustin’s team did not respond to Elon News Network’s request to comment.
While Gustin, Kevitt, Niemann, Jansen and Telsey all have different backgrounds and journeys in professional theater, they are united by their Elon experience.
“I credit Elon for the reason that I even have a career in this industry,” Telsey said.