Jonalyn Saxer lights up the stage with her bright smile and her incredible tapping. Currently performing in her third Broadway show, Holiday Inn, Jonalyn jump ropes, dances and sings Irving Berlin classics 8 times a week. Despite her exhausting schedule, she found time to chat with us about her Broadway experience.
Joy: You started on Broadway as a swing, and now you’re part of the ensemble. What’s that transition like?
It’s very different. I always knew that I wanted to start out being a swing. I think it’s a great experience professionally and just socially being able to do that and so I was honored to be a swing.
J: It’s so hard.
It’s very hard. It’s very different because I replaced in Bullets Over Broadway, so all my work was basically done for me and then in Honeymoon in Vegas we had to create our own show bibles. That was the hardest part when everything is changing. You can change something that day in previews and somebody can get sick and not be in the show that night.
J: Has that happened? Did that happen when you were in Honeymoon?
Yes. When I was in Honeymoon, yes, yes. Not too many people got sick. It was a short run, but we had a long preview period which was difficult. We did go on during previews while things are changing and you can’t officially make your notes until everything is frozen, which is really hard because I like to have a lot of notes.
J: Now you get to go on every night.
I was joking with a friend, because doing this, my body is more tired but my brain isn’t. So now I almost am doing more things in addition to the show than I did as a swing because I couldn’t fathom doing anything during the day and then going to the show. Like my brain was just dead. Especially during rehearsals and during previews, I couldn’t do anything else.
J: Holiday Inn looks like such a fun show to be a part of.
Yes, it is. It is really fun and I really like my track.
J: You do have a fun track. You have the best costumes.
It’s so much fun and I enjoy it – which is nice because Bullets was really, really hard. There are a couple of weeks where I would be on for a full week and I couldn’t do anything, I was so tired. But for Holiday Inn, it’s just hard enough where I feel like I am doing things every night and I am really dancing, but not hard enough that I hate my life on a Sunday.
J: When I go see a Broadway show, I don’t book the day before a day off. They don’t show it, but it just feels like it’s the tiredest day for the cast.
I think Thursdays are best – Wednesday are hard because they are two show days, but Thursdays you are in the groove but you are not too tired yet. So Thursday and Friday are the best shows.
Serena: What do you do during the week when you are flagging?
I have to take a nap in between shows. So if I stay at the theater or go home, I have to take a nap before the second show of the day. And I don’t want to try a show if I am not taking a nap.
J: Do you stagedoor?
I do stagedoor every night. It’s fun. For Honeymoon and Bullets, I didn’t do it as much as a swing. No one really knows who you are, you are not in makeup, they don’t see you. And with Honeymoon, we really only had Tony Danza fans at the stage door.
S: Honeymoon was such a great show. How does it feel when a show like that ends too soon?
It’s really hard because you put so much work into it and you know that it’s good. Bullets at the end, and Honeymoon, you would walk into the theater and you weren’t sure if this is going to be your last week. It’s very hard to just enjoy what we were doing because we were so worried like, “oh, is this email we are going to get telling us we are going to close.” It was very nerve-wracking and it’s hard for a swing because nobody would call out because they were so worried that they would miss a performance if the show might not go on. Holiday Inn is a limited run, open until January 15th. I mean, we are still all trying to find work after it, but we get to enjoy the holidays with a great group of people doing a fantastic show.
J: What’s your favorite number in Holiday Inn?
I think it’s a tie honestly, between “Shaking the Blues Away” and “Turkey.” “Shaking the Blues Away” is our jump rope number. It’s so fun and tap dancing is my absolute favorite. I really enjoy that and it’s just so exciting to be in that moment in the jump rope and then in the big tap break, but I also really love “Turkey,” our Thanksgiving number because it’s so silly. I really enjoy getting to be that silly showgirl type thing. It’s really fun.
S: Speaking of turkey, you performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year. What was that like?
It was great. Well, I had done the parade before with Honeymoon, but this time I was more covered and it was warmer. By Honeymoon we went and did our rehearsal and we were freezing and we went back to the trailer and just kind of sat there. Then we did the performance and went home. Whereas this time all of the casts were able to be outside and talking to each other and that’s when you experience – you are so nervous when they are actually filming it that it’s almost like you black out, but it’s the before and the right after that you remember. Getting to experience that with different people in the community and all of our friends who we don’t always get to see. Like, all my friends in Cats in their cats makeup and everything. It was so much fun.
J: What inspired you to start dancing and singing and wanting to perform?
I have been dancing since I was three and – I am so lucky. My whole family at home does community theater and so since I was like two I have been a carry-on baby in community theater productions and everything.
J: What was your first theater production that you did?
Technically it was a production of Carnival when I was two and a half years old. My mom was the music director but she was also in the carnival scene so she would carry me across the stage. So that technically was my first production. I did a lot of other things too, like soccer and Girl Scouts, but I ended up just devoting so much time to dance that I had to not do those other things, and eventually I was like “I have to do this.”
J: What’s your favorite style of dance?
Tap. Hands down. It’s my favorite.
S: Are there a lot of shows that you audition for that have tap these days?
Not too much. It’s rare. I went to a phenomenal dance studio in California and I never thought that I would ever be in a show that didn’t have tap dancing in it. I just thought, “I know I am a good tapper, but there are so many incredible dancers out there. I am never going to be in a show.” So with Bullets I was excited because tap dancing was part of the call, but with Honeymoon it had no tapping in it for the ensemble. So it was a really big deal for me that I got that without having to tap dance, but you just have to be able to do everything now.
J: What was the first Broadway show that you saw?
I think I saw like Beauty and the Beast when I was little, but I don’t remember it because I grew up in Los Angeles so we didn’t get to see many shows. But then when I came and visited New York on my way to go visit Syracuse, I saw Next To Normal. It was a big deal to be able to see that. It was so good.
S: Do you have any memorable roles from when you were young?
My favorite experience was the first time I ever did 42nd Street at this professional theater and I was 16. One of the original dance captains from the Broadway show was our director/choreographer, Jon Engstrom and we did all original choreography and it was a very intense experience. Being able to do that show in that full capacity was one of the best experiences of my life, and now I have gone and done that show five more times.
J: What do you find the hardest part about a Broadway show is? Learning the music or the choreography or memorizing lines?
I guess choreography. I am very lucky because I did a lot of choir when I was younger, and so learning music and harmonies isn’t so hard for me. The hardest thing is putting the two together.
J: The jump rope, that must be very challenging. Was that hard to learn?
Not too much. They figured out the jump rope section at Goodspeed and it hadn’t changed, so learning it wasn’t that hard. Amy [Van Norstrand] is such a great teacher and she was the one who taught me it with help from Darien [Crago] and I trust them so much. Denis [Jones] is really safe. He likes dangerous things but he is really safe about getting you to the point where it’s dangerous. The first couple of times we would do it, we always did it in sneakers so you wouldn’t fall, you have more traction with the ground. But again, running in is the hardest part and once I found a rhythm – as long as I put this foot forward and step with this foot and lean back a little at this point, I am solid.
J: But also they throw the jump ropes back. So do they ever mess up and trip people?
Oh, sometimes they accidentally throw them up. Then they kind of hit you in the face or get caught around your leg – everyone is flapping forward at that point, so you just keep jumping so you get around it. It’s not too bad. They hurt a little bit when they hit you.
S. Were you familiar with the 1942 movie beforehand?
I wasn’t very familiar, but then I watched it and you know a lot of the songs [are familiar] Then I didn’t go back to it and I try not think about it because it’s different than the show and we are our own version and I definitely think Corbin makes lots of nods to Fred Astaire and so does Denis.
J: Corbin is really good. Were you a fan of High School Musical?
I was, yes. A little bit. I had to play it really cool when I met him. Corbin had to miss a week of rehearsal for his wedding so Barry [Busby] and Denis flew to L.A. to teach him most of his choreography the week before rehearsal started and they wanted to teach him some of the stuff he does with Lila. I had just finished working with them in St. Louis and they knew I was home in L.A.. So they texted me and I met them in L.A. to be Corbin’s partner, and that’s how I first met him and I was like, “act professional. You are in front of the choreographer, you are here, we are going to be in a show together, play it cool, Jonalyn.” But I definitely made sure I wore a nice outfit that made me look like a grown‑up.
J: What’s your favorite part about being on Broadway?
I mean, I am living my dream. There is so many different parts. When I booked Bullets and joined that cast, I really realized that everything people tell you about Broadway is true. It is a whole community that’s always looking out for each other and we are just having so much fun, but everyone is professional. There is nothing like the first – your first preview or your first performance and being on a Broadway stage and it’s just exciting. I guess it’s hard to say what my favorite part is. I love that now with Holiday Inn I can stagedoor more because I was still stage dooring when I joined Bullets. I brought in my playbill from Big Fish and I turned to the girl who sat next to me at the dressing table and I was like, “look, your signature is on here. I stage doored with you literally six months ago.” So it’s kind of crazy. I will always be a Broadway geek. I thought, “oh, once I am on Broadway, I am not going to follow people on Instagram” – I still do. I am still obsessed with people who I could easily meet at a friend’s birthday party, but I am probably going to freak out when I meet them.
I was the biggest Fansie. I followed all of them on Instagram and then I met them and Brendan was a swing with me in Honeymoon in Vegas. I was like, “I am obsessed with all of you guys, I almost got the trading cards, oh, this is so strange.”
J: If you could work in any other profession, what would it be?
I don’t have another profession that I could work in. I mean, I truly believe that if you have a backup plan you will do it. Like I am really interested in teaching exercise, either at Pure Barre or pilates or something like that, because that’s what I enjoy. I wouldn’t want to do just that. I am doing this because there is literally nothing else I can do.
J: You mentioned Gotta Dance a couple of times, is that also coming to Broadway?
Yes. Gotta Dance, which is now known as Halftime, was a project that I was involved with from the lab, and then we went out of town in Chicago. It was meant to come into Broadway. They were hoping for this year, but they couldn’t get a theater.
J: It’s very hard to get a theater now.
Yes. So I think they are still working on it, but I don’t know when it’s going to be coming to Broadway.
S: Are there any shows coming soon that you are really excited about?
I am always so intrigued at what the Broadway season will bring us and what it will do for musical theater. I think it’s going to be really exciting now that it’s the season after Hamilton, to see all these shows that pretty much waited for Hamilton to go past so that they could have a footprint in the Broadway community. I am really excited about all of them, and it’s more jobs for my friends. I think new musicals are very exciting, and I always encourage people to go see new musicals.
J: What’s your favorite thing to do in between shows besides napping?
Well, I nap and now I have a dog, so I usually try to go home and walk my dog which is really nice and then we cuddle. And I really like to just wind down in between shows. I will watch some TV.
J: It’s so cool you have enough time to go home and do that.
Yes. Luckily I live close enough that I can do that. It’s definitely cutting it close, but I will get home, walk her, and then have like half an hour to watch TV, and then I have to put myself down for my nap. On two show days your life is the show. Sometimes I can do things beforehand. Like Wednesday, I will be taking a yoga class, but in between shows I got to preserve my energy. The only number that I really feel it in is “Shaking the Blues Away.” I know if I don’t jump high enough, I will mess up the jump rope, so forcing myself to jump high enough is very difficult sometimes.
J: Do you have a favorite costume? You wear a lot of cool costumes.
I think my favorite – I mean, again, I love turkeys. I think it’s just so silly and fun, and I have been through Bullets and Honeymoon. I have been in an array of showgirl costumes as different animals but I really like my Blue Skies dress. It’s a green dress with cap sleeves. Those dresses are all made especially for us, and I love the colors and how it fits. And our costume designer, Alejo Vietti, is just so incredible. They are all double layered like fabrics, and somehow it just all works together. So that’s my favorite.
Hidden quirky talent?
Toddlers in Tiaras’ walk.
Favorite TV show?
Big Bang Theory.
Favorite thing about NYC?
The food. But I should say Broadway.
To be in, 42nd Street. To watch, Book of Mormon.
Transcribed by Yaffi / Photos by James & Serena