Jess LeProtto is only 24, but he is already a fan favorite with a long list of Broadway credits. Currently Jess is bringing down the house as Mungojerrie in Cats the Musical, this Spring he will be joining the much anticipated revival of Hello Dolly!. Broadway Wiz sat down with Jess to discuss his Broadway career, So You Think You Can Dance, and much more.
Before he started acting and singing, Jess began dance training at the age of three years old.
Joy: Your sister was your inspiration?
Yes, I got the bug from her and then I started competing in dance competitions with her, plus I was taking voice lessons locally. It got to a point where my parents were like, “okay, let’s just go to the city and see what auditions are around and accessible for us.” I went to anything. I went in for voiceovers, commercials, and anything that was around and fun for kids to do that at that age.
J: You started your Broadway career as a vacation swing in The Boy From Oz. What is it like to be a vacation swing?
A vacation swing means that if someone in the show has vacation days set up and confirmed, they would like to have vacation swings stand by. I came in twice throughout the run and that was about a year run.
J: After that you were in Bye Bye Birdie with John Stamos?
Yes. Before that I did two seasons of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
J: You were really good friends John, right? What was that like?
We are BFFs. He is very personable. He is a great guy and he is very open and so nice and generous to everyone in the cast who did that show.
J: Did you watch him in Full House?
Oh, yes. I watched him all the time. He is just great. He is multitalented. And obviously he attracts audiences with great charisma and personality, and he is a very handsome guy who makes all of us very jealous.
Our very first preview, he gave everybody in the company a flip camera customized with the logo of the show. He really went above and beyond. He didn’t have to, but that was just one of the nicest things, and just knowing someone is as generous as he is, in the place where he is in his career, to do that shows you how good of a guy he was.
J: After that you were on So You Think You Can Dance. What was that experience like?
I was 18, which was the first year of eligibility that I could try out for the show. I watched the show all the time, so I was like, “let me just try and see what’s going to happen.” I put myself out there as a Broadway dancer or musical theater. I was very scared, very nervous. There is a series of auditions that you don’t see normally on TV that you have to get past before the actual TV audition airs on the show. So there was a lot of improvisation auditions. It taught me a lot about audition skills and techniques, and just being spontaneous and going with the flow and feeding off other dancers. When I actually go to compete on the show, it was surreal. My goal was to make it to Top 10 which I did, and then I made it to Top 8.
Serena: I was pretty devastated when you got kicked off. I was rooting for the Broadway guy.
It was such a great experience. I got to learn about myself as a person, as a dancer, as a communicator. You have to learn how to control and be grounded, obviously stay humble, and just go with the flow. Roll with the punches. I actually got to go on tour too – 32 cities, month and a half on the road. It’s so nice because we were the artists. Normally when you go see tours, you see like singers, [but] the dancers were the primary focus.
J: Who was your favorite choreographer that you got to work with?
I got to work with a lot. There is no favorite. Each choreographer represents a whole different vibe and atmosphere. Tyce Diorio was the first choreographer I worked with who was amazing. He did the routines for So You Think You Can Dance. Broadway choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who was just starting out I think in a television environment with Smash coming up. And then contemporary was Sonya Tayeh, Stacey Tookey.
J: In your first audition the judges said they didn’t like how you weren’t smiling. Did you find that annoying?
I think I was very much in my head, which just psyched me out. Having more distance in the show as each year goes by– at a young age, you are very thin as far as skin goes, so you need to figure out how to thicken that. Processing what constructive criticism means, and as personal as it could be for someone who is probably still young, if you grow into it quickly, if you slowly and steadily try to figure it out as you progressively get better, it becomes second nature.
J: Would you want to do it again?
The experience of competing on that show happens only once, and I took away so many valuable life lessons throughout that journey both as person and as a performer. Maybe one day I can come back as an all-star
J: Did you watch this past season with the kids?
I did. The kids were a great concept because the generation of dancers watching TV now grew up with other dance-style series like Dance Moms, it’s nice to see that generation be attracted to this new idea that So You Think You Can Dance has done and I think they did a great, great job. They topped themselves.
J: You worked with some So You Think You Can Dancers like Ricky and Melanie on Broadway. What’s that like? Do you guys compare stories?
Well, Melanie Moore was the champion. We actually have the same birthday, funny enough. I know her very well; she knows me very well, because we saw each other’s good and bad sides, and very stressful, frustrated sides that entire experience, because it’s just high stakes. Now we can reflect on it and laugh at everything because we were kids. I mean, we are still young, but we were adolescents there.
When I first met Ricky at On The Town, he was fresh off the [SYTYCD] tour, coming into the show. A lot of that excitement and adrenaline and energy that he had from that show that transferred into this new format was different, and it was nice to see that growth come from him and see him grow as a stage performer.
J: Well, now you are working on something else together.
Yes, having something more than just technique and stuff. It’s nice to see that he has a full context. I am really happy to have experienced it, and he is amazing at Cats. He is fantastic. It’s great. I enjoy watching each show.
J: Do you think being on So You Think You Can Dance helped your career?
I think being on the show definitely helped my career. Without question. What’s great about that show and what TV has done for dance, is put it at the forefront. It’s at a place where it shows great variety for great artists who have been doing this forever, but now have a platform where they could express their artistry. I was blessed to have myself be on that show with a different way of moving. I was the only Broadway dancer on my season, the second in the entire series.
J: Is it hard to go from TV back to Broadway? You were on TV and then you went to Newsies, right?
Yes. The tour was a great experience because it was theatrical, but then when I was trying out for Newsies, it was great because I was coming back home. I was coming to my roots, in a way. I was excited because I was getting to work on a great dance show that’s going to represent this generation. We were very fortunate enough to be a part of that.
J: You weren’t in Newsies at Paper Mill, but you were on Broadway. Was it hard for you to get onto the show because they took most of the people who were in the Paper Mill production?
I actually tried out for Paper Mill. My senior year was crazy. I was trying out for the Paper Mill production of Newsies, for So You Think, with everything up in the air. So when I knew what my answers were, I kind of went with that. I was asked to be part of the show in Paper Mill, but I couldn’t do it because I was with So You Think. So after So You Think, they were re-casting, re-auditioning, so I was asked to come back in. I was like, “oh, thank God,” because I wanted to come back in.
S: Did you get to see it when it was at Paper Mill?
No, I did not. I was very jealous. I watched all the videos that they had posted.
J: Did they create new roles or take away any?
They filled in the technicalities of it, but they kind of jazzed it up because you had different people. So I think it was about maybe eight to ten of us that was were new to the show that were not from Paper Mill. And Chris Gattelli, who is one of the nicest people in this business, was very open to just exploring the new dancers that he had and going off then, “let’s just see what we have.”
J: I heard with “Carrying The Banner” and “King Of New York,” he asked you guys to do it based on your styles of dancing.
Yes. There was a moment that was added to the Broadway production which was not in the original Paper Mill production, which was “King Of New York” and the spoon dance section. The moment we started doing it, it just felt like I was part of the team. It was just getting the camaraderie of a good batch of good people, great guys, dancers, great company. It was like a big frat.
J: It looked like so much fun.
It was a great time. I started when I was 19 and I left when I was 21 so doing that show in that stage in my life – those are interesting years. So I really understood how to be consistent, maintain a performance without going crazy and find out how it is to really do this with a sustained power. I was really proud that I balanced, found that rhythm in technique, in performance, in craft, in acting, in singing. It’s nice to put all the things that I had learned throughout the experience into new work.
J: Do you have any funny mishap stories from Newsies?
Well, the one everyone talks about is me falling into the pit. January 26th, 2:00 show, Saturday. For those who don’t know what happened, I was filling in for Ryan Steele who played Specs. They were putting in a new Specs, but for the time being they just needed somebody to fill in that specialty moment. They asked me if I was interested in doing it. So I was doing it and it was going well– and then that one day, my momentum, my weight was going forward and when I stepped on my right forward after stepping out of that turn, I fell headfirst in between the conductor and his music stand. He grabbed me with his left hand. He was still conducting with his right hand; he didn’t stop the show. I probably blacked out for about two seconds and then I am like, “I am all right, I am all right.” After that moment there are three tumble crosses. One, two, three, so in the middle, in the beginning, in the first and second, I kind of got myself back onto my feet and I was thinking a million miles per second, “how can I get back on stage? I can’t go to the other path. That won’t get me there in time.” So I stepped on the synthesizer keyboard, onto the net and then it was just timed out perfectly with the last tumble cross coming from right to left in front of me. And then I did a dive roll into the tableau to hit the button. Everyone on stage was just so confused. They were like, “what just happened?” So I had a little bit of bruising here and there, but nothing major – that was a very thrilling moment.
J: Newsies has a huge following of fans. What was that like?
The Fansies. The Fansies are the best because they kept the show alive. They are the reason why the show came [to be] in the first place. When Alan Menken and Harvey Fierstein first met, they were like, we got to work together on something and then Harvey saw the DVD of Newsies on Alan’s desk. He asked, “what is that?” And Alan was like, “we tried it, we tried it, it doesn’t work. We just haven’t figured out a way.” Harvey was said “let me do it. Let me figure something out.” So Harvey went to work and really sculpted a great book for the show.
Then Jack Feldman the lyricist got on board. So it seemed to be something that was heating up again. It was going to be great and then when everybody else found out about it, it just exploded. Paper Mill exploded. They had box office records at Paper Mill. It was amazing.
J: You went from Newsies to On The Town to Cats. How do you keep your body in shape with all these demanding show roles?
With each dancing show I learn a lot about my body, how I have to move it and maintain it and sustain the same amount of control. The one thing is class. Ballet class, any kind of dance classes. I just started to get into a little bit of yoga. It’s incorporated in some of the classes that I take. I actually go to school. I go to Pace University at the BFA musical theater major part‑time, and I have been going for about five years now, and it’s nice because those classes are intertwined with my schedule and it works out great. Dance classes, acting classes, voice lessons –
J: Are still attending college?
Yes. If I wasn’t going to college, I would still have to be maintaining that. It’s key to keeping everything in check, everything in line and all that stuff. And eating right. Eating nutritious, good, healthy food, having a good, balanced food diet and going with the flow and seeing where your body is and adapting to that.
J: Question from Brady: Do you have a pre-show ritual?
I have. I do a lot of warming up before the show. John Brady who plays Wiesel in Newsies – who I love – I am sure because he noticed every time I was on Newsies, I would actually do a good hour warm-up in-house and he would always pass by and be like, oh, oh–
J: An hour warm‑up?
I would say about an hour warm‑up. It changes with each show because you are working different muscles and stuff. On The Town I felt a lot more stuff in my quads, so I really started to roll out during the show. With Cats, it’s probably the toughest show.
J: I thought Newsies was.
I thought Newsies was too, but you know what? Here is the difference: we never go offstage with Cats. We are constantly moving and I am a different species. I am not my species. I am a cat. The other thing is that you can walk on stage and be a human for hours on end. But to walk like a cat? Completely different.
S: Did you have to watch a lot of cats videos on YouTube?
Well, we did that, and then the first two days, we actually had master classes with our director, Trevor Nunn. Trevor was very specific about dynamics and style – stylized movement. The delicacy and specific details are like key. Otherwise, it’s not believable. A great quote that Trevor Nunn said: “If you believe it, they believe it.” You have to trust where you are, and then from there you can build up stamina, you can build up characterization, you can build up validity from there. So it’s a lot of physical, mental process.
J: You have a really fun number in Cats.
I do. I have a great number. I am very lucky that I get to share the stage with Shonica [Gooden]. She is amazing.
J: When you auditioned, was it for a specific part? How does that work?
When I first went in to audition, it was just a straight forward dancer call and we did two combinations for Andy Blankenbuehler. Then I got a callback to come in for Mungojerrie. They probably divvied up who they wanted to be seen for each character. I was being considered for Mungojerrie. They gave me sides, they gave me songs, because there is no actual real verbal lines in the show. It’s told all through music and song and dance. They gave me the song, “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer,” and there was a little bit of dance choreography in the callback for Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. That was it. Andy is great because he knows what he wants and he knows what physicality he needs for the show, for each character, and he jumped right on it. And it was great. I can’t believe how quick the experience was to audition. It was maybe two and a half weeks.
J: That number is hard. With that double cartwheel?
That double cartwheel is hard. That whole number is hard, it’s the only number where the people who are singing on stage are the only people on stage. That happens only once in the show. For Andy to really trust Shonica and I with that responsibility was just great. I was grateful for that but I was excited to be able to showcase ourselves as these characters and this number, but it’s hard. It’s cardio and stamina‑driven.
J: You always seem to have fun parts, even in On The Town.
Yes. I was lucky with that one. I am always curious what are they going to do with me. So with On The Town they utilized what I was able to do, which is great because I really only know how to do one thing, which is be a fool on stage. John Rando and Josh Bergasse, they found a way to make a track for everyone in the show, including myself, that was individualized.
J: Cats is a very popular show. What about it made you want to audition for it?
I couldn’t believe that I was actually trying out for the show, because I thought it was the once-in-a-lifetime show that was just going to stay as historic as it was for its 18‑year run. Of course, I am going to go in for Cats. I grew up with the VHS of the movie. I loved it. It was the best and yes, when I went in [to audition], I was just like, “I can’t believe it”. When I got Mungojerrie, I was like, “I am going to be a Cat.” It was one of those moments: “All right. We are going to do this.”
S: I think it’s the kind of show that people either love or hate.
It’s exactly that.
J: The first time I saw it, I was so confused. I liked it a lot more the second time. It’s just a bunch of cats. There is no story.
Yes, but it’s the coolest thing because you have that ability to make that opinion for people. That’s how huge an impact it is for that show.
J: The dancing is incredible.
I would say about 70, 75 percent of the show is brand‑new. Andy really took on the challenge of modernizing, but also keeping the DNA of the show. He really did a great job incorporating and balancing out both of those – both his and Gillian’s choreography, which was just amazing and having Trevor Nunn there as director, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is really nice, and just having the love for the people who loved it for the 18 years it’s on Broadway.
J: Why do you think people should come see Cats?
People should come see it because it’s once‑in‑a‑lifetime kind of experience. There is no other show like Cats. So for a theatergoer, experience something new. For someone who has never seen Cats, go because you are going to experience something that’s brand new. You are going to experience something that’s unlike anything else on Broadway now, anything that was ever on Broadway, and with a lush, beautiful score that is just like – you just can’t believe it. It’s a great, attractive score that will have you singing and just remembering and reminiscing about forever. That’s the thing. Cats, now and forever.
J: Your next project is Hello, Dolly! – what are you most excited for?
It’s still fresh. I still can’t believe I am doing it. It’s going to be crazy. When Bette Midler was in the news saying she was going to do it – it’s going to be a big, big show, with a great creative team and cast. What a great group of people. I am excited. If I think about it too much now, I am going to go crazy.
J: When is your last show in Cats?
I don’t know when. I am still enjoying this experience. I have been very lucky. This is something that I never experienced before, doing two shows like this so close together. I think probably the most efficient and ethical way would be let me savor this experience so that I can remember it because this show is very special. So let me savor this and then let me put my thinking cap and excitement on, and energy and excitement and thrill for the new adventure coming.
J: You always seem to have something else lined up. Do you audition a lot or things just come up?
I audition a lot here and there, yes. It’s important to keep that technique and that stamina up in an audition setting. Sometimes I am part of workshops or different things here and there and they are coming from the ground. If they recur again and I am asked to do it, I would love to do it. So if you are part of something and it continues, it develops more and more.
J: It’s exciting to keep going?
Yes. I really started to really appreciate the developing process with shows. Like In Your Arms I did out in San Diego. Chris Gattelli, brand‑new musical. A Bronx Tale which I did in Paper Mill. It’s so great.
J: Would you rather start from the ground up than do new shows?
I have no preference because you can’t really have – I mean, you can have a preference but you have to kind of put that aside. For this business specifically you have to learn how to adapt to any environment, any atmosphere, any place in the developing process and just know that you are there for a reason and that you can be expressive and be a part of the community that you are in at that particular moment. You just have to just go with the flow and that’s where you develop a great perspective on things from different areas, from different outside perspectives and different experience and different places. Yes. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
J: Can you tell us one thing you took away from each show? Boy From Oz?
I went on once in August of 2004. I had a lot of family there and then we did the curtain call. I took my bow and then the curtain came down. I remember Hugh Jackman got the curtain back up and then he really took that moment for me to move up downstage one more time to take a bow.
J: What about The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?
Just the experience of doing a holiday show. Holiday shows are – yes, they come and go but there is nothing else like them because they are so special and it’s at a very warm time. Very, you know, eclectic time for everyone around us and all over. So for holidays particularly just to kind of have the show to express the joy and warmth of that time in the holidays is really special. I really enjoyed doing that show with all all the kids my age and all the adults. The just being part of a Christmas show. There is not really any other show like that.
J: Bye Bye Birdie?
Oh, here is one thing that sticks out. Bill Irwin. Bill Irwin played Mr. McAfee in the show. Bill Irwin is one of my favorite comedic actors, one of my favorite physical comedic actors and learning from him was probably one of the best lessons, and just to – kind as a side note, I love being able to experience watching great character actors. I have been very lucky to watch a lot of great character actors, Bill being one of the first because he is one of the best in the business, and I enjoy watching him. I love him, Jackie Hoffman , Stephen DeRosa, John E. Brady. I like Christopher Gurr who plays Gus in Cats. Michael McGrath, Hank Azaria.
J: You’ve worked with awesome people.
These are just people at the top of their game. People who are so fearless. They are probably the most fearless people on Broadway in this business, and I take away so much of that.
Newsies was maturity. I have to say that because I started when I was 19 till I was 21. I really learned a lot about maturity and figuring out who I was and just being responsible. That was when I moved into the city for the very first time. So a lot of things, a lot of life choices and a lot of life lessons from that.
J: On The Town?
Character. Had to have character in that show. That was one of the first shows that I really had a chance to just explore different perspectives and characterizations and different kind of voices and things that I grew up doing just for fun and I was going to do it professionally at my job.
J: And now Cats?
Stamina. Cardio. Probably toughest show I have done.
J: It looks tough.
It’s great. People have effortless mindset when they watch the show and they don’t see the work. It’s nice to hear that. It’s really good.
J: What’s your favorite part of about being on Broadway in general?
I am grateful that I am able to say that I have been doing this, that I have a place where I can express myself, express myself in this craft, express myself as a dancer as a performer, as an actor, as a character actor, as a singer. You know, not a lot of people have this opportunity so –
J: That’s true.
We actually talked about this a couple of days ago, a few of us at Cats. You can’t take this for granted, so for us to just savor each moment that we have on stage and off with each other, this community that is such a warm, loving, open community, there is nothing else like that around. It’s so great and it’s so close and intimate and it’s a great place for us to learn from each other creatively. So just to say that I am part of this community, that I’d like to continue to be part of this community is a blessing.
S: Were your parents always very supportive when you said you wanted –
Not just of me, but also to my two older siblings. My brother is a musician and he teaches music and my sister continues to dance, but she teaches dance primarily My parents are educators too, so I grew up in a very educational field that was very supportive of each other. I say that they are all the educators and I am like the jester.
J: Well, you are on Broadway. It’s cool. You get to act and have fun.
Yes but – well, yes, but I do appreciate having the time to give back to different schools or master classes or workshops. It’s nice and I am going to have the opportunity. I think it’s great.
Interview by Joy & Serena // Photos by James Bocchiaro