It’s no Disney story, but Michael Campayno’s Broadway journey is a pretty magical tale. While still in college, he was cast in The Sound of Music Live! and then went on to star in Wicked as Fiyero. Now he’s tackling his first original role as Rob Camilletti, Cher’s boyfriend in The Cher Show. We chatted with Michael about his career and what it’s like to get get advice from Cher.

When did you first realize you want to pursue a career in theater?

I am the youngest of six kids and all of my brothers and sisters dabbled in theater. I always loved theater, but I never thought that I could really pursue it. I was a swimmer for ten to twelve years and I kind of had a High School Musical/Troy Bolton moment when I injured my shoulder. I started singing and acting and from there it just took off.

Before making your Broadway debut, you took a part in The Sound of Music Live!. How did that compare to a Broadway show, and what was the experience like?

The Sound of Music Live! was so fun, so scary, so crazy. Since it was the first kind of medium in that sense, it was really challenging because we spent the first month rehearsing as if we were going to go on a Broadway stage, and then the second half of it was on the sound stage, the actual set. We did the whole production in a big warehouse where they made planes in Long Island. It was so interesting because we really had to focus on how we were framed in the cameras. There were about seven different cameras, and they were a significant distance away from us. That was the challenging part, but so much fun. Actually, the most fun thing was when the music would start, it would come out of thin air like you wouldn’t even know where it was coming from. It actually felt like a real live musical moment.

Michael Campayno as Rolf, with Ariane Rinehart as Liesl, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2014

The other interesting thing about The Sound of Music Live!, we worked so hard on it for about two months and then the day after it aired, it was just done. We finished the musical and the credits started rolling and we all cheered, we all celebrated together, and hugged each other and we were like, “oh, wait that’s it.” Literally it’s gone. So that was a part that kind of hurt my heart. I wanted to keep going and going and experience that with everyone else too. Such a fun part of a Broadway show is you keep finding things and you keep growing and every day is a new thing and new moments.

The advantage of The Sound of Music Live! is that it was filmed, so now you can rewatch it at any time.

I know and the other thing about that, we were so conscious of every single thing we were doing. It was hard to live in the moment in The Sound of Music Live! because even though there wasn’t an audience, which really helped – it helped us just focus on each other, we knew there was only one chance. So every single movement you made was being filmed, and that was going to be on TV in that live moment. It was crazy.

You also got to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

We actually weren’t supposed to do the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Carrie [Underwood] and the kids were supposed to do it, but I think she got a cold so Ariane [Rinehart] and I were told last minute we were going on the parade, which was wild and so exciting. That was another moment where everything is filmed live. Acting on camera is so challenging for my brain because it’s hard to shut off that voice that says every single movement you make is going to be filmed and that’s exactly what it is.

Was that your first professional theater job?

Yes. I went to Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and the summer of my senior year, I started working with my manager and he got me this audition for theThe Sound of Music Live! Nobody knew what it was. We just heard “live” and we were like, “what does it mean? Is it live, like people are going to be there? Are they filming it? Is it a concert?”

It was about a three‑month intense callback process. They kept pairing us with different girls and calling us back in for different people. We basically did the whole “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” scene and dance. And yes, I booked the job. Funnily enough, I was doing The Crucible at Carnegie Mellon at night, so my final callback was for the producers in the morning in New York. I flew back and did The Crucible and then I found out I booked it, which was amazing. I left Carnegie halfway through my senior year and that was my first professional gig. It was wild.

The Sound of Music is such an iconic show that so many people are familiar with, were you nervous about taking it on?

Yes. In theater everybody talks about types and it was challenging because Rolf is a blonde Aryan boy, kind of a boy next door and I thought they were going to make me dye my hair blonde. I actually didn’t think I had a chance for the part because I wasn’t blonde. That’s my biggest thing too, that type is kind of fading away and everybody is individualistic. It’s really coming to the forefront of casting now and they are looking at the person and what they can bring emotionally as opposed to “do you fit into this box.” I was actually really nervous about that when I was auditioning. I didn’t even think they would consider me because I wasn’t blonde.

Michael Campayno as Fiyero in Wicked

Michael Campayno as Fiyero in Wicked

What was it like to join a show as popular as Wicked and step into the role of Fiyero that so many others have already performed before you?

Wicked actually holds a really special place in my heart. It’s funny, because I feel like I was in New York for about three or four years before I got into Wicked and it wasn’t even on my radar. I don’t know why. I just never thought I was going to be in Wicked. It’s so iconic and I think I just lost track and I was like “oh, Wicked has been around for so long,” but when I got into Wicked, I understood how precious they treat it still. They treat casting so preciously. The way we rehearsed and did scene work, every work is so precious and that’s why it’s still running. It’s just so well taken care of. You go see it now and it’s still like opening night. The casts are so good and they are so on point. It’s so well‑done and they maintain it so well. That’s what I learned, when you join Wicked you join a really big family and it’s special.

I think I was the 14th Fiyero, which actually meant a lot to me. I remember growing up and seeing Wicked and I never thought I was going to be a Fiyero, but it just kind of happened. That part actually means so much to me, especially being my Broadway debut. What I have been learning about new musicals is that the musical theater language is actually very challenging to create and I think that’s why a lot of more pop culture things are happening and more jukebox musicals are happening. It’s easier to kind of build a musical. Wicked and newer original musicals, the language of a musical is hard. It’s just challenging to create. So experiencing new things and then looking back on my experience of Wicked, I understand how brilliant it is. It has so much emotional depth. The style of it is on point, the world of it is so specific and cool and it really is a great show. I will argue that with anybody.

In The Cher Show, you’re playing a character that is based on a real person (Rob Camilletti). How closely do you try to imitate Rob vs. making the role different for the show? Has he seen your performance?

Rob Camilletti has not been at the show, I expect him to be at some point. Chaz Bono was there though. I think Elijah was there opening night, and Cher has obviously been there.

That’s such a good question. That was my main arc with this whole part. When I came into the show, I started researching the guy. I started trying to imitate his accent and his movement and just his essence. Because I thought people would really cling to it and if they don’t believe it, they would be like “this isn’t real.” It wasn’t so much as true for my character. The Chers really need to embody Cher and be believable so people take the ride, because people literally come to see the show and they think they are seeing an incarnation of Cher.

With Rob, it’s funny. The whole conflict with Rob was that he couldn’t handle the paparazzi aspect of it, and in turn there is nothing on him. Stuff is starting to come out more with the musical, but if you Google Rob Camilletti there is hardly anything on him. He evaded the whole thing. So I couldn’t even find a YouTube video where he talked and honestly, that helped me so much because instead of imitating and trying to recreate him, I think what really helped me as an actor was finding his essence and what he meant to Cher. That essence is what people cling onto and they remember the moment as opposed to him specifically. A lot of people remember Rob’s romance with Cher, but they don’t remember how he talked or very specific things. So I think what people want to see from Rob is this guy who really sees Cherilyn as opposed to Cher. He really sees the girl inside of her and roots for her and shows her a normal life and she just can’t contain that. Finding the essence of him and what he really brought to her was much more beneficial. That’s honestly the biggest thing I talk about. I thought imitation was going to be it. That’s why I am actually nervous for Rob to come see it, because I don’t imitate him that much. Some of the stuff is dramatized in a sense where it didn’t even happen. So I am very nervous for his take on it. I mean, can you imagine somebody is recreating you in a Broadway show? It’s personal and it’s intimate, but I think he has a good light in the show.

The show features so many brilliant costumes designed by Bob Mackie, do you have any favorites?

I mean, all of the Cher costumes are just so cool. I personally love all of the “I Got You Babe” era section when they talk about how Cher creates bell bottoms, and the stuff Sonny wears when they sing “I Got You Babe.” He wears this vest, it’s so cool. I would actually wear that stuff nowadays. I wish somebody would kind of reinvent them. That whole ’60s, ’70s era, I am so into. Jarrod [Spector] actually wears one of Sonny’s shirts. They got it from Sonny’s closet. Sonny’s stuff is very cool.

Cher has been to the show a few times now. Was it more nerve wracking to perform knowing that she was in the audience?

Yes, it is challenging knowing somebody in real life is watching themselves on stage. Acting is challenging, it’s hard to maintain being present. I have such an anxious mind, so staying present is actually a challenge for me, it’s a great practice for me. Whenever Cher or somebody in real life is in the audience I have this weird experience – I shouldn’t even tell you this, it’s terrible for an actor to tell that – I’m thinking about what they’re thinking, and it feels very meta. It’s like I am acting out their life on a stage that they are watching, and we are creating a show about it. It’s so strange. But after the first couple of times, it kind of just all faded away and we really found the essence of her story. And Cher enjoys it so much. She is such a survivor, she is such a great role model for anybody, especially women in today’s business. And that’s what I try to focus on every time, I feel the inspiration from the piece.

Has she given anybody feedback on their performance?

Yes. She actually came to my dressing room and talked to me solo. Our company manager just dropped her off and it was just me and Cher in my dressing room. I was like, “you want to sit down?” and she is like, “no, no, no, I will stand.” I just stood there in awe of her.

Instead of trying to give direction, Cher just gave insight about her life and let us deal with that however we wanted to. She is so smart and is such a good actress that she knows she is not going to mess around with us. She gave us little gems that really grounded us and added a lot of depth into our characters and our relationships. She actually talked to me for ten minutes about Rob and their relationship together and how much he meant to her and the dynamic was a big thing. This kid was twenty-three, but he was always the parent and always so grounded and never got upset. She said they would get in fights and he would leave and go to a deli and get a cookie and a pack of smokes for himself. Then he would come back and she would forget why she was even upset. So Rob really held the power in that relationship, which was beneficial for me because Stephanie [J. Block] is so powerful herself and I am an empath and more like blue and water and more of a little kid. I am the youngest of six kids and Stephanie is this powerhouse. It was challenging for me to find my own power in that relationship because even for me as a theater kid, I fangirl over Stephanie J. Block, so it was challenging for me to find my power with her. She is such a powerhouse and a lot of my work is trusting myself and trusting my groundedness and letting Cher kind of spiral in those moments.

There are three fabulous actresses playing Cher – can you give one word to describe each of their performances?

Stephanie J. Block: Powerhouse.
Teal Wicks: So funny.
Micaela Diamond: Fireball.

Those girls are the best. I know you see it on stage, but behind the scenes and everything, it’s perfect. They mesh so well. They are such leaders. Micaela, nineteen years old, is such a leader and it’s her Broadway debut. They are just kind, kind people. Those girls, give them all the awards. They deserve everything.

It’s karaoke night – what would be your go-to Cher song?

At karaoke night when I am just having fun, I would sing “I Found Someone,” the Rob sequence. In Chicago, the whole cast and the producers went to this club after the show one night and it was Cher night. All these drag queens were dressed up as Cher and they had her music videos everywhere and it was so fun. The “I Found Someone” music video came up and I don’t know what happened to me, but I Cher-ed myself. I just went full on Cher.

What are some memorable moments on and offstage at The Cher Show?

We all have our own dressing rooms and I share a principal hallway with all the guys. Me, Jarrod Spector, Michael Berresse and Matt Hydzik, and the ensemble boys are right down the hall too. It’s just super nice. I love Jarrod Spector. He is like a big brother to me. What I love about the cast is everybody is so kind and so nice and really cares for each other and cares about the other person’s experience. So honestly, the highlight of my show and my time there is getting to know these people, and that hallway is so fun.

I am from Pittsburgh and a big sports fan and Matt is from Pittsburgh as well. So when the Steelers were playing, I would always have it on my phone in my dressing room and Matt would run in in his Gregg Allman wig and be like “are the Steelers winning?” and Jarrod would run in and be like, “what’s going on?” because we all play fantasy football and it was just so fun. That camaraderie is really fun. I have only been in shows where I am the young boyfriend and there is seemingly no other men in the show. This has been really nice to create that bond with all these guys, and the ensemble guys are so good and so kind. That’s been one of the big highlights for sure.

Is there a Broadway show (past or present) you would like to see over and over again?

I am obsessed with Hadestown. The music is insanely gorgeous, I sing it every night in the shower. I am a huge fan of mythology and I saw it at a New York theater workshop. It’s just so good, it’s going to take over. It’s going to be the next obsession of everybody. The music is so good. The message of it is so beautiful and it’s just so relevant and I am a huge fan of love stories. It makes me feel. So I am so excited for everybody to see that show.

How do you unwind on days off and in between shows?

Theater is hard. It’s intense and it’s hard. My parents are always like, “you only work three hours a night,” and I am like, yes, but my whole day is surrounded by the performance.” If we are under the weather or anything, we have to take care of ourselves. It’s so challenging.

So unwinding, I love Dominos. That’s my guilty pleasure. I love bookstores and coffee shops. They are kind of my thing. I just like to go and browse in bookstores and I love finding new coffee shops. It makes me feel comfortable. It’s my aesthetic and it really helps me focus back on me and what is outside of the show because it can always feel that you are just bombarded by whatever show you are in, The Cher Show, whatever, because you live there basically. Our dressing rooms are an extension of our apartments.

Michael Campayno - The Cher Show Opening Night