Paloma Garcia Lee is one of the hardest working dancers on Broadway. As Dance Captain and swing in On the Town and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, she has covered multitudes of tracks, but no matter what the role is, she lights up the stage. Her joie de vivre is contagious and she will soon be bringing that exuberance into the new Broadway show, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Your parents were both involved with the arts and provided a great support system for you. Why do you think that was so important and do you have any advice for kids who don’t have that kind of support?
I do! I feel so lucky and #blessed to have had not only the support system I had growing up but the guidance and the PUSH from people who truly know the ins and outs of “The Business.” I had many friends who did NOT have that support system and I noticed it was so important for them to surround themselves with people who support their dream. I think finding a healthy group of people/teachers/friends/community who can support your dream and be there as guides (even possibly over the internet!) would be so helpful.
I want to support those who don’t have it! – If you are reading this and want to be in the arts and you don’t have your family/friend’s support, I am here to say “stay strong!!” Do not let anyone tell you can’t do this! This is a legitimate career- I mean, we have 401Ks and health insurance, we are a part of a labor union, and you can get paid to do what you love! Find your community, find an online forum, find people who love this and want to do this and support each other!
Which shows inspired you as a child?
To be honest, my first love was ballet, and I lived close enough to the city that my parents would bring me in to see ABT and NYCB all the time. Even though they were both immersed in musical theater most of their careers, I didn’t pay too much attention to musical theater until a little later. I must admit I was completely obsessed with Cats and dressed up as Mr. Mistofolees many a time. I also fell in love with Susan Stroman’s Contact– it is still one of my ultimate dream roles to be the “Girl in the Yellow Dress.” The show came to Broadway when I was 8, and I would listen to the soundtrack and watch the video when they filmed the show, over and over and over and over. Dear Susan Stroman, My dream is to be “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” and I hope I get the opportunity to work with you someday! Love, Paloma
Was the rehearsal process for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 very different because of its unique staging?
It was wild. As the Dance Captain, I wanted to have a great place to sit where I could chart and take in the whole show at any moment, and that just turned out to not be possible. If you were to look at the stage now, I charted the entire show from the stage left sunken area where audience members sit. Since we rehearsed extensively in the studio, we didn’t have enough room to map out the Mezzanine and Orchestra spacing for each number. In most numbers in the show, we are spread out all over the theater. We had ground plans and the set model to imagine where we would be dancing certain sections. We weren’t able to fully understand how it all fit together until we got into the theater. We had a VERY short tech as well, so we had to ensure the onstage cast knew exactly what place they were supposed to stand on paper or on the model so once we got in the theater we could space the show quickly. It’s actually incredible that we got everything up and ready for that first preview!
Is The Great Comet more difficult to perform in than a typical Broadway show?
Yes, for many reasons. I want to start by saying “Balaga” is the hardest thing I have ever done on Broadway, hands down. The thing about Comet that is different from other shows I’ve done is the terrain. We dance ALL over the theater, and especially as a swing who is covering 20 ensemble tracks, there is no chance to get used to any one area. One day you could be dancing “The Ball” up in the Mezzanine, the next in the Orchestra, the next on stage… Each area is so wildly different that you have to remain incredibly adaptable and aware of your surroundings. Sam Pinkleton is a genius (and I could write a book on how he has changed my life) and his choreography is incredible because there are 100 different ways you could attack any one step he created, especially in “The Duel” and “Balaga.” Being able to infuse your own personal style into his choreography is such a gift and a responsibility. He is huge on going hard and giving 150% energy, and in a show like Comet where you are dancing a foot from an audience member, there is NO ROOM for marking. There is no hiding. If you aren’t going absolutely as hard as you can in the rear mezzanine during “Balaga,” it is very apparent. I’ve never danced as hard or given as much energy to anything like I have in Comet. The show is like doing the stair master at the gym for 2 1/2 hours. Just managing the terrain and doing the choreography justice made it the most difficult thing I’ve ever performed. But it was also one of the most rewarding experiences as well! So it was totally worth it!
Being a swing on Broadway is probably one of the most important and unrewarding jobs. Can you tell us how you prepare for something like that? Is it true that you cover both male and female tracks in Great Comet?
I technically swing 20 tracks! 11 Girls and 9 boys! I have learned so much about the value and responsibility of being a swing and the unique position it is. I have LOVED my time swinging, and in all seriousness it absolutely is one of the most misunderstood jobs, but once you find how you fit in the whole puzzle there is a lot of pride that comes with it. Realizing the creative team has chosen you to be able to step into X amount of tracks and specialties at a moments notice AND give a great performance is such a beautiful responsibility. They trust that in a pinch you can do anything, you are a jack of all trades capable of learning tracks both physically and vocally, and being able to go out there and perform as if that one track you are doing you’ve done a million times. It’s incredible. I have such respect for all swings and understudies because it really is the hardest job on Broadway to be able to step in at the last moment and own it like it’s yours. I am taking a break from swinging for a while to focus on different career goals, but the lessons I have learned from being a swing have made me a better performer and a better person. I have learned to look at how any one person fits in the big picture, and I am able to step into my onstage tracks now, like in Charlie, with a new understanding I didn’t have before.
What do you like about being dance captain and what is the most challenging part of the job?
I love being a Dance Captain. I feel lucky to have been a Dance Captain for Josh Bergasse at On The Town and for Sam Pinkleton for The Great Comet, and maintaining their vision was such an honor. I love investing in a show and caring for it, maintaining it, rehearsing it, and building the relationships with the creative team and departments I usually wouldn’t get as close to as I would as an ensemble member. I love knowing the show in and out and seeing how all the pieces fit together. I love helping, I love being able to devote myself to the happiness and wellness of the company and troubleshooting things with them to find the best resolution. I’ve always loved teaching, so that’s a great aspect I came to love so much. Teaching someone the show and putting them in and watching them shine onstage is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Dance Captain. There are many challenging aspects of being a DC, and the job most certainly is not for everyone. It is a completely different commitment to the show and the company than an ensemble or principal position but it is so deeply rewarding.
Why do you think The Great Comet has been so well received and what is your favorite thing about the show?
The Great Comet is the most unique piece of theater I have ever witnessed – let alone been a part of. As an audience member you don’t go to watch a show, you experience it, you are a part of it, you are surrounded by it. I really believe that this team is pushing the boundaries of what a typical “musical” is and showing that there is life beyond the proscenium on Broadway. This show has been adored since it first began at Ars Nova and the following and the love of it is what drove it to where it is now. I personally feel that you can not go into the Imperial Theater right now and leave unaffected. It’s so hard to describe what it is- and I think the best way I can put it is this- Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a deeply important piece of theater that is pushing the boundaries of what has been done and lighting up the way for what is possible in the future on Broadway. I can’t say enough how lucky I feel to be a part of that family and how it has changed my world. My favorite thing about the show is everything about it. I came into the show having NEVER seen any previous version of it (there had been 4) and I am leaving a super fan.
As someone who has been dancing for so many years, how do you keep yourself healthy and mentally engaged?
I think for many dancers we are always looking for the next goal, to always keep improving. I have never once felt like “oh I got this” or “I’ve made it.” I am constantly trying to make it to dance class or a voice lesson and get better. I really feel like this is just the beginning of my dance career and there are so many goals I have ahead of me that I am working towards. I love the work and I love the payoff. When people ask me what my dream is I say “I want to do 100 Broadway shows” and I mean it. I LOVE dancing on Broadway and want to keep doing it and getting better at it! Of course a healthy balance of “life” is important too. I adore my husband, my family, my friendships and my sweet dog. I love exploring the world and pursuing hobbies on the side. I love exploring my human and bettering myself everyday. But all of that said, I feel the healthiest and the most inspired when I am dancing.
What are you most looking forward to in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
Charlie is my first time I get to originate my own onstage track! Tears well up in my eyes when I type that. This has been my dream for so long and I am so happy to be doing it with this team and this show. My goal is to continue originating onstage tracks and find my voice onstage and it begins here with this opportunity! I have done 3 developmental labs of the show and have completely fallen in love with it. I got to work with Jack O’Brien and Josh Bergasse doing Guys and Dolls at Carnegie Hall a few years ago and getting to work with them again in this capacity is so special to me. There are so many directors and choreographers I admire and love working with and so many I would love to work with, but Jack and Josh hold a very special place in my heart.
If you could choose one aspect of your job that is the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
There are so many rewarding things about being a Broadway performer. And I think the most rewarding things changes all the time. Currently the most rewarding aspect is truly being able to do what I love and what I trained for my whole life.
When you aren’t working, what do you enjoy doing?
Spending time with my husband and friends! And I love going to dance class. It’s my happiest place. I also love traveling and seeing different parts of the world! My husband Paul Schaefer is a Broadway performer in Phantom and it’s hard for us to coordinate our vacations but we do our best! I enjoy exploring the city, eating at great restaurants, trying new hobbies (Archery!), taking my pup to the park and spending quality time with friends! But dance class takes the cake.
Favorite thing about NYC?
I love the artistic community of NYC. I love that you can see some of the best theater, dance, art etc. in the world here! I am so deeply inspired by so many aspects of the city and count my lucky stars that I get to witness all of the beautiful art that I do. I try to stuff my soul full with new work- go to the ballet, find an experimental piece in Brooklyn, support friend’s pieces they are producing, see Broadway shows, go to the opera, listen to the symphony, see a play, tip the amazing violinist in the subway – there is just so much art being made here and I get to witness it and be a part of it! I love it!