Josh Daniel — From NOCCA to NYC
When I was recently in New York, I went to see NOCCA alum Josh Daniel in the hit off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors.
I thought I saw him in the opening number. But I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t see him at all for the rest of the first act. I grew a little concerned. Had he taken ill?
My fears increased when, at intermission, I saw a sign in the foyer saying that “At this performance, the role of Ensemble [as Josh’s part is billed] will be played by Evan Alexander Smith.”
What happened? Why didn’t Josh let me know he wouldn’t be in that evening’s performance?
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the show, I puzzled over the situation until, at the very end, Josh popped out of an above-stage opening, along with a fellow Ensemble member, both dressed in black, to take their curtain call.
Afterwards, as I stood outside the Westside Theater on 43rd Street, all of a sudden I felt a volcanic force envelope me in a bear hug. It was Josh who then explained that he and Jana Djenne Jackson, his co-Ensembler, remain backstage throughout the show, their voices “sweetening” the sounds of their onstage castmates. (The foyer sign remained a mystery.)
Josh may not be seen, at least most of the time, on the Little Shop stage, but he’s come a long way from when he appeared as a dancing stalk of corn.
Born in Metairie, though preferring to acknowledge New Orleans as his birthplace, Josh started (after learning his ABCs, which his Mom says he “sang like an opera aria”) in the St. Louis Cathedral Boys Choir for youths aged 10-12 singing high soprano. “I was really loud so they put me in the back,” he said, adding “Singing in the Cathedral was always incredible, especially on Mother’s Day when our fathers would join us.”
Around the same time, Josh started participating in Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS)’s summer camp; in his first show, The Wizard of Oz, he played a Munchkin, a Winkie, and the aforementioned stalk of corn. The following year, however, he got cast in the featured role of Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. He kept going back, enjoyed it and did well which confirmed that was “what I wanted to do, more than just singing, musical theater” which led to him applying to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).
The budding thespian was due to start his freshmen year at Jesuit High School when Hurricane Katrina hit, so he went to Brother Martin in Baton Rouge. (On his resume, under “Special Skills”, he still lists “hurricane survival expert”.)
As soon as he could, however, in January 2006, Josh started attending NOCCA from 4-6pm each day and “fell in love with it.” There, he started dancing intensively for the very first time, though even his Grandmother, who was his “biggest fan”, said, “Oh, Josh, you have two left feet.”
Blake Coheley, who taught at NOCCA and also directed & choreographed shows at Jesuit, saw that Josh wasn’t a complete klutz, and cast him in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dance-heavy musical Cats. Much as I hate to disagree with Grandma, in August 2006, I wrote in a review of the JPAS’ Summer Youth Music Theatre production:
“Some of the players, however, were in a cat-egory all their own. Though of all the felines, Munkustrap has the least well-defined personality, Josh Smith brought a winning charm to the tale’s de facto narrator; I’ll not be surprised when he triumphs on Broadway.”
[Note: As there already was a “Josh Smith” registered with Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), when Josh joined the union, he started using “Josh Daniel” as his stage name.]
The following spring, Josh played the title role in Bat Boy: The Musical in Coheley’s production at Jesuit. The offbeat musical represented a turning point for him as he realized “I have something that I can bring to this art form that means so much to me which is worth bringing.” After seeing him in the show, even his Dad, who works in sales for WWL radio, said “Oh. Josh can do this. He has the ability to do this professionally.”
After Cats, I next saw Josh in NOCCA’s revelatory production of The Who’s Tommy, also directed & choreographed by Coheley. Josh recalls that he “desperately wanted to play Tommy and was ‘stunned’ when I got cast as Cousin Kevin because Kevin is so far from myself.”
How far is Cousin Kevin from Josh Smith? While Coheley describes Josh as “the kind of student you always dreamed to have in your class”, Kevin is listed as “Tommy’s evil babysitting cousin. A young, loutish nuisance.”
This merely forced Josh to “stretch the boundaries of my talent” which he certainly did; as I wrote in my April 2008 review “Josh Smith took what had previously been a throwaway role and captured Cousin Kevin’s toughness, smugness, swagger and, ultimately, true affection for his little cousin Tommy, drawing the audience’s eyes to him whenever he was on stage.”
He was rewarded with an Ambie Award nomination for “Best Featured Actor in a Musical” while Tommy captured that year’s “Best Musical” trophy.
In his senior year at NOCCA, Josh impressed me with his performances in the revues The Sweetest Sounds: The Music of Richard Rogers (fall semester) and Swing! (spring semester), and I and my colleague Patrick Shannon rewarded him with the 2009 “Someone to Watch Out For” Special Ambie Award (which he “still has”).
Reflecting on his former student, Coheley recently stated in an email that “he certainly was talented (no questions there), but he came with a sense of curiosity about the work that was infectious to his classmates. He was a leader in every class he took and he managed to maintain his wit and charm even when confronting hurdles in his high school days, always ready for the next challenge, and more importantly, always eager.”
After graduating from NOCCA, Josh went on to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), the first musical theater program in America which Coheley categorizes as “one of the best college training programs in the world.”
At CCM, Josh studied under Professor of Musical Theatre Diana Lala, who recalls that “Josh was great to work with. Ever since the first time I heard him sing, I knew he had something special there.”
His freshman year, Josh wound up in a cast filled with seniors for Hello, Again, Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde. He would go on to understudy the role of Will Parker in Lala’s production of Oklahoma! and appear as Dick McGann in the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes opera Street Scene, and as Jack (of beanstalk fame) in Sondheim’s Into the Woods (“an incredible experience” for him still remembered by Lala as well).
Asked what stood out for him most during his first time away from the Big Easy, he replied that he “had never seen corn-fed Midwestern boys and was shocked by how much taller everyone was than expected.”
More importantly, he added that it was “never lost on me how fortunate to be born in a city drenched in music [where people have an] appetite for life, a zest for existence, a joie de vivre. Hearing people singing in dorm rooms reminded me of hearing people singing on the streets back home.”
Lala, another native of the Crescent City, noted that “Josh loved New Orleans as I do. We would talk about home and what was going on while we were freezing up in Cincinnati.”
His four years at CCM, “well-prepared me for the grind and challenges and ‘what New York asks of us,’” Josh said. “When I left school, I knew who I was and what I could do professionally.”
Lala, an actress/director/choreographer whom I’ve known for over 25 years, observed “Josh is a great performer with a great heart that he shows in all he does. I knew he would succeed.”
And succeed he did.
After his senior showcase in New York City (in which graduating musical theater students from around the country perform for theater industry people, a kind of audition) the casting director for the Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon emailed “Can you come in tomorrow?”
“I went in,” Josh recollects, “two weeks later I got an email from the associate casting director, two weeks later I went in for Director Casey Nicholaw and then found out on my birthday [emphasis his] that I would go out on the road with the show.”
He was cast as a Swing for the tour which opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Unlike understudies, who typically appear in smaller roles and go on for indisposed lead actors, Swings generally must know a variety of the show’s “tracks” and be able to perform any one of them at a moment’s notice.
Josh covered seven different roles and went on in each of them during the course of the two years he was with the tour. “All the tracks are so fun and different, and it’s really cool to step into all those shoes. Swings are superheroes–so, so valuable [to the production],” says Josh. “Once you have that ability, they never want to lose you.”
Three months after the tour’s DC debut, it touched down in New Orleans at the recently reopened Saenger Theatre (after its 8-year post-Katrina renovation). “Being from New Orleans it was really special to me to be part of the Saenger’s reopening and that the show’s producers let me go on [meaning that they scheduled him to perform here even though nobody was necessarily sick or on vacation] was awesome.”
While here, Josh returned to NOCCA to teach the then-current batch of Musical Theatre students one of the songs from the show, Turn It Off, the number he had done for his senior showcase. As Coheley recalls, “We had a blast taking his class, learning that number but also having him give back just a little in a space where he literally grew up. It was full circle.”
After two years, Josh was promoted to Universal Swing for all the companies of the show (Broadway and two tours). Depending on actors’ vacations or injuries/illnesses, “they would fly me to Birmingham, Jacksonville, San Francisco or wherever the need was”.
Interestingly, Josh has contrasting emotions about his first appearance on Broadway. “In a weird way, it felt like home because I had been doing it so long. Although shocking and crazy and wild, it was also like a shoe that fit. It made sense.”
Despite the security in an oftentimes insecure business that a job with a hit show like Book of Mormon provides, “After four years, or ‘two Mormon missions’, I was ready to see what else this industry and life was ready to offer,” Josh observed. “I’m one of the lucky ones–I got a job right out of school. But post-Mormon was the first moment I got to take a step back and decide what I wanted to do. Challenging, but it gave me some air.”
Over the next two and a half years, Josh would do a variety of readings, demos, and performances in regional theaters in such shows as Gypsy, Les Misérables, Anything Goes (at Tulane Summer Lyric), and the title tole in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
And after existing out of two suitcases for four years on the road, in 2017 Josh signed his first lease, an apartment in NYC’s Upper Manhattan. Living in Harlem, “I love it.”
He also became “super-involved” in various community organizations, serving on the Executive Board of Manhattan Young Democrats; founding Indivisible Harlem, an activist good government group; being a member of the Manhattan County Democratic Committee as well as participating in AEA activities.
Meanwhile, in October 2019, a “revitalizing revival” (according to The New York Times) of Little Shop of Horrors starring Jonathan Groff opened off-Broadway, and looked like it would be settling in for a long run.
In early 2020, Josh auditioned for the show, got the part, and started a week later. He described the experience as “like a dream”, adding that it was (and is) an “incredible company that I’m proud to be a part of.”
On March 12, 2020, however, the COVID nightmare began. Theaters shut down and Little Shop, along with the rest of Broadway and off-Broadway, had to, temporarily, put out the ”Closed” sign.
In the following months, Josh worked tirelessly to get Joe Biden elected as President (“Broadway for Biden”) and, through dedicated phone banking, Democrats elected to Georgia’s Senate seats. He also participated in a variety of online musical theater works.
Flash forward to the morning of August 17, 2021. I’m scrolling through the online version of the NYTimes and I see a link to a review of a production of [title of show], a musical about the making of a musical that started as an off-Broadway success (where I first saw it) and then moved to Broadway in 2008 for an all-too-brief run.
I nearly passed it by–after all, it was playing in Brooklyn–but something caused me to click on it and, when the link opened, my eyes were immediately drawn to the caption of the photo showing the cast–there was “Josh Daniel”!
As I read the very favorable review, I kvelled when I got to: “[Co-star and Director Max Hunter] finds an ideal match in the skilled Josh Daniel, who plays the composer-lyricist Hunter Bell, and their alluring chemistry renews itself in every scene. A malfunctioning mic pack at the performance I attended forced Daniel to use a hand microphone, which only helped him further play up his zestful showboating.”
Unlike the involved Book of Mormon audition process, Josh was asked to do the show by Director Hunter, who had seen videos of his online, and “that was that. We rehearsed for just 20 hours–insane,” Josh said. He added “It may be the most demanding thing I’ve ever been asked to do in my life. I could not have dreamt of doing the show without the training I got at NOCCA and CCM. It was a huge, huge challenge but a huge, huge gift”
What with that malfunctioning mic pack, it was probably just as well that Josh “didn’t know that The New York Times was there” that evening.
Though only a few more [title of show] performances remained after the review came out, by then Little Shop, which had won all the 2020 awards (Drama League, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk) for Best Musical Revival, was gearing up to reopen and brush up rehearsals would soon be taking place.
“It’s been tough because we’re all deconditioned,” stated Josh. “It’s been a workout. It’s not easy to jump in after having not done it for so long.” Or to put it in lingo sports fans can comprehend, “We run marathons with our vocal chords; it’s high intensity singing comparable to a [vocal] Saints game. It’s that level of athleticism.”
In addition, while co-stars Emmy winner Tammy Blanchard (as Audrey) and two-time Tony winner Christian Borle (the evil dentist Orin Scrivello) would be returning, Groff had other commitments and would be replaced by Jeremy Jordan (Tony nominee for Newsies; TV’s Smash) as Seymour.
Prior to its September 21st reopening, Little Shop was booked to appear on The Tonight Show on Monday, September 13, to kick off its “Broadway Week” (even though it’s an off-Broadway show).
At first, as an off-stage singer, Josh wasn’t sure if he’d be included. But then, “the rehearsal schedule came out and I was part of it which meant so much to me.” The experience, he said, “was incredible. We got to the studio at 8am, and were not done till 7pm–the longest day of my life. Jimmy Fallon came backstage and said how important it was” to help restart New York’s theater scene.
Having kvelled over Josh in August, I kvelled all over again when I saw him on TV.
Which was why I expected to see him on stage when I attended the show in October.
My concerns about Josh, however, did not prevent me from having a blast. A wildly enthusiastic audience filled the entire theater. Little Shop benefits from a smaller venue, rather than a vast Broadway house, and the Westside’s 270 seats provide just the right size.
Michael Mayer’s razor sharp direction and Ellenore Scott’s precise choreography orchestrate every move with a high gloss polish that separates a production like this from the multitude of Little Shops done bycommunity theaters (three in the New Orleans area in the past year alone).
One thing that I especially appreciated was Conductor Will Van Dyke’s knowing orchestrations combined with Jessica Paz’s apt sound design to allow Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics to be clearly understood, something that doesn’t always happen.
Jordan sings, acts and dances with bounteous talent, which blossoms fully in the second act, though I can’t say I entirely bought this cute, charismatic guy as a mousy nebbish. Almost but not quite. Blanchard gives an idiosyncratic performance as Seymour’s love interest, perhaps not a definitive Audrey, but certainly a sympathetic one.
And Borle, who has always been a treasure, whether as a preposterous pirate (Peter and the Starcatcher) or a strutting Shakespeare (Something Rotten!), adds another marvelously gonzo portrait to his repertoire.
Josh understudies both Jordan and Borle; when we chatted for this article in October, he had yet to go on for either of them. In November, however, he went on as Seymour with just two hours notice after Jordan did something to his shoulder.
His best friend and his boyfriend of five years, Patrick, a musical director (“I was doing a concert, he was playing the piano and it’s been love ever since.”) were “there to cheer me on” and the producers were “thrilled”. It’s no wonder then that Josh is planning to stay with this production for a while or, as he put it, “I’ll be on Skid Row for a bit.”
While Josh Daniel feels he’s “lucky even if not appearing on stage; it’s very humbling to be on the boards with these people”, I would venture to say that it’s audiences and his colleagues who are the lucky ones.
Or as Blake Coheley put it when asked to finish the sentence “Josh is…”: “Josh is a ‘giver’. He gives to his audiences by being ‘Josh’ and delivering such consistently memorable performances. He gives to his other actors on stage by being ready, dependable and accepting. He gives to his community by advocating for others and allowing all voices of inclusion to be ever present in the conversations happening around him. He gives all of this unselfishly and provides a place where every voice is heard. Josh is not afraid to give a little bit of himself so that others might have a rainbow in their day.”
For tickets to Little Shop of Horrors and more information about the show, go to https://littleshopnyc.com/ Jeremy Jordan continues as Seymour until January 9, 2022; Conrad (How to Get Away With Murder) Ricamora takes over the role beginning January 11.