A couple of years ago, perhaps fueled by beverages that remove inhibitions, Garen Scribner stood up on karaoke night and decided he could carry a tune impressively. His friends, who had possibly indulged in similar stimulants, decided he really could. Then he went to bed.
Unlike most of us, he awoke in the morning with the same conviction. He was already making a living with his legs at San Francisco Ballet. Why not his lips, too? Nine years later, he lands in Charlotte Jan. 10 as the lead in the national tour of “An American in Paris.”
In between those events came confidence-building opportunities: Breakthrough casting as Riff in San Francisco Ballet’s sung-and-danced “West Side Story Suite,” intensive voice training, much later a call from director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. He was putting together a Broadway show based on the 1951 movie that had won six Academy Awards, and he’d seen Scribner dance in Wheeldon ballets at SFB.
Was Scribner in? He was, first as a member of the ensemble and understudy for the leading role, then playing the main character after Robert Fairchild left the part. Now he travels the country as ex-serviceman Jerry Mulligan, who moves to Paris to paint and falls in love with Lise, a young French woman. (Touring co-star Sara Esty followed the exact same path in her role.)
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“I always loved music,” Scribner says. “That’s the reason I dance. It’s what makes me get through ballet class every day of my life. I used my voice in the shower but thought, ‘I won’t ever do anything with it. That’s for people who commit their whole lives to vocal music.’
“I was 21 when (SFB) auditioned everyone for ‘West Side Story.’ (That role) brought a whole different way of warming up and breathing and made me more interested in singing. My brother’s a Broadway stage manager, and over the years he’d expose me to live musicals. Every time I saw one, I’d get this butterfly feeling in my stomach when they were singing. A tiny voice would say, ‘I wonder if you can do this one day?’ ”
The day came after he left San Francisco for Nederlands Dans Theatre. Wheeldon, an acclaimed ballet choreographer who had done just one Broadway show (“Sweet Smell of Success” in 2002), was making his Broadway debut as a director and building “American” from the ground up. The leading man would have to sing great tunes by the Gershwins roughly as well as Gene Kelly, the great hoofer and fair crooner who created the role onscreen.
“Here was the show for me to transition with,” says Scribner. “When they gave me time onstage with other actors, where I was able to learn from people who had done musical theater for so many years, I gained confidence. You have to overcome so many insecurities and fears to sing, dance and act.”
The Arlington, Va., native had been making with the footwork since appearing in the Washington Ballet “Nutcracker” at 7. He came to UNC School of the Arts to graduate from high school, then joined San Francisco Ballet at 17. He kept absorbing new ideas in San Francisco and the Netherlands, where he danced for the extraordinary Jiri Kylian.
And he went right on learning as he slipped on the shoes of Jerry Mulligan.
“In ballet, you dance different choreography all the time. You wake up every day and you’re sore, but always in a different way, because different muscles are firing. With a Broadway show, the movement becomes ingrained. You gain an intelligence about your body and how to use it. You learn to live in the moment: You’re not worrying about the steps, so you dive in hard and access your life experience.
“There’s something so much more transcendent in conveying emotion through the body of one character. In a scene where I’m letting go, I feel full joy. When I realize I’m losing Lise, I feel such a profound sense of loss that it’s like a kind of therapy.”
At 30, the rookie figured out the essence of musical theater:
“If you can’t express something in words, you have to sing it. If you can’t express it vocally, then you begin to dance. It took a lot of time and experience to understand that, and I get better at it every night.”