Lawrence Toppman

This Charlottean has one foot in high school, the other on national TV

Charlotte’s Sam Faulkner – seen here in a 1960s costume for NBC-TV’s “Hairspray Live!” – looks a bit out of place on the modern Universal Studios lot.
Charlotte’s Sam Faulkner – seen here in a 1960s costume for NBC-TV’s “Hairspray Live!” – looks a bit out of place on the modern Universal Studios lot. Courtesy of Sam Faulkner

It’s no longer in doubt: Sam Faulkner is one of the Nicest Kids in Town.

You might have concluded that, if you’d worked with him in Charlotte theater or the region’s first professional production of “Billy Elliot” in Raleigh. But it’s now official: He’ll be in the ensemble of Corny Collins’ dance show – The Nicest Kids in Town – when NBC-TV broadcasts “Hairspray Live!” at 8 p.m. Dec. 7.

The musical centers around overweight Tracy Turnblad (Maddie Baillio), who lives in Baltimore in the early 1960s. She wants only to get on Collins’ televised show to be near heartthrob Link (Garrett Clayton); along the way, she not only integrates the program but gets her comrades to think differently about beauty.

The Broadway show won eight Tony Awards in 2003. And the current Tony-Oscar-Emmy-laden cast includes Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Dove Cameron, Ariana Grande and Sean Hayes – plus the 18-year-old Charlottean who’s one Peppermint Twist closer to embracing destiny.

He said last year that he likes to “think I’m psychologically ready for an opportunity when it comes. I train as hard as I can. I learn as much as I can. I never feel comfortable in a role and go on autopilot. Performing is what I go to bed thinking about, what I dream about, what I look forward to when I wake up.”

The dream and reality have started to merge.

“Since I’m still a senior in high school, my parents have been staying with me on and off while I’m working in L.A.,” he says. “We’ve rented a house that’s five minutes from Universal Studios, where ‘Hairspray’ rehearses and shoots, to avoid L.A. traffic.

“For the most part, our schedule has been 10 to 6, Monday through Friday. As we get closer to Dec. 7, our days will be getting longer, and we’ll be working overtime. Not gonna lie – it’s a pretty challenging schedule. It kind of feels like I’m working two full-time jobs, juggling ‘Hairspray’ with college applications and my senior year of high school. But it’s a good problem to have.”

The road to a rockin’ part

“Hairspray” appeared on his radar almost a year ago, when NBC announced it. He flew to Los Angeles in June for an invited dance call, only to learn the night before that the audition had been cancelled. He went back in July for another attempt, and this time choreographer Jerry Mitchell – with whom Sam took a dance workshop years ago – was ready for business.

“Jerry was there during my first audition, which helped me: His energy is so infectious. I was asked to return the following day for final callbacks, which were extremely gruelling. I ended up dancing for four hours and survived three or four rounds of cuts. I guess you could say I willed myself to make it to the end. After the last round of dancing, they asked those of us remaining to sing for the creative team, and then we were done. Before the end of the week, I had been officially offered the job!”

Mitchell, the Tony-winning choreographer of “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” says he saw in Sam “an exceptional dancer with a facility truly unique to him. It is rare to work with a male dancer who is so young and so gifted and agile.

“On top of that, he comes into rehearsals ready to work. He is always ‘present,’ and that is a quality that sets him apart from many others. It isn’t enough to just want something. You have to be willing to work to achieve anything, and Sam comes into the room ready for the work. I look forward to finding other shows to use his talents.”

A draining schedule

By work, these guys mean a day that starts at 8 a.m. Sam warms up his voice, eats breakfast, gets to Universal 20 minutes early to avoid any chance of tardiness. Greg Graham, the dance captain from the original Broadway production and Mitchell’s assistant choreographer, leads a full-company warmup.

“This is one of my favorite parts of the day, because in many ways, it’s what unites us all,” says Sam. “This cast in particular is a tight-knit group of people, which is pretty rare. We all hang out outside of rehearsals (and) typically have at least two or three planned social outings each week. It’s gonna be hard saying goodbye, once it’s all over.”

A lunch break at 2 lets them bump into celebrities at the Universal commissary. They rehearse until the day wraps (usually) at 6. Then he goes home to work on college applications or write essays and review “Hairspray” notes before bed.

The thing that surprised him most, he says, is that things change every day. Musical numbers go through five or six incarnations; ideas get picked up or abandoned; a notion that had been thrown out the window flies back in. Mitchell, he says, “works extremely quickly, and working so closely with him really taught me how important it is to be able to adapt.”

Sam’s nervousness about age – he’s the only cast member under 21 – vanished almost immediately. His anxiety about being around Broadway heavyweights dissipated when he realized Fierstein, Chenoweth and the others “are incredibly kind and hard-working. It’s no surprise why these people are where they are; it never hurts to be easy to work with.

“I’m also aware that I’m a bit spoiled by this entire experience. Doing this for two months, it’s easy for each day to start feeling ‘routine.’ But I’m quick to remind myself just how unique and unreal this entire opportunity is.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232