Celaya's regional theater credits include leads in West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie Get Your Gun, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He has choreographed for dance companies throughout the U.S. and has previously appeared on the tube in such shows as Everwood, Touched by an Angel, and the Disney Channel's Personal Private Journal. In New York theatrical circles, he's known for his eight-month stint as Matthew in the long-running Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz.
NBC's Grease talent competition is by no means universally loved, but Celaya is getting lots of support from fans on the show's website. (Samples: "You're HOT!!!!" -- Kayla. "BYU all the way baby! I think you're awesome!!!" -- Rebecca Lee. "Out of them all, this is the only one that exudes testosterone / a hint of vulnerability!" -- Celtic.) The rising star spoke to TheaterMania about the competition.
THEATERMANIA: Would you say that Altar Boyz played a major role in your growth as a performer?
JASON CELAYA: For sure. It was my first job in New York City, and I had the incredible opportunity of playing Matthew, the leader of the group. It helped me a lot in terms of my performing ability; we sang and danced about 17 straight songs in Altar Boyz, and I did the show for eight months. It also helped me to play a leader, which I think is important to Danny Zuko as the leader of the T-Birds.
TM: On TV every Sunday night, they're billing you as a "teacher." Why is that?
JC: It's supposed to be "dance teacher," but they're just saying "teacher." I don't know why.
TM: Have you ever been in a production of Grease?
JC: Yes. When I was a sophomore in high school, I played Danny Zuko. That was in California.
TM: Where's home base for you now?
JC: I've been living in Manhattan. Before that, I was actually living between California and Utah, because I went to school at BYU.
JC: Well, first of all, I get to work with Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall every day. Not to be grateful for that would be stupid. We're working about 10 hours a day to do a two-hour show on Sunday, so that's really tiring on my voice and my body. But it's a great opportunity. Honestly, I think the reason why some people hate the show -- theater people, at least -- is that they're not here.
TM: But there are some very strange things about the competition. For example, why did everyone have to sing a cappella in the initial cattle call? No one would ever sing without accompaniment at a professional audition.
JC: I think that was just to move things along faster. There were thousands of people auditioning over a period of only two or three days; if they all had brought sheet music and each person had taken the time to go and talk with the piano player about tempo, it wouldn't have worked. At an EPA [Equity Principal Audition], you don't have thousands of people.
TM: Then there was the moment when everybody who had made it to "Grease Academy" was standing in a room singing the same song, and [producer] David Ian went around eliminating people one by one. Was that a pleasant experience?
JC: No, it was pretty stressful that your fate depended on him standing next to you while you were singing, and then tapping you on the shoulder or not.
TM: I guess that's the kind of thing that some viewers object to.
JC: Well, it's a television show. It's not really how we do professional auditions. It has to be entertaining, and it has to have as much drama as there can be. I'm terribly excited to be part of it.
TM: How do you feel about the fact that David Ian has dubbed you "Boy-Band Danny."
JC: [laughs] I'm okay with it. I was actually in a boy band when I was a little bit younger. It was called Witness, and we were together for a while. Everybody here knows me as the pop, Justin Timberlake guy, so it's fine.
TM: Did you get to interact with Olivia Newton-John when she was on the show?
JC: Yes. She gave the guys tips on Danny and what he needs to be.
TM: Do you read the viewer comments about you guys on the NBC website?
JC: Not really. It's pointless to look at it, because there are always people who love you and people who hate you.
TM: How do you feel about the fact that the show has thrown amateurs and professionals together in the audition pool?
JC: I think it's neat that we have so many different talent levels and it doesn't really matter, because the choice is up to America. Whoever America falls in love with is going to be playing Danny Zuko on Broadway.