Special Reports

My First Tony Award Nomination

Cyndi Lauper, Stephanie J. Block, Bertie Carvel, Kristine Nielsen, Billy Porter, and more of Broadway’s favorites share their notable “firsts” in honor of receiving their first Tony Award nomination this year.

Of this year’s 102 Tony Award nominees, dozens are receiving a nod for the first time. In honor of their nomination, we quizzed several of these newbies on the other major firsts in their lives — from the first award they received to their first New York City apartment.

Cyndi Lauper
Cyndi Lauper
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Cyndi Lauper
Best Original Score, Kinky Boots

First Job: A “Gal Friday the 13th” at Simon & Schuster

First New York City Apartment: In Manhattan. It was 77th Street between 1st and York.

First Theatrical Experience: Pirate Jenny in The Threepenny Opera

First Role You Played on Stage: Pirate Jenny in The Threepenny Opera

First Award You Remember Winning: A film award [for] the “I Had a Love” video I made with Blue Angel

Billy Porter
Billy Porter
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Billy Porter
Best Actor in a Musical, Kinky Boots

First Job: Doing six shows a day (four of them different) at Kennywood Park. Outdoors. Under a ride called “The Monongahela Monster.” In a costume purchased from The GAP, for three summers: ’85, ’86, & ’87.

First New York City Apartment: My first apartment was a one-bedroom up on 94th Street, I think…It was the summer of 1989, I was in between my junior and senior year at Carnegie Mellon University, and I shared it with my two best girlfriends who had just graduated.

First Theatrical Experience: 6th grade. Reizenstein Middle School: Pittsburgh, PA. I joined an afterschool program called “Reizenstein Musical Theatre.”

First Role You Played on Stage: 6th grade. Reizenstein Musical Theatre’s production of Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms. I played the role of Gus Fielding.

First Award You Remember Winning: I am the 1992 Star Search Male Vocalist Grand Champion.

Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Stephanie J. Block
Best Actress in a Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

First Job: One of the three little pigs in the Disneyland Summer Parade.

First New York City Apartment: Sublet from Matt Cavanaugh on the Upper West Side.

First Theatrical Experience: I would go to all the shows at Fullerton Civic Light Opera and dream to be up there one day.

First Role Played on Stage: I was Townsperson #3 in Annie Get Your Gun with Fullerton Civic Light Opera

First Award I Remember Winning: Rookie of the Year at the Disneyland Awards’ Gala

Will Chase
Will Chase
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Will Chase
Best Featured Actor in a Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

First Job: Stockboy at JCPenney

First New York City Apartment: 81st and York (had no idea where I was half the time).

First Theatrical Experience: Paint Your Wagon that my dad music-directed at Shelby County High School in 1974.

First Role You Played on Stage: I was a “bell” in the first-grade Christmas play.

First Award You Remember Winning: 1st-place ribbon in a talent show for singing with my brothers/3rd-grade.

Charl Brown
Charl Brown
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Charl Brown
Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Motown The Musical

First Job: My first paying job was actually in the theater. I was in the ensemble of Little Shop of Horrors at Starlight Theater in my hometown, San Diego’s, historic Balboa Park. I was 17 and I made 500 whole dollars for the entire run of the show. I thought I was rich.

First New York City Apartment: My first New York apartment was in Alphabet City. I moved in with my good friend David, into his railroad apartment in the East Village. It was basically like living in a hallway but I didn’t care; I was just happy to finally be living in New York City!

First Theatrical Experience: My first theatrical experience was when my parents took me to see the tour of Dreamgirls in the ’80s at Starlight Theater in San Diego (which is the same theater where I later had my first job). I was only in elementary school but I remember that so vividly. I think that’s where the theater bug first bit me.

First Role You Played on Stage: My first role on stage was in the ensemble of Annie at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, where I attended 8th-12th grade. I was a chestnut seller in the “N.Y.C.” number.

First Award You Remember Winning: The first award I remember getting was being crowned king at one of the church pageants growing up. I was probably like 5.

Valisia LeKae
Valisia LeKae
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Valisia LeKae
Best Actress in a Musical, Motown the Musical

First Job: A summer youth program job through one of the local colleges, [for] which I received a stipend for $2000. I think I was somewhere between the ages 10-12 years old.

First New York City Apartment: Astoria, Queens — off the N train!

First Theatrical Experience: Seeing a performance: Cabaret. First Cast Album: The Wiz with Stephanie Mills.

First Role You Played on Stage: JoAnne in Godspell (if I remember correctly) but before that I did a reading with Richard Maltby. I was in the ensemble and my character did not have a name…at the time. I also played Diana Ross and Michael Jackson at my local theme park when I was a teenager.

First Award You Remember Winning: For theatre: I did a production of Almost Heaven in Walnut Creek, CA before it transferred to Off-Broadway. I was nominated for an award for my performance in the show. But I can’t remember the name of the award. Outside the theater: I won a spelling bee when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. It was a drug/medical spelling bee for the City of Memphis. I was the city-wide winner! A very proud moment!

Bertie Carvel
Bertie Carvel
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Bertie Carvel
Best Leading Actor in a Musical, Matilda

First Job: I used to work in a cave. My job title was “Gopher.” I was paid in credits which were redeemable only at my place of work, a practice [that] I think was banned around the time of the Industrial Revolution. But it was a lot of fun. I sold people swords and sometimes armour [sic], and walked through the caves last thing at night, to make sure nobody was trapped with the ghost overnight. Once a month I had to disinfect the sump. Happy days.

First New York City Apartment: I lived for a month in the most incredible TriBeCa loft that ran the length of an old warehouse building on White Street. There were 98 stairs — the same as my flat in London, but each one was twice the size, as though they were made by giants. I saved on gym fees that month.

First Role You Played on Stage: I had one line in a musical entitled Bon Voyage, written by the cub scout commissioner for our area of London. It was something about diamonds.

First Theatrical Experience: My grandparents used to take us to the pantomime at Windsor every Christmas, when I was a boy. My granddad would have an aisle seat because his knees got sore if they stayed bent for too long. The same actors would appear year in, year out, with the same gags and the same rituals, but they never got tired. That was real showmanship. One year a spaceship came down on stage and my Granny never forgot it.

First Award You Remember Winning: Ooh, let me think…I love this question! It implies there have been so many! I won joint-first prize (well, technically that’s joint second prize, isn’t it?) in a fancy dress competition at the school fête when I was about seven years old. I was dressed as Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, and by weird coincidence, so was another boy. What are the chances of that?

Lauren Ward
Lauren Ward
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Lauren Ward
Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Matilda

First Job: My first job was scooping ice cream at Swensen’s Ice Cream in the food court at Bannister Mall, Kansas City, MO.

First New York City Apartment: My first apartment was a sublet in the East Village on East 5th Street between 1st and 2nd — the police block. It was one small room and I shared it [with] Cauni and Bryan, my classmates from UNCSA. It was an odd apartment because at one point it was set up for a little person. Everything was designed with that in mind. I was the smallest, so I slept in the loft bed diagonally. Cauni slept on the sofa and Bryan on the floor. Bryan is still my friend and is now an investor in Matilda. He got out of acting and eventually started his own dot-com company.

First Role You Played on Stage: I played Ducky Daddles in a production of Story Theatre with the Ivory Tower Players in Kansas City, MO.

First Theatrical Experience: Seeing a production of Grease at Kansas City Starlight. It starred Andrea McArdle (the original Annie) and Eddie Mekka (Carmine Ragusa from Laverne and Shirley). I saw the entire show through my dad’s binoculars because we were in the last row. I’ve never forgotten it.

First Award You Remember Winning: I was Winter Homecoming Queen at my high school — does that count? Later on I was awarded a Theatre World Award and a Drama-Logue Award for Violet.

Shalita Grant
Shalita Grant
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Shalita Grant
Best Featured Actress in a Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

First Job: I was the shampoo girl at my grandmother’s hair salon, Hair Dreams II in Petersburg, Va. I was very good, I always gave a good scalp massage but I had a habit of letting the water hose go on clients who had a habit of giving bad tips or who were generally annoying. It was passive-aggressive but it was all the power I had at twelve years old!

First New York City Apartment: I moved out of the Juilliard dorms after three years and spent my last year on 106th and Central Park West. I subletted a room in this Dominican grandmother’s apartment, but it was far from boring. Her family came over almost every weekend and we would dance the buchata, the meringue, and the salsa. She actually partied harder than I did and that woman was in her seventies! Some weekends I’d come home from a draining day at Juilliard and there’d be Heinekens and Presidenté and cigars, and all I wanted was to go to sleep. It was a good time.

First Theatrical Experience: My mother got us all involved with this small theater company when I was 8. We would dance at local events in Petersburg or do talent shows at the Fort Lee Army Base. The first thing I remember doing was a theatrical reading of a poem called “Why did you make me black?” It written from the perspective of a little girl asking God why he made her black if he knew that she’d be met with so much discrimination and pain. And then God answers her. I was eight, reading this poem and there were dancers behind me interpreting [it]. And even though the material was pretty heavy, it’s one of those things that I just got. It was a beautiful experience and I wanted to do it again and again.

First Role You Played on Stage: Let me start by saying I was robbed! At my first high school we did Annie, and I wanted to be Lily. I didn’t want to do Miss Hannigan, because I saw the movie and I knew I couldn’t meet what Carol Burnett did and I had no interest in being a bad imitation. I also wasn’t interested in Annie or Grace, but Lily — Lily I knew I could make work. The director of the program had me audition for every female part after my Lily audition and then shut me out of the production because I was “so good and understood every role so well that I could assist her in directing it.” I pushed and pushed to be in it and she gave me the part of the grandmother in the ensemble who walks across the stage in the “N.Y.C.” number. The part was totally made up. I had no lines at all, but I was so freaking committed. I had a backstory, I knew where I was going when I got to the other side of the stage. I had very specific relationships with the people in the ensemble…I was so good [that] in the talkbacks a few of the students were very interested in who I was and why they didn’t see me again. So there, Kay Ingram! So there!

First Award You Remember Winning: Perfect Attendance.

Kristine Nielsen
Kristine Nielsen
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Kristine Nielsen
Best Leading Actress in a Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

First Job: Summer Shakespeare at the Trapier Theater at St. Albany School in D.C. I was Rosalind in As You Like It.

First NYC Apartment: A sublet at 84th and West End Avenue.

First Theatrical Experience: Playing Snidely Whiplash in an old serial melodrama when I was a Girl Scout.

First Role You Played On Stage: Mrs. Cherry Owens in Under Milkwood. (high school)

First Award You Remember Winning: Acting Award in high school from National Cathedral School & St. Albany in D.C.

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
(© David Gordon)

Nominees: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Best Original Score, A Christmas Story

First Job:
Justin: Director at a children’s theater camp. I knew Footloose like the back of my hand.

Benj: I worked at Reebok Sports Club as a babysitter for children while their parents worked out. My coworkers were college classmates Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Jake Wilson, and the three of us would stage elaborately choreographed numbers for Once on This Island songs with Upper West Side toddlers while their mothers used the ellipticals.

First New York City Apartment:
Justin: 350 sq. ft. studio on W. 79th St that had no natural light and no view. Perfect for a 22-year-old getting his feet wet in NYC!

Benj: I had family friends who charged me way too little to let me live in their apartment when I first got to the city. I am forever grateful to them for making me feel so welcomed in NYC. I consider myself eternally indebted to Liz and Steve.

First Role You Played on Stage:
Justin: Fossegrimin, the forest troll who seduced women with his songs. This is true.

Benj: Swabeedoodah Number 42 in The Troll’s Gift in 4th grade. Weird that we both were in Troll musicals, right?

First Theatrical Experience:
Justin: Aforementioned Troll show. I also played a two-headed troll in Act II with my friend Billy. We shared a costume.

Benj: My troll show too! Ana Nogueira, who is about to actually costar in Michael J. Fox’s new TV show, landed the plum role of the Troll. I am still jealous.

First Award You Remember Winning:
Justin: I think I received an award in Little League baseball. My dad may or may not have been the coach. So…does that count?

Benj: My parents made up this award when I was a kid called “Certified Mensch-dom.” For all the goys out there, being a mensch is the Jewish term for being a good person. So my brothers and I would try to do nice things so we could earn the title of “Certified Mensch.” My parents printed out a certificate and everything that I still have to this day.

Keala Settle
Keala Settle
(© David Gordon)

Nominee: Keala Settle
Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Hands on a Hardbody

First Job: First professional theater job was as the Tracy standby for the first national tour of Hairspray in 2003. About seven or eight months in, I took over as the lead. LIFE CHANGING!

First New York City Apartment: First apartment was over on 117th and Manhattan. I was sharing with my very close friends at the time and we had all moved there, basically, together.

First Theatrical Experience: First theatrical experience I truly had was as an audience member. Our high school back home in Hawaii saw a touring company of Cats and I was completely SPELLBOUND by it all. And I wanted to be up there with them.

First Role You Played on Stage: The first role I ever played was the bowing nun in a university production of The Sound of Music! HAAAHAHAHAAA! COULDN’T GET ME OFF STAGE!

First Award You Remember Winning: The first award I remember receiving was for good grades in my third grade class, and the teacher had a little “rewards box” that was full of treats and toys that you got to pick from whenever you were awarded. And I PROMISE you I dug deep in that box for the extra T-Pak of Fruit Stripe gum that I KNEW was in there because I had seen her put it in the week before…and I GOT IT!! WINNER!!!!

Featured In This Story

Matilda The Musical

Closed: January 1, 2017

Motown The Musical

Closed: January 18, 2015

Kinky Boots

Closed: April 7, 2019