Greg Roderick

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Enchanted Evening

Greg Roderick takes us behind the scenes of Broadway Bares

by Chael Needle

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Nobody likes the “Go To Jail” card when playing Monopoly. But Strip-opoly? That’s a board game of a different stripe.

Actor and singer Greg Roderick traded in his South Pacific Navy togs for prison garb when he joined a cadre of male dancers and performers for Broadway Bares XX: Strip-opoly’s “Go to Jail” number. The uniforms did not stay on for long, though. To the tune of “Welcome to the Jungle,” a new inmate arrives, plays a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, and turns the table on the overbearing warden and guards. The inmates celebrate by getting naked.

“Near naked,” Greg amends. “It is a burlesque after all!”

On June 20, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS brought its twentieth edition of the burlesque-meets-Broadway benefit to the Roseland Ballroom for two packed performances. No corner of the Monopoly board was left untouched. The show, which features singers (this year, Cheyenne Jackson, Kristin Chenoweth, Vanessa Williams, to name a few) but focuses on dancers, ranged from funny (“Boardwalk” spoofed MTV’s Jersey Shore) to electrifying (“Orient Avenue” spotlit the acrobatics and aerials of The Living Art of Armando), from the sexy (Joshua Buscher as the featured strip in “The Bank”) to the cute (the choo-choo conga line of “Railroads”).

“Ours was a very sexy, masculine dance that had a little different flavor than the others. More of a gritty, sexy number,” says Greg. “The choreographer said he wanted to stay away from the obvious drop-the-soap, Oz kind of set-up. It was more about freedom—and stripping!”

Eros, after all, is on the side of life. “The vibe is so celebratory and for a good cause,” says Greg, a first-time participant but longtime devotee. “I always said: Someday I want to be a part of that. Well, now I’m in a Broadway show, and I just turned forty. I jokingly said that, before things start to sag, I wanted to get up there and bare it for charity!

“The night is so full of love. From the first cast meeting, through rehearsals, the run-through, and the performance both backstage and onstage, you just feel this enormous energy of love and support for each other and for the cause,” adds Greg, noting that the exchange between performers and audience is just as amazing. “The night was unbelievable. The energy and love was so completely off the charts. I was vibrating for days afterward.

“Jerry Mitchell, the producer and creator of Broadway Bares, explained that, in 1991, when he did the very first one, there was so much death and fear wrapped around sex in the gay community and in general in New York City. Broadway had been devastated—so many people had died from AIDS. [Mitchell] and some of his buddies went to Splash [a gay bar that features underwear-clad go-go dancers] and decided to have a little fundraiser one night…and they just put on a little show, basically a little burlesque, took off their clothes, and raised some money.” ($8,000, in fact.)

“His goal, besides raising money that night, was to get people to reconnect with each other and feel sexy and good about themselves again because it was such a dark time. People were so afraid of sex, so afraid of any kind of intimacy. I think he wanted to bring joy and love back into people’s lives, and to celebrate sex. [To say,] ‘Sex isn’t the bad guy.’ I think that was a way of doing it in a healthy, safe manner.

“At a time when fear was the norm, this was a step back into the light. It was a baby step that led to what it is now a major event that people know about globally,” says Greg, mentioning that the event is expanding globally as well with the first-ever benefit in London, West End Bares: Strip Britannia!, on September 5.

“Besides knowing I was a part of something that was making a difference, it helped me gain some personal body acceptance. I have a decent physique, but I’m not ripped like some of these twenty-four-year-old dancers. That night, there were no judgments from anyone. I knew there were guys and girls in the audience that were going to find a forty-year-old bald, hairy guy sexier than the ripped young ’uns with not an ounce of hair or fat on their bodies!

Backstage at Broadway Bares XX

“It is scary at first but then when you’re out there it’s almost like you’re wearing another costume. It’s difficult to explain but your birthday suit takes on a whole new meaning,” says Greg, who at least had the benefit of dropping trou on-stage in two productions of The Full Monty. “That goes back to what Jerry’s point is: Celebrate life. Live, love, have safe, hot sex, and feel good about yourself.”

When Greg arrived in New York City in early 1994 to pursue acting, he had already heard that message about living and loving and having safe, hot sex. “I have been so incredibly fortunate that I was raised in the first generation of people who were educated about HIV, at the peak of it. I was in high school in the mid-eighties so before we really became sexually active we heard about AIDS, and we heard about how you could get AIDS. And frankly it scared us to death. I mean, I was pretty innocent back then anyway,” he says with a laugh. “It was ingrained in us that AIDS was a killer and that this is how you can contract HIV and so you need to take precautions….”

He continues: “I’ve always been very careful because it was so ingrained in me. But I know there’s such an epidemic now of young people feeling like they are either immune to it or that they can live with it. And I know that’s a major epidemic right now. This disease needs to be cured.”

Despite all of its loss to AIDS, and because of leaders like Mitchell, Broadway sustained its vibrant community and kept burning the lights that beckon performers like Greg Roderick. He first got a taste of acting in the third grade when the high school play needed a Tiny Tim for its A Christmas Carol production. His elementary school music teacher was asked who could do the job. The teacher nominated Greg.

“I totally caught the fever. What was interesting was that my parents had no concept that community theaters needed kids for shows, so I basically spent the rest of my childhood playing with Star Wars and playing out in the backyard without thinking about performing again until my freshman year of high school. I didn’t think I could do plays again until [then]…which in the long run is probably a good thing because I didn’t become one of those obnoxious child actors!” notes Greg.

High school plays led to community theater work. And even though he went to a junior college on a theater scholarship, and was encouraged by others to pursue performing, from behind the front desk at the motel at which he worked part-time he was eyeing hotel management or some other “responsible work” as a career path. Watching a national touring production of Anything Goes with Mitzi Gaynor at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, however, made him rethink his future as he was completing his associate’s degree. “I realized, if I look back when I’m old and gray and never tried then I would always regret it….” He enrolled in a four-year university and enjoyed a conservatory-like schedule of theater and dance classes for the next two years.

“I spent sixteen years working regionally before I landed a Broadway show at thirty-eight. Kind of a latecoming for some people, [and for] other people it happens even later than me,” he says about South Pacific, whose planned end came a week after our interview. “It was a dream come true. Something I had wanted all my life. To get the number-one thing I’ve been trying to achieve, to book a Broadway show and then to book one that is so incredibly beautiful—I kind of caught the gold ring with it. I got South Pacific at Lincoln Center! A seven-time Tony Award winning musical! It’s the most beautiful production, so well done. To get a Broadway show that ran for two and a half years is such an incredible gift because Broadway shows run for three months sometimes. And to get one that is a classic, that was so beautifully well done, that I was so proud to be a part of…is an incredible thing.”

Booking the show gave others that he knows who are in the same boat the encouragement to keep pursuing their dreams. And since he’s been in South Pacific he’s had a couple of his friends finally, like him, land their first Broadway show, Greg is happy to report.

Persistence is key with the friends who are living with HIV as well. For them, for their resilience, he has a deep respect. “They mean so much to me as people; I can’t imagine them suffering or having to live on a daily basis with a disease. Yes, people with HIV go on to live very fruitful lives these days, but it is still an insidious, destructive disease that has taken its heavy toll on the world. Because it is not necessarily a death sentence anymore, attention seems to be focusing more on ‘newer’ diseases. So I’m happy that BC/EFA is still such a driving force in fundraising to eradicate it. In fact, we were told during rehearsals that BC/EFA has become the number-one charity organization in the country towards the fight against HIV and AIDS. It really makes us in the Broadway community feel like we are making a difference and saving lives,” says Greg, who this past year lent his tenor to Broadway Backwards 5, a benefit for Broadway Cares and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City.

With Strip-opoly, Broadway Bares raised a record-breaking $1,015,985. “They had set $1 million as a goal and it was a pretty lofty goal. There was definitely a period of time about a week before Bares when we weren’t close to that at all. They were in the $800,000 range, which is what they had been raising [in recent years]. And so we were all feeling kind of like, ‘Well, that’s still great. There’s a recession going on…,’” explains Greg. “When we got pushed over the $1 million mark, it was just tears and joy and it felt like we had accomplished this amazing feat.”

Adds Greg: “As performers, our jobs are to entertain. And yes, the ability to make people happy or move people emotionally has enormous merit in the world. Often, though, bad examples in the media of selfish and destructive behavior by performers make it seem like that’s all there is to us. So when the supportive and loving community of Broadway actors can get together and use our abilities to make a difference in saving people’s lives, whether it might be medical research or simply to help someone who can’t afford medicine get what they need, I hope we show that we are more than just entertainers.”

For more information, visit www.gregroderick.net and www.broadwaycares.org.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

September 2010