By ANA FOTA
Arts & Culture Co-Editor
On a warm fall afternoon, Broadway actor Van Hughes and I were sipping coffee in the backyard of a Williamsburg cafe. Hughes, who graduated from Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) in 2005, went on to star in several Broadway musicals, as well as movies and TV shows. Yet, he had spent the day we met doing the opposite of that: curled up in his Brooklyn apartment, writing the score for an upcoming horror film on his laptop. We were meeting to talk about another project he had been scoring, a new musical. Imagine my surprise when I found out not only about the movie, but a couple other projects he had taken on. Combining the on-stage spotlight with the solitude of writing, Hughes is keeping his plate full.
“I have a well-rounded life,” he laughed. Hughes has been part of several Broadway shows, including “American Idiot,” “Hairspray” and, most recently, the revival of “Spring Awakening.” For the past couple of years, he has been collaborating with fellow Broadway performer Andy Mientus ( known for his role in the TV show “Smash”) on “Manhattan Kids.” The team is aiming for out-of-town tryouts to begin next summer. Also part of the team are Hughes’ band, Teen Commandments, for which he plays bass, and an extensive creative team.
Among the many instruments Hughes plays is the ukulele. He got one as a gift from Graham Skipper, FCLC ‘05, whom he has written music for before and whose new movie he had been scoring that day. The skill came in handy back in 2009 when he was auditioning for “9 to 5” in front of Dolly Parton, among others. He sang the Beatles’ song “Something” with “a more shuffle- vibe,” as he explained. With his ukulele in hand, he even yodeled. Parton was pleasantly surprised, saying “I bet you threw in that yodel just for me.” Needless to say, he got the part.
“I love to perform, so if I know I’m gonna perform, I look forward to that moment all day,” Hughes said. Getting to the theatre before the show, he would sometimes listen to music to get energized. While on tour with “American Idiot,” it was rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins or Surf Blood. For “Spring Awakening,” his first choices were Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. “Other than that, I don’t really have many pre-show rituals. I like to stretch a lot. I try to be as relaxed as possible; that’s something I learned at Fordham.”
As a performance major, Hughes took acting classes that taught him how to use his whole body when telling a story on stage. Pointing to his torso he said, “As an actor, this is my canvas.” After attending high school at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, Hughes was looking to hone his acting skills when he found out about Fordham’s Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre. While learning to relax his body in acting classes, he opened his mind through social science readings. “It wasn’t always the theatre classes that unlocked something in me,” he said. “It was also the philosophy classes ,for example. My brain was unlocking and seeing the world for what it is. It completely changed me as a person.”
Last Broadway season, Hughes was part of Deaf West Theatre’s acclaimed “Spring Awakening” revival. As a swing, he was covering three different parts, each with their own instrument: piano, electric bass and guitar. The first two instruments he learned to play specifically for the show. “After being in rehearsal all day, I would get home and practice for another hour or two,” he said. “There’s a lot of change happening during the previews, so as a swing you’re constantly running around trying to remember everything.”
His hard work paid off. When the piano player lost his voice after only a week of performances, it was Hughes’ time to shine. “They asked me if I thought I could do it, and I said yes,” he recounted. “I ended up going on with no rehearsal, I didn’t even have a costume until about an hour before the show. I mean, talk about getting in the zone.” He played the role for three weeks, including the show’s opening night, while afterwards alternating between the piano and bass roles. Ironically, the only role he never got to play was that of the guitarist, the only instrument he had known to play his whole life.
Adding to the list of memorable moments, Hughes was also the cast’s recipient of the Gypsy robe. A tradition spanning over five decades, every Broadway company holds a ceremony the day their production officially opens. The robe is given to the ensemble member with the most Broadway credits. The robe’s recipient then visits every dressing room, thus blessing the show. “It’s a really cool honor,” he said. “I like that it’s something you earn, not something you are given.” And if the past is any indication, there’s plenty more honors for Hughes to earn in the future.