About halfway through the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, the god Asaka takes center stage during “Mama Will Provide,” a bombastic number about aiding the story’s heroine, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), a peasant girl who falls for a wealthy boy from the other side of their Antilles island nation, on her journey to find love. Played by Alex Newell, the actor and singer famous for playing the transgender student Unique on Glee, the flamboyant and vibrant god sashays her way around the sand-covered stage, filling the Circle in the Square Theatre with song.
It’s a show-stopping moment that brings audiences to their feet. Suddenly, the energy of the show is lifted by Newell’s rousing Broadway debut, a standout performance among acting and Broadway veterans (Lea Salonga, Greenleaf’s Merle Dandridge and Quentin Earl Darrington) who play the island’s other three gods.
For Newell, the initial performances and subsequent reactions came as a surprise. “You never really know what you’re doing or how you’re doing in the rehearsal process, because the people who are in the room, they don’t laugh anymore because they’ve heard you do it so many times the same way,” he tells ET. “So to hear the audience and cheer and to be right there, it’s gratifying.”
Growing up with a love for musical theater, it was only a matter of time before the performer landed on Broadway. He first appeared onscreen in 2011 on the Oxygen reality competition The Glee Project, which saw fans competing for a recurring role on Ryan Murphy’s musical series. Despite being a runner-up on the competition, he landed a role on Glee, first in a two-episode arc before becoming a recurring character for four seasons. Soon after the Fox series ended, he found success on U.K. dance charts with the singles “Stronger” and “All Cried Out.”
“You don’t go on Glee without having a love of musical theater. I just knew that I wanted to do something in that realm,” Newell says of his eventual path to the Broadway stage as Asaka, a role originated by Kecia Lewis in the 1990 Tony-nominated original production that he says he’s been obsessed with playing.
Now the actor is on stage eight performances as week, living out a dream. “I'm just very happy that I've now made a goal for myself. I set it and I achieved it at the same time,” he says proudly.
But being onstage is not without its challenges. Newell admits that Asaka’s costume -- a vinyl skirt, leafy headdress and fan -- have him trying to keep his balance as he flits down the stairs and across the sandy stage. “That’s always going through my mind: ‘Little b***h, don’t fall,’” he laughs. “It’s so bad!”
Luckily, the show’s gone on without a hitch and Newell’s stayed on his feet, leaving him exhausted each night but filled with tremendous joy. “Because there’s nothing more satisfying than hearing the tears hit people’s chests while they’re watching. This show takes down the grown-est of men, and it’s a wonderful experience, honestly,” he says, before recalling the show’s opening night on Dec. 3, which included family and friends -- Tituss Burgess, Billy Porter and Laverne Cox -- in the audience.
“I got a standing ovation and it felt the world to be because it was all the people I invited, just all the people who I love and respect so much in this life. [For them] to support me in that way was so heartwarming,” Newell says.
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