In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on Jonathan Burke – an inspiring actor based out of New York City.
Jonathan Burke was in the original Broadway ensemble for Tuck Everlasting. And after that, he went from ensemble to lead in Broadway’s Choir Boy. He is currently originating the role of “Elzie” in Roundabout Theatre’s Off Broadway production of Toni Stone. And he has won a SALT Award for Leading Actor in a Musical for his depiction of Bert in Mary Poppins.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase through one of the following links, we may earn a small commission on the sale at no additional cost to you. See our disclosure for more info.
What was it that initially inspired you to become an actor?
“I remember the exact moment I decided that I was going to pursue acting as a career. It was on the stage of the Cardinal Sheehan School in my hometown, Baltimore, MD. I was portraying Stevie Wonder and singing “My Cherie Amour” in a musical revue created by the BRILLIANT music and drama teacher at the school, Kenyatta Hardison. The audience erupted from the moment I opened my mouth, and it concluded in a standing ovation. At that moment I thought, “I could get used to this….”. So with the guidance of Ms. Hardison, I began my tenure as a student of the arts. That led to my attendance of the Arena Players Youtheater and the Baltimore School for the Arts, in which I majored in acting, and then to Ithaca College, from which I received a BFA in musical theatre.”
Would you say that your formal education in musical theatre has played a large role in your success?
“The formal education that I have received has been extremely helpful in the achievement of my goals. Having a foundation of tools to utilize has undoubtedly been beneficial in creating effective work. I do believe that it is definitely possible to achieve great success in the arts without having a formal education. However, the more knowledge a person has in any area of expertise never hurts! Not to mention the connections that are made in these formal programs, which lead to a community of professional artists that you can look toward once you are navigating this vast and complex artistic landscape in the real world.”
“I greatly admire the talents and work of chorus members, and absolutely value the existence of an ensemble.”
What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face in your career so far?
“Breaking out of the industry’s perceived notion of who I am as an artist has been my biggest challenge, particularly in the perception of me as a “chorus boy.” I greatly admire the talents and work of chorus members, and absolutely value the existence of an ensemble. I am thankful for the work that I have done in ensembles throughout my career. However, I have always envisioned myself as a principal actor. And due to my ability to dance, it was a long, hard road to be viewed in a light other than as a dancer.
Thankfully, some extraordinary artists such as Devanand Janki and Stephanie Yankwitt, Kent Gash and Alan Filderman, Tina Landau and Tara Rubin, and perhaps most influentially, Trip Cullman, Nancy Piccione, Kelly Gillespie, Nicole Van Denburg, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, viewed me with a larger lens and allowed me the opportunity to showcase myself not only as a principal performer, but also as a leading man.”
And what has been one of your happiest career-related moments?
“One of my happiest career-related moments was finding out that I was cast in the Broadway premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy. In 2016 I was cast in the ensemble of the original Broadway cast of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen’s Tuck Everlasting as my Broadway debut. But I fractured my foot a couple of days prior to beginning technical rehearsals. So I actually missed the opportunity to actually perform the role that I created, because the show closed prior to my scheduled return from medical leave. Being cast in Choir Boy felt like a chance to reclaim a moment that had seemingly been taken away from me. The opportunity to make my Broadway performance debut in a play that meant so much to me and to the zeitgeist of theatre couldn’t have brought me more joy.”
How did it feel to step into that lead role for the final weeks of Choir Boy?
“It was a dream come true to play the lead role, Pharus Jonathan Young, in Choir Boy on Broadway! It felt as though I was stepping into my destiny. I felt extremely excited and extremely prepared. The play celebrates the individuality among humans, so it was imperative that I brought my individuality to the role. I am so thankful to Trip, the director, for allowing me to truly make the role my own. Playing that role has truly changed my life.”
” When you step into your truest self, it is impossible to “fail.” “
Do you have any advice for those who are just starting out with acting?
“BE. YOUR. SELF. There is NO ONE who can do what YOU DO. When you step into your truest self, it is impossible to “fail”. Never compare yourself to others, because what is for YOU, is for YOU and ONLY YOU.”
Is there a dream role that you’d love to play one day?
“I would love to play Darren Lemming in Take Me Out, Youth in Passing Strange, the Leading Player in Pippin, or Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Some lesser known roles I would love to play would be Joe Wellington in Golden Boy, or Leroy in Grind. However, I like to think that my dream role is one that has yet to be created, and will be originated by me one day!”
What motivates and inspires you to keep moving forward?
“The ability to affect change within humans through my art motivates and inspires me. The opportunity to represent a marginalized group of people, being a Black gay man, and inspire the next generation who may see a reflection of themselves in me, continuously drives me forward. When I played Bert in Syracuse Stage’s production of Mary Poppins or Lon Smith in The Muny’s production of Meet Me In St. Louis, there were no better moments than when young kids of color came up to me and told me how much they loved the show and my performance. I truly believe that my non-traditional casting gave them hope and belief that one day they could achieve their dreams as well, in spite of whatever obstacles may come their way.”
What’s next for you?
“Up next I am originating the role of Elzie in the world premiere of Lydia R. Diamond’s play, Toni Stone, at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre! Previews begin 5/23, opening night is 6/20, and we will be running until 8/11. The play chronicles the life of Toni Stone, the first female to play professional baseball among men, in the Negro League. I’m very excited to share another story that depicts the beauty, brilliance, and culture of the African American experience!”
What did you think of this interview with Jonathan Burke?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be an actor or actress? We would love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our theatre interviews with inspiring people in the industry.
You can follow Jonathan Burke on Facebook!
*The featured image of Jonathan Burke is by Lelund Durond Thompson.
Want a weekly list of stagey surprises?!
Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.