With Broadway closed, Wright State graduate changes course

Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel was in previews on Broadway in the new musical "Mrs. Doubtfire" when Broadway was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. He currently resides in Shaker Heights with his family while awaiting Broadway's return. Pictured: K.J. Hippensteel (left as Elder Price) with Delroy Atkinson (General) in London's West End production of "The Book of Mormon." CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JOHAN PERSSON

On March 9, Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel took the stage of New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre as an ensemble member in the first preview performance of the new Broadway musical “Mrs. Doubtfire,” based on the 1993 Robin Williams film.

A few days later, he and his family moved in with his father-in-law in Shaker Heights.

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Broadway’s historic March 12 shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the industry, actors and tourism.

Out-of-work actors had to make crucial, life-altering decisions while others fell ill to the disease (principals Aaron Tveit, Danny Burstein and Tam Matu of “Moulin Rouge!”) or lost their lives (Tony nominee Nick Cordero).

“This is the strangest thing I’ve ever lived through,” said Hippensteel, 36. “I had been following the news before the shutdown very carefully. (Initially), we were told a (shutdown) was only going to be for 30 days, and I kind of rolled my eyes about it. It sounded ridiculous. My wife, Brooke, and I had discussed matters and we felt it would last at least six months. Some of my friends were thinking three months but I put six months in my head partly because I wanted to protect myself from disappointment if it went shorter. But if it was going to be six months I would be prepared.

“The day we found out Broadway was officially shut down, Brooke and I rented a car and left for Cleveland. We felt like something big was happening and we didn’t want to be in New York when it really hit. We didn’t know if there would be lockdowns but we were afraid we would get stuck in our apartment for long periods of time. We have two very active young boys and we didn’t want to be in our apartment for 24 hours a day or long periods of time. We’re lucky to have had the ability to get out of the city. Looking back, Brooke and I knew New York was already getting bad but the testing capacity wasn’t available to know for sure how bad it was. Mostly everyone I know stayed, but Brooke and I felt we needed to take control of something we couldn’t control.”

Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel was in previews on Broadway in the new musical "Mrs. Doubtfire" when Broadway was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. He currently resides in Shaker Heights with his family while awaiting Broadway's return. (Contributed photo)

A path paused

Written by the creative team behind the hilarious 2015 musical “Something Rotten!,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” tells the charming story of Daniel Hillard, a divorced actor-father disguising himself as a female housekeeper in order to see his children. Hippensteel — whose credits include Elder Price in the Broadway and West End productions of “The Book of Mormon,” Nick Bottom in a Chicago production of “Something Rotten!,” and ensemble and Fiyero understudy in the “Wicked” tour that played the Schuster Center in 2012 —understudied Tony nominee Rob McClure as Daniel.

“During previews, I was still in the process of learning the role,” he said. “You have to be scared of the role to honor how big it is, right? But it was definitely still fresh for me. I actually rented a studio downtown for several days just so I could have more personal time to rehearse. But I’m excited to get to do the role someday. The film is so iconic, especially for my generation who grew up in the ’90s. The show pays tribute to the film in a beautiful way. But at the (heart of it all) is the story of a guy who would do anything to be with his kids, which is something that speaks to me as a parent. It’s so relatable.”

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Since the shutdown, Hippensteel says producer Kevin McCullom (“Avenue Q”) offers updates, and Zoom meetings are routine. He also acknowledges the importance of the show in his acting trajectory as well as his Wright State training. He graduated in 2006 having appeared in “Biloxi Blues” and “Uncle Vanya” among others.

“The producers have reached out to us several times to let us know everything is still happening once this is all over, which has been really reassuring,” he said. “Theater is not necessarily for the actors — it’s for the audience. It produces a special relationship like a call and response. The audiences for ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ were super receptive and loud, so we felt we were definitely onto something. I’ve also learned so much about where I am in my career and what I’m capable of by watching Rob work. I’ve realized I can shift what I’ve been doing into another gear. The role is definitely going to go down in the books for me as probably a big turning point in my career. I have nothing but great things to say about Wright State as well. They make students not only work on what they do best but expand what they do best.”

Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel was in previews on Broadway in the new musical "Mrs. Doubtfire" when Broadway was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. He currently resides in Shaker Heights with his family while awaiting Broadway's return. Pictured: K.J., Brooke, Huck and Shep. CONTRIBUTED

Trading Manhattan for Cleveland

“The boys are in the backyard sleeping in a tent,” Hippensteel remarked. It’s evident 5-year-old Huck and 3-year-old Shep have grown accustomed to suburban life at their grandfather’s home.

“We have virtual classes in the morning,” he added. “We teach them math. Thank goodness my kids aren’t learning physics. I’d be lost!”

In order to fuel their own artistry while offering an exciting educational outlet for kids, K.J. and Brooke, a professional actress for over 16 years, have conducted an online summer camp through their website ScamperTheatre.com.

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They plan to post more live class options for the fall soon and also have plans to present new episodes on their YouTube Channel.

“One day I’m grateful and other days it’s scary and exciting,” he said. “Our online acting program for kids has been a great outlet for us in which to create together. Having a yard is appealing but getting back to New York and being in that community is very special, too. It just depends on what happens here within the next year (and) how connected we become to the community.”

Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel was in previews on Broadway in the new musical "Mrs. Doubtfire" when Broadway was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. He currently resides in Shaker Heights with his family while awaiting Broadway's return. K.J. Hippensteel (left as Nick Bottom) with Alex Goodrich (Nigel Bottom) in Chicago's Marriott Theatre production of "Something Rotten!" CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/LIZ LAUREN

Evaluating the future

Recently, K.J. and Brooke returned to New York City to move out of their apartment for good. It was the most financially feasible option.

“Living in Shaker Heights saves us so much money,” he said. “Living in New York is expensive. Tens of thousands of people in the business are out of work, especially those who work backstage like the dressers and the riggers. As actors, we have our acting gigs, which are our real jobs, but then we have survival jobs such as catering, waiting tables and hospitality. People aren’t gathering in spaces like they used to. Many of my colleagues are looking to temporarily move out of the city just like we did. Many friends are trying to figure out what they can do for money since (no one knows) if the federal unemployment COVID-19 stimulus will get extended. I even have very successful friends who didn’t quality for unemployment and are scrambling right now. It really is insane and scary.”

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The Broadway League has announced all productions will remain closed through at least Jan. 3, 2021. Hippensteel hopes to be back on Broadway but delicately infuses his optimism with realism.

“I feel good about ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’” he said. “About a month ago, my wife and I decided to pretend that the show wasn’t coming back so that we weren’t waiting on that to decide our fate, which is why we decided to do our theater classes. Obviously, I am in a very lucky situation in which my show continues to reach out. But theater can take so many different turns. It’s crazy. Jokingly, I’ve said when all of this is over Broadway may be in Las Vegas. But I think New York is definitely coming back and will be stronger than ever before.”

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