It isn’t very often that a Broadway star who has absolutely no connection to Huntington High School, agrees to be the keynote speaker and perform at an honor society induction ceremony. But that’s just what happened late last week when Brandon J. Ellis came to the School Heritage Museum as Tri-M’s special guest.
Mr. Ellis grew up in North Carolina. He’s starred on Broadway, appeared in television shows, performed at the Tony Awards and is currently in rehearsals for a revival of Crazy for You.
How did a Broadway performer happen to stand before students and parents at Huntington’s annual Tri-M Honor Society induction? Well, credit high school choir director Victoria Garbarino for landing Mr. Ellis as the keynote speaker.
“I had seen him in Bandstand on Broadway and was blown away,” Ms. Garbarino said. “We had some mutual friends on Facebook, so I friended him. We started talking and I asked if he’d like to be our guest speaker and he was pretty excited to do it.”
Broadway and television actor
and musician Brandon J. Ellis.
Mr. Ellis took the LIRR to Huntington, where Ms. Garbarino met him and quickly drove him over to the high school and the jam-packed School Heritage Museum room where the crowd included district Trustee Christine Biernacki, Superintendent James W. Polansky and Principal Brenden Cusack along with dozens of Tri-M members and their parents.
It wasn’t long before the Broadway veteran was standing on the stage addressing the audience. “Victoria asked me to say a little something about how music changed my life, but I think a more appropriate way to describe music’s effect on my life is that music saved my life and led to me to what would become my career,” Mr. Ellis said.
They crowd included many continuing Tri-M members as well as the 37 teenagers that were slated for induction last Thursday night. You could have heard a pin drop while Mr. Ellis was speaking.
“I was a bad student as a child,” Mr. Ellis admitted. “I don’t know why. I wasn’t lacking in intelligence. When I actually did something, I it did well. I didn’t have a cognitive disability. I just didn’t care; about school or achievement. I don’t know why. I was weirdly withdrawn from other students. I wanted to be friends, but I just wasn’t good at it. I skipped school all the time; and this was in elementary school mind you so that is a little early. I was held back a grade for poor attendance. My parents took me to doctors and therapists. They just said I had ADHD and handed me some Ritalin. It didn’t work.”
Mr. Ellis said in third grade, his class was brought into a room and each student was asked to pick an instrument for music instruction. “I looked around and I chose the cello because I liked the look of it,” he recalled. “It looked human. My music teacher that year was named Willard Ray. He was a cellist with the Charlotte Philharmonic and man when he played it was transcendent. I was in awe and I was not a natural. I wasn’t good at all. But I wanted to be good. I wanted to be as good as Mr. Ray. I found something that we, as humans, are so lucky to have access to. I found passion. I threw myself into music. I played in the school orchestra to start. Mr. Ray took me on as a private student and I studied with him once a week in addition to music class at school. I started to actually get good at playing cello.”
The Broadway star said his experience with the cello marked the first time he felt he was “really good” at something. “But that wasn’t all,” Mr. Ellis said. “Something else amazing started to happen. My grades started improving. Within a year I was moved into gifted classes. I ended up skipping a grade so I got back on track. I started making friends. Lots of friends. I started coming out of my shell. I started playing with the youth symphony, Furman Cello Choir and was asked to be a guest soloist with the Charlotte Symphony. I was changed at my core. I started picking up other instruments to see if I could learn them. Guitar, bass guitar, upright bass. Whatever I could get my hands on. I started learning that if you are willing to sit down and put in the work you can be good at something. And that was probably the most valuable thing music taught me, but we’ll get back to that.”
Mr. Ellis said that by his junior year of high school he was “pretty sure” that he was destined for a career as a cellist. “Then I went and saw a play,” he recalled. “I fell in love with that as well. I auditioned that semester for the Glass Menagerie. I didn’t get in. Again, I was not a natural. But I wanted to be good. The next semester I auditioned for the play again; Twelfth Night. They needed some people that played instruments to play in Duke Orison’s court. I fell in love with theatre. I started doing all the plays I could. Community theatre, children’s theatre, you name it. A new teacher came to our high school my senior year and cast me in two musicals, Sondheim’s Assassins and Barnum, the story of PT Barnum’s life. He asked me if I could sing. I said I don’t know. Can you teach me? He did. And I played the Balladeer and a few other roles in Assassins. I remember my parents came to see the show and said to me afterwards, ‘We didn’t know you could sing’ and I said ‘Yeah me either.’ I once again had an uncontrollable passion for something. I could do music and acting at the same time? Let me get some of that.”
Mr. Ellis attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study acting. He said that he knew he had to throw himself into the study of it if he wanted to be good, but he never left music far behind.
“I still played every day,” Mr. Ellis recalled. “Every summer I would go and do summer stock at a musical theatre somewhere.” He continued to intertwine acting and music as frequently as possible.
“One semester I was applying for an interdepartmental scholarship and my thesis was that musical theatre has the potential to be better than any play could be on its own because you can have the story telling of a play, but then you can access people’s emotions on a visceral level with music to drive your point home,” Mr. Ellis told the Tri-M induction crowd. “Music can literally reach into you and pull out feelings. Think about film scores that tell you how to feel while watching a movie or how music therapy can give Alzheimer patients moments of beautiful clarity. I knew it to be true because music did that for me. I was a broken, incomplete person and music reached in and made me whole. It gave me my identity. I got the scholarship.”
After obtaining a college degree, Mr. Ellis moved to New York to pursue a Broadway career.
“For my first big audition in the city I get a breakdown from my agent to go in for a Stephen Sondheim show where the actor needs to play the cello,” he said. “I said what? Well, that couldn’t be more perfect. I didn’t get it. But I knew that was my way in. I did a few things here and there and then I was called in to audition for the revival of Company. They needed an actor who played cello, upright bass, guitar and drums. I got that job and made my Broadway debut in 2007. My next Broadway show was Once the musical. They needed an actor who played cello, mandolin, banjo, ukulele and some other stuff. I didn’t know how to play mandolin or banjo, but I knew that if I locked myself in a room I could do it. I learned that when I was coming up as a cellist. That show took me to the West End in London where I closed Once as the bank manager. My third and most recent show was Bandstand. They needed an actor who could play upright bass and handle the difficult role of a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD. That show got me to fulfill a dream of getting to perform on the Tony Awards. I’m currently working on the revival of Crazy for You in which they needed an actor who could play upright bass. The director saw me in Bandstand so I got the job. They asked me yesterday if I could play musical saw. I said no, but I’ll figure it out. Music made me whole and gave me my career.”
Mr. Ellis commanded the audience’s attention throughout his remarks. Once the induction had wrapped up, Mr. Ellis posed for photos with students and hung around to speak with them and offer additional insight and inspiration.