Alex Boniello discusses life after Spring Awakening and dealing with anxiety as a performer

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The world would be a better place if more people were as real and refreshingly honest as Alex Boniello.

Having made his Broadway debut as the voice of Moritz in Tony Award nominated Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening last season, Boniello has experienced spending time in the mindset of a character struggling with his mental health. Boniello gave a heartbreaking performance as the introverted, vulnerable Moritz, who eventually succumbs to the demons in his mind.

Off-stage, Boniello has been open about living with an anxiety disorder, most notably in an extensive post on his Tumblr page. The post goes in-depth about how becoming a performer has actually helped him rather than aggravating the disorder further. His frank discussion of the topic has served as an inspiration for a number of theatre lovers who have had similar experiences.

In addition to discussing serious topics, Boniello has also demonstrated a witty and self-deprecating sense of humor on his Twitter page. It’s this authenticity that is quickly making Boniello a fan-favorite in the Broadway community. The impact the cast of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening has on Broadway is currently visible by the tremendous grassroots fundraising efforts to raise $200,000 so the cast can perform at the Tony Awards on June 12.

Boniello took the time to talk with Stage Door Dish about his social media presence and the relationships created through Spring Awakening.

What have you been up to in your life since Spring Awakening? I know you did a few readings.

Mostly that kind of stuff to be honest with you, which is not bad. It’s very interesting to do stuff like that and to see how people make things and what’s going on. A lot of that, a lot of concerts. You get an email asking, ‘Can you sing at 54 Below?’ and you say, ‘Yeah.’ Then, you end up doing it. It just happens very very quickly. I think a lot of the people who have sung at 54 Below will tell you that you say yes to something two months prior. Then, all of a sudden, it’s the day before and you’re still learning your song, and then it ends up being really fun. It’s always a strange whirlwind. And a lot of auditioning, trying to do whatever’s next.

I want to talk about the benefit for the Drama Bookshop then, and how you sang ‘Ring of Keys.’ Why did you want to get involved with that project that they were doing, and why did you choose that specific song?

I didn’t ask to do it, they asked me. When it happened, I was re-tweeting – just like everybody else – and trying to make people to buy stuff, so they could continue to exist. They asked if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘yeah, sure.’ They asked me to pick a musical theatre song, and I haven’t done that in a really long time. Even at auditions, if it says to sing a musical theatre song, I have to really think about a good one because that’s just not what my brain goes to first. I’ll always sing a song that’s not from a musical if I can for auditions. So, I was thinking about songs that I like, and songs that I already knew the words to, and that was one of them. I love that song, and I’ve always thought that it would sound like a pop punk song if you arranged it differently. Obviously, the way it’s arranged right now, it’s a sweeping, folky musical piece. I’ve always thought that if you had really annoying drums and really silly harmonies and guitars going that it would sound like a pop punk song. That was the original idea. I wanted to do that. But then, they said, ‘This thing is packed to the second.’ They couldn’t take any time. I was thinking that it would probably be a lot smoother if I don’t involve other people, if I just learn it on a guitar and do it. It ended up turning into a Dashboard Confessional song, which was sort of funny. I think that song’s really good. I’m obsessed with the idea of ‘Ring of Keys’ moment. When we were doing Spring Awakening in L.A., a bunch of people got together to watch the Tonys. The only time everyone shut up for the entire night was when this kid came onstage. A lot of us hadn’t heard the song yet and we were watching it with subtitles on because half of us were deaf. It was really cool to see everybody be equally stricken by the song, whether they could hear it or not. That was a very long winded way to explain why I chose ‘Ring of Keys,’ but it was mostly because I knew it. I wanted to not stress out too much.

What do you miss most about being a part of that group of people?

It’s really nice to see the same people every day. It’s rare when you like everybody. At the end of the day, you remember that these things are jobs. You want to say that every show that you do is like a family, but it’s a job. If you work at an office, you’re not going to be best friends with Carl in accounting. But in this particular group of people, everybody was very very close. Everybody cared about each other. You had to in order to make that show happen. If somebody was not invested or stopped paying attention, the whole show would fall apart in three seconds because of all of the cues. I think I miss being around people and seeing the same people every day who I care about.

Are you guys still super close?

Basically, yes. It gets a little different because ninety percent of the cast isn’t here anymore. They all went back to California or wherever they’re from. It’s hard but I don’t think there’s anybody that I haven’t spoken to a few times whether they’re here or not. Every time they’re around, we try to meet up and hang out.

Now that you’ve had a few months to be away from it, what do you think you learned most from your scene partner, Daniel Durant?

I learned a lot about teamwork. If you’re an actor, you have an ego. If you say you don’t, you’re lying. At the end of the day, you’re performing and people are clapping for you and you like it. You’re a liar if you say, ‘I do this selflessly.’ No you don’t, shut up. I learned a lot about being a big role in this show but also separating myself from it. It’s not about me, it’s about aiding somebody else’s body and him telling the story. It’s not about me and my performance, it’s not about him and his performance. It’s about our performance, and it’s about what that does for this show. The show became a really big ensemble effort and piece. Every person was so very important. It wasn’t ever about one character. That’s what I really liked about our version of the show. It was really important for me to let go of needing to feel validated or needing to feel like it’s about you because it’s not. Working with him was a big lesson in being humble and telling a story for the story and not for you and surrendering to the ‘it’s bigger than me’ thing.

I heard you were a high school jock. What? You?

No, not high school at all. When I was little, yeah. Because my brother was an athlete, I just did it. When I was a kid, I was actually pretty good. I was the weight that I am now in 6th and 7th grade and short, the height of a kid. So, I was really good at football. I was a lineman, which are the big guys on the front line who block. It’s very silly that’s the case. But then, high school rolled around and I said, ‘I think I’m done’ because I’d been playing guitar for most of middle school. I started in 5th grade. I decided that I was done with the athlete thing, and decided to make a transition to the music thing fully. I went from being on the football team to being in the marching band, playing an electric guitar. It’s very funny, and there are a lot of great pictures of me with emo boy hair and in full football equipment, which is very stupid.

I’m sure you’re surprised by the fan reaction to you and Spring Awakening. People are throwing around pictures on the internet of you as a teenager.

That’s my own damn fault for putting those on the internet. They didn’t just find those. I was wondering where people were finding these pictures, and I realized that two years ago, I put it up before anyone really followed me. It was just my friends. Whatever, they’re funny.

Did it surprise you?

Yes and no. I understand that it’s part of liking a show. It’s a lot of fun to learn stuff about the people in it, especially when the cast is young. It doesn’t really surprise me that much. In a world of the Internet and making memes, go ahead. Do what you’re going to do. I’m not going to get upset about it. It’s funny. There’s that picture where I’m literally in 8th grade in a hoodie with hair in front of my face sitting on a log. Somebody took that picture. They thought if I leaned like that, I’d look really cool. It’s so stupid.

I want to talk about Gerard Canonico because he gave me a few good stories about you. It’s your chance to give it right back to him.

What did he say about me, so I can accurately respond?

He told me all about your laundry.

I do my laundry at their apartment, yeah. That has to happen soon, actually.

I’m not going to give dirt on him, but it’s fun that we’re still close. We did 21 Chump Street together, which was a weird week long thing. We very quickly realized that we were very similarly minded human beings with very similar interests outside of this, which is rare. I don’t have have the traditional interests of what you expect a musical theatre person to be into. We liked all of the same bands growing up. We were both kids who were in bands. That’s always fun to have with him. We remained close forever, and then we did Brooklynite together, probably thanks to him asking Michael to get me in there. Now he lives with my best friend growing up, I don’t know if he mentioned that. He’s in my life always and forever. The only thing that I would say about him that could be considered dirt is that his stamina to party is so much higher than mine. There will be times where we’ll be out and he’ll be 2 more drinks deep than me and he’s completely fine while I need to go home already. He’ll say, ‘it’s 10 o’clock, grow up!’

He’s small but mighty. What’s that Shakespeare quote? ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce’? That could sum him up.

I know that when you were a kid, you were really into John Gallagher Jr. and that the role of Moritz made you want to be an actor. What was it like to talk to him about it? And Gerard, who is a good friend of yours to lean on.

John was never able to see the show. I think he’s the only one who didn’t see it. I never did get to talk to him about it. Even in social settings, he somehow eluded me. It’s very strange that’s the case. It’s ridiculous that’s how I made my Broadway debut because I’m kind of old for the part. I’m not old, but these kids are supposed to be 14 years old. Our whole cast was older than they should have been because of the specificities of needing to find deaf actors. It’s hard enough to find people who can do it, and then you have to consider age. On average, our cast was 25, 26. That might be old for the show, but everyone was around that age. As long as we looked uniformly the same, whatever. It was not something that I ever thought was going to happen. In a normal situation, this show was never going to be revived. Well, maybe in 20 years or something. It would have and should have never happened, except for this very specific version of the show that completely flipped it on its head. It’s crazy to me that’s how I got to make my Broadway debut. It’s hard to process that it even happened.

Talking to Gerard about it was fun. I would tell him that my voice was pretty tired, and he would say, ‘Yeah. That happens. Your voice is fine. Your voice has always been fine. Why are you complaining about that?’ He was right. It was because we were in tech, and doing it 13 hours a day. Of course my voice was tired, I was being stupid. It came back around in a way that somehow made the role even more right for me because it tied it specifically to my skills and the fact that I’ve been playing guitar since I was a little kid.

The way that it happened was stupid – not having to audition for it and getting asked through circumstances and knowing what my skill set was without even knowing me. Andy [Mientus] and Michael [Arden] didn’t know me at all, but they knew me through people and they they knew I could theoretically play the part. The needed to find somebody who could play the part, who could also play it on guitar, who was also not going to make it all about them. That was something that I didn’t even consider at the time, but I like collaborating and being part of a group effort. I think it was good that they found someone who was willing to do that. As I said before, it’s not ever going to be about one person in this show.

During the run of Brooklynite, Matt Doyle, who was in the original production of Spring Awakening, texted Andy and said, ‘Hey, I’m working with this kid who I think you’d get along with. He has similar interests to you.’ Andy responded, ‘Cool, maybe I’ll meet him one day’ and that was the end of it. Then, they needed someone for this part for the second L.A. production. The first L.A. production had a different actor but he had another job, so he went to pursue that. One day, I got a Twitter message from Andy, and I was like, ‘That’s weird. I know who he is. He must know who I am through mutual friends.’ He said, ‘Hi. Are you available in a week for this Deaf West production of Spring Awakening?’ I knew about it. I wanted to be in it originally because our music supervisor on American Idiot was the same dude who was music supervising that. I had already know about it and wanted to audition for it. I had talked to him in great length about it when I was still doing American Idiot but I didn’t think I could move to L.A. for the first production for no money. I think it was $100 a week or something. I literally couldn’t move and do a show on that because this is where I’m from. I wished I could and he understood. What needed to happen worked itself out and happened. Andy told me what they needed and asked if I could do it. I said yes, and he said, ‘Let me talk to Michael.’ Then I skyped Michael and played him a song on my guitar. He said, ‘Great. You can do it! Can you be on a plane in two days?’ It was a weird whirlwind.

Another fun story. I don’t think I’ve talked about this because why would I? Kathryn [Gallagher], who was in the show, has become a very close friend of mine. I met her a week before that at a bar here in New York with Gerard. The universe did weird stuff. I was out at a bar with Gerard, and he said his friend Ben Platt – who is in Dear Evan Hansen with Gerard – was going to come and that he was going to bring his friend. Kathryn came and she told me that she’s a singer songwriter. She said that she’d just done a production of Spring Awakening that was about to happen again. I asked her to tell me all about it. A week later, we were meeting in Michael Arden’s living room, and she reminded me that we’d met in a bar. I was like, ‘I know we met in a bar.’ Very fun. The world is very cool like that.

I want to talk about your love for music now. Where does that come from? Can you talk about the bands you’re in? Especially Canadian White Bread since we just talked to Jeremy Kushnier and Gerard.

I don’t know where it come from. A lot of people would say that there was a lot of music in their house growing up but I’m the only person in my whole family who played any instruments or was musically inclined at all. It is kind of strange that’s what happened. I really liked bands like Green Day and Blink 182 when I was growing up, and that’s why I wanted to start playing guitar. Then, I was in bands throughout middle school trying to be Blink 182. I started taking guitar lessons and it turned serious because it was clear that I had an affinity for it. It was beyond just, ‘I want to play guitar,’ it was more like, ‘Oh, I could be wired for this in a strange way.’ I started being in bands. Throughout high school, I was in a pretty serious band that played a lot all around New Jersey and New York, which was fun. They were all 21, and I was 16. We would play a lot of places where I would come and play, and then immediately leave because I couldn’t be there. Then it all weirdly snowballed into musical theatre. It’s weird how that happened, but it just did.

How did that happen?

I signed up to do the musical at school. My school was so small that you didn’t need to really audition. If you wanted to do it, they were like, ‘Please, come do it.’ I just liked it. It’s really dumb. That’s all it was. Then, I ended up going to college for it. At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn’t know that much about it. I just knew the shows that I knew. I learned it and started to appreciate musical theatre. All the time, the parts that were right for me were the ones in the rock musicals and the ones that needed you to play an instrument. I did American Idiot which was a weird marriage of the things that I liked. After I met Gerard, we started jamming with Jeremy. We haven’t done it in a really long time. I don’t know if Gerard mentioned that. Somebody who was in the band, he ended up doing On the Town. Once you start doing a Broadway show, that’s all you can do for a while especially as you’re rehearsing it and teching it. He started doing that, Gerard was doing workshops and various things. Gerard started doing Brooklynite, and Jeremy was doing something else. Then, I started doing Brooklynite. Then, we were all three for a minute, and then all of a sudden, I went to L.A. It hasn’t locked in yet. We were talking about doing it again. I don’t know when we’re going to get to play together, but it was fun. Jeremy wrote cool songs.

I’m going to switch it back to something that kind of went viral – your post about having anxiety. Can you talk about that a little bit and what the Tumblr post was all about?

I just wrote it because I noticed that kids on Twitter were always posting about it.  I didn’t feel the need to talk about it but there was this one interview with Huffington Post where the guy asked a question like, ‘How do you bring the darkness to this character?’ It was an interestingly worded question about bringing the darkness from your own life to the character. Daniel said, ‘I don’t. I’m an actor and I do it.’ And then he said, ‘Well, what about you, Alex?’ I wasn’t blindsided by the question, but I just answered it honestly. I said on a live thing that I have this and that’s what I do. Once I said that, I noticed that kids were saying, ‘Me too.’ They were asking, ‘How do you get up on stage and do that?’ I thought that maybe I should just write something about it. I just had a beer and sat there and wrote about it. It’s kind of a shame that I didn’t think to do it sooner. It was only in the last week or two that I put it up. A lot of kids started saying stuff about it and thanking me for posting that. I didn’t think that anyone was going to care. I just wrote it because I was bored and thought that I should say something about it. I guess it is fascinating that I do what I do as a job.

I probably couldn’t create a job that’s less conducive to having anxiety. I’ve also found that a lot of people in this business have various forms of things. This business certainly brings out the depression in people whether or not it’s clinical or if they go through funks or different periods. It’s fascinating and interesting to talk to people in the business who deal with it in all of the different ways that they deal with it. Everyone in the show knew that I had it. There would be shows where I would get really stressed out. I wouldn’t leave the stage until I died, and even then, my job wouldn’t end there. Normally, Moritz’s job gets to end there until the last song of the show. For me, I would be able to get some water during ‘And Then There Were None’ and then park myself on this chair with my guitar because I had to play a bunch more songs. Some nights, the idea of not being allowed to leave the stage if I needed to would trigger me. It was kind of amazing. Until ‘Touch Me’ was over, I would not feel relief. It was really interesting to learn that and to consciously know what was happening. I learned a lot myself and how I manage it while doing the show because I had to.

I think it was Jenn Damiano who tweeted something like, ‘I love telling young actors that their anxiety is a superpower for them.’ A bunch of kids asked why and didn’t think it made sense. I chimed in, ‘When you get past it, it feels so good. You’ll feel like a million bucks and that you defeated something.’ That was good for me to find the ways that I can still do this. This is the thing that I want to do. I can’t let that stop me. I’ll never allow it to be something that stops me. My overwhelming want and need to do this will always defeat it. It’s interesting how when you’re onstage, as long as you’re focusing on that, everything is cool. A lot of the time, the problem is that you don’t have something specific to focus on, so you start focusing on other things like, ‘I inhaled weird. Does that mean that my throat is messed up? Does that mean that mean that I’m dying of something?’ You keep spiraling and then you’re in hell. It makes you feel good when you’ve accomplished something. When you go out the stage door at the end of the night, you’re like, ‘I did that thing. I may have been really anxious at the top of the show, but I did it. I finished it. I won tonight.’

Do you have a favorite story with Michael and Andy?

Maybe not a specific one. When I was in L.A., because of the last minute nature of me joining, everybody knew each other already and I didn’t have a car because I’m not from L.A. The production wasn’t going to rent me a car. They couldn’t afford to do that. So, I was housed in one of our producer’s houses. When Michael was explaining that to me, I thought, ‘I’m going to be all alone, it’s going to be weird.’ Michael said, ‘Don’t worry, Andy and I are three houses away.’ I thought he was exaggerating but literally their house is three or four houses away. Every morning, I would walk down the block, we’d have coffee, and then we’d carpool to the theatre. We’d stop at a Whole Foods every single time.

It’s funny because a lot of kids on the Internet call people ‘Dad’ and it’s kind of weird. The reason that I call Andy and Michael ‘Dad’ is because that was the joke we had. I would be in the backseat of the car, and they’d be in the front two seats – this basically married couple – driving down the highway on our way. I’d be in the back saying, ‘Yeah, totally!’ I was like their kid that they were driving to school. They showed me around Los Angeles, a city that I didn’t like when I did American Idiot. I was only there for a week, and I was only in the Times Square of LA, Hollywood Boulevard. I just didn’t like it. I thought the city sucked. They showed me that the city does not suck. They took me basically everywhere that was worth seeing. It was great.

Who would you most want to work with from that group again?

Michael and Spencer [Liff]. I am not a dancer. I should not say Spencer because I would hate to sin all over his work by ruining his beautiful choreography that he will continue to make. I would say Michael. I don’t know if people forget but Spring Awakening was the first thing that he seriously directed, which is dumb. It’s crazy to me that he was able to do this. Working with Deaf West is not easy. It’s a challenge. There’s a huge language barrier. To see him be able to make his vision come across and do all of these things that he wanted to do and accomplish everything that he wanted to accomplish is fascinating to me. I very much look forward to seeing whatever the thing he does next with this platform and the attention that he got and the attention that hopefully, come the end of May, he will continue to get. People will continue to talk to him and ask him to do things. Hopefully, he will keep asking me to do those things with him. If not, I’ll just be a fan and watch the things he does. I think he’s going to direct some crazy shit.

Are you still obsessed with Hamilton?

Yeah, of course. It’s great. It’s certainly cooled.

Because you’re not tweeting at Lin-Manuel Miranda every day?

Because I’m not tweeting at Lin every day. But also because I’m not going to bust his balls about it. When I met him and worked with him, everybody knew who he was. But now, he’s becoming a totally famous person. The show’s awesome, there’s no way it won’t be awesome. I look forward to seeing how it changes and moves with whoever they cast. I hope they find really cool rappers who have never done this before. I think they will. They’ve got a big job ahead of them to recast it because they’ve got to start recasting for Broadway eventually. They’re going to have to cast for 1000 tours and a production in every country in the world. I look forward to it and the continued future of what that show is and what the show means for a lot of people.

 

Do you miss the Moritz hair? Specifically the rat tail.

Not the tail. I didn’t mind it because I don’t think people noticed that it was only half of my hair. That’s why that crazy silhouette behind the chalkboard would work and why it looked like a crazy hawk of hair. In life, I would try to make it so people wouldn’t notice that I had it. From one side, it didn’t look like I had anything, and I turned to the other side and it looked like a mullet. It was really cool in the moment, and everything else is the same. It wasn’t like they took a crazy design risk on the rest of it. That’s just my hair. I don’t miss that thing.

What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?

I very clearly talk about how much I love video games, so that shouldn’t be surprising. Before picking colleges, I was scared. I didn’t know if I wanted to do music. I was starting to get a weird itch to go into theatre, but I was worried that wasn’t a career that I could do. But I was really good at animating. I would take animations from a video game, this game Counterstrike, which is a famous shooting game. I would take the guns out of the game and use a big fancy program and reanimate them. In a video game, you shoot and you’re reloading. I would redo them and completely reanimate them from the ground up. I would put them back in the game, and then you could download them. I think you can still find this stuff. I don’t remember what to search. People still play those games and you can still download my packs of animations. It’s not under Alex Boniello, but I don’t remember the name it was under. I wanted to go into animating and was looking into a lot of schools for that while looking at theatre schools. I remember the vivid moment when I was touring the School of Visual Arts in the city. It is an awesome school. I thought it was so cool. They would take us into the animation studio, and then they would take us into the voice-over booth. I got more stoked about the voice-over booth. Something was pulling me. I still applied to all of those schools, but I also applied to musical theatre and ended up going into that.

If you were no longer an actor/musician, what would you want to do with your life?

Video games journalism. I am completely obsessed with the video game industry because it’s so young. We’ve had video games our whole lives, so we don’t think about that. But this shit didn’t exist before the late 1970s, early 1980s. It’s a new thing, and within 30 or 40 years, it became one of the biggest industries in the world. Everybody plays video games. Even people who say they don’t like video games play Candy Crush. Everybody’s doing it. That whole universe is great. I’ve gone to so many video game conventions. During college, I had a freelance writing job for a video game website. I would go to events and interview game developers. I just totally love it. It weirdly lines up with what I ended up doing. Nobody really reads articles anymore in that field. They always want a video. They want a video of someone playing it with people in the corner talking about it. All of my favorite websites combine all of the things I like: performing, but also personality. I’m very dorky about it and I love everything that has to do with the video game industry.

What’s your favorite website?

Giantbomb.com. If you like video games at all, you have to go on giantbomb.com. I barely watch television anymore because the content they put out is so frequent and so damn good. It is what I watch instead of TV. I have a Chromecast – an Apple TV type deal. Whenever they put out a new video, I watch it. You know what Super Mario Maker is? It’s a game that came out last year where you can make Mario levels. You can do anything you want. They thought it would be funny to stream live a video of them making it and the chat of thousands of people watching along, telling them what to put in the level. They would make what people said they wanted, like a fire pit. It would make the most asinine cool levels. You would think that all you had to do was jump, but then you would hit a block and die. At the end of the level, after three hours of trying to beat it, there are three doors and you don’t know which one to go in. You go in one, and it brings you to the beginning of the level. I was sitting there pissing myself, screaming at the TV laughing because of the stuff that was happening. It spiraled into this big thing where one of the guys challenged another guy who used to work for them, and they raised thousands of dollars for charity. Just go to giantbomb.com if you care about video games at all. I would recommend starting with the ‘Giant Bomb makes Mario’ series of videos.

If you were to create a video game, what would it be?

Fuck. I don’t know. I can’t do it. I know the kind of games that I want to play and they’re usually being made by people who are smarter than me. If I was going to do animating, it would be while someone’s telling me what to animate. I would be able to put my own creative thing into it, but someone would be telling me what to do. I’ve never been the idea man, which is why I’m not a director. I like being told what to do. Whenever I write things, if I write music, I like doing it with other people because I’m never the one who is vomiting out ideas.

Do you have anything coming up that you want to promote?

I’m going back and forth to New Jersey. I want to put out a five song EP. My friend is a producer. We’ve written before. I grew up with him, and he ended up becoming a fantastic producer. I put him in touch with Kathryn, and they’ve been working together. Hopefully, I’ll have something soon. It’s tough because I’m here, and that’s in New Jersey. If I want to go, I have to go spend the whole day there. My mom and dad live three blocks away from him, so I can’t just go and work. If I go, I have to work and then visit my mom and dad. If they found out that I was in town  and I didn’t say hi, that would be cruel.

Is it new songs that you’re writing?

Yes. We’ve got one almost done and it’s pretty good. I hate saying that. I would never say that if it wasn’t pretty good. I feel good about it.

Brooke Robinson contributed to this story.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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