SALT LAKE CITY — Will Swenson always had a backup plan.
If his Broadway aspirations didn’t work out, he would return to Utah and work in the Hale Theater, the family business where he performed as a boy.
But then his grandmother and mother died of cancer within three years of each other — the former the matriarch of Hale Theater and the latter her replacement as leader of the family business — and everything changed. A cousin informed Swenson that there was no place for him in the Hale Theater.
Just like that, Swenson was seeking auditions without a safety net.
“A blessing in disguise,” says Swenson, who, a decade later, is a Broadway star and some-time TV/movie actor who’s riding a hot streak. If he were a basketball team, he’d be the Golden State Warriors. The roles keep coming his way.
Swenson, a Utah native and BYU and Cottonwood High graduate, seems to turn up everywhere these days. Gayle Lockwood, his mentor at BYU, was in a movie theater recently watching “The Greatest Showman,” when her daughter whispered, “That’s Will Swenson.” What? “That’s Will.” They puzzled over this for a few moments — sounds like him, looks like him — before they realized it was him (he’s PT Barnum’s father).
Maybe you recognize Swenson’s face, if not the name (especially if you fit a certain demographic). He had a starring role in several of those Mormon-themed movies that hit theaters in the early 2000s — “The Singles Ward, “The R.M.,” ”Sons of Provo,” “The Singles 2nd Ward.” They were roles he had lived for more than 20 years, although much has changed personally and professionally for him since then.
In the last decade he has had leading or featured Broadway roles in a long list of musicals — “110 in the Shade,” “Hair,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Les Miserables” and “Waitress,” as well as off-Broadway roles in “Rock of Ages,” “Murder Ballad,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Jerry Springer – the Opera.” He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in “Hair.”
“He is on a roll,” says Lockwood. “He has a great look — he’s tall and handsome and has a strong build — but he’s also talented. It’s the whole combination of those things. I’m thrilled for him. It’s always interesting to have kids come from nowhere who are trained well to get work. “
That Swenson has made a name for himself in musicals is not without some irony. His singing needed considerable work as a BYU student. He was initially a theater major before switching to music dance theater because he believed musicals would offer more work. He had sung in some productions as a boy and as a high school performer, but he was hardly ready for a bigger stage.
“I could sing around a campfire,” he says, “but singing a big full song on stage … I still don’t have a ton of confidence.”
“When he came to BYU, he had a lot of experience and very little technique,” says Lockwood. “”He had done a lot of acting and singing without technique. He had some issues that needed to be resolved.”
For one thing, he had no vibrato, which is essential for the stage. What surprised Lockwood is what happened next: “For a person with the experience he had already," she says, “he was tenacious and patient. He worked through some very tedious, slow vocal exercises without being able to perform. He was willing and determined.”
Even when Lockwood visited New York years later, he asked her for a couple of voice lessons.
“He was kind of a rock singer — he did a lot of those roles — and then he had an opportunity to do Javert in 'Les Miz,'” says Lockwood. “I went to see him and I was thrilled with what I heard. He was singing classically, which wasn’t his forte before that. He was quite good. He told me he had been working again with a teacher. I really believe that’s why he has continued to work in the industry.”
“His confidence in his singing is not as strong as it is for acting,” says superstar mezzo-soprano Audra McDonald, who co-starred with him on Broadway.
Oh, and she’s also Swenson’s wife.
“He asks my opinion. It’s hard for me. I think he has a fantastic voice. He feels insecure about it; I wish he would just trust that his voice is good,” McDonald says.
Swenson grew up in a legendary theater family. Ruth Hale, his grandmother, was a playwright and actress, and her husband Nathan an aspiring actor. In the 1940s they moved from Utah to Glendale, California, hoping to land movie roles. When that didn’t happen, they opened Glendale Center Theater to create a forum for their own acting and writing.
Ruth Hale would write more than 75 plays, besides performing on stage and running the theater business. She casted her seven children and any of her 160 extended family members in stage roles, and proved nothing if not resourceful (she even appropriated the household furniture for stage props).
The Glendale Center was the first of several theaters the family would start in California, Arizona and Utah.
“I was born into it,” says Swenson, who is 44.
Performing on stage and working in the theater for the Hales was like taking out the trash for neighbor kids. Swenson was on stage almost as soon as he could walk.
He was 12 when his family moved to Utah to start the Hale Theater with his grandparents. The family actually lived in the theater for six months. The kids did everything — act, sing, dance, sell candy, take tickets, work backstage, make costumes, usher, clean, build sets. It was the family chore and when the kids were less than enthusiastic about it, Ruth Hale would tell them, “If we lived on a farm, you’d milk cows; if you have a theater, you participate in the shows.”
There were no formal acting lessons, just roles and learning on the job.
“Grandma was very technical and craft-oriented as an actress and director,” recalls Swenson. “If you weren’t projecting enough, she would shout, ‘I can’t hear you!’ She wanted to make sure you were heard and that you were doing it with strength and confidence. If you were wiggling around, she would say, ‘Stand still boy.’”
Looking back now, Swenson says, “I enjoyed it, but I also wanted to play football. There were times when I didn’t want to be in a show.”
Destiny intervened anyway. As he puts it, “I was a terrible football player.”
He watched the Tony Awards every year and thrilled when the national tours passed through Salt Lake City. “I was so moved by it,” he says. “That would be my dream.”
Swenson’s brother, Cody Swenson, recalls: “The thing that impressed me about Will was that he was always willing to work at it. He would take parts that were just part of the ensemble — not big roles — because he thought it was better just to be on stage working on his craft. He had a great sense of comedy. Even as a kid, he had a great sense of timing. Acting is his first talent. The singing came second and he worked on it.”
By the time he reached Broadway auditions he already had a lifetime’s worth of experience in theater — six to eight shows a year in the Hale Theater, as well as playing the lead in the school musical all three years he attended Cottonwood High.
Jennifer Westra Blackham, Swenson’s high school friend and junior prom date, told the Murray Journal, “I think for most kids starring in their high school musical or community theater productions, we know this is a temporary thing, we aren’t planning on going on to Broadway. I can’t remember Will saying he had a Broadway dream, that he was going to pursue theater. … But I also wasn’t very surprised when he did.”
Shawna (nee Halford) Cox, another classmate who worked alongside Swenson in student government, says “he always stood out as someone who planned to work hard, continue to develop his talents and go places. I think his love for theater, even back then, gave him more energy and excitement than a lot of other high school kids. Most of his peers admired that enthusiasm and haven’t been at all surprised by his success.”
After graduating from BYU, Swenson got his first professional job playing the role of Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” at Disney World. He got the first big break of his career when he participated in an open audition and landed the lead role in a national tour of “Miss Saigon” in 2002 at the age of 29. He thought this would automatically lead to more roles.
“I came to find out it didn’t,” he says. “Everybody had a national tour credit. I had to hit the pavement. I had a hard time getting going.”
It was during this time that his cousin Kurt Hale proposed that they work together on a movie he had written — “Singles Ward” — which led to the other LDS-themed movies. It was also about the same time that his cousin, Mark Dietlein, told him there was no longer a place for him in the family theater; he was going to hire his own son instead.
“That had been my plan,” says Swenson. “I would go back and run (the theater). I was going to make a go of it (on Broadway). I had the safety net of running the theater, and that was helpful to an extent. It (Broadway) was not do or die. Plus my (first) wife (Amy) was a news writer for the networks.”
Asked about his brother getting shut out of the family business, Cody Swenson says, “I can confirm that happened. But it’s a sensitive topic and I’d rather not discuss it.”
Swenson worked as a paralegal assistant at a law firm briefly while he hunted auditions, but he hated it so much he quit after only a couple of months. He began to earn small parts on stage — a vocal role on Broadway in “Brooklyn," ensemble roles, and some bit parts in TV soap operas. In 2008 he got the biggest break of his career: The lead role of Berger in an off-Broadway production of “Hair,” and then a two-year run on Broadway in the same role.
“That’s possibly my favorite credit,” he says.
He has tried and succeeded in diversifying his roles. He was the ruthless, letter-of-the-law cop Javert in “Les Miserables”; the sexy hippie in “Hair”; the devil in “Jerry Springer - The Opera”; and, as described by NPR, the “oversexed bad boy rocker Stacee Jaxx” in “Rock of Ages"; a drag queen in “Priscilla"; and, in the San Diego Union’s words, the “sexy and reptilian … hip, studly bartender Tom in “Murder Ballad.”
They are hardly roles you would expect for a former LDS missionary, a curiosity that has been noted in the media. He has performed shirtless (or sans pants) onstage (he told Vulture, “I do walk offstage sometimes like, 'Really? I just walked around onstage with my pants off for 20 minutes?’”). Swenson himself says of the famously profane production of “Jerry Springer”: “It is definitely vulgar; I didn’t allow my kids to come to that.”
They are productions and roles that Swenson likely would not have accepted 15-20 years ago. He served a two-year church mission in Ecuador and studied at BYU under the strictures of its honor code. Early in his career, Swenson even starred in productions for the LDS Church, which he described thusly for Vulture in 2009: “They (the church) do these faith-promoting films of stories from the Book of Mormon, testimony-building dramatizations. I’ve played prophets from the Book of Mormon. I’ve played Jesus. Matter of fact, if you go to Salt Lake to the big Mormon visitors’ center, they play a big movie and I’m the voice of Jesus in that. Of course, they’ll probably shut it down knowing I’m doing 'Hair' on Broadway.”
Swenson, perhaps unnecessarily, has stated on numerous occasions that he is no longer a practicing Mormon, but he treats it as an amicable parting. “I look back on it super fondly,” he says.
“I was just saying this the other night to a friend who left church. We were saying how much we loved our missions and, at a time when most likely to be selfish, spent two years serving people. I’m grateful for the world view and perspective it gave me. It was invaluable.”
There have been other major changes in Swenson’s life. He divorced his first wife Amy Westerby, whom he met during one of his grandmother’s Hale Theater productions, and in 2012 married McDonald, which means he isn’t even the biggest star in his own house.
They actually worked together while performing in “110 in the Shade” in 2007. They have one child together (18 months old) and share custody of three teenagers — two from his first marriage and one from her first marriage.
They maintain a schedule so busy that it has to be as choreographed as a Broadway production, with two highly successful careers and driving kids to soccer and piano lessons and private schools.
“It’s not what you’d expect for a couple of stars,” says Cody Swenson. “They get up early, and they drive their kids to school, which is 30 minutes away.”
Depending on their work schedules, they stay in either of their two homes — one in Manhattan and one “tucked up in the woods” of Westchester County north of the city.
McDonald, a six-time Tony Award winner, co-stars in a couple of TV shows, in addition to her concerts and theatrical performances. She estimates she is on the road 30 weeks annually.
“In the last few days the only time I’ve seen (Audra) is when I crawl into bed at midnight,” says Swenson. “She got up at 5 a.m. today. I was singing at a benefit and she’s in a TV show. That happens quite a bit. We tag team. Today I have the baby. Tomorrow she might not be shooting. We plan out the week. It’s been challenging.”
McDonald says “it’s not glamorous. It’s lots of car-pooling. Our home life is fulfilling but incredibly busy. It’s air traffic control. Who has got what, when? Our life is full and messy and full of love. It’s what we want.”
For his part, Swenson continues to approach acting like someone who still doesn’t have a safety net. He studies roles, researches characters and continues to take voice and acting lessons.
He is carrying on the family legacy on a bigger stage.
McDonald notes that he has spoken to her about his grandparents and the legacy of theaters and every aspect of the business.
“It’s a part of who they are,” McDonald says of her husband’s family. “Will works very, very hard. He studies his craft. He’s not one to rest on his laurels. He prepares for it the way a football player goes to the gym.”
“I’m happy to take film and TV work when it comes along, but my real love is theater,” Swenson says. “It’s the ultimate venue for storytelling. There’s an energy in the room that’s different every night. There’s that connection with the audience. So the way the story gets told is different every night.
"I love it. … I’m very blessed to have the life I have.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Swenson's cousin as Kirk Hale instead of Kurt Hale.