Justin Weatherby got his start in the theater business like so many others from the Fresno area: in the Good Company Players Junior Company.
But not everyone ends up with a career in front of an audience. After a stint as a professional actor, Weatherby has recently gotten into more of the money side of things. He’s been a co-producer for three shows on Broadway, along with his job in finance with the Metropolitan Opera.
Still, once a Junior, always a Junior. Which is why Weatherby, a graduate of Roosevelt School of the Arts, has flown in from New York for “Justin and Friends Pop-Up Cabaret,” a fundraiser for the nonprofit Junior Company Foundation. The show, which features Terry Lewis, Alison Allwine, Rena Wilson and Seth Scott, will be held 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at the 2nd Space Theatre.
We caught up with Weatherby by phone and email to ask about the show and his career.
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Q: Do you have a standout memory from your Junior Company days?
A: Junior Company was the first time someone outside my family really took a chance with me in a very public way. My very first solo in Juniors was “Blue Velvet” and Julie Lucido gave it to me over another boy who had been in Juniors far longer than me (and with a much better trained voice). I originally spent elementary school up in Calaveras County in the foothills and was this shy kid moving to strange “big city.” It was character-building for me; I had this kid furious I had taken his solo, yet I had to perform it night after night. I learned I could affect an audience, but also that I had a serious responsibility.
I had to prove Julie was right and that I deserved this and belonged on stage. I had a job to do. It was daunting, but having people believe in me and nurture my talent was life-changing. I’ve been a determined risk-taker every since.
Through Juniors, I learned the value of discipline – doing the same show every night regardless of how your day outside went. That served me very well throughout my professional career.
Q: Was there a point when you realized you wanted to do theater for a living?
A: I don’t remember a specific point. I took to theater at an early age, and never really let it go since. I was a very active and very shy kid and theater was the best way to draw me out of my shell and harness my abundant natural energy. During high school, I was always doing a show, often preparing multiple at the same time. That part – juggling lots of different projects at the same has always come naturally to me.
Q: You have a well-known theater family: Your mom and stepfather are Laura and Patrick Tromborg, both GCP veterans. Do you think if you’d been born into a family of welders, say, or sociologists, would you still have found theater?
A: I wasn’t actually born into an inherently theatrical family or rather a “family in the business.” That came after I had already moved away to college. I moved to Fresno when I was about 12 to live my mother, and she put me into the children’s summer workshop of “Annie.” I also auditioned for the Junior Company (I didn’t get in my first time) as a way to keep me busy and meet new kids my own age in this new city. She said if I hated it, I didn’t have to go back. I clearly didn’t hate it.
At first, she kept attempting to discourage me from doing so many projects. Quickly though, she got the bug herself and starting getting involved as well to keep busy instead of waiting in the car for me to finish. She began by running spotlight for the Juniors and then quickly transitioned to performing.
One of my greatest memories was doing “To Kill A Mockingbird” at 2nd Space in 1997. The whole family was in it – my mother was making her onstage debut as the narrator Jean-Louise (older Scout), I played Jem, my first stepfather, David, played Boo Radley’s brother, and a relative newcomer, Patrick Tromborg, played Bob Ewell (I think it was his second or third year at GCP).
(Side note– Emily Pessano was Scout in that production and we all knew she was star then. I actually asked her to sing for this cabaret, but didn’t know she was starring in the “The Little Mermaid” at Roger Rocka’s. I’m thrilled she has grown into such a star!)
During that production Patrick and I got very close – he taught me how to throw a football without embarrassing myself (well not too much, anyway). Two years later, my first stepdad, David, died very suddenly right before my senior year of high school while I was studying opera at Tanglewood. David was a wonderful man, a Russian history professor at Fresno State and violinist who greatly encouraged me and was one of my first champions. Naturally, the next year was extremely difficult for our family, but the theater community in Fresno really helped take care of us.
When I left for college at NYU, my mother became involved even more regularly – since that’s where her friends and support are. She reconnected with Patrick (who’d always been a mentor of mine), they started dating and kept it a secret from me for several months. I was LIVID when I found out, but quickly calmed down – as Patrick is one of the most loyal and kind people I’ve ever known. It’s a little odd for me now because they’ve become such a staple of theatrical community in Fresno and quite a few of the “new” people don’t know me. Growing up, she was “Justin’s Mom.” Now I’m known as “Laura and Patrick’s (step)son” - which I am very proud of. It’s grown to a point where I consult with Patrick and my mother regularly about what shows I’m looking to work on. I adore them both tremendously and try to attend as many of their shows as I can.
Q: One of the things you’ll be talking about in the Junior Company class you’re offering in addition to the cabaret is the “business” of show business. It can be a tough path to take. What were those years like for you when you were performing?
A: Performing full time as a living is a very rough business. Practicing constantly to keep your skills sharp requires time, energy and money even though resources can be very scarce. I’ve never enjoyed auditioning (I don’t anyone does) but it can be very bruising to the ego to go on hundreds of job interviews every year to book those five or six shows a year that keep you afloat.
I am thrilled I did it, but it was and is an extremely difficult way to make a living. Your dedication must be absolute to make it work. I had a great many interests and skills, which I was also keen to develop. Even during my GCP time – I ran props for two shows at 2nd Space as a way of learning more about the many sides of storytelling.
Q: You now work for the Metropolitan Opera as the finance business manager. How did you end up there?
A: Through a series of very fortuitous events. When I decided to stop performing, I got a temp job doing payroll for a restaurant company. I worked my way up quickly to become their financial analyst and become a budget “expert.” I had friends who were general managers, investors and producers on Broadway who taught me (and who I taught as well) how to apply those skills to production budgets. I then parlayed those skills and my artistic background into a career at The Met, where I have slowly worked my way up.
Q: You’ve also gotten into the business of Broadway and have co-produced three shows: the revival of “Side Show,” “It Should Have Been You” and “The Visit.” Tell us a little about what a co-producer does.
A: I always say producers on a Broadway show function sort of like a board of directors. Your standing (and billing) and influence is directly associated by how much money you raise for the production. The first few names above a title are LEAD producers – who function like the president or CEO of the production. They call the shots on a day-to-day basis.
Co-producers primarily raise money for production and then function as production champions – helping arrange tickets, make partnerships and sponsorships and advise the lead producers on various decisions (how much they listen depends entirely on your relationship to the leads). In return, co-producers get access to house seats, a small piece of the profit (if any) and most importantly, relationships with other producers to produce more projects. It is HIGHLY competitive to be invited to raise money for a Broadway show. It is all about connections, relationships and developing a coterie of loyal investors who believe in your career. I’m working my way up the ladder to get offers to produce (hopefully) more lucrative projects and eventually lead produce my own ideas.
Q: Does a co-producer invest his or her own money in a show, or do you talk other people into giving their own money? Or both?
A: Both. And nearly all co-producers are investors themselves. Investing in Broadway is a privilege. Since all Broadway productions are private enterprises, the sole way to invest (and make money on Broadway) is through relationships with one of the producers. It’s highly glamorous – you get to come to parties and events (like the Tonys) for the production and feel a sense of pride in owning a piece of Broadway. It is also extremely risky. Far more shows fail then succeed. However, those shows that succeed generally return far more to make it well worth the investment.
Q: Sunday’s cabaret at the 2nd Space Theatre is sort of like a reunion for you. Tell us a little about each performer and how you know them.
A: Seth Scott and I grew up performing in Juniors together and many an adult company. We trained together, supported each other and occasionally competed for the same roles (he often won!). I’m always in awe of his skill in tapping (I never could tap). In fact – he and I did a concert together at the Little Red Church back in 2001. He and his wife just had a baby, too!
Terry Lewis was an idol of mine growing up. That voice, that jawline – we all want to be Terry Lewis (still). At this point he is a Fresno institution. He is also one of the giving, caring, and kind human beings on the planet. Terry was the first one I asked to be in this, simply so I could sing with him.
Rena Wilson and I went to high school together. She was a long-time GCP veteran even back then – I think she made her debut at age 6 or something like that. Rena and I grew especially close when we were partnered up in “Zombie Prom” at Roosevelt High School. I’ve been thrilled to watch her career blossom and truly touched she is coming down to share her glorious voice for us. She actually beat me in high school (I was the runner-up) for the title of “Fresno’s Finest” which was citywide vocal competition. She now lives in the Bay Area running a children’s theatre academy (http://lamorindatheatreacademy.com), performing in “Beach Blanket Babylon” and a brand new baby!
Alison Allwine and I did not grow up together. We never performed together. But I met her when I was in college visiting through many, many mutual friends. She has a vivacious energy that is infectious. She’s a fearless and fabulous performer. I’ve always want to work with her, so I asked her to join us.
Q: Tell us why you’ll be singing “Lily’s Eyes” from “The Secret Garden.”
A: I first heard Dean Rhodus and Terry Lewis sing it in GCP’s production in 1995 before I started performing. It was the first time I’d heard robust male voices belting gorgeously. It is generally considered the pinnacle of male duets of just about any genre and their version was stunning. In high school, Joe Tomasini and I sang it together everywhere in recruitment assemblies for Roosevelt School of the Arts. Joe and I didn’t necessarily get along – but we both LOVED singing it, especially together and sang it easily 100+ times. Any time it comes on – I immediately sing along. When I had the idea for this cabaret, it was simply so I would have an excuse to sing this song with one of my vocal idols: Terry Lewis.
Q: It’ll be your first time performing in public in five years. Are you nervous?
A: Yes. Extremely. This will be weird homecoming for me – because although I’ve visited every year, I haven’t performed in Fresno since 2003 when I did a concert at Roger Rocka’s. As my career moved more behind the scenes, I’ve truly missed singing. When Julie (the JCF President) asked me to do a workshop with the Juniors, I asked if could also put together a benefit for the foundation – simply so I would have an excuse to sing again. I quickly realized I didn’t feel comfortable singing by myself for a whole evening anymore. So my mother suggested I call some of my Fresno friends to create “Justin & Friends.”
Q: So there you are: a Broadway producer, living the good life in New York. Is it as exciting as we think?
A: Yes!!! This ride has been better than wildest dreams. Sometimes I have lunch at the Met cafeteria with Placido Domingo a few tables away, then have drinks at Sardi’s or go to a party where I get to hobnob with names I grew up admiring. My life now often feels very surreal and bizarre. This life, however, is a LOT of work - time, effort and energy. The minute I start to enjoy it too much, I realize – I have another email to respond to, another event to attend or something more to arrange. The constant balancing between all my responsibilities and projects can be exhausting. I wouldn’t give up for anything.
At the same time right after Tony nominations were announced last year, my fiancé said “Congrats, that’s great. Now go take the dog out.” So within minutes of finding out I had fulfilled a life-long dream and received a Tony nomination, I’m standing on the sidewalk cleaning up dog poop. Life has a way of keeping me humble.
Q: More important, have you seen “Hamilton”?
A: Yes. My fiancé and I lucked out and won the in-person lottery (yes people do actually win those) last August. The show is an astounding, towering work of absolute genius. Even with all the hype, it won’t prepare you for the sheer brilliance. Buy your tickets well in advance (at a reasonable price) and plan a trip around it. I promise it will be well worth it.
Q: What is your advice to today’s Junior Company members?
A: To quote Hamilton: Talk less. Smile (and listen) more. Learn perspective while developing your skills. Everyone wants to be a star, but very few really have the chops. And that’s OK. You can still have a very rewarding career. Practice often, always do you best, and apply all the skills you are learning in Juniors to rest of your life. Also not getting that role doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, it’s just means you didn’t get that role. It’s always about putting the work in and showing up. Then move on to the next one.
Q: Anything to add?
A: Thank you to you, Mr. Munro for helping us get the word out to come see our fabulous show and for being such a champion of the arts here in Fresno. I am eternally grateful to Julie Lucido and her team at the Junior Company Foundation (and Marketing Plus+) for all the fabulous work they do for current Juniors and the ever-expanding alumni.
I also have to thank Dan and Laurie Pessano for encouraging me so much as kid. When I first auditioned for Junior Company, I didn’t get in – it was a heavy tap show and I’ve never been able to tap well. Laurie wrote a lovely handwritten note on my rejection letter encouraging me to audition for the next batch of shows. That little scrawled note changed my life and helped give me the confidence to try again.
A few years after that, I was cast in my biggest role as Huck in “Big River” in 1998 at 16. I struggled to balance my schoolwork with the many other projects leading up to it, so was overextended and underprepared for the enormity of the role. I got extremely sick opening week and I remember being told (I forget by who) that if I didn’t go on, the show would be canceled and all these people would be so disappointed in me. I struggled through it and got a terrible review.
Dan immediately took me aside, told me not to worry, and immediately scheduled a series of one-on-one acting sessions after school. We worked very hard and the show improved tremendously during that run. Again – changed my life and to this day one of the greatest experiences of my life. It taught me resilience. Any review is never an excuse not to continue to improve the work.
Lastly I just want to say – Come see our show!!! We’ve got a fabulous, eclectic, and fun program with dynamite singers for you to see PLUS the all the money goes to the Junior Company Foundation – which in turn trains the next generation and grants many other performers more opportunities to create. Thus the cycle continues.
Justin and Friends Pop-Up Cabaret
- 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- $20, $17 children