Alton Fitzgerald White Couldn't Get Cast in His College Shows. Now He's a Broadway Vet | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Alton Fitzgerald White Couldn't Get Cast in His College Shows. Now He's a Broadway Vet

The Ragtime and Lion King alum will celebrate Valentine's Day at 54 Below this weekend.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Alton Fitzgerald White—who played over 4,300 performances as Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King—will bring his powerful baritone to a more intimate venue this weekend.

The actor will offer A Valentine’s Celebration February 11 at 7 PM at 54 Below. Attendees can expect to hear an eclectic mix of tunes, including songs by Stephen Sondheim, Seal, Jimmy Webb, and Alan Menken. Click here for ticket information.

White has also been seen on Broadway as Mister in The Color Purple, Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime, Ken in Smokey Joe's Café, John in Miss Saigon, and The Hawker in The Who's Tommy, while his screen credits include Rent Live!, Dexter, Let the Right One In, Dear Edward, The Law and Order, The Blacklist, The Good Fight, Madam Secretary, Elementary, Mindhunter, Code Black FBI, and Bull. The actor can currently be seen in Indiana Jones 5 and has an upcoming guest starring role in Max's Girls on the Bus and a recurring role as a priest in the Starz series Power Book II: Ghost. The multitalented artist also penned a memoir, with an audiobook, titled My Pride: Mastering the Challenge of Daily Performance, and can be heard on his solo CD of reimagined Disney and Broadway classics, Disney My Way!

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—White reveals how seeing the Ragtime film inspired him to become an actor, how rejection can be educational, and his recent reunion with Fantasia Barrino.

Fantasia Barrino and Alton Fitzgerald White Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Where did you train/study?
Alton Fitzgerald White: I attended the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts from 10th to 12th grades and then went on to the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music as a musical theatre major.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
There was one person, the head of the department who taught me a lot. He was very tough on me, and he seemed to resent that I came to the school with a decent amount of experience already under my belt. I was never cast in a show at that college and was failed on all but one of my evaluations. It was confusing and tough for me mentally because while I was being rejected at school, I was being hired left and right for every job I auditioned for outside of school. I was made to feel like I couldn’t do anything right at the school, to be accepted and have my talent validated. 

At a certain point, I realized that it was important for me to take the knowledge and information that I felt was beneficial and leave the rest behind. As a result of the confusion, I learned just how passionate I really was about being an artist, and I used the rejection as fuel to succeed. In hindsight, it was the best, most invaluable education I could have received.

You stepped into the role of Mister in the original Broadway company of The Color Purple. I was wondering if you saw the new film and what you thought of the latest adaptation.
Playing Mister has been one my favorite roles so far. I loved the challenge of playing him because it scared me to play someone who is so different from who I am as a person. Mister’s journey of redemption and forgiveness is very powerful and inspirational. I have seen the new film version twice, and I loved it! Fantasia was my Celie on Broadway, and I could not have been prouder to see her growth and maturity up on the big screen. I was at a talkback after a screening of the film here in NYC, and mid-sentence she stopped, stood up, and pointed me out sighing, “My Mister.” She then called me up to the stage, and I got to embrace her and tell her in front of everyone just how proud of her I am. It is a beautiful moment that I will never, ever forget.

Alton Fitzgerald White and Darlesia Cearcy in the national tour of Ragtime

You've played Coalhouse on Broadway and in the first national tour of Ragtime. Do you have a favorite moment for the character in the musical?
My favorite moment is when Coalhouse and Sarah sing "Sarah Brown Eyes" with each other. They are clearly falling in love. Expressing such beautiful, romantic, and slightly innocent Black love in a big musical like that was/is a beautiful thing.

You were also in the original Broadway run of Tommy, which is headed back to New York later this season. What do you remember most about that experience?
Besides performing in the show, the best thing about Tommy was that it was my last ensemble role on Broadway. It was while performing in Tommy that I decided to tap into my courage and take the leap of faith to pursue principal roles only. When I gave my notice to leave the show, my friends thought that I’d lost my mind because I didn’t have another job to go to. My instincts were telling me that it was time to test my faith in myself, so I took the leap. 

Two weeks later, I booked the role of Ken in Smokey Joe's Café as a three-month replacement for one of the original cast members. It was super-exciting because the show had only recently opened and was still brand new! A few weeks after that, Tommy got their closing notice. I had no idea it would happen like that. Those same friends who doubted me now thought that I had some kind of divine connection (guess what…we all do!). Our instincts are our own and specific to the individual. I try my best to summon the courage to continue to follow mine. 

I am super-excited to see the revival. The score is amazing, and the technology in the original was so far ahead of its time. I am looking forward to seeing where they take it this time around.

What can people expect from your upcoming cabaret engagement? What is it like for you to play such an intimate venue as compared to a theatre stage?
People can expect a relaxing evening of some of my favorite songs about different kinds of love and different aspects of love. The evening will feature music from pop and musical theatre to Johnny Mathis and country. Cabaret is my favorite form in terms of performing. There are no rules in cabaret. People come to see you be yourself and share yourself intimately. I love sharing songs that mean a lot to me individually without there having to be a through line. The simplicity of sharing my personal interpretation of a song that the audience may have heard before—or exposing them to a song that may become one of their favorites—is thrilling to me.

Alton Fitzgerald White in The Lion King Joan Marcus

What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
In my senior year of high school, I saw the movie Ragtime. I wasn’t familiar with E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel, but it was a huge deal when the film version was brought to the screen and Howard Rollins Jr., an unknown Black actor, in the lead role made me both curious and anxious to see it. The film completely knocked me out. It was an experience that further changed my perception of life as I had previously known it.

When I saw Howard Rollins on screen as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., I was mesmerized! I had never seen a Black male actor of my generation portray such a strong character with such a particular blend of strength and defenselessness. The range of emotions that Rollins displayed to depict the multifaceted character’s complex struggle was phenomenal.

After seeing that extraordinary man in that life-changing film, I knew that, against all odds, I had to be an actor. I wanted to learn to convey those kinds of intricate emotions to an audience like he was able to do. This desire both frightened me and excited me because I didn’t know how I’d ever get out of Cincinnati, let alone make it as a professional actor in a big city like New York City. When I discovered that Howard came from a theatre background, it gave me faith that there might be an artistic future waiting for me.

Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I have experienced heartache, major disappointments, and rejection, but giving up has never been an option!

What do you consider your big break?
My big break was being cast in the original Broadway company of Miss Saigon and understudying my idol, the recently passed legend, Mr. Hinton Battle. After winning his third Tony playing John in Miss Saigon, he negotiated to do only six shows a week, and the producers gave me the other two. When he left after the first year, I was given the role full time. Hinton was a mentor to me. He would let me hang out with him in his dressing room and ask him thousands of questions about his life, career, and show business. He even advised me on my negotiations when I took over the role. I am eternally grateful to him.

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I admire multi-faceted artists who somehow manage to balance their art, career, family, friends, finances, and setbacks while still continuing to grow as human beings. Many people underestimate the time, dedication, intelligence, and stamina that is necessary to not only become successful, but also continue to thrive, expand, and keep evolving. The public sees the successes but tend to ignore and downplay the tremendous personal sacrifices required to perform at a consistently high level.

What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
My proudest achievement as an actor is taking the last bow in the enormous cast of Ragtime on Broadway. I have come a long way from the painfully shy kid from the projects who was terrified of ever singing in front of anyone. I am living proof that with hard work, faith, passion, and courage, dreams can come true!

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