Let's Hear It for the Girl
By Jerry Portwood
In Bring It On: The Musical, Gregory Haney plays La Cienaga, a smart, no-nonsense teenager in Jackson High School’s dance crew. Nowhere in the show does it mention that she’s a trans girl (other than a sly wink in the second act song, "Ain't No Thing"), rather, she’s played with wit and elegance by Haney to great effect. By the end of the show, she's beloved by the audience, and La Cienaga gets some of the biggest applause.
After a year of touring across the country in the show, we caught up with Haney on the Monday before opening night on Broadway August 1 as he was on his way to a dance class. Not only did we find out what it was like donning a dress daily to play one of the most fabulous queer characters we’ve ever seen on stage, it turns out he also gets an intense workout from wearing those heels and doing cheer routines eight times a week.
Out: The night I saw the show, you received some great big applause during the curtain call. Have you noticed anything different so far about the Broadway audience versus the other audiences as the cast has toured the country?
In every city we visited—it was a 13-city tour—it was a different response to my character in general. I think different people have different experiences with the trans experience, and the whole gay culture in general. Being in Dallas, I’d get smaller applause, or I'd get more teenagers who would come up to me after. But in Toronto, it was a little more laid back, as it was in Chicago. They’re larger cities, and they see a lot more. But being back in New York, it’s a completely different story. It’s such a hub; the people who are seeing the show are coming from other walks of life. But people probably never get to see a character like mine on stage. Every night, I’m not ready for the reception—no matter what it is.
It’s a very upbeat show, and it did seem like a girls and gays sort of crowd when I was there. Do you think that's who is mostly attracted to the show?
I feel like now it’s a little more mixed. I’ve had a lot of Jersey moms beaming over something that they said reminded them of their daughters. Jersey moms love me! A lot of cheer families come up and say they really enjoyed the show. I think the changes that we made from the tour to New York have been great. The show is more focused; it’s more about telling the story of Campbell and her journey to figure out what’s right and what’s true. I love that they’re getting that from the show.
OK, but let’s face it: You have some huge biceps! I think you might be the most muscular guy on stage. Does that help you while you’re in a dress?
I don’t think I have the biggest arms. I don’t know if being built helps. I mean, I built my career on being an animal. I started off in Cats, then Tarzan. The physical aspect of the show is very intense. My physical background helps. But being La Cienaga, that’s what it’s about. I don’t know if it has anything to do with being muscular...
It’s interesting you bring up that aspect of your prior roles. I’m always curious about how African-American actors end up having to play these animal characters, whether it’s Lion King or another show. Does that concern you? These animal roles?
I think...I don’t view it as a negative thing if I felt comfortable playing a monkey. I think I saw it as my job as an actor, and that’s what I am doing. Whether the director asks me to slide down a rope or stand center stage in 3-and-a-half-inch heels, it’s my job to do it the best way I know how. Every show I’ve done, I’ve had to put a different thinking cap on and do something different.
When else can I say I was in Alaska playing a cat? Where else I can say I was on Broadway, living my life because of the character I was playing? It’s the way you view it. And I love it.
Now, some reviewers have called you a drag queen. Do you want to make sure they realize that you’re not playing a drag queen? Does that concern you and something you want to clear up?
I do a little bit. It’s not said in the show, what my sexuality is. It doesn’t say whether I’m a drag queen or a transgender girl in the show. I see it like this: Angel [in Rent] is a drag queen. You see her as a boy and as a girl. La Cienaga is a transgender girl. You never see me as a boy. I like that. It doesn’t take the audience out of the illusion. You never wonder what’s under her dress; she’s one of the girls.
I talked to an actor who was in Priscilla for two years and, after wearing heels every night, he told me how tough it was on his back. I noticed you are wearing Doc Martens with heels and a few other high-heeled shoes. Is there anything you’re doing to make sure you aren’t thrown out of whack?
Taking dance class. I will say that wearing the heels is making my ankles so strong. I actually enjoy wearing them in the show. I don’t know if I could wear them every day. But they have streamlined my legs like nothing else has. It’s nice to get that other quality. Going to the gym is one thing, you get the desired look. But this is something completely different. I also do a complete workout before the show. I roll everything out, get all in alignment.
The choreography is so intense. I was impressed at how young and fresh it feels, a mix of hip-hop and other styles mixed with the cheerleading choreography. How was that for you to learn?
I think that’s what’s so brilliant about Andy’s choreography: He has such an eye for detail, such a treasure chest of information when it comes to dance. It’s great talking to him about what an arm movement is. He’ll say, “That’s from the ’30s, when they used to do that." Often, doing choreography over and over again, you lose the meaning of it. With other shows, they are telling the story—and they tell the story wonderfully—but Andy’s choreography tells it in a completely different way. The words wouldn’t mean as much as they mean. It’s hip-hop, on top of jazz, and then pop moments; the hip-hop escalates that storytelling even higher, which is amazing. The cheering motions are really hard. I mean, there’s a rulebook about how high your feet are supposed to be when you jump.
I thought ballet was hard, but cheering...whew.
You’ve been doing this show for more than a year now in some form or fashion, how is it being with Ariana DeBose, who plays Nautica, now that you have essentially been “girlfriends” in the show for so long?
She is like my little sister. I pick on her so much. I literally will push her for no reason. I don’t know, we’ve been in the show for the last two years together. And watching Ari, her growth from the very first reading. All of sudden, I’m seeing her now, and I’m like, “You have become such a strong woman!” And I’m so happy to be part of that journey because it’s been phenomenal. Adrienne [Warren] and I are the same way. It’s all very family oriented, and that’s what I love.
Ariana deBose (left), Ryann Redmond, and Gregory Haney / Photo by Joan Marcus
You’re 30, playing a teenager, but it seems like a very young cast. And there are a lot of really young actors and dancers on Broadway at the moment. Is this a trend that you’re noticing?
It’s a little bit of a trend right now. With shows like Newsies and even Billy Elliot. They are loving to find younger actors. I love that they’re getting the experience. But don’t forget about us veterans! I think it’s what the audiences expect with what’s on mainstream television, like Glee and all of these shows that get young kids and family watching. I feel like when they come to see a show there’s an expectation of a younger cast. You want to see actual high schoolers. But you can’t have an actual 15-year-old doing some of these things, so you’re having to cast a little older, that illusion come to light. I am happy that I’m still able to look like a teenager! When I was just turning 30, I thought, I’m never going to work again. But I’m so ecstatic: I love being the age that I am. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.
I think it helps La Cienaga in the long run: She has to go through so many things in her life. I think without me being the age that I am, I wouldn’t be able to give her maturity to do her character justice. There’s something to say about stillness. When she comes out, she is still; I’m listening. I don’t have to distract by doing other things. I would never have known that if I had not been my age.