Senior Spotlight : Thomas Ian Johnson




Thomas Johnson is a senior Musical Theater major here at Manhattanville College. You’ve probably seen him in shows on campus like Side by Side by Sondheim, All's Well That Ends Well, Working the Musical, and The Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd. Thomas knew from a young age that performance was the life path he should take, “I would say performing is something that was unintentionally bred into me. From birth, I was always that kid that sang and danced everywhere I went, appropriate or not. I also instinctively watched people and how they behave in certain situations, and would make attempts at replication, as well as understanding why they behave that way. Ironically, this instinctual behavior has a career, and it just happens to be musical theater. Growing up, I wore out the VHS tapes of classic musical movies such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Wizard of OZ, and Singin’ in the Rain. The charm, finesse, and ease of performance from leading men like Dick Van Dyke, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire always fascinated me, and their spirits are something I keep in my mind whenever I need that extra push to practice my craft.”

Thomas grew up around the country growing up in a military family, he’s lived in Connecticut, Wisconsin, South Carolina, New York, and Washington D.C. but he always knew New York would be his end game. “New York City is the home of Broadway, and the vast expansion of arts culture it contains is unparalleled. I also grew up mostly around small towns and suburbs throughout the nation, but I knew the ‘big city’ life was always my dream.” In fact in ten years Thomas hopes to be in an affordable NYC apartment auditioning for theater and television parts, “or maybe I’ll live in a cardboard box somewhere.. I don’t envision an in-between, haha!”

Of course, there are numerous musical theater programs in New York City, the surrounding area, and the state itself, so one may ask, Why Manhattanville?  “I am dear friends with Ashley Doney, who graduated from here 2 ½ years ago, and she recommended I give Mville a try. Having spent countless hours working with and directing shows with her (in high school), I trusted her recommendation and auditioned for the BFA Musical Theater program. Also, I wanted to have enough distance from the city that I could focus on developing new skills without too many distractions. Being under an hour from midtown Manhattan also means that I can go to the city when I choose… it’s the best of both worlds when developing the skills needed to succeed in this incredibly difficult business.”


Photo by Mia Isabella Aguirre


When Thomas enters the business, he’s looking to do TV or musical theater, dreaming of the day he play Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  “The character of a young man who is forced into a botched sex change operation for the sake of escaping communist East Berlin is especially tricky to navigate as an actor. Also, the music is punk rock, and if there’s anything I love as much as show tunes/jazz music, it’s punk rock… it’s that middle school angst that I was never able to shed. Besides Hedwig, I have always had a love and connection with Bobby in Company. Stephen Sondheim’s score is so brilliant that there isn’t a moment in that show that I would hate to sing.”Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, though, is the one show Thomas would love to see revived. Another punk rock musical Thomas says, “the music and comedy is so brilliantly written that I believe it deserves a second chance. Also, the parallels between the satirically written anti-Native (he started the Trail of Tears, for those that don’t know) Andrew Jackson, and our satirically existing anti-immigrant president are uncanny.”

While Thomas would like to act, he’s also considered directing in the future.  With little experience in the field, he sees it as a possibility down the line.  Instead, Thomas is interesting in possibly teaching the future actors of the world. “ I love to watch young (or old!) actors learn new skills and grow, and to be a part of helping that happen would be just as rewarding as performing, itself.

Of course, looking ahead the future is bright, but college can be a difficult journey.  Performing in different shows, being a member of the Quintessentials (The elite Vocal Pop Group here on Campus directed by both Mark Cherry and Beverly Meyer), a member of the Crescendbros for two years (one year as their assistant music director), and being a student can be a lot to handle.  “My friends have been an amazing support system for me at school. This program is very stressful, and can take a lot out of you, but having so much love around me is truly what made me get this far. My voice teacher, Diana Canova, transformed me as a singer, and I owe so much to her for it. As far as professors go, I’ve been so blessed to have acting professors like Clista Townsend, Carol Fox Prescott, and Jon Huberth. My skill-sets in acting would be negligible without their wisdom. Also, dance professors Andrei Kisselev and Bonnie Walker transformed me as a dancer. I came in with almost zero dance experience, and they truly made me the dancer I am today. Finally, Mark Cherry and Beverly Meyer (my advisor and his wife, who happens to teach and direct, as well), have been indispensable in expanding my knowledge and professionalism in the business of musical theater. Also, they are always there when I just need someone to talk to.”

Thomas’ favorite role he’s played has been his part in Side by Side by Sondheim that showed last spring.  “Stephen Sondheim writes some of the most lush musical theatre pieces, and to sing two and a half hours of his brilliance was the greatest joy. I also got to share the stage with my brilliant voice teacher, Diana Canova, and hanging in the wings with her was an unforgettable and incredibly rewarding experience.”

What advice does this experienced senior have for underclassmen, or those thinking of pursuing musical theater? “God is in the details. In this business, especially for Broadway, every moment onstage has to be specifically thought out, or you could end up getting lost. I used to have the worst stage fright, but it gradually disappeared as I realized that preparedness is the metaphorical net below the trapeze act that is singing/acting/dancing (often at the same time). Also, I must say that criticism and disappointment is something you’ll face almost daily, and it’s critical that you turn them around into positive things, such as viewing them as the opportunity to learn new things and grow. I’ve been witness to a lot of young performers who take criticism as “they hate me,” when our professors are actually trying to make us the best that we can be. Not a single professor at this school has sought to embarrass or bring me down with criticisms… in fact, they have always given examples of how I can fix whatever I did wrong. So, in short, I’d say seek the positivity and fun in performing, if it’s truly what you love to do, because that’s what will help get you through.”

Make sure to check out Thomas in his final Manhattanville Production as Princeton in Avenue Q showing in the Spring 2018 semester!