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Utahn hits the big time on Broadway

Published: Sunday, Dec. 1 2013 11:51 p.m. MST

Jeff Whiting, a graduate of Brighton High and BYU, has been associate director for some of Broadway's biggest shows.

Marci LeSueur

Jeff Whiting knew the odds were stacked against a career in theater, but he was undeterred. The day after taking final exams at BYU, he began driving to Florida for his first professional acting gig. A year later he found an acting job in New York, and he’s been there ever since, first as an actor and later as a choreographer and director.

A decade after leaving BYU, Whiting debuted on Broadway.

"Logically, it’s not a smart career move," he says, "but my heart and gut said there was something here for me.”

Now 41, Whiting is making his mark in the world of big-time theater. As associate director under legendary director/choreographer Susan Stroman, Whiting has teamed with Stroman to create four new Broadway shows: “Young Frankenstein,” “Happiness,” “The Scottsboro Boys” (winner of 12 Tony nominations) and the recently opened “Big Fish,” which is based on the movie of the same name. He and Stroman are now in rehearsals for “Bullets Over Broadway,” based on the movie by Woody Allen, who is also writing the script.

“I spent all day with him today in rehearsals,” said Whiting in a phone interview.

As if Whiting weren’t on enough of a roll, he created an app that is being used throughout the entertainment industry. It’s called Stage Write, a software program that documents every aspect of a stage production — choreography, staging, movement of actors, tracking of costumes, set pieces, props and lighting cues — all of these details make up what the industry calls a show bible. Whiting's software simplifies the tedious, overwhelming task of creating the show bible that until now was made up of thousands of hand-recorded pages. His digital method has been called "the new standard of documentation" in the entertainment industry.

“It makes life in the theater world much easier,” says Whiting. “It’s the first of its kind; there is nothing like it out there.”

Stage Write is used worldwide by theatrical productions, TV shows, concert tours and movies. Seventeen Broadway shows are using the app, as well as national tour productions, Cirque du Soleil and Disney.

For an Apple event this fall in San Francisco, company executives selected 16 of 4,000 apps to highlight in a video as those that are transforming an industry, with an introduction by CEO Timothy Cook. Stage Write was one of them. The app is also featured on the Apple homepage for the iPad, showing Whiting using it in rehearsals for a Broadway show.

“I built the app for me, and it caught on with others,” says Whiting.

Whiting's interest in all things theatrical began in his youth. The third of David and Betty's five children, he was born in Colorado but raised in Utah. He was 10 when he was introduced to theater, dance, acting and singing in the University of Utah's Children's Theatre program, directed by Xan S. Johnson. At BYU, he performed with the Young Ambassadors — a song and dance group — and in 1996 took a degree in musical theater.

He was determined to make a living in theater, the against-all-odds equivalent of a young athlete hoping to make it in the NFL. His parents were understandably realistic. “This is nice for now,” they would tell him, “but eventually you’ll find something you can make a living at.”

Says Whiting: “You go into this knowing the future is uncertain and not knowing whether you’ll get your break. But you have to follow your gut. My gut was beyond reason.”

During his senior year at BYU, he auditioned fo the role of Quasimodo in a Disney production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in Florida and got the job.

“It was a wonderful break, to graduate and have a job,” he says.

A year later he auditioned for “Forever Plaid,” which was playing in upstate New York. He won the role and moved north, working as an actor for the next six years, with roles in off-Broadway productions of “Peter Pan” and regional productions of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “West Side Story.”

For a time, he worked odd jobs to survive. He was a toy demonstrator for FAO Schwarz, surveyed Broadway crowds and did a little advertising work for a magazine.

On his night job, Whiting discovered that his real passion was back stage, not on it. Even as a young boy he had noted the coaching role of directors during rehearsals for children’s theater. He noticed the profound effect that Johnson, a University of Utah theater professor, could have on an actor with his coaching tips.

“I was playing someone with a mental disability and he had me do some exercises to help my acting,” says Whiting. “It blew my mind how well it worked. I was fascinated by the way people come to learn things. Some learn visually, some learn through logic. The trick is figuring out how each actor works.”

During his acting days in New York ,Whiting “planted seeds” for his aspirations as a director. “If you are ever looking for an assistant director, I want to learn from you,” he would say. Eventually, he was taken on as an assistant by Matt Lenz. He was hired as associate director for the national tours of “Hairspray,” "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein."

“It was a wonderful break in getting into the directing side of things,” he says.

His work on the national tours led to an introduction to Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winning director and choreographer. She hired Whiting as her assistant and in 2007 he made his Broadway debut.

“I have been at (Stroman's) side as her associate director the last seven years,” says Whiting.

They have turned out hit after hit on Broadway – ”Young Frankenstein,” “Happiness,” “Scottsboro Boys,” “Big Fish” and, soon, “Bullets over Broadway.” Whiting also worked on Broadway productions of "Hairspray" and the fifth anniversary production of “Wicked.”

Whiting manages to squeeze in freelance work as well. He has directed and choreographed more than 50 shows as a member of Disney's creative team, and he has directed and choreographed several special events, including "James Taylor Live at Carnegie Hall" and "Stro! A Gala Honoring Susan Stroman." Besides Allen, Stroman and Taylor, he has worked with Bette Midler, Tony Bennett, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steve Martin, Sting, Mel Brooks, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

According to Whiting’s website, he has received lavish praise from "The View" as “a truly remarkable talent” and from the New York Times as a “director with a joyous touch.”

“Every job you’re on you make connections with different people," says Whiting. "I’ve been fortunate to make good relationships. Luckily, they decided to keep me around.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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