Hi, I'm Morgan! I'm a twenty-something theater critic and writer (which really just means I've been a Theater Kid my whole life but now I'm an adult) based somewhere between Baltimore and Washington DC. 

Hopefully, I can help you discover a new show or the next song that will be stuck in your head for weeks on end.

I've been a theater writer since 2016, and I'm so excited to share my passion for the arts with you! Happy reading!

Welcome to Intermission!

Me in front of the harbor that houses the Statue of Liberty in New York City

#OnlyIntermission: Interview with Broadway Actor JJ Niemann

JJ Niemann is a Broadway actor and Tik Tok creator. Although he boasts over 620,000 followers on Tik Tok, Niemann got his start as a swing performer in the Broadway production of "The Book of Mormon." Following a successful run on Broadway, Niemann worked as part of the original Seattle cast of "Bliss," a new fairytale musical that flips fairytales on their head. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niemann returned to his parents' house in North Carolina, where he found success on Tik Tok, due in large part to his popular "mic on/off" video series.

How are you? Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m good! I’m here in New York, which is really nice to be here while the world is in somewhat of reopening. It’s honestly really beautiful to kind of see humanity blossom again and also be here while shows are announcing their openings. A lot of my friends are getting notices and told they are going back to work, so it’s honestly a very beautiful time to be up here. I’ve been home for the most part with my family in North Carolina for most of this past year, like 90 percent of this past year, so it’s really nice and refreshing to be back in my city.

How long have you been back in New York?

I’ve actually only been back for four weeks. I don’t have an apartment here because I gave up my lease a while ago because I was doing a show in Seattle. I left “Book of Mormon” in December of 2019 to do a show called “Bliss” that I’d been workshopping and doing some of the development stuff for, and then we got to do our out of town tryout at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle back in January and February of 2020. So because of that, I had moved out, and I had some gigs lined up so I was just going to be subletting in the city. I got back to New York, and four days after I got back, everything shut down, so I have a storage unit here, but I had just brought a little carry on suitcase home, and then two weeks turned into obviously much, much, much longer and months and months and months. So while I’m up here, I’m just subletting apartments from castmates and friends of mine, which is honestly really nice because obviously paying for New York rent while you’re not living here is really expensive, so I’m really glad I kind of got lucky there. So I’ve only been back for four weeks, and I’m not quote unquote “back” permanently because I have some gigs to do this summer in June and July, so I’m hoping be back sometime in August, so that’ll be nice.

Photo Credit: Mati Ficara

Can you walk me through your theater background and career?

Totally, yeah. Like every normal theater kid, I really just dreamed of being on stage honestly, and not in any type of staring way. I just saw my older sisters who did theater — I have sisters who are six, eight, and ten years older than me — and they all were doing shows and I was surrounded by music and dance and I got to see them in their productions. I would meet their castmates and I was just like “This is it.” I was like “That’s it, that’s the moment for me.” I counted down the days, truly, until I was old enough to be in a show, and I remember bugging my parents all the time, being like “Can I audition for this, can I audition for this?” And they were always like “You have to be eight years old to do it,” because that was the theater’s rule.

So as soon as I turned eight, they let me audition for “Charlotte’s Web” at the children’s theater in Annapolis, Maryland, where we used to live, and I got cast as Avery, the bratty little brother of the main girl, Fern. So that was a really big deal to me. That was the only show I got to do in Maryland because right after that, we moved to North Carolina, so I spent most of my life growing up there, that I remember, you know, most of my childhood. I truly just did theater year round. I started doing some children’s theater productions and then did some with the adult community theaters, did shows at school, and I really just tried to do as much as I can. I was doing, usually, four or five shows a year, and that was really my social outlet. I was homeschooled for a few years here and there, so that was a big social outlet for like two years when I was homeschooled. I loved the social aspect and the community aspect of it — that’s honestly what kept me coming back. I just knew I just felt safe — I felt this cozy safety, and I didn’t grow up in the whole competition dance scene or going to really intense summer camps or anything like that. So the competition aspect and the cutthroat aspect of theater was never there for me.

I genuinely just did it because it was fun, and then I think the summer before my senior year, one of my directors, who had come down from New York to direct “Hairspray,” which is still my favorite show to this day, I’ve done it three times and I love that show so much, but that director basically said that he had friends from New York come down to see the show, and I was in the ensemble, I wasn’t a lead, and they pointed me out and were like “That one. He has something special.” He told my parents “If JJ wants to pursue this as a career, there are options. He can go to school and get a degree in musical theater,” and that was the first we had ever heard of any of that. My brain opened to kind of being like ok, we could actually make something of this. My parents were very skeptical. My dad’s grandma was a Broadway dancer and performer way, way, way back in the day, and his grandma on the other side was in movies, so showbiz definitely runs in the family. But my dad’s mom, so my grandma, made him promise to never let his kids do theater because she was like “It’s not a healthy industry to go into and it’s really hard and you should never let your kids go.”

But my parents supported my dreams, and most of the schools I applied for were honestly not for theater. We came to an agreement that I would apply to a bunch of academic schools and I could apply to a few theater ones and just see if something happened. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and we definitely were a little last minute. We weren’t prepared for the process, but thankfully I did a few Skype or Zoom sessions with an audition coach that really helped pick material for me. That was the hardest thing — I had never done a monologue or any of that stuff. I was so lucky that I got into Elon, which was genuinely my top choice school when I auditioned there, for Elon University in North Carolina. It was only three hours from home, so it was close enough, but far enough, which was really nice.

I was like “Oh my god this is so cute, this is going to be so fun,” and I got to campus and I was a little shook because I was so intimidated by the talent there. The program was, at that point, not as established of a name as it is now, so I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I was like “Oh my god, how did I get in here?” I still don’t really know, because I had an awful audition. I was sick as a dog the day of my audition; I actually cried as we were driving away from my audition there because I was like “I want to go here so bad, and I think I blew it because I’m so sick.” They were like “Are you ok?” in my vocal audition, and that’s the last thing a singer wants to hear. Like “Oh, are you feeling under the weather?” Mortifying. But they were able to see through it and see past it and see my personality and my potential. And that’s what Elon’s legacy is, and what they’re really good at is seeing the raw potential and not looking for a perfect, polished product, but instead looking for the human being, and I really respect and love that.

I got most of my training at Elon- like I said, I had never taken an acting class before, I hadn’t really taken any intense ballet classes or technique based classes, so all of my talent was very much raw and really rough around the edges. They really helped finesse and hone my skills, and also explain how to make a career out of it. Not everyone needs to go to a four year university to study it — some people are on top of it already — but I definitely was someone who needed that four years of growth because I was literally left a COMPLETELY different person and performer. It was like night and day, honestly.

Photo Credit: Mati Ficara

So much of what you do is dance based. You’d never know that training only came from four years of college.

Yeah! A lot of people see me dance and think that I’ve come from a competition background or any of that. But when I got into school, I didn’t have my splits, I wasn’t very flexible, couldn’t do a triple turn. I could do maybe a double on a good day, so it really helped. I just took my training very seriously while I was there, and I was just like “I’m going to be in dance classes two times a day, three times a day, as much as I have to, to get to where I want to be.”

Is there a show or performance that you saw that changed your life?

When I was really young, I remember seeing my sister in “The Sound of Music,” and I actually got to go to their cast party. I remember falling in love with the humans that were in the show with her, and obviously, I was probably six years old, so they were all like “Oh my god!” you know, fawning over a little baby toddler boy. But I was fawning over them, and I was like “This is amazing, this feeling that I have and that my sister has. I want to be in shows with these kinds of people.” I just knew that was something and these were the kind of people. It just clicked, you know? But then in terms of career wise, I took a trip up to New York my junior year of high school and saw “Newsies,” and I was like “THAT!” I saw that show and just oh my god. Seeing an ensemble of boys just dancing their faces off and doing amazing stuff on stage, I was like “I want to do that.” At the time, I genuinely remember seeing it and being like “I don’t know if I can do that, but I want to. I want to make it there. I don’t know if I can but I want to.” So yeah, it was “Newsies.”

I know you said “Hairspray” is your favorite show, but do you have a favorite role you’ve had or production you’ve been a part of?

Ooh that’s hard. To be honest, most of my professional theatrical experiences, I’ve been in the ensemble because I’ve worked at a lot of really big regional theaters, but I was usually cast in the ensemble or as a dancer or those kinds of tracks. But I got to play a lot of really awesome roles in educational theater and obviously community theater and growing up as well. One of my favorites was Laurie in “Little Women.” That one felt the most like me, like very, very tapped in, didn’t even have to act. But the role that stretched me the most, that was the most challenging, was Drew in “Rock of Ages.” I did that in college and that was a challenge, but I was really pleasantly surprised with myself and I was really proud of the work we did.

How did you get involved with "The Book of Mormon"?

It’s a kind of cool story how it all happened and came together. Our senior year of college, we do a casting director-agent series, and we basically bring a bunch of people to campus, and we fundraise for it. We, over the course of a month or two, on the weekends, are bringing people down from all the major casting offices, as well as a bunch of agents. So that’s how I ended up signing with my agent, CGF Talent. We met a lot of cool people, and that’s kind of our version of a showcase.

I met an associate of the “The Book of Moron” casting, Stephen Kopel, who casts for Roundabout casting, and he submitted a bunch of us from my class who he thought would be good for “Mormon” to Carrie Gardner, who casts “The Book of Mormon.” So myself, as well as five or six of my classmates, we all got emails of packets to submit, basically a self-tape request with stuff from the show and stuff of our own past, you know, all that stuff. So we submitted that, that was probably in April of my senior year, and then we all actually got callbacks to come to New York for an initial callback. So that happened to be the Monday after graduating, so we graduated on Saturday in May, I packed up my apartment the next day, flew to New York, and was staying on a friend’s couch and went to that callback Monday morning. I got another callback for the next day.

Photo Credit: The Book of Mormon

I didn’t realize at the time, but someone gave their notice. They’re always casting and they were always building their roster. You never know when you go in for an audition like that if it’s for the tour, is it for Broadway, is it for now or is it for six months from now, so it was one of those moments where we just didn’t know. So we went, and I did the callbacks and they taught us a bunch of different dances from the show. We did a lot of material and it just went really well. It was one of those moments where I was like “Yeah, this is just it,” you know? But it was also my first callback in New York, so I didn’t really know anything and I didn’t have any expectations really, but the head of my program actually called me after my audition and was like “Hey, did you go in for this person?” and I was like “Yeah, I just was in for ‘Book of Mormon.’” And she was like “Ok don’t freak out but they just called me as a reference,” because I was, at the time, 21 years old, and she basically was like “Yeah, they wanted to know if you’re really organized and could handle something like a swing position where you’re covering a bunch of roles, like seven roles.” And of course, I was actually her assistant at Elon, so I was organizing her life too, so she was like “He will show up Day One with color coded notes” and she was like “I have no doubt that he will excel at that.” I guess that gave them the confidence they needed; they had to send a video to some people to be approved, but my agent basically called me that night and was like “You probably got it, but they’re going to have to wait until a few more people approve." They said "We don’t know when that’ll be, but stayed tuned.”

I also had three months of work lined up, and I hadn’t moved to New York yet, I was just there. I went to another audition the next morning — I had an appointment for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” because that was on Broadway at the time and got cut immediately from that! I was not what they were looking for, and honestly I did not do well at that audition. I was like “Ok, this is a little more what I’ve heard New York auditions are like.” I left that audition and had a voicemail from my agent like “Update about ‘Book of Mormon,’ call us back.” They were like “You got it, you start at 3 o’clock today. Go to the theater, sign your contract, and you’re going to start music rehearsals right away.” And I was like “WHAT?!” Broadway doesn’t do that! No one starts a Broadway show the day they find out. I had never even seen the show yet, I had to cancel all my gigs, I had to find a place to live, so I found a sublet. It was a little chaotic- my credit card also got hacked so I didn’t have any money, I had to ship my keys home to my parents so they could drive two hours to the airport to pick up my car that had my entire apartment in it.

Eventually they let me come down like a week or two later on a day off to actually pack up stuff and bring stuff up to New York because I had nothing with me, basically. I had three or four days worth of stuff to wear, you know? So it was honestly a whirlwind, crazy experience, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Obviously, there are so many things to keep track of when you’re working as a swing. How far in advance did they tell you which characters you were playing, and how often did you have to refresh yourself on the various requirements for each character?

Well, sometimes you know a month in advance “Ok, I’m going on for these roles on this weekend,” and sometimes you find out fifteen minutes before the show. I’m very, very lucky that, somehow, I never personally was swung on mid-show, because sometimes people can, you know, twist their ankle or whatever happens, or they get sick. I’ve never had to go on mid-show, which was a blessing, and I also never made like a super, super surprise debut. I never found out the day of that I was going on for something as a debut, like without having gotten to do it already.

Photo Credit: The Book of Mormon

Most of my days were planned, which was nice, and they try to do that as much as they can because you don’t want to just spring something on someone and have them unable to mentally prepare for their first time going on. I did end up making my Broadway debut a week earlier than I was supposed to, and also doing a different role than I was supposed to. I did find out the day before I went on. They were like “ You’re going to be on for this role on Tuesday,” so all my friends and family who came didn’t actually see my Broadway debut, but that was ok with me. I did have some friends that came and did like standing room, but I was kind of glad because it’s a lot of pressure, that first night. But, yeah that’s kind of how it is. Some people get stuck on the train underground and don’t make it to work in time, and you have to go on.

You really have to be organized and mentally ready, and it is really tricky going into the theater every day and not necessarily knowing. Some days you’re prepared to do a two show day, and other days, you’re like “Well I need to eat during the show because I haven’t gotten a chance to eat lunch, or I’ll go to the gym between shows so I can work out,” and then you get swung on and you haven’t had time to eat. It’s really tricky how that happens, and you have to always be warmed up and ready for whatever’s going to happen.

In terms of learning it, it was challenging, especially being a swing as a replacement in a show because I learned everything on my own without other people around me. It would just be me and the associate music director in the music room, and I basically would be putting my skills to the test right out of the college! I would be sight reading basically the whole show, and he would plunk through and I would record on my phone, and then he would say “Go home and practice that.” We would sit down and sing through the show at one role/vocal part, because there’s four or five unique vocal parts, truly. So that was tricky. And then when I was learning all the dancing, I was in a studio with the dance captain and a number line, and he cut me the whole show. He was like “Ok, you’re going to do this move at 8 and cross to 12 and you’re going to partner with this person, and then you’re going to cross in front of this person but behind this person.” And you’re learning all of this by yourself, so there’s no one there with you to say “Oh, I’m actually crossing between these people.”

So you’re only learning pieces of the puzzle, and then by the end, you’ve learned the whole puzzle but at the same time, I had one kind of mini rehearsal, but my first time with the full cast with costumes, quick changes, mic, set, set changes, lights, band, all of that, was my debut. So it was like getting shot out of a cannon, and you’re just like “I just hope this goes well…question mark?” It’s crazy! And they do prepare you; they do let you practice certain quick changes, but you never get to practice in the moment, in real time, or with the wigs. It’s so wild, and it definitely taught me, as a perfectionist, to embrace the imperfect and embrace the chaos because it’s not gonna be perfect. You don’t have any trial of what it’s going to be a lot of the time, and all you know is what has been said to you but you haven’t actually gotten to do it. It’s tricky but it taught me to embrace that and not take it too seriously, because no one expects you to be perfect at everything you do, as long as you’re being safe and doing your best, and whatever you mess up, you fix for the next performance.

Photo Credit: The Book of Mormon

Oh absolutely. “The Book of Mormon” is a chaotic show anyway.

Oh, it is CHA-OTIC. People underestimate and forget truly how many quick changes, wigs, and costumes and stuff there are. It’s wild. But swinging is awesome, and I honestly recommend everyone do it because the only people who are shady toward swings or don’t have patience for when you have little flubs are the ones who have never had to do it. So I think every actor should have to do it at some point because it helps you see the big picture, and most people who play leads their entire life never have to pay attention to all of the little intricacies and the puzzle pieces. They just have to worry about standing on zero. It honestly taught me so many lessons so quickly in a beautiful way, but a lot of people don’t like it and it’s not for the faint of heart. I have plenty of swing nightmares, like waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat because I’m like “Oh my god, I forgot this and this,” or you’re in bed, trying to run through numbers. It’s crazy.

How much rehearsal time did you have between the time you were cast and your opening night?

I believe I had about four weeks, which actually is a really good amount of time. Most people, if you’re just learning one track and they’re putting you into a show, most people have two weeks. But I was doing shows, and then I was still rehearsing, even after I had made my Broadway debut. I was still learning some of the other tracks and in rehearsals for that during the day for the ones that I would do in the future.

Is there anything you can’t live without backstage?

Ooh, that’s easy. Foam roller! And specifically, I have a really good one that my friend had and I would use backstage all the time, so I got my own. It’s a vibrating foam roller — some days when your muscles — like my legs are like tree trunks — some days, the only way you can release those calf muscles and the glutes and the hamstrings and all of that is with this vibrating roller. It has different settings, and it’s kind of like if you’ve seen people use a Theragun on certain parts of their body, it’s basically like that. The vibration releases your muscles, which is really nice.

Can you talk about the musical “Bliss,” how you got involved, and what the process was like?

Yeah, definitely! I’m definitely crossing my fingers for it because I think it’s a really beautiful show, and there’s a lot of stuff that was in the works before everything shut down. Now, obviously we’re reentering in a new climate, and who knows when new shows will be announced as coming to New York, but obviously, that’s the goal with “Bliss.” It’s really amazing and it’s completely original — book, music, lyrics, story, everything — which is also very rare. It’s kind of a fairytale musical that flips fairy tales on their heads.

Photo Credit: Bliss the Musical

It stars four sisters who are all very, very, incredibly unique and none of them really fit the typical princess archetype. They are locked away in a tower by a father — their mother died and he doesn’t trust the world and he’s terrified for his daughters. He basically locks them away so they know nothing about the world, and they break out into it, into the Kingdom of Mirrors, which is where they live. The kingdom is all about vanity and, you know, it’s the Kingdom of Mirrors, so everything is glitzy, glamorous, mirrors, jesters, princes, all that. Essentially, the fairy godfather is the villain of the story, and he sees these vulnerable women who have never heard the word “ugly” or “fat” or all these things that they are basically being told that they are, and they’re just like “What? I thought I was beautiful! What are you talking about?” But they’ve never been exposed to society’s perception of women and what princesses should be, so basically they get tricked into changing themselves through magic to get their happily ever after, or what they think it will be.

So that’s the basis of the story, and it’s just really beautiful and it’s very, very family friendly. It’s super appropriate for families and kids of all ages, and it has a really fun pop-rock score, so it’s really cool! It’s been in the works, writing wise, for over eight years, but I was a part of the workshop that was back in October of 2018. I did a reading the following May, and then they announced that they were making the world premiere at The 5th Avenue Theatre and they hired me, as well as most of the people who had already been a part of it, so that was nice! It was really cool to get to see a show, especially a fantasy musical where so many of the elements are about the magic and the spectacle of it, and seeing it come from a very bare bones, in a studio workshop presentation form to then being full-scale at a 3,000 seat theater. It was so dope. I think it definitely has a life ahead of it. I know that fairy tale musicals are kind of common place and cliché, and I was thinking while I was a part of it “Do we really need this? I feel like little girls aren’t growing up being told x, y, z,” and then I stepped back and I was like “Wait, even if Disney is quote unquote 'progressive' in some ways, they are absolutely not in so many ways.” And so many little girls grow up being obsessed with this idea of what a princess is, and I think the beautiful thing about “Bliss” is if you want that, fierce!

But there’s also so many different types of princesses and people that you can be, and it’s really beautiful, and I actually think we do still need shows like that to turn the narrative on it’s head. If you think about it, we’ve had the same kind of fairy tales for over fifty, sixty years, so it’s exciting to have some new ones that are coming about.

Some of the reviewers really liked it, but there were definitely some — and the Seattle audiences are also very different than New York audiences — and the show fully had flaws. That’s also a really cool thing. Until a show is fully mounted and in front of audiences, there are some things that you don’t know will work or will not work. Specifically, the whole ending is getting scrapped, well not the whole ending, but the last five to ten minutes of the show is completely getting scrapped and changed, but they didn’t realize that until seeing how the audiences received it and then they were like “Oh, wait, we can change this whole thing.” But by that point, when the show is already up and running, you can’t change certain things.

But yeah, it’s been cool being a part of a process, and especially one that so invites collaboration. Bits of my own choreography are in the show because they trusted us to take the stuff and come up with our own ideas for certain things and to go in the corner and be like “Ok, lets figure out an eight count here.” And that’s really cool, and obviously, choreography is a dream of mine to do long term, so that was a really cool part of the process.

I know you touched on this a little but I want to go back to when covid first hit and what you were doing. You mentioned that you had just finished “Bliss? ”

Photo Credit: Mati Ficara

Yeah, I had just finished “Bliss” and at that point, I hadn’t been on a vacation in a while, so I was like “We’re gonna take a cute moment.” We were actually in Seattle when the first case of covid happened, and it spread around to some of our castmates, but we didn’t know what it was. They were like “I have the flu, but like not the flu, it’s not testing positive for the flu.” So that was kind of crazy, and then I flew down to New Orleans. I was there for Mardi Gras — super big covid spreader event. I got on a Disney Cruise line because one of my best friends was performing in the shows, like “Frozen” and stuff on there. So my friend and I went on the cruise to Mexico and then came back. I was casting a production of “Newsies” that I was going to be choreographing, so I went to North Carolina, to my hometown, also to my alma mater, Elon, to cast some students from there to be professional guests artists coming in and performing in it.

And then I flew back to New York, and I was back in New York for like four days when everything got announced that it was shutting down. I was like “Whew!” And at this time, it was crazy because I was flying all over the place without a mask on, going to all these places with tons of cases, like Mardi Gras and that cruise line I was on. It’s really wild, and I mean, maybe I had it, but I never had any symptoms and never gave it anyone, as far as I know, so I kind of got lucky somehow.

When did you get into Tik Tok? Was that before or after covid started?

That was after. I had already downloaded the app before quarantine, but I didn’t really get it and I didn’t really use it. But I did make one Tik Tok when I was in Seattle because I was also a unicorn in that show, so I HAD to make a frickin, silly, dance Tik Tok video in this unicorn outfit. So that was my first video I technically made, and then I didn’t make another one after that until quarantine. I went home to North Carolina and was cleaning out my childhood room and closet and kind of making it my own space again, and I found all of my old wigs that I had used when I was making YouTube videos. Way back in the day when I was 12, 13, 14 years old, I used to have 15 or 16,00 subscribers, and you know, was doing fun skits and stuff like that, and my sisters would get me wigs for Christmas and my birthday. So I found all of these old musty, crusty wigs, and I was like “Maybe I should start doing this again.”

I started with just lip syncing to other people’s sounds and really, I look back at some of my old videos, and I’m like “Baby, you did not know how to use this app.” It’s so funny when people start using Tik Tok who haven’t because it really is something that you have to learn how to use, and also how the humor and videoing works. It’s very interesting. But yeah, I just started making videos and slowly, slowly building a follower base. I probably had about 30,000 followers or something by the time I started making my mic on/off videos. That was in like August/September time, and I didn’t set out to make that a series, but people love those, and that’s kind of what I’m most known for now. I’ve made over 40 of them I think at this point. People really love those videos, and it just started booming my account. It’s something I didn’t expect and I didn’t really plan to make a name for myself on that app, but I’m really happy that it happened and very thankful for it.

Where did the mic on/off idea come from? It seems like a pretty niche topic.

The first one I ever did was for Waitress, and I remember I was maybe showering, or in bed or whatever, just chilling, and I was thinking “What do you think the people in Waitress-” because the ensemble in that show is just chilling for the most part, and they are sitting onstage, in those booths at the diner for like ten minutes at a time, fake eating pie while all these songs are going on, and I was like “What do you think they talk about when they do that?” And then I was like “Wow, it’s probably what we do with ‘Book of Mormon’ when our mic are off,” but in “Book of Mormon,” you never have actual time to have actual conversations onstage. We only have little split seconds where you can even do that, just because of how the show is, so I was like “That would be such a fun thing.” So I did one pretending I was a customer at the diner and like my mic was off. It got a lot of views and a lot response to it, and people started requesting “Do this show, do this show,” so it kind of just took off from there.

Can you walk me through the process of making one of your Tik Toks?

There are some people who are really good about planning all their social media stuff. I don’t really do that. Luckily, Tik Tok isn’t like YouTube where people expect consistent uploads on the same day every week. Tik Tok is really just a free for all and if it shows up on someone For You page, or their following page, work, you know? If I ever had good ideas, I write them down in my notes app, and I have a whole notes thing of ideas of videos to make. A lot of times, I’m like “I don’t have time to make that video today, but maybe later this week, I’ll have an hour or two to do that.” For my mic on/off ones, I will write down ideas I have or sometimes people will suggest things in the comments and I’ll be like “Oh my god, that’s so relatable, so genius.” They request it to be seen, so it’s very helpful to read the comments sometimes. I’ll just be like “All right, I have an hour right now, I’m going to make a video,” and I’ll just do it. A lot of times, I just kind of improv.

I will film it in the app, and I’ll download whatever backgrounds I need to use. I use the greenscreen effect directly on the app and I pull up a karaoke track on my computer and I literally just will film it in snippets. I’ll just refilm each joke or each take until I get one that I like. So all in all, it usually takes between one to two hours to make one, because I’ll edit it within the app and add the text and all of that. I think a lot of people think it takes a lot longer than does. But sometimes it’s frustrating because I’m also singing in it, so if you sound flat on one note, you’re like “Oh my god, I gotta re-record that whole segment because I sound a little flat on that.” Or, a lot of times, it’s timing it perfectly with the karaoke track and going back and rewinding and playing it with enough time to get my line in and then “Oop, I gotta sing,” and then singing it on time. I’ve kind of figured out a good rhythm of it, but it still can take a lot of trial and error.

How long did it take you get a significant following?

It took me a little while. I wasn’t an overnight success, and now I have, I believe, 670,00 followers on Tik Tok. I started making them — I should say I started seriously making Tik Toks — last summer in June or July. So it’s taken almost a year to do that and to build that, and sometimes it’s slowly but surely, because sometimes you’ll have one video that blows up and you get 10,000 or 20,000 followers in a day. But then other weeks, if your videos are only reaching the people that already follow you and like your content already, you might get a thousand followers or two thousand in a week. So it really just depends. And same thing with Instagram too, with reels. It’s the same situation- sometimes the reel will blow up and I’ll get a ton of followers one day, and I’ll be like “Where are these coming from? Oh, it’s from a random reel that just got a million views today.” So it’s kind of crazy how it works.

It’s so interesting how Tik Tok has become such a prolific theater outlet, especially when you look at things like the “Ratatouille” musical. Can you talk about that and your experience?

Yeah it really did! It was amazing how it came together. I was watching the trend happen, and I was a part of it. I didn’t write any music for it, but I was using people’s sounds and then making my own videos lip syncing to it and imagining “Ratatouille” on Broadway. And then that blew up their sounds even more, so by the time “Ratatouille” came around, there were so many people who were following me that were like “Well, obviously, JJ’s gonna be in this.” When “Ratatouille” got announced and made social media accounts, honestly, I was tagged in dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of comments that were like “JJ Niemann should be Remy, JJ Niemann should be in this,” stuff like that. I think a lot of people followed me because of my “Ratatouille” content, which was wild.

Photo Credit: Mati Ficara

So when it got announced, obviously, the leads and stuff had already been cast, and it all happened very, very quickly, like within a week. But I reached out to the music arranger, Dan, because we had become friends on social media through the whole trend, and I was like “I would love to be part of this if there’s a spot for me, if you need singers, whatever.” And he was like “Oh my gosh, I would love for you to be a part of this, let me connect you to the music director,” so that’s how I got on board there. And at the same time, actually, the choreographer, Ellenore Scott, reached out to me and slid into my DMs, and I was like “Ok, work!” She’s also on Tik Tok a lot and she saw that I’m a part of the community. She also saw my dancing, and I had auditioned for her a few times in New York for some various projects that she associated on, like “Head Over Heels,” “Reefer Madness,” “King Kong,” things like that. So I’ve been admiring her work for a while, and I was like “Oh my god? She’s asking me to be a part of a project?” And I was like “Is it Ratatouille?” And she was like “Yeah.”

So that’s how I ended up getting it, because I was the only person who did both the vocals and all of those ensemble arrangements, and then also got to dance in it, so that was really fun. It was really fun! I mean, it was chaotic, because they sent us the material on Sunday, we had one Zoom rehearsal on Monday this is the week of Christmas they taught us everything in the matter of a couple of hours. I learned all of the choreography over Zoom. In terms of the ensemble vocals, you can’t really have music rehearsals on Zoom, so I was just pulling up the keyboard app on my phone and plugging in my harmonies. They were just like “Ok, now go and record your stuff. You have two days to record everything.” It was all due before Christmas Eve. So it was just like a really wild time and I was like “Oh my god, I have to submit all these vocals, submit videos of me lip syncing, I have five or six dance videos…” It was a lot, and I genuinely was like “This is gonna be a mess.” I was like “What is this gonna look like?”

And then it all came together so well and the editors worked their magic and it was really beautiful. It felt like an opening night, kind of. It felt like our baby, and my family, we all just had a watch party together and we were all crying. It was really sweet! It was a really special moment, and bright light in what was one of the hardest times of the pandemic because that was when all the cases were going back up and we were like “We’re never going to get out of this.” So it was beautiful, and also cool seeing all of the collaboration. It’s the first ever crowd-sourced musical like that, and seeing the music come from so many different writers and somehow working cohesively was really beautiful. When used for good, social media can be such a beautiful thing!

Other Tik Tok and related events, how have you been staying involved in theater in the last year?

I got to do an in-person concert the other day, here in New York. That was a fundraiser. That was really awesome. I’ve been mostly teaching and coaching, actually, and because of the platform I have now, a lot of people are booking one-on-one sessions with me, which is so fun, and I love teaching. I’ve been working with the Broadway Collective for a few years now, and their programs are almost exclusively virtual, so I got to work with over forty kids auditioning for colleges and help them with all of their pre-screens, and coach them in their dance. It’s full time in terms of its year-round, but it’s part time in terms of the hours. It’s very, very part time, but really, that’s been so fun.

So between that, doing my own coaching and teaching online, I started going around to different cities and getting hired to do in-person master classes. I’m about to do one in two weeks in Texas, and so doing all of those covid-safe, with masks, but still finding ways to help spread some joy and education, it’s been really fun to do those kinds of things. I also, through Tik Tok and all of that, have been working with a manager in LA, so I’ve been doing some deals with Netflix and Target, and some really great brands, which has been really wonderful. It’s interesting- random little things will come all over the place, like next week I’m recording a podcast musical and doing a short film web series episode for my friend.

So it’s like every week, something new is happening, and they’re just little snippets of theater. And now, obviously, auditions are happening again for shows in the fall. But yeah, that’s basically that. I’m about to fly to Montana at the end of June, and I’m choreographing a production of “Godspell” there at a theater that I worked at after my freshman year of college. So that’ll be really fun. I’m working with a lot of friends of mine. Everyone’s gonna be vaccinated, they’re doing it as an outdoor production, and that’ll be my first, full production that I’ve ever choreographed. So that’ll be a really cool experience, and it’ll be fun to just be in a theatrical setting like that again. It’s called Grandstreet Theatre and it’s in Helena, Montana, so that’ll be super fun!

And then my hometown is having me back in August to do a big concert kind of thing, which will be really fun too if that all works out — that’s in the works. I’m just taking everything as it comes and I’m not stressing about the future. It’s weird that Broadway is reopening and I’m like “Ok, but I’m not in a show right now,” you know? So it’s bittersweet because you have that sense of panic at the same time of being like “Should I be auditioning for something? Should I be in something?” but also trusting that everything’s going to happen in the correct timing and when it’s meant to be. You just have to trust that.

Do you have any intention, in either the immediate or distant future, of auditioning for another Broadway show?

I mean, in theory, “Bliss” plans to do that. I don’t think any new shows are gonna really be open on Broadway until March probably, like new, new shows that weren’t already planned and had theaters and stuff already. So that, but also “Book of Mormon” is coming back and they still have all my wigs and costumes, so honey, if they ever call me up, I know all of the tracks in it. So if they were like “Hey, can you come in for two weeks,” and they use vacation swings all the time — people are in and out of that building like clockwork. So if they wanted me to come back, for a period of time — I wouldn’t commit to going back full time, but for a month long stint or a few weeks — I would absolutely do that, so I’m hoping that they will have me back for that, because I do love that show.

Photo Credit: Marc J Franklin

You have been very outspoken about spreading positivity and kindness on your platform. Can you talk about that and the message you want to send?

Totally! I think it’s important to kind of do a little bit of everything. I think there is such a thing as toxic positivity and just ignoring everything that doesn’t affect you and everything in the world. But also, social media can be absolutely terrifying and debilitating because there’s a lot of pressure around it, and if you say one of the wrong things — like, I haven’t personally posted anything about all the stuff going on in Israel and Palestine because I have friends posting contradictory stuff left and right, and people are all getting upset with each other for posting information without being educated about it.

So I think that’s the interesting thing that we’re seeing. Everyone is like “Oh, let me post these infographics,” and it’s like no, baby. You gotta do the real work too. And it’s the same thing with a lot of the stuff happening with Broadway and our union. It’s important to call out people, but also just jumping on a bandwagon and being like “We’re gonna boycott this, we’re gonna boycott that” without letting people take the time to educate themselves on certain things, or have a conversation, let’s not rag on certain actors for not saying anything. They could be in tons of meetings with producers who can actually make and might be fighting for change, but just aren’t blaring it on social media to be applauded.

I definitely think it’s a double-edged sword. I think social media’s so powerful and I really try to speak about anything that I can and anything that, you know, people will message me and be like “Can you share this because this is going on in my city or my hometown” with trans rights at school and stuff like that. I try my best to do that, but I also think it is really important to spread everything in a very positive way, and I don’t think canceling everyone who has a different political view than you, or a different outlook on life than you do, is the right answer. I think we need to be bringing people in, versus alienating people who don’t agree with us, because they might never “come to the light” if you don’t give them a chance to over time.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.