Sometimes we all need a little help from friends to succeed in life. For Rusty Mowery, the opportunity that helped him break into the world of theater came from a professional actor who was in a show with him at the Clarence Brown Theatre.
After one performance, his castmate encouraged him to come to New York, even offering him a place to stay. Mowery took him up on the offer and before long was chasing his big break on Broadway.
“Having been brought up a good Southern Baptist,” he says, “as a teenager, I prayed every night, ‘Dear Lord, just give me one night on a Broadway stage, and you can hit me with an M4 bus and I’ll be happy in heaven.’”
Mowery eventually got that big break in Cats, and jokes that he spent the next few years being afraid of buses. Next he landed dancing roles in Ragtime, Seussical, Hairspray, and Legally Blonde. He spent years on stage and loved what he was doing but wanted more.
“How do I still have that creative outlet if I’m not on stage dancing all the time?” Mowery says he asked himself.
He found his answer as a choreographer. He started working on the Broadway hit Kinky Boots as an associate choreographer.
The show focuses on Charlie Price, who inherits his father’s struggling shoe factory. A chance encounter with a crossdressing cabaret singer named Lola inspires Price to save his factory by producing sexy footwear for people like her.
As associate choreographer, Mowery had a big task: “teach people who aren’t necessarily used to being dancers to have patience and a sense of humor and make them feel safe and comfortable on stage”—some of them while wearing six-and-a-half-inch heels.
All of the work paid off in 2013 when the show won six Tonys, including awards for choreography and best musical. “It was amazing! And so validating,” Mowery says. “The show had done what we thought it could do.”
He went on to help set up 10 productions of Kinky Boots around the world in locales like Germany, London, Toronto, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. He says it was great to see how the show has been embraced around the world, even in more conservative places.
Mowery came home to Knoxville in May to be honored by the Clarence Brown Theatre. And just three months later, he helped open Pretty Woman: The Musical, based on the beloved 1990 movie of the same name, as the show’s associate choreographer.
And, he says, he still has a healthy fear of buses.
Photo by Joseph Spencer