Two of SoCal’s brightest emerging triple-threats have (between them) traveled a grand total of 12,000 miles to call Los Angeles home. Following recent gigs at Musical Theatre West, La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, and Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, among others, Spain’s Juan Caballer and Brazil’s Rodrigo Varandas recently sat down to chat with StageSceneLA about their musical theater hopes and dreams. Here’s what they had to say.
What’s the musical theater scene like in Brazil and Spain?
RODRIGO: Musical theater has been gaining more and more respect in Brazil over the past years. We have several companies that bring us Broadway shows. For example, currently Women on the Verge, Wicked, and We Will Rock You are playing in Brazil.
JUAN: Spain usually has one or two musicals per season and I always made sure to go see all of them, and all of them inspired me in different ways.
Growing up abroad, how were you first exposed to musical theater?
JUAN: The first musical I ever saw was a Spanish version of Peter Pan. I was six years old and it took my breath away. I fell in love with every single aspect of the show. I bought the cast album and played it non-stop everywhere I went. My dream was to one day be able to fly onstage as Peter Pan.
RODRIGO: My first time being exposed to musical theater was seeing the musical Grease. I don’t remember much but that was the beginning of a crazy journey.
When and how did you decide to make this your career?
RODRIGO: The show that made me choose this as a career was Phantom of the Opera. When I saw the show, I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” I’d wanted to do musical theater for quite a while but never had the courage to tell my parents I wanted to do so. Finally, when I graduated high school in 2009, I decided to tell my parents about my career choice and I started performing in 2011.
JUAN: I went to an international school in Spain so I learned how to speak English from the age of two. Most of our English-speaking teachers were from the UK and one of them started a theater club at the school (which is really unusual in Spain). Thanks to him I was able to play leads like Joseph, Mysterious Man in Into The Woods, and the lead in Bombay Dreams. After a while I was the oldest student in the theater club so I decided to get some “real” training. I went to musical theater school on the weekends and trained in singing, dancing and acting. Attending that school I realized I could do theater as a career and not just as a hobby and the more I studied it, the more obsessed I became.
How does the musical theater scene in your country compare to the United States?
JUAN: Since being here in America, I’ve realized how much musical theater is part of American culture and history. In Spain it’s not that way. Going to the theater is maybe a onetime thing. There just one, two, or three big productions a year and that is about it. It’s much better now than when I was younger and there are more places where people can get training, but it’s still not the level of here in America.
RODRIGO: Musical theater in Brazil is pretty big but nothing compared to America. The main issue is training. We don’t have schools that offer a good foundation for young actors, so it’s hard to find well-rounded performers. I wish there were more of an investment in Brazilian musicals. We have some, but most people go to the theater to see American shows.
When and why did you decide to pursue your musical theater education in the United States?
RODRIGO: I had performed in two musicals in Brazil when I got offered a role in the Brazilian cast of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. I realized that even though my career was starting in Brazil, I’d never had any training, so rather than take the job, I auditioned for AMDA and NYU. I got accepted to both schools and chose AMDA because it offered both an L.A. and an NYC experience.
JUAN: Because of Broadway blogs like broadway.com or broadwayworld.com I was able to follow what was happening on Broadway while still in Spain. I saw an ad for AMDA and when I read what the program offered, I fell in love with it right away. My parents said I could audition and if I got in, we’d see if I could do it. I worked really hard on my audition song and monolog and went to London to audition. When I got the acceptance email my parents were shocked, but from that point on they’ve been extremely supportive with my career. So when I was eighteen, I packed my bags and moved to L.A. to earn a BFA in Musical Theater.
When did you guys meet each other and how did you become friends?
JUAN: AMDA L.A. offers an option to go to the NYC campus for a semester and we both did it. There we were the only two boys in class from the L.A. transfer group.
RODRIGO: I met Juan at AMDA my third semester. We had our friend Bernadita “Bernie” Nassar in common. Our journey was pretty similar and we started connecting through that. AMDA was the glue and our international student journey was the purpose.
How did the musical theater program at AMDA prepare you for a career here?
RODRIGO: The musical theater program at AMDA is great. I tried to get the most out of it. I had the opportunity to work with the best of the best: Lee Martino, Nick DeGruccio, Leslie Stevens, Wendy Rosoff, Katherine Tokarz, John Sloman, Brooks Almy and many more. They connected with me at a totally different level. They are teachers who go way further than teaching just a simple lesson. They teach you about life. I enjoyed having them as teachers and call some of them friends today.
JUAN: The more I work professionally, the more I realize what great training I had. The first four semesters at AMDA, it’s all about learning the basics. The next four semesters are very industry focused: audition classes, career preparation classes, etc. I felt really prepared when it was time to graduate. I wasn’t feeling my best the day of my first professional audition, but I was still able to book that show because I felt so confident and prepared on how to handle those kinds of situations.
What has it been like for you performing in profession productions here in Southern California?
JUAN: Every production I’ve done so far holds a special place in my heart! I feel very fortunate because in every show I’ve been surrounded by great casts and have learned so much! I’m so grateful to my former teachers Hector Guerrero and Jon Engstrom for giving me work opportunities such as Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story.
RODRIGO: Performing in Southern California has been one of my greatest achievements. I never thought I was going to be able to work instantly out of college. I am truly humbled by the opportunities I have been given.
What’s been your favorite experience so far?
JUAN: Doing Big Fish for Moonlight Stages was a great reminder of why we do theater, to inspire people and we had such a great cast! And doing Empire The Musical at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts was a dream come true. I loved being part of an original show process. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s work ethic was so inspiring and going to rehearsal everyday was like going to a master class!
RODRIGO: Singin’ in the Rain at Musical Theatre West was my very first professional experience in Southern California and MTW is an amazing company to work for. Later, getting to be around Marcia Milgrom Dodge in Empire and seeing her create the show was just breathtaking. Being in Empire taught me a lot of life lessons. I hadn’t realized that I was taking myself for granted, but thanks to cast members like Justin Michael Wilcox, Tory Freeth, and Fatima El-Bashir, my agent, my mentor John Sloman, and other friends, I realized I needed to put myself first. I truly flipped my life from point A to point Z in the last two weeks of the show because they all saw potential in me and the need for change.
Why is it so important for you to pursue musical theater in the United States?
RODRIGO: The importance of pursuing a career in America started with my attachment to everything that came from America to Brazil—Disney movies, Disney shows, TV-shows, musicals and even pop culture. I always identified with American culture more than mine. Musical theater can be replicated in other countries but as an American art form, there is no way to truly do musical theater outside of the U.S.
JUAN: Being here I get to do what I used to dream of everyday when I was in Spain. It’s really a dream come true. There are so many more opportunities here than if I was in Spain. I am so happy living here, being surrounded by people who share the same passion and dream as I do.
Do you have any projects coming up soon?
JUAN: I’m currently in rehearsals for Big River at Performance Riverside. I’m playing Huck Finn which is my first professional lead role and I am learning so much every day. Such a fun character! It’s a beautiful and inspiring story and I’m having a great time with this cast too! It plays April 1-10.
RODRIGO: I am currently rehearsing Children of Eden at Cabrillo Music Theater, opening on April 8. And my two projects after that are Shrek The Musical and In The Heights at PCPA.
How would you like to see your career develop in the coming years?
RODRIGO: My career, thank God, is going really well so far. Right now, I’m in the middle of a process to get an Artist Visa. If and when I get one, I’m planning my move to New York. I always loved New York and I want to try new horizons because I already have Los Angeles as home.
JUAN: I will eventually move to New York and try to reach my goal to be on Broadway. But for now I’m absorbing as much as I can from Southern California theater.
JUAN’S BIO: Originally from Spain, Juan was recently seen in Empire The Musical (Nikos) at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, as Bernardo in Candlelight’s West Side Story, in Moonlight’s Big Fish (Zacky Price) and in Musical Theatre West’s Singin’ In The Rain. Other credits include: Children Of Eden (Cain/Jaibeth), and She Loves Me (Head Waiter). Follow Juan on Instagram @juancaballer and www.juancaballer.weebly.com
RODRIGO’S BIO: Rodrigo started his professional training at the age of nineteen in his home country Brazil, then moved to the United States to follow his dreams. In America, his favorite credits include: Original – The Musical: The Life Story Of Janiva Magness, Legally Blonde, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Les Misérables, and most recently West Side Story at Candlelight Pavilion, Singin’ In The Rain at Musical Theatre West, and Empire the Musical at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts. www.rodrigodeoliveiravarandas.com @rodrigovarandas