Artist Profile: SMTD student Nick Daly wins national Playbill contest

Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 12:29am

NOSELL

Nick Daly

While the coronavirus pandemic may have shut down Broadway and left the state of professional theatre in disarray, Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Nicholas Daly is still finding ways to continue pursuing his theatrical potential. 

Daly, previously featured by The Michigan Daily for his rise to musical theatre fame via TikTok, was recently named the winner of Playbill’s Search for a Star Contest, a national vocal competition conducted entirely through virtual audition tapes. After a panel of judges consisting of Tony Award-winning casting directors and choreographers narrowed down the 2,658 submissions to the Top 10 vocalists, it was up to voters to name the winner. And Daly proved to be America’s favorite contender. Following his victory, the 19-year-old University student earned himself a professional casting consultation, a headshot photoshoot and a work session with Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Susan Stroman, among several other professional opportunities.  

While Daly was overcome with gratitude for the support of his friends, family and followers, the week of voting proved to be more tragic than exciting. As a resident of Kenosha, Wisconsin — the town where 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times by a white officer in late August — Daly took a step back from plugging the Playbill contest to post content that would help his community. The shooting of the young Black father elicited a considerable amount of demonstrations in the lakeside city, and Daly found the national attention on his hometown startling. 

“The second night [of protests], there was damage that was done to the city, which is a bit shocking, especially when you see it on national headlines,” said Daly. “Me and my friends definitely joke about how we live in ‘Ke-nowhere’ and no one knows anything about our city. But now it’s definitely different introducing myself now, and saying that I’m from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then watching the people realize that that’s the same [town].”

Kenosha and its district-wide theatre program were enormously influential in developing Daly’s love for musical theatre; it was at Kenosha’s community theatre where he made his theatrical debut as the title character in “Captain Louie Jr.” During his sophomore year at Kenosha’s Bradford High School, under the mentorship of Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame member Holly Stanfield, Daly realized storytelling was his true calling.

Daly credits much of his development as an artist to Stainfield and her work at Bradford High School. In applying to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as a musical theatre major, Daly said: “She absolutely encouraged me. She is an outstanding mentor. She inspired me to believe that it is something I could make a living off of.” The educator was even at his University audition: “She was there at my Chicago unifieds; she was right outside at my Michigan audition with my mom.” 

Now, Daly is using his storytelling skills and his success at the University to make the kind of representation for Black theatre artists that he never saw as a kid. 

“When I was younger, [the representation] was not there. I did not see that representation at least until I got a lot more serious about musical theatre during high school,” Daly said, referencing performers of color like Leslie Odom Jr and Billy Porter

Daly specifically remembers when musical theatre performer and director Michael McElroy came to the University to direct his original show  “Sonnets, Soliloquies, and Soul.” He says watching McElroy lead that company “was such a learning experience for me. Watching that representation, being a Black director ... and a successful musical theatre artist … is huge. I have interests other than just being a musical theatre performer; I have a playwriting minor. I love being behind the table just as much as I love being on stage.”

And to young Black artists aspiring to be in his shoes one day, Daly says: “Don’t put yourself in a box. As a Black performer we always get those stereotypical, token roles. But, I’m fortunate at least in my high school career that I was able to play leading characters: Quasimodo in ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,’... as well as characters [in shows like ‘The Scottsboro Boys’] that allowed me to embrace my culture. You can do just as much as any other actor, and beyond.”

Amid the recent events surrounding the shooting of Jacob Blake in his hometown, Daly remains optimistic about the power musical theatre carries in bringing people together. “In itself, musical theatre is like an empathy machine,” Daly said. “And my big thing is: What will save the world? What will make people understand each other, and take us to a more egalitarian place in society? I believe the answer is empathy.”

Daily Arts Writer Grace Tucker can be reached at tuckergr@umich.edu.