OCSA alum Scott Barnhardt conquered Broadway and returned home to inspire a new generation of musical theater students.
The O.C. native known for his run in the original cast of “The Book of Mormon” has just completed his first year as director of the musical theater conservatory at Orange County School of the Arts. Barnhardt looks back at his time as an OCSA student with fondness. Having done theater since age 10, he had begged his parents to enroll him at the school, then based at Los Alamitos High.
“It’s hard to look at these students and not see myself and my classmates in them. I graduated in ’97—Matthew Morrison was in my class. We were all such a family, and there was never a sense of bitterness or envy. We were able to support each other, and we have a camaraderie that 21 years later is still present.”
After moving to New York to study theater at Wagner College, Barnhardt booked his first Broadway show, Deaf West Theatre’s revival of “Big River.” He learned American Sign Language for the show, which featured deaf and hearing actors and received the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theater.
He then took part in the 2005 national tour of “The Boy Friend,” directed by Julie Andrews. “We were performing at Segerstrom Hall over the holidays, and she arranged for us to go to Disneyland with her on our day off. She was like, ‘Don’t forget to watch the fireworks.’ It was her voice narrating the fireworks at the time! And my favorite moment was in rehearsal one day when she was directing a trio of male ensemble members on an entrance and she pointed to one and said ‘You’re the tall one.’ Then she pointed to another and said, ‘You’re the handsome one.’ And then she pointed at me and said, ‘You’re the cheeky one!’ That was it, I won at life. Julie Andrews called me the cheeky one!”
After a few years of doing regional theater (“My talents were not en vogue on Broadway. It happens.”), Barnhardt was turning 30 and had decided to focus on directing and choreographing when he landed an audition for “The Book of Mormon.” “I had heard that the ‘South Park’ guys were doing a musical about Mormons, and I thought it sounded bold and funny. I got an audition and then I got a call back. And I met Matt Parker and Trey Stone and Robert Lopez and I made them laugh. And then the next morning I booked it! Then the next day Casey Nicholaw (the director and choreographer), who I had worked with years prior, asked me, ‘Do you know how you got this job?’ He said he had been in a cab going down 8th Avenue and saw me standing outside of a Starbucks and thought, ‘I gotta get Scottie in to audition.’ So it was kind of random!”
“All those theater nerd dreams came true. We went to the Tony Awards, we did the cast album, and people were desperate to see the show. It utterly ruined me. Nothing was going to top that. I had done more than 1,200 performances and I was 34 playing a 17-year-old. So I decided to go for an MFA in playwriting at UCLA.” As he was finishing his degree, the OCSA position opened up.
A year into his new gig, Barnhardt has no complaints. “I’m learning to tactfully put the right challenges in front of the right kids and even though I don’t have children I feel like I’m their artistic parent. I want them to find the thing they excel at, whether it’s acting or singing or dancing or producing or directing. This summer I’m taking some students to New York as part of our biannual trip and we’re going to see a bunch of musicals, including—and this truly wasn’t my idea—‘The Book of Mormon.’ And then the new school year starts in August and we are planning some really great, cutting edge shows.”
“I am still performing and writing. I have a concert in January at the Irvine Barclay with fellow alum Krysta Rodriguez called ‘Coming Home.’ We both have a strong connection with Orange County. My dad lives in North Carolina now, but he was a fire captain in Santa Ana—his station is literally down the street from the OCSA campus. And he was really adamant that if I were to do this, my mom had to be there every step of the way as a watchdog to make sure I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. And I know a lot of kids who didn’t get that protection and that support. They were in the process of a divorce and they still worked together as a team to support me and because of that I never had a sense of fear. I knew the work involved but I just didn’t fear pursuing it. My mom passed away three years ago and she would have loved this turn in my career. I woudn’t be surprised if she had a hand in this somehow.”