Joseph Leo Bwarie, '99
Actor and singer
Q. What are you currently working on?
I am playing Frankie Valli through the summer—I hate to say “starring” but that’s what they say—on tour with Jersey Boys. I started in November 2007.
While I’ve been with Jersey Boys, I had an opportunity to be in the film Valentine’s Day, and I direct shows in California for children and family audiences.
I’m also working on my debut CD, which is really neat to work on, because before I knew I was enamored with acting and this whole industry of entertainment, I was a singer. To work on this CD is really great, because I’m not imitating Frankie Valli’s voice; it’s me. I have played to millions of people on tour, so around the country they think that’s my voice. But I’m an actor manipulating my voice to sound like Frankie Valli. It’s been an amazing process to work that part of the industry, the music production, and to try to achieve the timelines you’ve set up for yourself. There are so many variables. I’m doing all covers, all songs that I love. If I had one chance to sing, it would be this music. I could sing forever.
I’m also finding time to write. Time management is hard because Jersey Boys is a massive obligation. But doing other things helps to keep the show fresh, exciting, and new.
Q. Was there one person at Emerson who shifted the course of your career?
Instead of one person, I’d say there was one experience. In my senior year, I was approached to produce the Musical Theatre Society auction. It was interesting because it was putting on an event and reaching out to the community for sponsors, patrons, and support.
I was good at it and realized that getting a lead in a show wasn’t the defining place to be; it wasn’t the only job an industry professional could land. I learned that if Joe doesn’t get a lead role, it doesn’t mean there aren’t huge volumes of opportunity right beside it…that I could teach, produce, or perform.
I walked into it not knowing how to produce, but learned a lot about performing by producing; I learned a lot about the business.
Q. Are you professionally connected to other Emersonians? Could you share an example or two?
I went to school with Alison Bretches ’99, and when I graduated I moved back to California. Her mother had a children’s theater company in Southern California, and she hired me. I learned a lot working for it, although I wasn’t there long. It was my first job right out of school.
Along the way, you do meet a lot of Emersonians. I call it Club Emerson. When I played Chachi in Happy Days, the musical, Henry Winkler ’67 (actor, author) came to see the show. He was very nice. Though we went to Emerson at very different times, you immediately feel that you are connected. People have a lot of joy when they come up to me at the stage door and say, “I went to Emerson too!”
Professionally, I always try to find ways to work with Emersonians. I seek them out—either friends from my class or industry professionals to pitch a project to. They are my go-to people because usually the answer is “Yes, let’s work on something.” I know if I’m going to direct a show, I’m going to call Merri Sugarman ’84 (casting director). As a writer, if I want a partner, I’m going to call Kevin Chesley ’97 (actor, writer).
When I was directing at Immaculate Heart High School in Hollywood and it was time for me to transition, I knew the perfect person for the job. It was Kevin’s wife, Heather Farley Chesley ’00. They are an Emerson power couple, and now she runs the drama department at the school while remaining a key player in major theater companies in LA. That’s what I do: if I can recommend an Emersonian, I will.
Q. What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give to Emerson students?
Work hard. It always sounds so cliché, so much of what your parents would say. But I found that when you are responsible, respectful, and work hard, other people want to work with you. That’s what we all want. Nobody wants to work with a jerk, with somebody who’s lazy. If you want to succeed, work hard.
Dreams can come true, but they don’t just sort of happen. You have to do everything in your capable hands to make it happen. No one is going to be knocking on your door, saying, “Can you come be a star in our show?” You have to come to the table and say, “This is what I have to offer.”
I’m a firm believer in hard work, in good, old-fashioned manners, respect, and appreciation. It’s sad when I see actors complaining that they have to go to the theater in order to work. Don’t complain; it’s a gift.