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Up close with a Broadway artist

‘Hamilton’s’ Stephanie Klemons to be honored by local arts nonprofit

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“I knew I wanted to dance before I had reason, so I don’t try to superimpose one as an adult,” said Long Beach resident Stephanie Klemons, associate choreographer and global dance supervisor of Broadway’s hit musical “Hamilton.” “I was lucky to be born with a passion. I know a lot of people are always searching for a passion, but dance is my thing that I’ve always loved.”

More than two dozen people gathered in the second-floor auditorium of the Long Beach Public Library on March 7 to hear Klemons discuss her career, life experiences and challenges on the road to success.

The question-and-answer meet-and-greet was hosted by the LBNY-Arts Council, as part of its Women in the Arts lecture series, which is featuring local women and celebrating their contributions to society during Women’s History Month. The event was catered by Blacksmith’s Breads, a local bakery and coffee shop.

Klemons will be honored at the third annual Women in the Arts Awards and Recognition Fundraiser Party at the Allegria Hotel on March 22, hosted by Artists in Partnership Inc., which celebrates visual and literary artists, musicians, educators, businesswomen and community activists who share a love of community and cultural arts. She will be recognized for her activism alongside Helen Dorado Alessi, Karen Dinan, Dr. Donna Gaines, Eve Hammer, Katie Mitchell, Nicole Koenig Passman and Susan Turner Radin.

The 36-year-old, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to Long Beach nine years ago, made her Broadway debut in playwright Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights.” She followed Miranda to “Hamilton,” and the show won a Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2016, among other awards. Klemons was also part of the original cast of "If/Then" on Broadway. She lives in Long Beach with her wife, Colleen, and their two cats, and they are expecting a baby boy in April.

She also performed as an original cast member and worked on the musicals “Bombay Dreams” and “Bring it On.” Soon, she will add director to her résumé. Starting March 31, Klemons will direct and choreograph “This is Sadie” for the New York City Children’s Theater.  

Klemons also founded the nonprofit Katie’s Art Project, which connects children facing life-threatening illnesses with artists to collaborate and experience the healing powers of creating art. She was inspired to form the organization after her childhood best friend died of leukemia at age 19.

Johanna Mathieson-Ellmer, director of AIP, and Ed Kennedy, former theater teacher and music department chairman for the Long Beach School District, picked Klemons’s brain about her journey to Broadway. They asked how she handles her busy schedule and constant stress.

“The hard work thing is, it’s not about, ‘Oh, I made it, and now I can relax,’” Klemons said. “It’s like, ‘I made it, so now the work begins.’”

Despite the hustle and bustle of New York City and her everyday schedule, she said she takes time each morning to write in a journal and meditate to clear her mind and have a moment to herself.

“You learn how to thrive in the stress,” Klemons said, referring to her daily ritual. “I’ve found that the perception of stress has evolved as I’ve learned to deal with it.”

She also noted her growth over the years.

“Ten years ago, I would’ve dropped all the balls,” she said. “The hardest thing is constantly reminding yourself, no matter what, that what’s possible actually grows with what you make possible — that what’s possible is not a finite thing. It’s actually a stretching thing that’s all a matter of your perspective.”

Klemons said she choreographs in her head before asking dancers or actors to perform a routine. She also plays music and freestyles to “see what comes out” once she has an idea in her head.

“People are like, ‘Why don’t you listen to music in the car?’ And I’m like, ‘That is dangerous for everybody,’” she said, recalling how her wife catches her staring into space, visualizing a routine. “I don’t put music on in the house or the car because I would be cleaning the dishes and then just stop and think.”

Klemons also recalled choreographing a viral Super Bowl commercial for the NFL last year, “Dirty Dancing,” starring Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the offensive linemen of the Giants.

It was “70 hours of work and a lot more money. It was nothing,” Klemons said. “I’ve been working on ‘Hamilton’ for four years now, busting my butt, 100 hours a week, 120 hours a week . . . and then the Super Bowl commercial comes on and every news channel in New York City and California — people were calling me from everywhere, it was wild, saying, ‘Can we get an interview?’”

She said the accolades and money might come with working in television and film, but so do the challenges that come with being a woman working in a male-dominated industry. Klemons recalled fighting with others who worked on the commercial.

“The misogyny in the film industry is so much worse,” she said. “That was part of the problem. I was doing way too much work for not enough.”  

Meanwhile, for those in the theater industry, Kennedy explained, finding work and maintaining a steady income can be a challenge. Klemons remembered dressing up as a Quiznos cup for $16 an hour when she was 24.

“You have to eat and pay your rent. You do what you have to do,” she said. “Some moments are more glamorous than others.”

Now she is focusing on “Hamilton,” her upcoming directing role and her soon-to-be “mom” status.

“I thought [the event] was wonderful,” Kennedy said. “She gave you — not an actor’s interpretation, but a person’s interpretation. Oftentimes we get actors giving lectures from the characters they’ve played, but she was really down to earth, and answered everything we could want to know.”

“It was a privilege and pleasure to serve as one of the moderators for the evening and to have such a vivacious, creative, positive and caring neighbor like Stephanie Klemons here in our community,” Mathieson-Ellmer said. “We are so honored to have Stephanie as a supporting member of Artists in Partnership Inc., and look forward to recognizing her and an elite group of local women.”