In January 2015, Darian Sanders was a Lexington singer and actor who just got the chance to perform with one of Broadway’s brightest stars.
Jonathan Groff, already known for stage (“Spring Awakening”) and screen (“Frozen” and “Looking”) successes and about to step into the role of King (“Da da da dat da”) George in “Hamilton,” was in Lexington to headline the Lexington Theatre Company’s “Concert with the Stars.” The inaugural presentation by the company paired Broadway talent with collegiate and local performers, which would become the modus operandi of the company through its subsequent concerts and productions.
But as it turned out, when Groff and Sanders were paired in the title tune from “Hair,” it was the star who was starstruck.
The first rehearsal with Groff, Sanders says, “I remember singing through it, and we get done with the first line and he just stops. He just turns, and he looks at me, and he’s like ‘What?!’ and he gives me a hug. We start to sing again, and then he stops again, and he’s like, ‘I just can’t.’”
At that time, Sanders wasn’t even necessarily a Broadway hopeful. He was primarily a church musician, serving as a worship minister at Broadway Christian Church. He hadn’t even done some of the local roles that would earn him initial notoriety, such as the title role in SummerFest’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Seaweed in the Woodford Theatre’s “Hairspray.”
That early affirmation from Groff was huge though, and July 31, he will return to the Lexington Theatre Company’s (The Lex) “Concert with the Stars” as one of the stars, having now embarked on a professional stage career in the cast of the national tour of “The Lion King.”
He will be joined by fellow Kentuckian Noah J. Ricketts, a Louisville native whose Broadway credits include “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and most recently Kristoff in “Frozen” — for those keeping score, this means The Lex will have had both the Broadway Kristoff and film Kristoff (Groff) on its stage. Rounding out the bill is Kimber Elayne Sprawl, a Cincinnati native whose credits include “Beautiful,” “Lion King” and she is currently on Broadway in “Girl from the North Country.”
To The Lex Artistic Director Lyndy Franklin Smith, Sanders’ presence on this “Concert” is emblematic of what the company aims to do in several ways.
Normally, The Lex would be staging full-fledged musicals in the summer. But with limited time to plan, the summertime edition of “Concert with the Stars,” usually a January show, is the company’s first live, in-person production since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I am so incredibly proud of him, and so excited for this full-circle moment,” Franklin Smith says of Sanders. “I mean, it really is what the company is all about: We create professional theater, and we train the next generation of theatre artists. And so, to have someone like Darian come through the very first “Concert with the Stars” ever, that there ever was, and now to be coming back, it’s also sort of especially sweet that it’s the first show back since the pandemic — it’s our first steps back on the stage.
“So, I can kind of get goose bumps when I think about the fact that (he was) there for the very first one in 2015, and this year, for the first one back after this hiatus, as the headlining star. I mean, it just doesn’t get better than that.”
It is safe to say, this moment likely would not be happening if it was not for the pandemic. Like pretty much all theatre across the country, “The Lion King” tour shut down in March 2020. Sanders is looking forward to rejoining the company in September and returning to live performances in October. But this has given him a moment to reflect on the quick, unlikely rise of his stage career, and the leap of faith that it was.
Sanders notes that many of the students he has worked with in Lexington Theatre Company shows and other productions have had friends and family tell them to get a regular, secure 9-to-5 job, instead of the uncertainty and fleeting nature of musical theater work. He had that steady, secure job, with benefits, when “The Lion King” opportunity came.
But working in the church, he said, even if people didn’t understand what an acting career meant, they understood a bigger picture.
“They see Jesus in it saying, ‘Man, you’re stepping out in faith. Like, you’re truly Stepping out on your faith, because you feel called to do this and you feel called to go, and you’re listening,’” Sanders said.
Because of the pandemic, Sanders did not get to complete a first year of the tour, but says what he has experienced thus far has been affirming, both in expanding his circle of friends in the theater world and of the training he received, particularly with The Lex.
“I remember talking with Darian on the phone when you were in those first music rehearsals for “The Lion King,” says Franklin Smith, whose own resume includes the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line” and national tours such as “Fosse.” “He was like, ‘I’m done early today, because I knew all my stuff. And because I was just doing what you would have expected me to do if I walked into a Lex show, and I’m ahead of the curve.’”
The timeline for Lex shows, particularly once national talent arrives, is very brief — just a couple weeks — so working with the company means learning to have music and movement down quickly. That’s essentially what is expected with Broadway tours and shows.
Sanders relishes the chance to get back onstage with “The Lion King,” but he is also happy to return to The Lex and “pay it forward” as one of the stars himself. He appreciates the company that not only trained him to succeed, but also let him fail and learn from those moments and grow in them.
“To be able to come in and support, to be able to give, to be able to be a part of The Lex is something that I will never stop doing,” Sanders says. “I love being able to come back and perform with The Lex. I love being able to come back and give my time. But also, I want to give more than just that as well.”
Rich Copley is a former arts writer and editor for the Herald-Leader who continues to enjoy Lexington’s arts and culture.
‘Concert with the Stars’
What: Lexington Theatre Company Broadway concert featuring three performers from Broadway and Broadway tours
When: 8 p.m. July 31
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.