Broadway is to thespians as the World Cup is to soccer players. It’s by far the biggest stage any performer can reach, but few ever get to experience the glory. Some do, though.
BYU professor and Contemporary Dance Theater Artistic Director Nathan Balser did just that. And after his five-year stint performing on and off Broadway, he is back at BYU teaching and choreographing the next Broadway-bound stars.
“Nathan Balser is brilliant; he can pretty much choreograph anything,” said Tanner Dewaal, a student of Balser and a soon-to-be-graduate of the commercial music program. “He is one of my role models. He has had really professional experience while also having a family. He’s one of those people who has always had a vision and made goals to achieve that vision.”
Balser’s professional experience includes productions with Kristen Chenoweth in the original cast for “Promises, Promises” and other credits including “9 to 5: The Musical,” “Damn Yankees,” “Legally Blonde” and others. Balser also performed on the Tony Awards in 2010, 2011 and 2012. With such a storied career, it’s no wonder that the assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, Randy Boothe, had been eyeing him, hoping he’d come back to BYU.
“Besides being enormously talented and just a delightful human being to interact with,” Boothe said, “he brings that professional experience of the Broadway stage, of national touring companies. … He did what so many of these students in the MDT area are wanting to do. He is still on the cutting edge, but he chooses to be here to give to the next generation, which I think is exciting.”
Basler’s performing journey actually started at BYU, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation. As part of his degree, he went to Baltimore, Maryland, for an internship, but the whole time he was away he missed the stage.
“The entire time I was gone, I just missed performing,” Balser said. “So I got thinking how I could make [performing] a viable career. How could I do it with a wife and kids and everything else?”
So he came back to Utah and started looking for a way to incorporate theater back into his life. His answer came through a friend, also a BYU graduate, who had just finished a master’s degree and told Balser that if he “got the right master’s degree” he could teach at the university level. So he decided to get a master’s in Fine Arts with a hope that someday, after performing on Broadway for a few years, he could return and teach.
“Musical theater pays pretty well if you get the right job,” Balser said. “So that’s what took me back into studying it more intensely, because I could do what I loved and still provide for my family.”
Things continued to look up for Balser when, while during his schooling, he met his wife performing at Tuacahn in St. George, Utah. Balser considers marrying a performer a blessing because “she understands” the difficulties and unique challenges that come with being in the theater world. Not only is she a great performer, but she also shares the same values, which helped guide both of them in knowing what shows to be involved in.
“The show had to have a redeeming quality,” Balser said. “My values helped me justify which shows I could do and which ones I couldn’t. Those values, believing in a Christ-centered gospel, also became very important when I was constantly working with others that had vastly different values because it gave me an opportunity to accept people for who they were and, in turn, expect them to accept me for what I stood for.”
Those guiding values helped shape Balser to be who he is today. His influence can be felt by any who have come in contact with him or taken one of his classes. Sarah Cooper, who graduated in 2014, was one of the lucky few to learn under Balser’s tutelage.
“Even when I didn’t feel super confident in certain areas of my performance, he taught me that as long as I worked hard and did my best to show who I was as a person, that was more important than all the technique in the world,” Cooper said.
And as always, Balser leads by example. Even after having an extensive career on Broadway, performing with the likes of Sutton Foster and making three appearances on the Tonys, he still believes his greatest achievement in life is his family.
“That may be cheesy,” Balser said. “But everything else pales in comparison to my family.”
For now, Balser’s future is bright. He and his wife co-own a performing studio called “On Broadway Academy” that is only growing in popularity and prestige. His goal is to help others reach their dreams and potential, both on and off the stage. And for those who are Broadway-bound, he had some sound advice.
“It’s important that [you] figure out who you are before you go,” Balser said. “Choose ahead of time, set some boundaries for yourself and go to church every week. No matter where you are, find what time the closest ward is and go, no matter what. This is what helped me stay grounded and kept me from fading away.”