If ever there was a Western Carolina University graduate who was living his dream, it would be Tyler McKenzie.
McKenzie, a 2013 graduate from WCU's School of Stage and Screen, is traveling across the country, dancing and singing as a member of the ensemble in the second national tour of the Broadway hit "Hamilton."
Even with a performance-packed schedule, McKenzie stays closely connected with WCU. He's a regular guest on WCU's social media channels, is making plans to return to teach a masterclass on campus, and he gives back through the Friends of the Arts donor society. The reason is simple: WCU gave him the experience and the connections he needed to get his Broadway career off the ground.
McKenzie was born in Long Island, New York and his family moved to Charlotte where he began studying dance. He auditioned for 12 colleges and universities across the country before settling on WCU. The initial draw was the visiting faculty and guests that the School of Stage and Screen brings in annually. But what sealed the deal was when he visited for his audition, McKenzie fell in love with the mountains and the peaceful energy in Cullowhee. And it helped being relatively close to Charlotte.
"It was almost like I was on a retreat," McKenzie said. "Obviously, college is very stressful at times, but with that location, it was very easy to find things to de-stress and be super calm. The mountains, the mountains, the mountains."
In 2012, as a sophomore, McKenzie was asked to choreograph the program at Chancellor David O. Belcher's investiture ceremony at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. It was the beginning of a personal relationship with David and Susan Belcher, both of whom are performers and champions for the arts, that helped influence McKenzie's ambition.
"We put together this big performance, almost like an inauguration," he said. "It was beautiful. It was so cool. Susan performed. I was really close with Susan because both of them are really involved in the arts. They're very supportive in our program and how much it meant to the school and how much it meant to the students. To be part of his introduction to the school was awesome."
Then, in his junior year, McKenzie was awarded the Josefina Niggli Scholarship, which honors one of the first theater teachers and leaders at WCU and the namesake of the Niggli Theater. McKenzie recalled having to write an essay on his involvement at WCU as part of the scholarship application process.
"It was a real eye-opener for me to realize how much I was doing in the School of Stage and Screen and taking ownership and being proud of not only just going to my classes and getting good grades, but also being a part of the community and going the extra mile to make sure I get as much as I can out of my college experience, artistically and mentally, and even with my liberal arts classes," McKenzie said.
"I didn't even care how much (the scholarship) was for," he added. "I just loved that I was being recognized. I loved the acknowledgement. It could have been like $500 and I would have been like, 'Cool. This is awesome. Thank you so much for the acknowledgement and the appreciation for what I do here.'"
The scholarship not only helped McKenzie financially, but it boosted his drive to succeed in the classroom. McKenzie felt as if all eyes were on him.
"That helped me think outside the box when it came to my classes," McKenzie said. "It pushed me to work a little bit harder, knowing that people liked what I was doing and were interested to see what I would do next. I had to raise the bar for myself."
During his time at WCU, McKenzie was able to meet a host of people who were brought in to either teach, direct or work with students, which allowed him to make many connections. One helpful connection was with WCU's Phillips Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre Terrence Mann. After graduating, McKenzie was in New York auditioning for his first Broadway national tour. McKenzie said Mann allowed him to stay with him rent-free for two months.
"The fact that I was able to do that was incredible," McKenzie said. "I would not have known who he was or had a connection with him or a relationship with him had I not gone to Western or been in the School of Stage and Screen."
McKenzie's contract with "Hamilton" is for a year, with an option to re-sign for another year. He said he is leaning toward doing the extra year since the tour will be headed to Toronto for about four months next year. As part of the ensemble, McKenzie is in 46 of the 50 numbers in the show.
He is excited about the opportunity to perform in North Carolina and South Carolina, in particular his hometown of Charlotte, Oct. 10 through Nov. 4. The show also will be in Durham Nov. 6 through Dec. 2, and Greenville Dec. 4 to Dec. 16.
"It'll be my first time performing in Charlotte," McKenzie said. "I hope to visit Western and teach a couple of masterclasses. I'm excited to be back in North Carolina performing there for a while, and I hope that Western students and everyone that I grew up with will be able to see the show."
By Marlon Morgan