Luck and a Broadway Duck

In September, as John Sanders took his final bow as Ned “Needlenose” Ryerson in Groundhog Day: The Musical, his thoughts spun like the show’s five revolving stages. Despite enthusiastic audiences and seven Tony nominations, it was over. The producers decided to end their $18 million Broadway extravaganza after less than six months.

Heartbreaking? You bet. But the UO theater arts graduate says the thrill of starring in such an exciting show more than made up for it. “It’s been incredible,” he says. “I’m heartened that there will be a national tour and a remount in London.”

As a measure of Sanders’ success, he was learning the lines for his next show before Groundhog Day ended. He’s in the Public Theater’s October premiere of Richard Nelson’s new play Illyria, which is the story of the Public’s origins. Sanders plays Stuart Vaughan, who cofounded the theater with Joe Papp, the Pulitzer Prize–winning impresario whose credits include Hair and A Chorus Line. Vaughan, a champion of the American regional theater movement, went on to found the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the largest nonprofit resident theater in the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, Sanders is living the dream. He juggles back-to-back stints on and off Broadway with steady gigs in TV, films, commercials, and more. He’s the voice of Mucinex (“Start the relief. Ditch the misery.”), as well as for several characters in the video games Minecraft and Batman, and he plays Donald Hooper in the Netflix Marvel series Iron Fist.

He wasn’t aiming for Broadway when he left his California home for the UO 20 years ago. “I just wanted to explore theater and find out what my place in it might be,” he recalls, noting that he’s glad he chose a liberal arts approach over acting school.

“I loved the intellectual atmosphere of the Clark Honors College, especially the discussion classes,” he says. “I didn’t have to immerse myself in a conservatory-style theater program, so I could also take a course in quantum mechanics or in Russian history. I’m a big believer in the market value of a liberal arts education.”

Looking back, he says two keys to his development as an actor were the freedom to experiment in the UO’s Pocket Playhouse, and the encouragement of theater arts graduate student Jimmy Bickerstaff, PhD ’00. “I loved the way Jimmy worked, and he convinced me that Chicago was a place I should think about going if I wanted to be in plays,” he says.

Like most actors, Sanders struggled during his dues-paying years in Chicago, and he appreciates the good fortune that came his way. “I was lucky enough to get tapped straight into the Broadway run of Peter and the Starcatcher, and lucky it was actually a hit,” he says. “We played for a year, and then I was incredibly lucky to receive a role in Matilda: The Musical at one of my first auditions in New York. Those two shows have formed the basis of a lot of the relationships that I continue to draw on.”

For many actors, all these achievements would be enough. But as much as he loves living and working in New York, Sanders’ dream job may surprise you. “My greatest aspiration was, and still is, working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland,” he says. Who knows? He may get lucky.

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications