Metro Weekly

Jordan Dobson Lets the Sun Shine In

Following roles on Broadway and his film debut in "Maestro," Jordan Dobson lets the love flow in Signature's splendid "Hair."

Jordan Dobson - Photo: Christopher Mueller
Jordan Dobson – Photo: Christopher Mueller

Jordan Dobson was well on his way to becoming the world’s next great woodwind virtuoso, or maybe Kenny G. “I started out in music as an instrumentalist,” says Dobson, currently starring as counterculture hero Claude in a lustrous Hair at Signature Theatre.

The actor is still an able player of all the woodwind and percussion instruments. “Plus piano and guitar,” he adds. “Because that was what my life was going to be.”

But then, the young musician, who grew up between South Jersey and Philadelphia, saw a production of Parade at the Arden Theater that changed his entire direction. He struck a bargain with himself.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll audition for one school, for musical theater,” he recalls. “The rest, I’m auditioning for music performance. If I get into the musical theater program, that’s a sign that I should do that and be an actor.'” So Dobson auditioned for Temple University in musical theater, and got in.

“I was like, ‘All right, switching it up,'” he says.

While at Temple, Dobson continued doing theater in Philly, got his Equity card, joined the professional union, and then, on a whim, “I decided to move to New York. I just moved with a thousand bucks and was like, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”

What he saw were stints as a real estate agent and waiting tables, and brushes with his big break that instead ended in disappointment. “Booked one show that we thought was going to Broadway, and then it didn’t go to Broadway,” Dobson says. “Then got really close to a Broadway show, and I didn’t get it, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m moving back to Philly.'”

Of course, that’s when Dobson got a call from his agent, telling him, “You’re going to Broadway.” It was for Ivo van Hove’s 2019 revival of West Side Story, which played 77 previews and 24 performances before the pandemic shutdown closed the show. Though, before the final curtain came down, Dobson, cast as standby for the lead role of Tony, ended up taking over the part.

“I went on the second week of previews, and took over the role for a while and then became the alternate,” Dobson says. “It was the biggest lesson in leading a show and leading a company. I was 22, 23, making my Broadway debut as the lead of this iconic show, working with Stephen Sondheim and Ivo van Hove, all these titans. I just couldn’t believe what I was doing.”

The experience also provided a swift lesson in the business of Broadway. “Now I feel like I have a very, very clear understanding of how it works and how to advocate for myself and for others, how to advocate for my company,” he says.

And he’s continued to work with, and learn from, Broadway titans — like André De Shields, who played Hermes to Dobson’s Orpheus, during Dobson’s run in Hadestown.

“André is just this ethereal being. just being in the same room with him was such a huge lesson, and a whole education in and of itself,” says Dobson, crediting co-stars Eva Noblezada, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray with also patiently sharing their expertise.

“Everyone, all of these veterans and icons have always taken the time to teach me, and to teach other people who are curious. And that’s the thing I’m most grateful for in my Broadway career.”

Dobson’s career has recently extended to film, with a notable role in Bradley Cooper’s acclaimed 2023 Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro. Dobson plays a conducting student of Bernstein’s who goes from being corrected in class, to grinding with Lenny on a dance floor.

It was the first major queer role for the LGBTQ actor, who, since Maestro, has doubled up onstage performing in two very different productions of Hair, at Red Bank’s Two River Theatre last fall, and now at Signature.

Signature artistic director Matthew Gardiner, who staged Hair, says he knew right away that Dobson was his production’s Claude. “Claude is the heart of the show,” he says. “You have to care deeply about the person in the role of Claude in order for the show to work.

“So it’s really about finding somebody who is charismatic, who you care about, who you’re drawn to, and Jordan came into the auditions and it just was a no-brainer. When he walks in a room, you want what’s best for him. And so, that’s what drew me to him — besides, obviously, his talent and his ability to handle the material.”

In music, onstage, and in film, Dobson — who, after Hair, next heads to Japan to play Angel in Rent — has learned his lessons well, and continues to grow as one with knowledge to share. “I think that’s what this business is about, learning as much as you can from the people who have been there before you and done things that you haven’t done,” he says.

“And then, when you are that person in the group, sharing as much as you can with other people so that they can go on to do that. Passing on this information as a community of artists is the thing I’m most passionate about right now.”

Jordan Dobson - Photo: Christopher Mueller
Jordan Dobson – Photo: Christopher Mueller

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start, not necessarily with Hair the musical, but hair-hair. And I’m going to report that your hair is bound today under your bandana.

JORDAN DOBSON: Yeah. Getting ready for wig prep later.

MW: So you have a nice, gorgeous head full of hair. Did you grow it out for the show or do you always wear your hair long?

DOBSON: I’m used to having my hair pretty short, tapered and everything. But then over the pandemic, I just decided to grow it out, knowing that the show that I was in at the time, West Side Story, I was going to have to cut it again. But then the show didn’t come back to Broadway, so I was like, “You know what? I’ll just keep growing it out until someone pays me to cut it.” And it’s just been growing ever since the end of the pandemic. And yeah, it’s just been working out. No one’s asked me to cut it yet.

MW: And is it a different feeling? Why grow your hair long?

DOBSON: It is such a different feeling. First off, it feels like it’s just more of me. It is more of my body rather than not. You know how some people say, “Oh, men hide behind their beards. Show us your face”? I’m like, “No, that’s more of the person. It is actually just letting you in on more of who they are.”

The main difference that I notice is when I walk down the street, more people are like, “Oh, I like your hair,” because there’s something more to look at. Especially other people with longer hair, other guys with longer hair, you feel a camaraderie, which I never expected. But as soon as I see a guy with longer hair, especially a guy with hair like my texture, there’s always a look of like, “Oh, nice head of hair, man.” And yeah, it’s a rather nice feeling.

MW: I was just reading about Darryl George, the student in Texas who was suspended over his locs supposedly not conforming to a dress code. Have you ever experienced that with your hair, somebody trying to force or compel you to change it?

DOBSON: Yes. Not as drastic as that situation, but at more formal events I’ve had people say like, “Oh, maybe you want to slick it back or tie it back.” And I’m like, “Oh, no, I actually don’t want to, but thanks for the suggestion.” And when I say thanks, I mean no thanks for that suggestion. I have no interest in that. There’s nothing informal about my hair or nothing informal about someone with locs, and it’s a shame that that is a narrative out there, but I feel like the more people who resist that will just continue to shift that narrative.

MW: Another aspect of Darryl George’s story I didn’t know about, is that he’s not just being suspended. He’s having to go to a disciplinary program because he won’t change his hair. I guess that’s what anybody who’s suspended has to do there. But this is all over his hair. I’m probably a lot older than you — does that sound like a standard of how schools are trying to control kids these days?

DOBSON: It does not sound like a standard to me. It also makes me think of the CROWN Act, and whether that has a part to play in there, whether that’s allowed.

MW: That’s part of the story. A judge in Texas decided in the case that was brought by Darryl’s parents against the school district that it somehow does not violate the CROWN Act.

DOBSON: Wow. So upsetting. Yeah, that’s nothing that I’ve experienced, as far as an educational situation. In my career, I’ve had certain people say, “Oh, you’re less castable for certain things or period pieces.” And I’m like, “Well, y’all can get a wig, or you can pay me to cut my hair.” But I don’t care about castability in my daily life. There has to be a work-life balance there. But in educational situations, I’ve never experienced that.

There was a story about a wrestler [New Jersey high schooler Andrew Johnson], who they said that his locks were in the way, and they cut his hair on the spot. And it was devastating to watch. Actually really upsetting to watch that happen. But no, in my experience, that is not the standard, nor should it ever be.

MW: In the show, Claude — spoiler alert — does have to cut his hair. What does that feel like for you every night coming out in that moment? Because I heard the whole audience gasp, and it’s so funny that that is such a… It’s like that wrestler. It is a visceral response of, “Ooh, that hurts, to see that happen.”

DOBSON: Yeah, because there is so much identity within your hair. There’s so much identity in just how anyone chooses to physically present themselves. So when you see someone conform in that way to their physical appearance, especially cutting off all of their hair, we see time and time again in history really violent acts of a certain group of people having their heads shaved, and it evokes that. It evokes a lack of individuality, it evokes conforming to authority. So the gasps, I’m right there with the audience. I’m gasping as well. It’s sometimes hard to look at myself in the full army get-up with short hair.

My mom was at the show last night, and it made her bawl her eyes out. She was like, “It was just hard to watch you do that.” There’s a lot more emotion built around that moment of the show rather than just the physical appearance, but it’s jarring to the eye, and then it allows the audience to settle and really think about what that means as I’m singing these words basically saying, “Wake up, we’re living in a dying nation and y’all are worried about all this other stuff.”

So I think it’s the perfect moment to stop the show, in a sense, before I am able to sing this message. And then as I depart, having Sheila and Dionne sing the same exact thing that I just sang — two Black women carrying on the message that I just sang — I think it’s one of the most powerful moments in a show that I’ve experienced, to be quite honest.

MW: Do you have a favorite song to perform?

DOBSON: I think “I Got Life.” It’s where I really get to unleash a little bit and be a little crazy. Claude is the main character, who is pretty internal, and everyone else is this larger-than-life thing. And “I Got Life” and “Hair” are two numbers where I really get to unleash and be a part of this group of people, be a part of the counterculture, rather than the vulnerability of everything else that I sing.

So “I Got Life” is my favorite to perform, but my favorite in the show is “Easy to Be Hard,” Sheila’s song. There are very few moments where it’s just one character onstage singing to the audience, and that is one of them. And luckily, I get to be onstage during it. And I think the way Olivia Puckett performs that song, she’s really talking to the audience and asking them these questions of, “How can people be so heartless when they’re preaching about social injustice and love?” And she’s calling out the hypocrisy of the counterculture.

Just because we are, as some people say, hippies and preach love doesn’t mean we’re not flawed. And that is one moment where someone within the group is calling it out and she’s like, “This is not what we practice, and we’re being hypocrites right now and we have to wake up, and you all, as an audience, have to wake up as well.” If there was a role in the show I could play, it would be Sheila just to sing that song. I think it’s such a special moment.

MW: You performed with Olivia Puckett in another production of Hair at Two River Theater, where you played Claude and she played Sheila. What are some of the differences between doing it then and doing it now?

DOBSON: It feels like a completely different show with a different creative team, especially a different director. They have a vision for their production of the show. So one, it’s so wild that me and Olivia got cast as Claude and Sheila again. I feel like that never happens, especially happenstance that we both ended up getting these roles again.

The main differences are in the Two River production, there was a lot of metaphor. The show is pretty abstract, and so there was a big lean into the abstract of Hair and there were a lot of metaphors, biblical metaphors, especially with Claude being a Christ-like figure.

And here at Signature, there is more focus on the narrative and more focus on specifically the stakes of being drafted to the Vietnam War. So it’s two different types of weight in the production of a spirituality at Two River, and then a weight of the heaviness of the war here at Signature. And both productions have notes and tastes of each, but those are the big, main differences. And then for me and Olivia, we talk about all the time, there’s still muscle memory from the other production, and some of the lines are different too. Each production has taken out some lines, added some other things.

So the muscle memory of music cues of when I enter — I’ve started to enter early before and I was like, “Wait, that was my cue at Two River, not here.” I’ve said an old version of the monologue that I say at the end. Things like that. But it’s such a fun challenge and a brain teaser. And luckily, I have her to relate to it. I’m like, “Oh, I almost said the other line.” She was like, “I know, I heard. I was going to help you and save you.” Luckily, she’s my scene partner there. So it’s really fun getting to do the show again.

Jordan Dobson as Claude - Photo: Christopher Mueller
Jordan Dobson as Claude – Photo: Christopher Mueller

MW: The casting of this show is the first time I’ve seen Black actors playing both Claude and Berger. For me, that emphasized the effects of the war and the anti-war movement in the Black community at the time, which is not an interpretation you have to have of Hair, but is worthwhile as something to point out. What are your thoughts on the casting?

DOBSON: Well, the first time I played Claude, I remember being, “A Black Claude? I’ve never seen a Black Claude in Hair.” And then the more I did the show, I honestly was like, “How was there ever a white Claude?” The themes are so relevant specifically to someone Black being drafted to the war. I’m not discrediting a white person playing this role. There’s an incredible understudy for Claude here, Ethan [Turbyfill], who is white and has an incredible take on the role, as many other white people have.

But I think some of the lines in the show really emphasize — how do I say this? There’s a specific line in the show that Hud says: “The war is white people sending Black people to a war on yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people.” And having Hud say that to a Black Claude makes complete sense of, “Oh, shit, that’s me! They’re sending me. A country that doesn’t give us the same rights, that doesn’t believe in us. They’re going to send us off to fight their war for a land that they stole.” I think it hits harder.

Then especially, in the trip, the hallucination, you have these songs. There’s a minstrel song, and Claude is trying to figure out… I see it as this battle of identity for him, “Well, this is my Blackness on the line, but also my duty to my country.” So I think it just adds a different weight and a different heaviness to what it means to be a Black person sent off to fight a war for a country that doesn’t even believe in you and doesn’t even see you as a full human being.

MW: What is your idea of who the hippies were and what their worldview was? And do you relate?

DOBSON: Yeah, I very much relate. I come from a family of very free-spirited people. I grew up in the Baptist church. But halfway through my childhood, my dad left the church and left Christianity for us to start studying many other different religions and just to have a full scope of the world.

The counterculture has shifted throughout the history of this country, but specifically in the ’60s and early ’70s, what we would call the hippies, are mainly people who believe in the power of love. When I talk about this production with people, I always emphasize we cannot discredit this as something silly because there are people out there today, and people back then, that believed that it is their duty to add love to the world that is full of hate in an energetic sense. That if they do not exude an energy of love, that the world will be out of balance. And I think there is complete validity to that. So it can’t be something that is taken lightly or as something silly. These were real people. These are real people that are just trying to find the best way to make the world a place where everyone can live in a happy sense.

And as far as the hippies, we see it in the show. There are some who are almost escapists through drugs of, “Well, let me just drop out, tune in and tune out,” is like, “Well, let me drop some acid and just reconnect with nature and run away from this world.” And then there are the folks like Sheila, who are like, “No, social justice is the only way to exude love, and that is the way we’re going to do it.”

Everyone has their specific lane of activism or their way of embracing the counterculture. And then there’s Claude who is stuck. He’s trying to find his way. There’s Woof with sexual liberation, there’s Hud with Black power, there’s Sheila with social injustice, and there’s Berger with enlightenment, with drugs, and Jeanie, who experiments with clairvoyance and astral projection. And Claude is just looking at all of these people like, “What do I do? Where do I go? Where do I fit into this?”

MW: I want to ask you about your work in Maestro. Actually, I just watched your scenes before this call.

DOBSON: Oh, my God.

MW: I had seen the movie already. You appear in a really impactful scene of Bernstein mentoring the conducting students. Then you have another scene with Cooper as Bernstein, all in his old-age makeup. How’d you land the role and what was the experience of shooting it?

DOBSON: Oh, my goodness. It was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had as an artist. So I got a self-tape request from my manager at the time, very standard, “Here’s your self-tape for this movie.” And when it’s a big project like that, they don’t really tell you the name of it. I just knew it was something about Leonard Bernstein. And I was like, “Okay, cool.” So I did the tape, and months went by, and I assumed I didn’t get it. I heard that they were casting dancers to be sailors in a dance sequence for it. And as a Broadway performer, you know all the people who are getting called in as the dancers and stuff like that. So all my buddies were like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to be the sailors in the thing.” And I was like, “Shit, I auditioned for that. Maybe I can be one of the dancing sailors.”

And the day after that, that I was just thinking about that, my manager was like, “Oh, they want to do a Zoom session with you, the casting team, and with all the audition material.” And I did that, and the next day, they were like, “Okay, Bradley Cooper wants to do a Zoom session with you.” And I was like, “Okay, what do I prepare?” And they were like, “Don’t prepare anything.” So then I was like, “It’s going to be improv?!” So then I’m Googling improv techniques. I’m just like, “I’m not ready to improv for Bradley Cooper!”

But it was just him offering me the role, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous, wore my best outfit, getting ready. It was just him and his daughter just chilling, and he was just ready to have a conversation. He was like, “Yeah, I want you to do the movie if you want.” And he’s from Philly as well. So we were just talking about that, and talking about how he came to see West Side Story, but it was a day that I wasn’t on as Tony and I left the theater early and everyone got to meet him, and I was like, “Oh, my chance to meet Bradley Cooper,” not knowing that it would come back around.

So that’s how I got it, which was wild. And then he was like, “All right, we start shooting pretty soon. And the first day of shooting, of the whole movie, is you and me.” And I was like, “What? The first day of filming for the entire film is us?” And he was like, “Yeah, get ready. Let’s go.”

He would send me reference material, and we started training with our wonderful conducting consultant, Yannick [Nezet-Seguin], who is incredible. So it was just training right from the start. And then filming those scenes was so magical because I started out in music and always wanted to be able to conduct an orchestra. So switching to acting and then having it come around in that way — I conducted that huge orchestra in Tanglewood, Massachusetts where Bernstein conducted. I was bawling my eyes out. I was a mess. It was ridiculous.

And Steven Spielberg was there because he’s a producer on the film, and Carey Mulligan was there, and then there’s Bradley in this old-age makeup. He’s like a goofball. He came up to me in the old-age makeup, not saying a word, and I didn’t know who it was. And I was like, “Is there security? There’s this weird old man who’s getting close to me, staring at me.” And he goes, “It’s me. Jordan, it’s me.” And I was cracking up. He’s just a standup guy and a brilliant director.

Jordan Dobson - Photo: Christopher Mueller
Jordan Dobson – Photo: Christopher Mueller

MW: After the conducting scene, Bernstein and your character, William, are dancing at a party. And Bernstein is literally having a gay old time, whereas we’ve seen throughout the movie that dealing with his bisexuality is sort of a battle. But in that scene, there is a sense of liberation — hopefully not just because his wife has died — but at any rate, he’s free. Thinking about it as it relates to you, when did you come out personally and professionally? Was it at the same time or was that a different consideration?

DOBSON: So my journey to my sexuality… I identify as pansexual, so I’m just attracted to any and all beings. It’s really just the energy that attracts me to a person. But it took me a while to figure that out. I didn’t really have the vocabulary for that growing up. And growing up in church, there’s so much shame around being queer. But once I realized and had the words to understand and share that with people, I made an effort to not come out. I was like, “I wouldn’t come out as straight, so I’m not going to come out as queer in any sense.”

The way people found out is that I changed my relationship status on Facebook to my first boyfriend. And that’s how my family found out, and that’s how the rest of the world found out. My dad called me. He was like, “You want to talk?” I was like, “No. We’ve never talked about my girlfriends, so we don’t need to talk about my boyfriend unless you feel…”

Then from there on out, it was that’s part of my life and that’s who I am. I was extremely nervous. Don’t get me wrong. I was scared out of my mind and really scared about the relationships in my family, how they would be affected. But then I came to the conclusion that if someone has an issue with that, they don’t really need to be a part of my life. And luckily, the people closest to me and my entire family, that’s not been an issue. And I feel very blessed and privileged to be in that position because so many aren’t and so many of my friends aren’t, and I’ve seen that firsthand.

Professionally, I’ve never really thought about it. The only queer character that I’ve played was in Maestro, now that I think about it. Tony in West Side Story falls in love with Maria. There was a homoerotic sprinkling in that production between Tony and Riff. And then Hadestown, same thing. Bad Cinderella, same thing. And then A Beautiful Noise, I didn’t have a love interest. I played the imaginary friend to Neil Diamond. But yeah, I’ve never felt like I needed to shy away from my queerness in my career.

I know that’s a fear for a lot of people. But if someone’s not going to cast me as a straight love interest because I’m queer, I’m like, “Well, you’re just stupid. I’ve been in relationships with women, and I also embrace my femininity in life and embrace my femininity in characters where it makes sense. But characters who have a super masculine vibe, then I just play that role the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Tony in West Side Story is part of a gang. There’s not a lot of femininity to Tony, except for when he’s with Maria, because he feels his softer side with her, and she brings that out in him, which I think is the beautiful thing about that role.

And yeah, other roles, it just depends on the role that I’m playing, but at the end of the day, I’m an actor and my physicality, my intention, everything shifts role to role. Just like in Hair, I don’t stand the way Claude stands. Claude’s sitting in his hip all the time, scratching his belly, just stretching, just has no carriage about himself. He doesn’t carry himself, and also has a lot of femininity. So that’s not something that I really had to change about myself.

But I know that there is a stigma and a fear of queer actors coming out in the industry. And that’s just something that I’ve never given the time of day to even think about. I’m like, “If you’re not going to cast me because of that, I didn’t really want to work with you in the first place. We’re not compatible as artists.”

And that’s what I want other artists to understand is that we have power as well. When we go into the audition room, we’re deciding whether we want to work with them, just as they’re deciding whether they want to work with us. So when someone rubs me the wrong way, or it’s like, “Can you be more masculine or whatever?” Or as a Black actor, “Can you give it a little more soul?” And I’m like, “This role doesn’t require that, and you’re just asking me to do that because of what I look like or how I present. I’m done here. Thanks so much for seeing me. Have a great day.” But if it’s for artistic purposes, by all means, because we’re here to tell that story. So that’s how I think of my identity in the business.

MW: Here’s your last question then, and it’s Pride related. Signature’s Hair is hosting a Pride Night performance on June 7, which a lot of companies are doing these days. Everybody’s doing Pride Nights and Blackout Night or Young Patrons Night. What do you think is the value of having these kinds of performances?

DOBSON: I think there’s multiple lenses of the value of it. One, it’s a safe space. I think of Blackout Nights as far as when you’re Black, sitting in a theater watching a show, you’re surrounded by usually older white people because that’s the demographic.

MW: I usually am.

DOBSON: And so when you’re, for example, watching Hair and the N-word is used in a comedic way — it’s used a few times, but once there’s a comedic value to that word, it’s uncomfortable to laugh when you’re surrounded by all white people. But in a Blackout performance, that moment is for us. So there is safety and comfort, and also access, to allowing all Black people at a show or allowing all people at a show for a Pride Night. There’s safety, access, and comfort overall, and that’s how one should experience theater, in my opinion. That’s what theater is.

So I think having these specific nights, whether it be a Pride Night, a Blackout Night, an ASL-interpreted performance, a relaxed performance for those on the spectrum, is about experiencing theater in the way that everyone deserves to experience theater, in the most comfortable, safe way possible. I think that is the overall value to them.

Also, it’s fun just to be able to celebrate. This is Pride Night at the theater, so we’re having fun celebrating Pride while we’re at a show, or we’re having fun celebrating our Blackness at a show. We had an ASL performance the other day, and my mom came. My grandparents are deaf, and so sign language is a huge part of my family and my life. And it was cool that my mom was there and was able to witness the show in both languages that she grew up in, English and sign language, at the same time. So yeah, I think it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a celebration, and it’s also necessary, and I think should just happen more often.

Hair runs through July 7 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Va., with a Pride Night performance on June 7. Tickets are $40 to $128. Call 703-820-9771, or visit

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