Columbia Alum, Chester Gregory

By LauraNalin

Chester Gregory, who has been in a number of Broadway shows including “Tarzan,” “Hairspray,” “Cry Baby, “The Jackie Wilson Story” and his most current, “Dreamgirls,” said that he has known he had wanted to do theater since the fifth grade.

“In the fifth grade I started to admire performers like Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr., and I got such joy out of performing I knew that was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Gregory said.

“Singing, dancing and acting all fell under the performance wing for me, and I started doing city talent shows and children’s theater.”

Originally from Gary, Ind., Gregory was enrolled by his mother in many children’s theater programs and in sixth grade, she urged him to audition for Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts in Gary, where he studied through high school.

Students sat in Columbia’s dimly lit Getz Theater as Gregory told the story of his life in show business.  A 1995 graduate of the college, Gregory taught theater classes for six years until he landed his first musical role as Seaweed in the production of Hairspray.

“I auditioned literally the day after they got all the Tonys,” Gregory joked.  After two and a half years of touring with “Hairspray, “ Gregory recalled his audition for Broadway’s Disney production of “Tarzan.”

“I get really nervous when I audition,” Gregory said. “So I got up on stage and I was forgetting my lines and all of a sudden I look up and I see Phil Collins. He just got up and we started singing lines back and forth to each other.”

After a year in “Tarzan, “he auditioned for a role as Donkey in “Shrek the Musical,” which he recalled as the first show that he got hired for on the spot. Gregory got replaced by Daniel Breaker, and a month later auditioned for “Dreamgirls.”

“There’s something special that each one of you have that only you can do,” Gregory told the students. Gregory came to speak to the college as part of a series directed by Michelle Passarelli, Columbia’s alumni director. The series’ goal is to reconnect alumni with their department.

“It’s great to look at the alumni, where they are today and how they got there,” Passarelli said. “It doesn’t matter what department they are from, what they do for a living, it’s all about paying your dues and feeding yourself while you’re doing your art, and Chester is a perfect example of this.”

While studying at the college, Gregory was recognized by his teachers as a student that stood out. Albert Willams, one of the coordinators for the musical theater major, said that Gregory was a unique student.

“One thing I remember the most is that he was very talented, very focused, very quiet and he’s one of the students that I have noticed who had his eyes on the prize,” Williams said. “But the prize was his personal triumph. It wasn’t about making money or becoming a star, it was about doing the work and he was one of the epitomes of that.”

Williams also added that he was “never quite sure” what would happen with Gregory, but he wasn’t surprised when he started embarking on a Broadway career.

“I would not be here if it weren’t for the wonderful experiences and teachers who worked very hard, encouraging me,” Gregory said.

Among Gregory’s current projects, a portion of the sales of his newest CD, “In Search of High Love,” will go to support musician Wyclef Jean’s project, Yele Haiti.