Three decades on from discovering his love for theatre via school productions and community theatre, Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough debuted his semi-biographical musical, “Back in the Day”, at Omaha, Nebraska’s Rose Theater on Friday.
The 46-year-old musician talked to ET Canada about using his lifelong anxiety struggles to help fulfil his theatre dreams, the crucial support of his wife, Leigh, and helping his son, James, conquer his own performance anxiety.
In-between taking on the starring role, the Backstreet Boy has been helping James, 10, through a parallel journey as he prepares to portray King Julien in his school’s “Madagascar” production.
“James has a little of his daddy’s anxiety – even though he’s a little ham and gets on stage and once he’s up there, it all comes together,” Dorough says. “He’s trying to memorize lines and said, ‘Daddy, I’m nervous. What if I mess up?’ I’m like, ‘It’s okay, James, you’ll get it – it’s in your blood! And, if you mess up, don’t worry because nobody knows.’”
“He still also gets shy sometimes about singing in front of people, just like daddy does,” Dorough adds. “But once he does, he gets that same excitement and enjoyment I do, so I’m encouraging him to use those butterflies to be the best he can be, stay alert and always be thinking of the next move and words.”
Dorough says it’s the exact advice he would hope anyone gives him as he faces any self-doubt in his own journey. Although he grew up in theatre and has spent his adult life on stage with the Backstreet Boys, tackling a starring musical role has proved both challenging and rewarding.
“I haven’t done musical theatre in close to 30 years – since my teens,” he tells us while en-route to Walgreens to buy highlighters to help him go through last-minute script edits. “I haven’t had to memorize lines in 30 years and we’re rewriting material, so you memorize lines then it’s like, ‘Forget that, memorize this, then come back tomorrow with it.’ It’s the closest I can relate to Nick [Carter], on ‘Dancing with the Stars’, learning new routines every week!”
The musical was five years in the making, with Dorough setting out to make a solo family record with Grammy-nominated composer, Tor Hyams, who has worked with Lisa Loeb and Debbie Harry, and Hyams’ partner, Broadway performer, Lisa St. Lou.
As Dorough opened up about his childhood and the obstacles he faced with anxiety, shyness and his cultural identity (due to being half Irish-American/half Puerto Rican) Hyams encouraged him to draw on those struggles for songwriting. However, they quickly recognized the potential for a theatre production, so after releasing Dorough’s solo family album record, Which One Am I?, in July, the trio adapted the record into a musical.
“The biggest challenge was trying to fit the album songs into a narrative,” Hyams says. “Stand-alone songs and songs for musical theatre that have to move a plot along are very different beasts. It didn’t work, except for a couple of songs, so audiences will see an entirely different set of songs in the show.”
Directed by Matthew Gutschick, the production, still features three tracks from Which One Am I?, including “The Me I’m Meant to Be”, while the new music continues to explore the hurdles of Dorough’s youth – some of which he still deals with today.
“The worrying and anxiety’s still always a challenge for me,” he says. “It’s just the way I’m wired. It’s an ongoing work in progress. This musical has allowed me to embrace that and connect with others with similar issues.”
As he spends his downtime from the Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour devoted to the musical, which runs until Feb. 16, Dorough credits “amazing” Leigh for encouraging and supporting his dream.
“I don’t know where to start with how much support she’s given me, especially given I’m away from the family for six weeks while the rest of the guys have it off before tour,” Dorough says. “She holds down the fort back home, acting as to two parents, teacher, role model, disciplinary – everything.”
“My hat’s off to her because her job’s sometimes much harder than mine, but she’s so supportive,” he continues. “I came home last week for two days and she, my sister, Pollyanna, and my mom, helped me run lines.”
Leigh, James and the couple’s 6-year-old son, Holden, were there on opening night (with James even making a surprise appearance on stage) alongside longtime Backstreet Boys fans, the most dedicated of whom can still learn something new about Howie.
“Fans will learn a lot about the trials and tribulations young Howie went through, trying to find his identity and realizing at a young age that he wanted to be an entertainer,” Dorough says. “It wasn’t a job every parent would say, ‘Go for it,’ to because the likelihood of getting that break is like [winning] a lottery ticket. But I was able to find myself and, over time, make everybody else believers in me. The story’s loosely based on my life. There’s extra stuff that isn’t 100% [true,] but it’s a good representation of a boy finding his passion and wanting to pursue it from a young age.”