Ephraim Sykes was a multi-talented teenager. While at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, FL, he was a dancer, a musician, a basketball and football player. “I kind of teetered between jock and artist,” he says. “I rode this very fine line between really cool kid and nerdy artsy kid.”
Unlike Seaweed J. Stubbs, the part he’ll play December 7 for television audiences across the nation watching NBC’s Hairspray Live!, he didn’t spend much time in detention rehearsing the “Peyton Place After Midnight” dance combination. He practiced his moves at the ballet barre, perfecting pirouettes and switch leaps.
Though it wasn’t detention, there was still a time when Sykes got in trouble in high school, but it was because he was trying to do it all and had to lie to his dance teachers to play in a football game. Sykes and his friend claimed, “We have to stay behind and take some finals that we didn’t get to take yet…so we have to be late to rehearsal,” he says. “I was literally coming to the sidelines off the field and taking off my helmet, and up walks—through the center of the field—my dance teacher in her jazz shoes. [She] grabs me by my shoulder pads and just drags me off the field in front of the whole school.”
His dance skills combined with his team-oriented mindset paid off, and he was accepted to the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, where he studied dance with Fordham University and The Ailey School. Musical theatre was an afterthought, as Sykes was seriously involved in concert dance and eventually began touring with Alvin Ailey’s Second Company.
When he completed his time with the Second Company and didn’t make the transition to First Company, he was looking for a new avenue to dance down. At company auditions, “I would get down to the very end, and it would be between me and one other guy, and I’d end up always losing out,” he admits. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and how to go about it, and one of the choreographer’s assistants who choreographed me at Ailey II happened to be this guy James Brown III, who was the dance captain at The Little Mermaid at the time. He all of a sudden gives me a call and was like, ‘Hey, you’re perfect for this show. We want to bring you in for an audition.’
“He said, ‘Bring your book.’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know what a book is. Bring what? A Bible?’ He said, ‘Bring your book, bring your tap shoes.’ I didn’t even have tap shoes. I had these old raggedy character shoes that I screwed taps onto—never could tap. I had just learned how to flip at the beach a few months before that in the summer—[it was] literally two weeks before I had done my first backflip. They said, ‘Be prepared to tumble, and be prepared to [skate in] Heelys.’ I was like, ‘What the hell is a Heely?’ This was my first Broadway audition, [my] first musical theatre audition at all, and I go in there, and it’s a small room. Lo and behold, I sing, I tumbled with my eyes closed, and made it and survived. I put on these freakin’ Heelys and skated across this room. I faked my way through that tap dancing, and I booked this job that was The Little Mermaid. That was my first big job.”
Since then, he’s been on Broadway in Memphis, Newsies, Motown the Musical, and the megahit musical Hamilton. Now, on December 7, he will play Seaweed opposite Ariana Grande’s Penny and son to Jennifer Hudson’s Motormouth Maybelle—a dream he never thought he’d see come true.
“I was on a plane just the other day going over the music and got to the song ‘I Know Where I’ve Been,’ and just the thought of [Jennifer Hudson] singing the song next to me is…it’s giving me chills right now,” he says. “I’m excited to try out things that I never thought were possible.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.