NEW YORK — The Manhattan audition destined to change 21-year-old Myles Frost’s life came to a sudden, scary halt. And it was his mother, 230 miles away, who charged to the rescue.
Frost most certainly did when the tryout resumed the next day. And that is how a Broadway neophyte won the role of pop megastar Michael Jackson.
There was also, of course, that other minor detail: When the allergies attacked, Frost was in the midst of blowing away Lynn Nottage and Christopher Wheeldon, the book writer and choreographer-director of “MJ,” the bio-musical that has been playing to wildly enthusiastic full houses at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre since December. When the Tony Awards nominations were announced last month, “MJ” racked up 10 nominations, second only to the 11 for “A Strange Loop,” and included nods for best musical and for best actor in a musical: one Myles Frost.
“We were beginning to despair of finding someone who fit the role,” Nottage recalled recently of that fateful spring 2021 audition. “And this very unassuming man walked into the room, and right in front of our eyes he transformed into Michael Jackson. We kind of turned to each other with our mouths open. And we said, ‘What did we just see?’ ”
What they saw was a young man of extraordinary natural gifts and a serene, guileless confidence.
“I didn’t know who these people were,” Frost, now 22, said via Zoom about facing a panel that included two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nottage and ballet-world star Wheeldon. “I walk in, I have my little white fedora, and I say, ‘Hi, my name is Myles Frost, and I’ll be auditioning for the role of Michael Jackson.’ Chris [Wheeldon] and I laugh at this now because, you know: You introduce yourself and say what you will go for — and they’re like, 'Yeah, we know that!’ ”
The opportunity and responsibility that have been heaped on an untested talent are remarkable. Imagine it: The first time you stepped on the musical theater stage was as a high school freshman and you got the part of Seaweed in “Hairspray” in a production at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville. (“I’ll be completely honest with you. I’d never heard of a ‘musical’ before,” Frost recounted.) Then, while an undergraduate at Bowie State University in Maryland, you’re selected for the gargantuan assignment of convincing 1,400 Broadway customers, eight times a week, that you are MJ incarnate. Singular voice, sequined glove, slinky moonwalk and all.
“I matured in that moment,” Frost said of the phone call from Wheeldon with the offer. “I think that was the first time I’ve ever experienced maturity in real time. I felt myself becoming an adult. In that moment, I felt like, ‘Okay, it’s time to get out of the college party mentality.’ Like this is the beginning of Myles Frost as a grown man.”
In “MJ,” he is Jackson as a grown man. Two other actors play younger versions of the pop idol at various points in a vibrantly danced show that revolves around rehearsals for Jackson’s 1992 world tour. The focus is on Jackson’s artistic development and only tangentially touches on the allegations of sexual abuse of boys that embroiled him in police investigations and lawsuits. Frost has had to contemplate that facet of the star’s story without internalizing it — because the exertions in becoming MJ are so intense.
“If there was any time to be like, ‘What did I get myself into?,’ it’d be when I was offered the role,” Frost said. “It was such a deep moment for me because I thought about all the different possibilities. You know, I thought about the allegations. I thought about the physical demands of this, then understanding that I’d be doing this more times than Michael did.”
But not taking on the role was never a serious consideration. “I don’t believe that God puts you through anything that you can’t handle,” he added.
The path to Broadway started in the maternity wing of a Washington hospital. Frost grew up in nearby Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the son of a single mom who worked as a systems engineer. Charmayne Strayhorn had a fierce love of God and an equally fierce faith in her children’s gifts: Around the neck of newborn Myles — named by her and then husband Irving Frost for jazz great Miles Davis — Strayhorn fastened a special little bib.
“A Star is Born,” it read.
Critics would validate the inscription two decades later. “Mimicking Jackson’s breathy intonations — the voice of a man in charge who forces you to lean in, to hear — Frost is magnetic and earthy and mysterious,” I wrote in my opening-night review. “You feel the eerie presence of someone who might any second float away in a 'Wizard of Oz’ balloon basket.”
Strayhorn insists she sensed it prenatally. “He was active inside of me — you could just see my belly just roll,” she said in a Zoom interview from her home in Rockville. “And I just felt like he was special in that way. Didn’t know to what degree of course, but at an early age, I instilled in him that you’re a star. And you can do whatever you want to do.”
For Frost, that belief gave him a solid backbone, whether he was pursuing his youthful passions for golf and piano, or charting a path to a career as a recording artist. “She’s always been like that from since I was a child,” he said. “She always supported me in any and everything and was always there when I needed anything. Just like you’re born with talent, I think being born into a world with a mother like that is definitely a gem.”
Mother and son acknowledge that financial constraints required them to move around a lot with Frost’s sister (who’s 17 and wants to be an entertainment lawyer). But Strayhorn’s disciplined approach to parenthood kept day-to-day struggles from blurring his focus. “He had his moments of being a teenager, but he was a really nice kid offstage, with an incredible family that offered him a lot of support,” recalled drama teacher Jessica Speck, who taught at Wootton at the time and directed Frost in “Hairspray.”
Carla Ingram was Wootton’s chorus teacher and the person who first pointed Frost toward the stage. One day, she found him playing the grand piano in the chorus room. “She walks in and says, ‘Well, I hope there’s a voice behind that piano playing,’ ” Frost recalled. “I say yes, and she said, 'That’s great because we need more kids for this musical. We’re doing “Hairspray.” ’ Oh? Like I never heard of it.”
“It was the right voice at the right time,” said Ingram. “His poise and his energy are so positive.”
Years before, Strayhorn had sent Frost to audition for commercials. But it wasn’t until he was a teenager and posting his performances on YouTube — singing Jorja Smith’s “On My Mind,” for instance, and the Usher and Alicia Keys song “My Boo” — that people in the business began to take some notice and Frost took lessons from actor-producer Leland Thomas. Those efforts led to the audition for “MJ,” after Ephraim Sykes, the actor originally cast to play Jackson, left the production.
As a result, that newborn’s bib became a prophecy — culminating, perhaps, on Sunday night, when the Tonys are doled out.
“They told me that Michael Jackson didn’t understand starting at zero and working his way to 100 percent,” Frost said. “Michael only understood coming into the room at 100 percent and then seeing how far he could go.
“There was no way I could go through this process and not adopt that ideology, of always starting at 100.”
MJ, book by Lynn Nottage. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. At Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. mjthemusical.com/tickets. The Tony Awards will be broadcast June 12 on CBS and Paramount Plus.
An earlier version of this story said that Myles Frost's mother, Charmayne Strayhorn, lives in Gaithersburg. Her home is in Rockville. The story has been corrected.