John Allman, BOYS DANCE!

John Allman, BOYS DANCE!

Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

John Robert Allman: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thank you for these amazing children’s books which are really impressive. You have three. I have three, I should say, in front of me, which are amazing. I particularly love Boys Dance. All of them are through the American Ballet Theatre. I’m sure you can tell me more about that. Then there’s B is for Ballet and A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z. Tell me how you became a children’s book author.

John: It’s actually a little bit of a fun story because it was completely by accident. I was working one job ago at an advertising agency that focused on live entertainment. Most of our clients were Broadway shows. I’m a huge theater fan. Grew up doing theater. Love living in the city to be able to see theater, which has been one of the horrible things about this time, is that none of us can go do that. I thought it was funny that some of my coworkers didn’t really know their Broadways divas even though they worked in theater. It kind of was a gag gift. The idea just popped into my head. I ended up writing it out over the course of a couple days to give it to a coworker of mine as a gag, basically. Then that somehow coincided with another one of our colleague’s baby showers. I just put two and two together and couldn’t let go of the idea. I ended up just chewing on it for a while, telling a bunch of friends about it. Eventually, enough of them had said, “You never know what can happen in publishing. This is so funny. I would love to be able to give this to my friends’ kids too. You should go for it.”

I didn’t really know much about the process or the industry at that point. I did a little bit of research and realized that all you really had to do was pitch it around and cross your fingers. I really went into it totally blind. I cold emailed a bunch of agents. One of them, my amazing agent Kevin, got it immediately and offered to rep it. Then after going back and forth on a proposal over the course of the summer, one of the first two editors that he pitched it to turned out to be a huge theater fan herself and bought it instantly. He was like, “Settle in. It’ll probably be a year before this lands anywhere.” It was a week into pitching it, it was sold to Random House Children’s Books, which was crazy. I still don’t feel like that alone is real. I would’ve written it for free and been so happy for anyone to put it out there just to educate people about these dames that I love so much.

The fact that someone else saw that and then convinced somebody else to see that who had to convince a whole team of people to see that and then put up with having a very surreal, wonderful meeting at one point where we just sat there and went through every diva in the book and decided what show we’d draw her in and what costume she’d be wearing — it was this business meeting to do that. It was just truly amazing. Then from there, I lucked out. Knowing that I have a background in dance and theater and performing arts, my editor and her team did a deal with ABT to do a handful of books, not all children’s books, over a bunch of years and had a couple of ideas that they felt like because of A is for Audra, I might be right to take a stab at. They offered me to noodle on two of them. I couldn’t really decide between which one to do because I had just done an alphabet book. Following up A is for Audra with B is for Ballet felt fun. I also grew up doing dance and was very often the only guy in dance classes in Houston, Texas. There was a personal connection to Boys Dance that I felt like would just be too perfect to pass up, so they let me do both. These both just dropped this past September. They’re the first two books in Random House’s series of books with ABT.

Zibby: Wow. That is such a cool story. I love that. Good things happen to good people. It’s really nice to hear.

John: I think it’s a very good lesson in just following the North Star of your passion too. I never wanted to be a children’s book author, but I love theater. I love musical theater divas so much. The little kernel of wanting to be able to package that up and share it with friends’ kids, which I think tapped into something that so many musical theater fans feel which is that it’s something that they’re passionate enough about that they love to share it, there’s never really been something like this that you could give to someone to open their eyes to the breadth of all of these amazing performers in such a concise, kid-friendly way as opposed to the classic taking them to shows, which isn’t accessible for everyone and you have to be a certain age for, or listening to cast recordings, which is a little bit of a different experience too. It’s cool to have been able to just stitch it all together and package it up like this and be able to introduce people to these ladies that I love. Just sticking to your guns when an idea takes you, running with it, and seeing how far you can take it is definitely something I have learned the easy way.

Zibby: I’m curious, you reference in all the books — you have more bio information. You mention them, but then you go into more detail a lot at the end, like in Boys Dance for instance. I’m flipping through now just to find you the page. You have all these pictures and bio information on people like Calvin Royal III and Eric Tamm and James Whiteside and Arron Scott, then obviously in A is for Audra and even B is for Ballet. These are hilarious. I love this.

John: Our Sardi’s wall.

Zibby: Yes. I’m holding up the wall of the head shots at the back of A is for Audra, which is hilarious. You make it look like one of those signatures outside of a show or in the playbill or something. Did you send these books to those people?

John: We did. Part of the fun of when A is for Audra came out was just crossing my fingers and hoping that everyone in it was flattered and would share it and be an advocate for us. So many of them were. As a theater fan and a huge dork, to have Kristin Chenoweth blurb the book and then Instagram about it and say that it was so cool was just crazy, and two years in the making too. As I’m sure you know, picture books take forever to get done. Not only from the process of writing and then finding an agent and going through the sales process, but once it sold, it was over two years from that week in September that Random House bought it to it actually coming out. That entire time I was crossing my fingers that it would actually even happen and just holding my breath. Then for it to drop in such a big way with all of these women being so supportive was really crazy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel like that would be such a dream. Maybe I should do a children’s book with authors. I feel like those are my heroes the way that Broadway performers are for you. That would be kind of fun.

John: Totally. The cool thing about the back matter for Boys Dance is that — for A is for Audra and for B is for Ballet, I wrote the bios in the back just to give people a little bit more information, a tiny bit more information about each person. For Boys Dance, my editor and I actually went down to ABT after one of their core rehearsals. A bunch of their dancers stayed around after, their male dancers, and were gracious enough to just talk to us for a couple of hours over pizza and beer about their own histories growing up as boys in dance, how they found ballet, the obstacles they overcame to getting to the point where they are as professional ballet dancers now, and who their heroes were, what their dream roles were. As a dancer casually but not a professional-level ballet dancer, I would never know what turns they were most excited to finally nail or those littlest things like that. We were able to bake a lot of that into the book. Then ABT actually tapped a bunch of them to write their own mini memoirs which are what are in the back of that book. I didn’t even write those. They’re kind of personal essays on these dancers’ backgrounds and their encouraging love letters to young guys who might want to get into dance and haven’t had role models before. It’s really special. It was just so amazing that they not only gave us their time, but wrote these amazing blurbs for the back.

Zibby: That’s so great. In the back of Boys Dance under your bio, it says, “John Robert Allman, he was born and raised in Texas where he was often the only boy in dance class.” I was like, that’s a book right there. I would like to hear that story, please.

John: No story, really.

Zibby: What was it like growing up in Texas and being a dancer? What was your background like? What was it like for you?

John: I was lucky in that I had an incredibly supportive family. I had an incredibly supportive school environment. I mostly did all of my performing arts stuff, for the most part, at school, whether it was school plays or school dance classes or dance concerts or choir or any of that. I was lucky to be in an environment where there was tons of options. It was all amazing. I had these incredible teachers who didn’t bat an eyelash at any of my very young theatricality or interest in dance or any of that. I actually dedicated Boys Dance to my two dance teachers from Houston. They put me in class and saw things in me that I kind of knew I could do. I actually met one of them when he was new to our school and choreographed a musical. They gave me a little tap solo even though I didn’t really know how to tap. He just worked with me alone and really encouraged me to come out of my shell and master that in a way that I don’t think I could have if he hadn’t done that and was just so amazing.

Then from there, it snowballed. He drew me into actually taking class even though I was the only guy in those classes. Ended up doing concerts at the end of the year where, again, I was always the only guy in front of the entire school. Then eventually, we did a student choreography showcase. I think because I just really wanted to be him in a way, I choreographed a piece. I set it on three of my girlfriends who were also dancers for this student choreography showcase and then ended up — for some reason, one of them couldn’t do it in this big end-of-the-year performing arts celebration. I ended up dancing it with them again in front of the entire school and just loving it so much. Then went to college, and I didn’t major in theater, but I choreographed four shows at school. Now in the city, take dance class every now and again just to take up space and feel big and use my body in that way and see dance all the time. It’s really turned into a real lifelong passion of mine. It’s all because of Aaron, my dance teacher from freshman year.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. I feel like teachers need to know, especially now. I feel like teachers are just at their wits ends having left my remote school in the other room with the littlest guy to come in here and do this podcast. It is tough what they’re doing with all of this remote, and to know that no matter what they’re reaching these kids and making a huge difference for the contributions in the world. You and I wouldn’t be talking. I wouldn’t be holding these books. All these things would’ve been different. I wonder how many of the books around me wouldn’t have been written if people hadn’t had encouragement, or the books that are lingering inside people who haven’t yet had someone give them the boost that they needed.

John: Totally. I was insanely lucky.

Zibby: That’s so nice. It’s amazing. What other projects do you have in store now? I can’t imagine you’re going to stop, right?

John: It’s funny because I really never set out to be a children’s book author at all, but something about the seed of being able to share my passion and introduce young people to different areas of the arts I think has struck a little bit of a chord in me and also in people who want to be able to do that as well by giving books like these to young people. We are working on a few more in that vein. I don’t know that I can say what they are specifically yet because we’re still gestating on some of them and haven’t announced anything officially. We are doing a couple more, knock on wood, that’ll continue to flesh out just a little bit of arts intros for young people that I’m very excited about and feel very fortunate to be able to do.

Zibby: Did you feel like when you moved from Texas to New York that the world opened up in a whole new way for you with the live access to all the performances?

John: Yeah, kind of. Being a patron of the arts was always something that I was able to do even in Houston, which is where I grew up, mostly. It’s a huge city, so there are amazing arts organizations. I grew up seeing pretty much every show at the Alley Theatre, which is Houston’s Tony Award-winning regional theater that does incredible, first-class productions of plays and sometimes musicals. The Houston Ballet is obviously a world-class ballet company, where I saw my first ballet. I was fortunate to be immersed in it and have access to it then. It’s definitely clicked into a new gear when my family moved to New York City. The year that I went to college, actually, my parents moved to New York just by coincidence. I was going back and forth for breaks and at Thanksgiving and all of that. I was coming back from Chicago to New York and able to see like ten shows in five days. That was all I would do. It would be like, bye guys, and meet up with my friends in midtown or wherever and see as many shows as we could cram in before going back to school. That has stayed a huge part of my life. I was just reminiscing about how crazy it is to not have been in a theater in so long now when I probably hadn’t gone longer than a week before in eight years. It’s just crazy. I feel very lucky to have been able to see as much as I saw when they first moved and been able to make that such a big part of my life.

Zibby: Have you been watching any virtual things like the Hamilton thing on — the virtual productions versions?

John: Yes. There have been some amazing moments, especially early on, where I feel like all of us were so shellshocked that being able to kind of commune together and watch some of these virtual events was such a needed faux substitute for the feeling of being in an audience. You’d be online tweeting with people about what was happening in real time. It just felt similar to a big lightning rod moment like when a show opens and everyone’s chattering about it. There was a Sondheim Birthday Concert early on where they had all of these incredible Broadway actors and actresses performing from home in a series of Zoom performances. Then obviously since then, there have been so many amazing workarounds for being able to share live theater and arts during this time, including Hamilton on Disney+, which I loved. Actually, just last night I watched — City Center’s gala this year is a brand-new concert that they filmed in the theater with Audra McDonald. It was so crazy and kind of jarring. As a substitute in between these events that have been produced for this moment, I’ve been binging older canned performances from people every now and again just to feel something and feel like I’m watching a live performance.

She programmed the night and chose her songs and wrote her banter for this moment. All of a sudden, after months of really not seeing anyone in concert like that, you have Audra McDonald opening her concert with a song called “Solitude” and speaking to the moment that we’re all feeling of being so alone right now, and then shifting gears and doing some other rep, and then coming back to it and doing “Some Other Time” from On the Town, which is this gorgeous song about catching up down the line since we’re out of time now, but I’ll see you later, or “A Place For Us” from West Side Story, these amazing standards that take on such a crazy new meaning in this context. To see her perform them so beautifully and really cater the evening towards an audience that’s all over the place, at home alone or with their families, was just really special. I highly recommend it to anyone. I think it’s available for another week on New York City Center’s website.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m going to have to go do that with my daughter.

John: Hopefully, they do something else with it. It’s stunning. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Zibby: Wow. Have you thought about teaching kids dance or teaching kids about this whole world in any other way?

John: You know, I haven’t. I work in TV by day. I’m in marketing. I’ve been thinking a little bit just with how much is blowing up in the content space across all of these different streaming platforms about what it could be like to look at some of this through a lens of kids’ TV sort of like CBS Sunday Morning for kids that teaches them about all of these different arts areas and people. I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s fun that it’s such a ripe area to have tapped into and be able to explore in different mediums. I haven’t thought too much about anything concrete beyond the books.

Zibby: I know a school where you could get involved in including a couple of mine. Maybe you could start by rolling it out on Zoom.

John: Totally. I did choreograph a few musicals for local elementary and middle schools growing up. I would love, if I ever had the time and could be there during the day, which is tough on a nine-to-five work schedule to do something like that again, just to move around and be able to share a love of performing with young people in the same way that it was shared with me.

Zibby: My two little guys are doing an after-school Frozen II Zoom class, which has been very tricky to get them to focus on the computer and having them say their lines. They’re six and seven. It’s really cute. They have their whole dress rehearsal and then performance next week.

John: That’s amazing. They’re putting together the whole show on Zoom?

Zibby: Oh, yeah.

John: Wow.

Zibby: It’s been a semester-long project.

John: That’s incredible. The creativity of the way that folks have been able to use that to string together really, really phenomenal programming has been blowing my mind. That’s amazing.

Zibby: I’ll send you the link.

John: Please do. I would love to see.

Zibby: John, this is amazing. I’m so impressed with you. I feel like you should be running a theater and you should not be in marketing for TV. I want to guide you to the calling that you probably . I’ll stay out of your business. You should certainly be on the board of a theater or something.

John: I don’t know about that, but thank you.

Zibby: All right. Well, I’m going to follow up with you about this. I feel like there’s such a, not waning interest, but so much of the theater-going population pre-COVID was becoming a much older audience. I was actually on the board of Lincoln Center Theater for the young people when I was young, trying to counteract the aging thing and inject some life and excitement into younger people to go into the theater. Not that you need that. You’re obviously totally on board. To spread that contagious joy and excitement, it would be awesome.

John: It’s definitely an energy like none other for me. I feel like if anything, if these books encourage anyone to go take a dance class or to listen to a cast recording for the first time or to see a show, I feel like even one, then my work here is done.

Zibby: I’m about to stand up and dance right now. Watch out.

John: Not to get overly sappy about it, but I think now more than ever, really, we’re a society so in need of empathy. I think live performance and theater especially are so uniquely positioned to foster that if you’re open to it. Just getting more people into seats to experience things live and communally and to let them chip away at them a little bit, it’s just so important. I’m very hopeful that we can start getting back to that as soon as we can.

Zibby: Yes, sounds great. Do you have a favorite play or anything, favorite musical, just to leave us with? Can you pick one?

John: I hesitate to because I feel like it just ebbs and flows with my mood. I love so many for so many different reasons. If I had to, Gypsy is probably my favorite show. I’m a sucker for a good diva turn. I’m also a sucker for theater about theater. I don’t think either of those things get better than that show.

Zibby: Awesome. Fantastic. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on this podcast. Thanks for all the books. I’m just so excited to have connected.

John: Of course. Thank you so much for having me. Ditto. It’s been a pleasure to chat.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

John: See you. Bye.

John Allman, BOYS DANCE!