Corbin Bleu has been singing, dancing and acting since he was a kid. He was only 15 years old when he made his big-screen debut in the 2004 adventure comedy Catch That Kid. But it wasn’t until two years later, when he booked the life-changing role of Chad Danforth in High School Musical, that he became a household name.
That role opened many doors for Bleu, and it reignited his love of music. “Once my voice started changing in high school, I started to shy away from it a bit,” he told reporters last month at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. “Following High School Musical, I did start to do a lot more music and recording.”
There was a catch, though. Since everyone knew him from HSM, they expected him to do more of the same kinds of projects. Before he knew it, Bleu was getting typecast and he wasn’t sure how to break free.
“Because I had come from that show, from those sets of movies, the style and the genre that I was expected to sing was always pop,” he continued. “It was always these tenor roles and I’m always screaming. It felt like, ‘I don’t feel like I can do this. I don’t know if I’m made to do this.’”
It wasn’t until Bleu was in his mid-twenties that he finally found the voice he’d been seeking. The performer was introduced to “these Golden Age crooning sounds” that he eventually wanted to develop. “I really resonated with it,” he explained.
“I started to follow that path a lot more, and now I find that’s definitely the path I feel more warm in, most at home in.”
Crooning, a genre that began in the mid-1920s, was a natural fit for Corbin since it’s typically sung by male performers with enhanced light voices. Since discovering his love of the style, Bleu has crooned in plenty of Golden Age Broadway imaginings like Kiss Me, Kate and Holiday Inn. Now, he’s bringing that style to international audiences as a part of PBS’s Black Broadway, which debuts Feb. 28.
The special takes a deep dive into the history of Black roles and voices on Broadway, and also features performers like Stephanie Mills, Nova Payton, Norm Lewis and Tiffany Mann. It’s meant to be a celebratory look at Black performers, something Bleu was especially excited to participate in.
“[By] showing our joy, part of that also creates a sense of normalcy,” he says. “I am always grateful when we have representation and have the opportunity to tell the stories. It’s important that we remember our history. But there are times where I watch and I go, ‘I can’t watch another slave movie.’ I can’t do it,” he continued.
“What happens is, is that becomes the mindset. That if we’re going to see a show with predominantly Black people, that we are going to see struggle. We don’t always want to go to see a show of struggle.”
He added that, when he goes to see entertainment, it’s often because he wants to forget. He wants to spend a few hours living in someone else’s shoes and maybe walk away feeling better than when he went into the theatre in the first place.
“It’s just about everyone doing their part to play that representation, to support, and to leave room for that joy to take place, and know that it’s a very capable and tangible thing,” he added.
Looking forward, Bleu said he would love to “sink his teeth” into something completely new and original for the reasons he explained above. But he also said it’s been an honour playing the roles he has, in particular the roles of Ted Hanover (originated by Fred Astaire) in Holiday Inn and Don Lockwood (first brought to life by Gene Kelly) in Singin’ In the Rain.
“All of these performers that I grew up watching and loving, inspired me so much. Yet I didn’t see myself up there,” he said, before revealing the one existing role he’d love to tackle: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I’ve always wanted to play Frank-N-Furter,” he laughed. “I know that it’s probably by no means what [you] expected. But man, can I dance with some heels.”