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From Gammage usher to center stage: ASU School of Music grad Christopher Johnstone returns to Tempe in “Evita”

ASU School of Music alum Christopher Johnstone rehearses for "Evita" with Caroline Bowman, who plays Eva.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

December 06, 2013

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Christopher Johnstone heard great things about the music department at Arizona State University from his grandparents, who lived in Sun City West.

When it came time to look for colleges, Johnstone said, “my fantasy school away from home was ASU. For fun, when we went to visit my grandparents, we also checked out the school, and it became the reality.”

“Coming from Iowa, ASU was such an inspiring, new, flashy, cool place. It wasn’t just the palm trees: It was also the program, which was very solid. There were a lot of amazing singers, dancers, performers. And then (there was) Grady Gammage (Memorial Auditorium). I was an usher there in 2002 and 2003. I could see all these shows for free. That was great training, just watching that.”

Johnstone graduated from the ASU School of Music in 2003 with a degree in vocal performance. Music professor David Britton, with whom Johnstone studied, remembers him as “a stalwart mid-Western young man with a strong work ethic and a fine natural talent.”

This week, Johnstone, 32, brings that fine natural talent back to ASU in the national touring production of the musical “Evita,” Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning musical.

Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music, said, “It’s a source of pride for the ASU School of Music when we welcome our alums back to the Valley as professionals performing in productions like ‘Evita.’ It’s a testament to the great training our students receive from the world-class faculty in our school.”

Johnstone plays Agustin Magaldi, a tango singer that Eva Peron, known as Evita, meets when she is just 15.

“They have a one-night stand,” Johnstone said, “and then she and the family pressure him to take her to Buenos Aires. Basically he’s just a ticket to get there and she leaves him in the dust.”

What Johnstone likes most about the role, he said, is that he gets to “show off vocally, but also be someone that I totally am not” – in other words, a self-centered jerk. He also likes the fact that when his character gets to Buenos Aires, he and Evita dance up a storm. Johnstone, who had some dance training growing up, said that most classical singers play leads don’t often get the chance to dance. “In opera or operetta, it’s the chorus that dances.”

Johnstone would know. After ASU, he received his masters in opera performance from California State University at Long Beach, then did a post masters at the rigorous Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. On top of that, he was working professionally.

When he finished at the Cincinnati Conservatory, he moved to New York City, because “that’s where you audition for everything.”

“I had been doing lots of concert work and operas around the U.S.” Johnstone said. “I went to an open call for (the musical) “South Pacific” because I’d seen it on Broadway. I ended up being the understudy for Lieutenant Cable and Emile (de Becque). And being in the ensemble. It made no sense for me to be understudying Emile de Becque, because he’s a 44-year-old Frenchman, but I could sing it. I toured for a year with that production, and that was my transition from opera to musical theatre.”

Johnstone said he loved the idea of using his classical training to sing in English, “where my family can come and understand and I can tour the country with it.” And, he said, he really enjoyed how much acting was involved in musical theater.

The audition process for “Evita” took 3 or 4 months, Johnstone said, with seven auditions in all. “They needed to cast very specific types in roles,” Johnstone explained. “For my character, they needed someone who could sing legit and also dance with [Evita].” When Johnstone isn’t onstage as Magaldi, he’s part of the ensemble.

Krystina Alabado, who studied with Britton at ASU, although not at the same time as Johnstone, was also cast in the musical, as Juan Peron’s mistress. She appears as part of the ensemble, too. Johnstone said he and Alabado have talked about their Arizona days and have become good friends.

Leaving Arizona as an aspiring singer and returning with a big role in a nationally touring musical is “a little bit of rags to riches,” Johnstone said. He’s very aware that this is the first time he’ll be back at ASU and performing at Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, where he once ushered and where, once, a decade ago, he walked out of the stage door and got asked for his autograph, “because they thought I was in the show.”

“I was on Cloud 9,” Johnstone recalled. “And now, it’s for real.”

For anyone dreams of following in his singing, dancing footsteps, Johnstone has some hard-earned advice: “Talent is nice, but its mostly hard work, and if you want it, go for it. It’s hard work, but it’s also worth it.”

To see Johnstone perform in "Evita," which runs Dec. 3–8, or to learn more about the show, visit the Gammage box office

Public Contact: 
Deborah Sussman Susser
Communications and Media

Media Contact:
Deborah Sussman Susser
Communications and Media