When Kayla Pecchioni ('14) was a student in Northern Kentucky University’s Theatre & Dance program, the prospect of even making it to Broadway seemed to her like an ambitious goal: the sort of thing you might daydream about between classes while keeping your expectations more realistic. Last spring, however, the Kentucky native realized her dream—and then greatly surpassed it—all over the course of a single production.
Pecchioni made her Broadway debut in April 2022 as part of a musical that was also playing on Broadway for the first time: "Paradise Square", a historical drama set during the Civil War in New York City depicting the unlikely cross-cultural affinity between free Black Americans and Irish immigrants living in the Five Points slum. She performed every night as part of the show’s ensemble, but also understudied the lead role of Nelly O’Brien, played by Joaquina Kalukango, who would later be named Best Actress in a Musical at the 75th Tony Awards in June. On May 22, she had the chance to sub in for Kalukango, making her principal debut.
“Being unique and realizing what sets you apart from everyone else is something that you have to hold onto.”
“I happened to be at the right place at the right time, I assume,” Pecchioni says. “Over the pandemic, a lot of our communication became things like self tapes and online performances. I’d gotten this random audition for a show called 'Paradise Square', and I mean, I barely auditioned for it.I sent in a video of me singing one song, which was the now-iconic song from the show, ‘Let It Burn,’ and Nellie’s opening monologue, but that was it.”
Pecchioni’s brief audition clearly made a major impression on the production’s casting team. She says that her multifaceted role in "Paradise Square", performing daily while keeping multiple roles in her back pocket, revealed a flexible skill set she didn’t realize she possessed.
“It felt like a really cool undiscovered superpower,” Pecchioni says. “I actually booked my second Broadway show, 'Some Like It Hot,' the day after Paradise Square closed. My role in that show is as a swing. That means that means my job is to be offstage at the theater. If anyone who's in the show every single day goes out, I go in. It's a responsibility of now having eight roles in my backlog that I can pull out at any moment.”
Most notably, this arsenal of roles includes Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 film that the new production is based on. The production premiered Nov. 1, 2022, at the Shubert Theatre.
According to Pecchioni, NKU’s Theatre program emphasized the versatility that has proved so valuable in her career.
“They were really focused on us becoming Renaissance people,” she says. “A lot of us had the goal of becoming a performer on the stage, the lead or the star. But when we didn’t have that opportunity or weren’t cast in a show, they’d put us to work in the box office, backstage or as crew. It gives you an appreciation for all that's going on around you. Even when there are times where I'm like, ‘Oh no, maybe the next job won't come around,’ I'm like, ‘Well, I could be a stage stage manager. I could be crew. I could be the dresser.’”
Her advice to current NKU students with similar ambitions is to embrace their individuality, even if doing so seems at odds with the theater world’s status quo.
“I always talk about the experience of going to NKU almost as though we were like a band of hippies—It's such an alternative school,” she says. “Especially when you're doing theater, a lot of people may tell you to fit yourself into this box so that you are marketable. I actually have the opposite advice. I think being the band of weirdos, so to speak, being unique, and realizing what sets you apart from everyone else is something that you have to hold onto.”
After graduating in 2014, Pecchioni worked on cruise ships and at theme parks to save money and gain experience. By the time she moved to New York City in 2016, she had little trouble finding work. Just three days after leaving her home in Louisville, she booked her first job at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Though Paradise Square was technically Pecchioni’s first appearance on Broadway, she joined the cast of "The Book of Mormon" as Nabulungi in 2017 on the production’s second national tour: her first professional leading role, and one that she filled for nearly two years.
Pecchioni wasn’t always dead set on Broadway. Growing up, she didn’t have major exposure to musical theater, and instead mostly focused on dance.
“I loved the competition aspect of it. It really made it more of a sport to me,” she says. “Then I went to Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School. I was brought into the musical theater program in my senior year because I had a strong dance background and could kind of sing. I truly wanted to have a career in dance, but I knew I didn't want to be a company dance member or like a ballerina or something like that. Finding musical theater’s mix of theater, dance and singing and the flashiness of it all was very appealing to me.”
Reaching this point in one’s theatrical career is a rare feat for a Kentucky native—a fact that Pecchioni says she is acutely aware of.
“I’ve been in such art-saturated environments, and you hear about Broadway being this sort of pinnacle,” she says. “I was around so many people that were like, ‘I am definitely going to end up on Broadway.’ But I didn’t have that mindset. I was like, ‘Okay, y’all are the ones.’ Now, standing where I stand, looking back, I feel very lucky. To put it plainly, I just realize that especially being a queer, black woman from Kentucky, I beat the odds.”