Willem Butler ’22 has been named the national college winner of the first-ever BroadwayWorld “Next On Stage” competition.
Everyone is asked about their career aspirations as children, but it’s not often that those career dreams become a reality. For Willem Butler ’22, the dream is still very much alive.
“When I was 5, I decided that this was what I wanted to do, and it hasn’t stopped,” he said.
Butler recalls the beginning of his love of theater, watching his four older brothers perform and seeing how they captivated audiences from the stage. That brotherly inspiration led Butler to take the stage himself in productions of “The Ugly Duckling” and “A Christmas Carol” by the time he started grade school.
Today, the music theatre major from Huntsville, Alabama, is continuing to pursue his childhood dreams of professional acting. In his time at Elon, Butler has played in “Sweeney Todd,” “Once on This Island” and “We Will Rock You.” Recently, his career took another step forward as he received special recognition from the industry he hopes to join one day soon.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, stages closed their curtains. To help actors of all ages continue to chase their passion in the midst of all the uncertainty, BroadwayWorld launched “Next On Stage,” an online musical theatre singing competition for student performers, sponsored by Broadway Records, to highlight some of the nation’s up-and-coming stars.
The six-week competition encouraged high school and college musical theatre enthusiasts to record themselves performing a musical number and be critiqued by a panel of experienced judges each week until one winner was selected. More than 1,600 students submitted videos, but only 25 could move past the first round. Butler waited nervously through a livestream event to see if his rendition of “Made of Stone” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was good enough to advance past the first round. Name after name was called, but none were his. Then came the final three names.
“As soon as they said my name, I couldn’t believe it because I truly was about to shut it off and not even think about it,” Butler said.
His was the final name called that day, and Butler was on to round two.
The next week, Butler performed “For Forever” from “Dear Evan Hansen” and advanced again. Then came “Maria” from “West Side Story;” “Top of the World” from “Tuck Everlasting;” and “Santa Fe” from “Newsies.” Each week, Butler continued to advance through the competition, receiving positive feedback from judges like Courtney Reed, Lesli Margherita, Kate Rockwell, and one of his musical theatre inspirations, Derek Klena.
As his successful run continued, Butler made his way to the finals. Competing against three other contestants, he submitted a passionate performance of “Goodbye” from “Catch Me If You Can.”
His performance earned him the votes to be crowned the first-ever college-level winner of BroadwayWorld’s online competition. Butler describes the time since the announcement as “other worldly.” He’s been in frequent contact with the competition’s judges and has received praise and feedback from Broadway stars.
“That’s when it hit me, and I said ‘oh, this is even bigger than I thought it was,’” Butler said.
The honor came with the opportunity to record a single to be released by Broadway Records with proceeds going to The Actors Fund, a virtual voice lesson with industry pro Matt Farnsworth, and a session with Telsey + Company’s Rachel Hoffman to hone his audition skills.
But for Butler, the most important prize was $1,000 to donate to the charity of his choosing. He has decided to give to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of friends and family who have been impacted by the disease.
“It’s really hard to watch someone going through something like that, and it’s one of my biggest fears in life is forgetting people who I love,” Butler said. “This was the perfect opportunity for people not only to direct their attention toward this charity but also for me to help out in some way.”
For Butler, the ability to use his craft to give back is what makes all the stress of the competition worth it. He hopes this recognition will help him continue to share his love of theatre on whatever stage the future has in store for him.
“My main goal has never been to get to Broadway, my main goal has never been to be famous,” Butler said. “My main goal has been how can I make a living off of doing performing? As long as I’m performing and doing something I love and making a living off of it, I will be fulfilled, no matter what.”