“It’s like Whitman but on steroids”: Bryan Eng takes on Broadway


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Bryan Eng at the Jeff Awards in Chicago

By Ava Faghani

Bryan Eng unwillingly began his acting career in tears, begging his mother not to make him audition for his middle school’s musical. Brimming with dread as he scanned the script before the audition, Eng was clueless that his unwilling participation in Pyle Middle School’s production of “Guys and Dolls Jr.” would determine the future trajectory of his career.

A decade later, Eng anxiously awaited casting callbacks for “Plaza Suite,” which would determine his fate on Broadway. He could’ve never imagined the lasting passion he would develop for acting through his theater and music experience, specifically at Whitman.

Eng is a jazz musician and actor who graduated from Whitman in 2016. Eng filled his free time throughout high school with hours of dedication to the drama program and interacting with immense talent, he said. Eng made his Whitman Drama debut as a freshman in the musical “Anything Goes,” where he played the lead, Billy Crocker. In contrast with a typical high school musical lead, Eng was 13 years old when he scored the role.

“It was the happiest I had ever been in my life at that point,” Eng said. “I was running around the house so happy.”

Other cast members were astonished that a newcomer could steal their hopes for the lead — and some even dropped out of the production, he said. Nevertheless, the casting decision was almost unanimous among the drama department that Eng had star potential, according to former Choral Director Jeff Davidson, who invited Eng to Chamber Choir as a freshman, marking a first in program history, he said. 

“Bryan was one of the most talented kids we’ve ever had in the music program,” Davidson said. “Bryan was so advanced vocally that putting him in the chamber choir as a ninth grader was not a big stretch. He was a star in every way.”

Eng went on to perform in nearly every musical, play and talent show during his time at the school. Noah Franklin, who graduated in 2015, spent extensive time with Eng in the drama program and admired his commitment, he said.

“I remember Bryan being an absolute goofball and prankster in the green room,” Franklin said. “It was all love — all warm vibes. But when it came down to sharpening his craft, to leading others, to producing the best art possible, it was a fully serious deal for him.”

Eng performs in Whitman Dramas production of Anything Goes.” 

Eng took an interest in jazz music to enhance his acting and musical talents. While he had been playing piano for several years prior, it wasn’t until discovering jazz in 2014 that he realized just how important this genre was to him, he said. 

“The more I invested in it and practiced, the more it gave back to me,” Eng said. “It’s an unconquerable language; that’s why I love it so much.” 

At Northwestern, Eng studied Theater at the School of Communications and Music Direction at the Bienen School of Music. Eng continued performing throughout college and even conducted orchestras and musically directed multiple shows. Still, he set his sights beyond Chicago, hoping to reach more acting and musical outlets. 

“There was a limit that I reached,” Eng said. “There are incredible artists in Chicago, but for what I wanted to get out of the city, there weren’t enough artists who were taking it as seriously as I was. There also weren’t enough opportunities. I felt I had exhausted my opportunities.” 

The summer after his sophomore year in college, he contacted an agent at Stewart Talent Agency, and an acting frenzy began. Eng managed to complete his double major and graduate in just over three years and, with the help of his agent, seek out bigger roles. Between acting in commercials, popular shows like “Law & Order” and “Chicago Fire” and constantly working to improve his jazz skills, Eng’s career took off. However, amid playing Doody, alongside other roles in The Marriott Theatre’s production of Grease, the pandemic interrupted Eng’s career endeavors. 

Disappointed that he couldn’t take the stage, Eng used his extensive time at home to further pursue jazz. He began composing his music and practicing piano every day, he said. Drawing inspiration from 20th-century American composers like Jimmy Van Heusen and Hoagy Carmichael, Eng is on tour throughout the summer, accompanied by the Bryan Eng Trio, Bryan Eng Circle Room Trio and the Bryan Eng Sextet. Eng currently splits his career evenly between music and acting, switching between the two depending on his circumstances, he said. 

In February 2022, Eng hit his biggest break after scoring a role as two understudies in the Broadway musical “Plaza Suite.” The role required him to move to New York — and leave Chicago behind. Life in the Big Apple was everything Eng was looking for, he said, and the talent in the area felt familiar to home.

“If you want to [act] at the highest level, New York is undoubtedly the place you have to be,” Eng said. “The amount of talent in such a small, confined space is so inspiring. It’s like Whitman but on steroids.”

Getting into Plaza Suite consisted of a video audition and a phone call with the director. The musical had limited roles, and cast members included leads Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, so scoring a part wasn’t an easy task.

Eng performs as an understudy on the Broadway production of Plaza Suite.

The experience was unforgettable, Eng said. For over six months, Eng had the opportunity to relax backstage and develop friendships with industry legends, all while being paid. Eng credits his career to Whitman Drama.

“I fell in love with the performing arts during my time at Whitman Drama,” Eng said. “I totally attribute my success to that.”