Multitalented junior talks “Tommy,” a capella, and dancing in the back row
Rock n’ roll was a staple and pastime in John Degnan’s, ’18, life. His dad played alternative rock around the house, the first stadium concert he attended was a tour by the British band Genesis, and his favorite artist is genre-bending pianist Ben Folds. Taking all of this into account, it fits that he would be the one to play the leading role in one of the most acclaimed rock operas of the 20th century, “The Who’s Tommy.”
Degnan, an economics major, is a singer, actor, and musician originally from Bucks County, Pa. Since his freshman year, he has been a constant presence in two performance ensembles: SJU Theater Company, the in-house drama and musical theater organization, and 54th and City, the all-male a capella group on campus. While his studies lean toward a career in finance, there’s no denying that music has been a large part of his life from an early age.
“The first time I sang formally was in church choir in fourth grade,” Degnan said. “My parents always encouraged me to perform, so I had piano lessons as a kid and played in bands. Throughout all of middle school, it was just something that I enjoyed doing.” Additionally, Degnan was active in athletics, playing baseball throughout middle school. High school proved to be a different matter, as Degnan found that he had to choose between baseball and theater.
“Music was taking over my life, so I did “Guys and Dolls” in my sophomore year, and I played Nicely-Nicely Johnson,” Degnan said.
From that point, he continued performing, taking on the role of the Phantom of the Opera in his junior year and the Pirate King as a senior. That same year, he auditioned for the SJU Theater Company and was accepted on scholarship.
Degnan’s first musical at St. Joe’s was “West Side Story” his freshman year, and from the first rehearsal it was clear to him that he was going to be challenged.
“In my productions in high school, I didn’t do much dancing,” Degnan said. “There wasn’t much to choreograph. But the very first rehearsal for ‘West Side Story’ was a dance rehearsal for maybe three hours.”
He was put in the back rows of the ensemble for most of the dances, but did go on to land bigger roles as Giuseppe Zangara in “Assassins,” Rapunzel’s Prince in “Into the Woods,” and Enoch Snow in “Carousel.” Currently, he is in rehearsals to play the titular “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” in “Tommy,” set to premiere on Feb. 26.
Amanda Strydio, ’19, appeared with Degnan in “Into the Woods” and “Carousel,” and is playing the Acid Queen alongside him in “Tommy.”
“When I first met John, I thought he was very introverted and studious. He’s not crazy and screaming, like the rest of [the cast],” Strydio said. “But he was incredibly nice and welcoming, and we got closer working together on ‘Carousel.’”
In addition to his theater work, Degnan is in his third year as a member of the a capella group 54th and City. Degnan not only sings, but also arranges vocal pieces for the group. One of the first pieces he arranged was One Direction’s “Story of My Life,” where lead vocals were performed by fellow member Andy Powers, ’18.
“He brought to the table an arrangement of professional quality,” Powers said. “No one was expecting this from him, too. Everyone was sort of taken aback by his ability.”
He added that Degnan “makes practices more bearable,” and that those in the group greatly respect him.’
“Not because he demands it,” Powers said, “but because he has earned it with hard work and dedication to us.”
That spirit of professionalism is something that Degnan has always stressed in his performing career, as well as his life in general. “Even if you’re not the greatest singer or actor, but you’re on time and you want to be there, you’re going to get your props when they’re due,” Degnan said. It’s what people notice, not just what you do, but how committed you are to doing it.”