A.J. Shively (‘Paradise Square’) isn’t a dancer by trade, but he’s hoofed his way to his 1st Tony nomination [Exclusive Video Interview]

“It still really hasn’t sunk in. It’s wild,” exclaims A.J. Shively of his first ever Tony nomination. The performer was recognized for his work in the new musical “Paradise Square.” The nominee’s character Owen gets to shine the most during extended dance sequences, though Shively says he “did not grow up dancing.” He admits that he’s still coming to terms with the massive amount of choreography he performs in the show, so the Tony recognition is “that much more special.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Shively has been involved with “Paradise Square” since a 2018 workshop, where the creative team informed him that “there might be a moment of Irish dancing” for Owen. “Cut forward a few years and I’m doing five minute long dance solos. It’s insanity,” quips the actor. He pulls off flawless Irish Step routines as Owen, who enters a dance competition in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, and emerges as one of the top dancers. Not bad for an actor who describes his dance abilities as “mover-plus.”

SEE 2022 Tony Awards predictions: Who will win on June 12?

“I grew up doing martial arts, so I had body awareness,” explains Shively. Though he credits the choreographers for translating that body awareness into the fancy footwork that wows audiences night after night. Irish dance choreographers Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis spent countless hours with him one-on-one in the studio to get him ready. He also believes that choreographer Bill T. Jones’ artistic outlook helped him see past any lack of experience, or preconceived notions of his own limitations: “The best art happens outside the lines that you draw for yourself.”

The nominee’s own heritage proved to be a major factor in helping him connect with dancing, and the character as a whole. “One of the reasons that this project was so attractive to me is, this is how and when my family came to America from Ireland,” reveals Shively. His clan didn’t end up in the Five Points, or even New York, but he is struck by the fact that Owen easily could have been a relative. Dancing then, is perhaps in his blood. “I hear that Irish whistle and hear that fiddle,” explains Shively, “and it does something to my DNA. It resonates so deeply within me.”

“I was astounded that it was true,” says the actor of the culture and stories of the Five Points. While many specific characters in “Paradise Square” are invented, it accurately portrays the multicultural society (where interracial marriage and openly LGBTQ people were accepted) and major events like the Draft Riots. Sparked by a need for Civil War soldiers, the uprising quickly became a race riot.

Though the musical takes place in the 1860’s, the events that it depicts feel close to home for a contemporary audience. “The relevance of it deepens and shifts with the news cycle,” details Shively. The Broadway run commenced around the time of the invasion of Ukraine, which made the themes of war resonant more loudly. And after the recent, hate-fueled mass shooting in Buffalo, the performer draws a quick parallel: “it’s what happened in Manhattan in the 1860’s.” Ultimately, Shively is happy that the show is shining a light on history which is repeating itself, even as his own character succumbs to division and hatred before seeing the light. “Owen gets caught up in it,” he explains, “It’s not until he has a personal stake in it…that he’s able to snap out of the spell.”

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