A Note From December Eldredge ATL Guest Editor David de Vries: Haden was a student of mine when I did an Artist in Residence at Brenau University back in 2012. The first thing I noticed about him was that he was just an incredibly nice young man — eager, engaging and polite. We were both performing in “The Producers” there—I was playing Roger deBree—and that’s when I heard him sing. And it was a “holy s#%&” moment. Haden has one of those voices that stops you dead in your tracks. When we performed together in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Aurora Theatre, I was playing the evil priest and he was Quasimodo, which gave us lots to do together. He’s a generous soul on and off the stage and my quasi-paternal relationship translated beautifully into what we were doing in the show. That nice guy thing is no act. He’s a class act from A-Z. But …you just have to hear him sing. It’s a touched-by-God larynx.
There’s no doubt Atlanta actor Haden Rider earned his 2018 Suzi Bass Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for his role of Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer in Aurora Theatre/Theatrical Outfit joint production of the Disney musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” For starters, he opted to play the part with both the character’s hump and voice defect intact. He also learned sign language for the role.
And then, Rider somehow managed to get through the opening weekend performances of the demanding show performing with strep throat.
“Honestly, it was a bit of a surprise when I finally went to the doctor and was told, ‘You’ve been singing with strep for over a week now,’” remembers Rider, laughing. “Tech weeks are always draining on your body and so I thought I was just overly tired. Truly, it was the amazing team of actors I got to work with in that show that got me through and informed my performance.”
With a critically acclaimed set of pipes, Rider is currently one of the busiest young male musical performers in the metro Atlanta area (he just finished up a series of sold-out shows performing in the 24th annual “Christmas Canteen” show at the Aurora where his duet of “O Holy Night” with Cecil Washington, Jr. routinely brought down the house).
In addition to his award-winning performance in “Hunchback,” Rider has shown off his versatility, stripping down for the sake of his art in “The Full Monty” (in Cobb County, no less) and portrayed the title character in “Jesus Christ Superstar” while wearing a hoodie and a T-shirt.
It’s remarkable then that theatregoers almost lost the actor to the gridiron. Until his senior year at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega, Rider was a running back for the high school football team.
“I did the whole Troy thing from ‘High School Musical,'” says Rider. “In my senior year, due to a mix up on my class schedule, I randomly fell into this drama fundamentals class. By chance, it was exactly what I wanted to do. I quit the football team and jumped into my first musical, ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ I just found a love and a passion for theatre.”
After graduating in 2014 with a BA in Theatre from the University of North Georgia/Brenau University in the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, Rider knew he wanted to work in children’s theatre. As a way of igniting the theatrical spark for other non-traditional theater kids like himself, with Carly Ann Berg, Rider co-created Play on Players Children’s Theatre.
So, after making his professional stage debut as Mary Sunshine in the Aurora Theatre production of “Chicago” in 2014, Rider quit acting to focus on his nonprofit.
A year later, Rider’s phone rang. On the other end of the phone was Alan Kilpatrick, who had played Billy Flynn beside him in “Chicago.” Kilpatrick’s pitch? “Wanna get naked?” Weeks later, Rider was singing — and stripping — as Ethan in “The Full Monty” at the Atlanta Lyric Theatre in Cobb County. Additionally, with castmate J. Koby Parker as Malcolm, Rider had to play a gay subplot on stage in a county that once infamously cut arts funding after Theatre in the Square staged a production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” in 1993.
“For me, ‘The Full Monty’ was about proving to myself that I could still do this after a year away,” says Rider. ‘It was about tackling the challenges of the role and listening to Alan, who told me, ‘It’s like riding a bike. You got this.’ If not for Alan, I probably wouldn’t be acting right now.”
His performance in “The Full Monty” got Rider noticed and he went on to land the roles of Radames in Disney’s “Aida” at Atlanta Lyric Theatre, Tony Elliot in “Billy Elliot” at City Springs Theatre and re-teaming under the direction of Kilpatrick to play the title role in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice classic rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2017 at the Lyric.
As Jesus, Rider even managed to earn praise from the ever-persnickety AJC freelance theatre critic Bert Osborne, who wrote: “with his teen heartthrob good looks and innate charisma, Rider makes the most of his showcase in the title role.”
Between his high-profile roles on Atlanta stages, Rider says he’s most content working with the scores of young people cast in junior versions of hit musicals including “Elf” and “Godspell” at the Gainesville-based Play on Players Children’s Theatre.
“When I was in that transitional phase back in high school, there was this festival in Atlanta called Junior Theatre Festival,” he explains. “I went to perform in that and it sealed the deal for me. I knew then this was what I wanted to do with my life. I’ll never forget the impact it had on me. For me, it’s been about inspiring kids to go out and live their lives with more courage. I wanted to give them the same experience I got to have.”
Rider also recognizes the power of bringing a nonprofit like Play on Players to North Georgia, where young people have fewer opportunities to explore live theatre.
“Geographically, Gainesville felt like a really great central location for people to come from Forsyth, Lumpkin and White counties. I know first-hand that theatre helps young people develop stronger communication skills. I’ve seen so many kids after they join, they overcome stuttering and other speech challenges. As they achieve more confidence and break out of their shells, they soar. Theatre has the ability to do that for young people.”
But don’t worry, Atlanta theatre fans, Haden Rider will also continue to practice his craft onstage. Already on the books for 2020 is a Jan. 11 concert performance of “Guys and Dolls” as Nicely Nicely Johnson at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre in Marietta. Throughout April, Rider can be seen as Huck Finn in the Atlanta Lyric Theatre production of “Big River.”
As a high schooler, Rider performed in the ensemble of “Big River” when it was staged at the historic Holly Theatre in his hometown of Dahlonega. Says the actor: “To be able to come back and revisit a show I haven’t touched since high school will be quite an experience for me. I can’t wait.”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.