Just last year, Leo Manzari was dancing on stage at the Cutler Majestic Theatre with Maurice Hines and other renowned Broadway performers.
This year, he’s back in Boston—and hopes to be back on that same stage—as a freshman performing arts student at Emerson College.
Manzari spent his teenage years tapping on famous Broadway shows and performing on TV with his brother John. Now at Emerson, Manzari is focusing on his acting career while his brother writes music and choreography in New York.
Together, they form the tap dancing duo The Manzari Brothers.
At 15, Manzari and his older brother, who was 17 at the time, auditioned for Sophisticated Ladies, a play in Washington, D.C. based on the music of Duke Ellington which ran the entire year of 2010.
Hines, the star and choreographer of the show, saw the duo perform at The Duke Ellington school in Washington, said Manzari, and invited them to the audition.
“Maurice branded us The Manzari Brothers, and really created that platform for us,” Manzari said.
Manzari said Hines saw enough potential in him and his brother that Hines chose them to perform on his Tappin’ Thru Life tour just three years later in 2013—which was previewed at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson a year before the tour started.
“Performing at the Cutler Majestic Theatre definitely had something to do with me going to Emerson,” Manzari said, “and it remains one of my favorite theaters I’ve performed at so far.”
Over the last five years, Manzari spent his teenage years a little differently than most. He said he and his brother have performed at renowned arenas, including the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and the Apollo Theater. He said he has also been on BET’s The Mo’Nique Show in 2011, TV fundraisers, and PBS specials, including one airing Oct. 31 titled Michael Feinstein At The Rainbow Room.
“I am not going to lie and say it wasn’t tough.” Manzari said. “There were definitely times I’d rather be out with my friends than performing eight shows a week, but I was so grateful to be on stage with talented dancers, singers, and musicians performing for audiences that love art, and that overpowered everything.”
One major performance Manzari and his brother did was for Fox’s popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance. The Manzari Brothers were invited as guests for the seventh season finale in August 2010 and did a two minute tap routine that ended with a standing ovation from the judges.
“So You Think You Can Dance is one of the biggest television shows that showcases dancing, so it felt like a major point in our career.” Manzari said.
The Manzari Brothers also performed and spoke for a TEDMED Talk in 2013, affiliated with the famous Technology, Entertainment, Design conference. They used basic tap steps to show the audience how simple elements can lead to complex combinations.
Even though the Manzari Brothers only officially started five years ago, Manzari said he has been performing as long as he can remember.
“I started dancing when I was two.” Manzari said. “I did jazz, hip hop, ballet, tap—which was good because it gave you versatility in competitions.”
Manzari said he grew up in a creative family: His mother is a singer, and his older sister dances and teaches at a dance school in Richmond.
Although Manzari said he never performed with his brother until he were 15, he was always asking John to perform with him.
“Even though I had known many brother acts like The Nicholas Brothers, and of course the Jackson 5, I felt weird at first dancing with my brother,” said John Manzari in a phone interview. “But we did it and did really well in competition; we could both dance individually and really respond well together.”
The Manzari Brothers tap quickly and rhythmically, harmonizing with each other on every step. Manzari’s tall legs glide across the stage and his big fluffy blond hair bounces along to the beat. Manzari said the brothers structure their pieces specifically for the event they’re doing, making each of their performances unique.
“As an older sibling, I’ve seen growth in Leo.” John said. “It’s a different perspective being able to work with your younger brother and watch him mature and become a young man.”
After taking a year between high school and college to perform on Hines’ tour, Leo decided it was time to start the second phase of his life.
“My mother has always supported me in everything that I do, which I am very grateful for.” Manzari said. “Even my brother knows that the most important thing is happiness, so he wanted me to do whatever made me happy even if that meant holding off on our careers.”
Manzari said Emerson College has been on his radar since his senior year of high school and was the only school he applied to.
“The acting program here at Emerson is one of the strongest in the country.” Leo said. “Boston is very well connected with lots of Broadway shows and there’s a good vibe here at Emerson.”
While dancing and acting may seem like two different career paths, Manzari said they reflect the same core value.
“Dancing is one of the many things I enjoy doing,” Manzari said. “I also sing, make music; everything is basically a self-expression. Dance is just one form of self-expression.”
Despite his distinctive youth achievements, Manzari said he doesn’t want to come across as conceited.
“I don’t think of it like I am better than my classmates because of my career,” Manzari said. “I am not above anyone else, I just happen to have more experience, that’s all.”
Manzari said he has already met numerous friends and professionals he admires, including his improv professor Joseph Antoun.
“I’ve learned a lot of the technical stuff here at Emerson that I didn’t get to learn on tour,” Manzari said. “It’s about your voice, your projection, and learning that relaxation is a gift you can use during your performances.”
Antoun said he believes Emerson’s acting program is a good fit for Manzari, and that his accomplished career gives him an unusual perspective.
“[Manzari] is open and very creative, and has a healthy respect for honest performance,” Antoun said. “He is actively working to try new things here, so I think many doors could open for him.”
Since Manzari started at Emerson, he said he and his brother are taking a break from performing so he can focus on acting.
However, the Manzari Brothers aren’t finished yet. During their time off from performing, they said they are continuing to prepare for a new tour—this time their own. Though there is no official title or opening date yet, both brothers are writing music and choreography, John from New York and Leo from Emerson.
“It’s tough balancing school and the tour,” Leo said, “but I am so grateful I just get to do what I want to do.”