September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Broadway performer Jeff Gorti wants kids who are battling the disease to remember something: “What makes you different is what makes you special.”
This Bensalem High School alum is currently living the dream in the Big Apple as a cast member of Chicago, in which he portrays the Judge/Doctor, and fills in for the characters of Billy Flynn and Fred Casely. It’s a gig he’s had for the past two years, but sometimes, the effects of the retinoblastoma Gorti was diagnosed with as an infant — mainly his prosthetic eye — cause occasional challenges.
“In the audition room, I’m always on the extreme left side of the room when it’s a dance call so that I don’t have to turn my head constantly to see the person who’s teaching the combo, or I don’t bump into people,” he told The Times.
Whenever he auditions for a new production, Gorti is sure to fill the director and choreographer in on his story: “Sometimes you see a little bit of a shift in their eyes, sometimes no shift at all. But you have to kind of throw out your childhood trauma to people that you barely know, and just let them know that there might be certain moments that take me a second as I gather my surroundings and the choreography.”
Gorti was about 15 months old when he received his diagnosis after his parents noticed something strange in photographs — his left eye wasn’t showing any type of reflection. He was brought to see a few doctors before ending up at Wills Eye Hospital, where Gorti’s parents were given two options. He could receive chemotherapy with the potential to save the eye, or have the eye (and the cancer) taken out. Ultimately, it was decided that the latter was the better option.
Throughout his life, Gorti never let his prosthetic hold him back. He was cancer-free, so why should he? Despite hesitancy from his parents, Gorti played soccer, swam and, at the age of 7, followed in the footsteps of his grandmother and took up dance at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, in addition to the Bucks County Dance Center.
Once in high school, upon being introduced to musical theater, he realized that this was his calling. After snagging a last-minute audition at Point Park University (and being accepted on almost a full ride), he graduated from the college a semester early, moved to New York, signed with an agent and began performing regionally across the country. He also performed on a cruise that took him around the world, from Italy to New Zealand, allowing him to check a few spots off his bucket list.
Just before the COVID-19 shutdown, while part of A Chorus Line, Gorti was nominated for — and won — a Helen Hayes Award, which he described as the Tony Awards of regional theater.
“I got so emotional when I won that award right before the shutdown happened because I played a character that was different, and he in the show found solace in his vulnerability,” said Gorti. “Being vulnerable with what you have, there’s so much strength that you’ll find within that. You never know what life or the universe is gonna throw at you in the best way. So if you want something, go after it, because you’re already stronger than you think.”
The pandemic was a difficult time for Gorti and his fellow performers, as the future of their profession was uncertain. Gorti even went back to school to earn his associate’s degree in IT. However, life threw a fresh opportunity at him in the best way — in summer 2021, he received an email inviting him to audition for Chicago on Broadway. Needless to say, the audition went well, and he’s been part of the cast ever since.
“It’s challenging, eight shows a week, but it’s so rewarding,” he said.
When asked to compare the worlds of regional theater and Broadway, Gorti explained that there’s a hunger for excellence that’s unique to those New York stages. This is especially true at the Ambassador Theatre, where Chicago is currently playing.
“There’s no complacency. There’s always kind of a fire under our belts because we know it’s the highest you can get doing that specific show,” he said. “There’s an element with that show specifically that you want to represent the people that came before you. The show’s been around since 1996 and there’s a reason why it’s still running. The material itself is still relevant today, people’s hunger for success and what they’ll do to get there.”
Over the past two years, Gorti has shared the Ambassador Theatre stage with some top names, including Pamela Anderson and RuPaul’s Drag Race icon Jinkx Monsoon.
“Jinkx is one of the most incredible humans,” Gorti said. “There are so many talented people that you come across in the industry, but her as a human being, how she treated fellow cast members, her willingness to open up to us, was unmatched. She’s actually one of my top favorite people that I’ve come across in my career.”
As we enter Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Gorti hopes his story serves as inspiration to kids who are either battling cancer, or dealing with the aftereffects.
“I think if you’re battling cancer or any type of limitation that you may feel life has thrown at you, what makes you different is what makes you special. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, but I think that’s most important,” he said.
Looking ahead, Gorti sees himself beginning to branch out into independent films (he shot one at the beginning of the summer). But in the meantime, he’s focusing on all-things-Chicago.
“The show is so good in many ways for multiple ages. I think my producers have created this very special environment,” he said before adding with a laugh, “Come and see a one-eyed dancer on Broadway. Come one, come all!”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org